Stories that were very long would be told in two or more consecutive nights. In times gone by, it was the custom to make a halt, perhaps when those who were listening to the story were disappearing or dropping off to sleep, saying something as, “a’unac wentkackta wat’I’t’ac,” “Now I will tie up the myth,” implying that the myth was like a canoe, and had to be moored to a tree or log along the river until the next night’s myth journey. When the story telling was in order the next evening, the story teller might say, “a’unac’tca’qwtlkta wat’I’t’ac,” “Now I will untie the myth,” and the narrative would proceed from where it had halted. Should the storyteller wander from the main stream of the narrative or diverge into a side channel of gossip or other irrelevance, one of the listeners might admonish by calling out, “ya’wentamac wat’I’t’ac,” “Your myth might float away.” In the old days each phrase of the narrative was concluded with an affirmative semi-ritual call of “I.’, I” literally meaning “Yes!” from the listeners, who if awake were expected to respond regularly in this manner.
The stories were not told in the summer. They waited until the drizzling fall rains had set in, or until the first flurry of snow. As soon as spring came, they stopped in order to make spring last a long time. Our Cowlitz ancestors made a practice of sending a child for a swim before or after a story was told, as pay for the story.
Most of the legends refer to the time “when all the animals were people.” The Cowlitz term for this type of tale is sc’pt. An example of this type of tale might be seen in the uses of the words: spilya’i (Coyote as a person), as contrasted with spi’lya (Coyote as an animal). When we translate these legends into English we accommodate this situation by capitalizing the word when it refers to the animal as a person, and use the lower case when either the person became an animal or when it simply refers to the name as an animal. The word spilya’i (Coyote – the trickster or transformer) is a Taidnapam word of the Upper Cowlitz. The Salish word of the Lower Cowlitz is Xwa’ni. Sometimes these two were exchanged in the same tale.
Many legends have been passed down about the upper Cowlitz people and places. One such legend cites the Cowlitz Canyon as the home of Memaleh, a bad spirit, who once attempted to capture LaWisWis from Nek Hani, the spirit of the upper air, who was away herding goats on Gibraltar Peak. Memaleh was repelled by the white roses, who in guarding her, grew red and thorny and remain so today. Memaleh returned to live in his Cowlitz Canyon home.
Another legend tells of an elderly Indian man, who in peering down from the high rock bank above the hot springs at Ohanepecosh and seeing the sparkling water said, “Ohanepecosh,” which means “looking down on something wonderful.” Thus the hot springs were named. A few of the legends are of an historical nature, but most of them are moral teaching stories.
Numerology plays an important role in many ancient cultures. It plays a rich role in their mysticism. The same is true in the mysticism of Native American spirituality. The number “five” is very prominent in the mysticism of our Cowlitz ancestral heritage. It represents the concept of completion, fulfillment, finalization, complete power. In the current collection of Cowlitz legends there are 258 references to, or
usages of, the number “five.”
Next week we will begin a series of stories regarding the history of the Cowlitz Tribe during the nineteenth century with the coming of the white man.