Myth

From The Discovery of the Sasquatch, Chapter 15, Reconsidering Prevailing Knowledge: The Sasquatch as Myth

That the sasquatch is embodied in myth and legend is neither disputed nor disputable. But a problem has arisen when zoologists and even cultural anthropologists have narrowly interpreted “mythical” to mean “supernatural,” or in many cases “exclusively supernatural.”

Many North American mammals which are well documented in mammal field guides have also been portrayed in myth and legend. Perhaps because the sasquatch has not yet been so documented, it has received different treatment, that of an exclusively supernatural creature. This view appears to have been especially prevalent among cultural anthropologists, consistent as it is with their understanding of myth and legend. That it has been maintained, despite evidence to the contrary, appears to be a consequence of the absence of informed zoological comment on the subject.

The sasquatch as mythical but corporeal: an oxymoron?

The historical and recent eyewitness accounts...reveal how the discovery of the sasquatch has unfolded over the past century and a half. As noted there, the sasquatch was discovered repeatedly, each “discoverer” being unaware that the animal had previously been observed and described. But the existence of the sasquatch was known to Aboriginal people who described it in their oral histories long before it was documented in the published accounts of non-Aboriginal settlers and pioneers in the 1800s and early 1900s. However, Aboriginal reports of human-shaped, hair-covered giants were most frequently interpreted as legends or myths, and having no biological basis.

Editor W.S.Penn, however, in his preface to the book The Telling of the World: Native Stories and Art, explained that he decided at the outset “that the word ‘myth’ not appear in the [book’s] title or subtitles, not because some of these stories are not mythic, but because so many people use the word ‘myth’ to mean false [or] untrue.”

Cultural anthropologists...sometimes...interpret mythical to mean supernatural. Anthropologist Wayne Suttles recognized this “easy” categorization and cautioned against it:

It is certainly true that we anthropologists have generally dumped sasquatch-like beings into a category “supernaturals” and let it go at that. We may have done this because we are professionally interested more in native culture than in the facts of zoology, but I think it is more because we are operating with too simple a version of the Western dichotomy. In fact, if we were true to our earlier, Boasian objective of describing the native culture as seen by the participants, we ought not to categorize so freely the creatures our informants tell us about.3

He continues:

Let me explore this problem. The sesqec [sasquatch] is one of many creatures the Lower Fraser people believe (or used to believe) exist (or once existed) in the wilderness around them. Most of these creatures can, from Indians’ descriptions of them, be matched with animals known to Europeans. A few, however, cannot. Since we Europeans, scientifically trained or not, operate with a dichotomy real/mythical or natural/supernatural, we are inclined to place these creatures that are not part of our “real” world into the category “mythical” or “supernatural.” As [John] Green has pointed out, most of us have done this with the sesqec and we may be wrong. (emphasis added for the last four words)4

A consequence of the anthropological thinking described by Suttles is that papers in which sasquatches are interpreted as a metaphor or symbol for starvation, fear, or other forms of hardship, now comprise a large proportion of the published information about the sasquatch in anthropological literature.

But despite the orthodox “supernatural” interpretation, at least a few published Aboriginal accounts allow for a different interpretation. For example, anthropologist T.  F.  McIlwraith recorded reports of the Boq`s, a hairy, human-shaped creature, described by the Nuxalk people of the north coast of British Columbia early in the twentieth century. In a 1925 archaeological report titled “Certain Beliefs of the Bella Coola Indians Concerning Animals,” and later in his two-volume work, The Bella Coola Indians, he described the Boq`s as told to him by his Aboriginal informants:

This beast somewhat resembles a man, its hands especially, and the region around the eyes being distinctly human. It walks on its hind legs, in a stooping posture, its long arms swinging below the knees; in height it is rather less than the average man. The entire body, except for the face, is covered with long hair, the growth being most profuse on the chest which is large, corresponding to the great strength of the animal.

McIlwraith concluded his discussion of this animal with the comments:

The Bella Coola believe that the boq`s, unlike most supernatural animals, have not abandoned the country since the coming of the white man. One man was most insistent that they still lived on King Island, and promised to point one out if a visit were made to that spot. This man refuses to camp at the place where, he affirmed, boq`s are common. Another informant stated that though he had never seen one of the monsters, a horde of them surrounded his camp near Canoe Crossing for a week. Every night he heard them roaring and beating on trees and branches.6

The tendency for anthropologists such as McIlwraith to categorize the subject of such reports as “supernatural animals” is, as described by Wayne Suttles, not surprising. It must be noted, however, that the description collected and recorded in McIlwraith’s report is remarkably consistent with sasquatch reports submitted by non-Aboriginal eyewitnesses in other parts of North America many decades prior to (and subsequent to) the period of his anthropological research...Although his report is no less detailed than some of the published historical accounts submitted by pioneers and settlers, it has been treated differently on the basis of its Aboriginal origin, and the implication that, because of this context, it describes one of a number of supernatural animals.

Professional folklorist Carole Henderson Carpenter, having noted that “the most popular Canadian monsters are…the Sasquatch and the Ogopogo,” attempted to explain “why these particular monster traditions appear in western Canada”:

One obvious explanation, and one supported by a number of people, especially those who have reported seeing the monsters, is that these creatures really exist in the west.7

Writing in the mid 1970s, she cautioned against uncritically accepting even her own metaphorical interpretation:

British Columbians, and some other Westerners, maintain and popularize their monsters partly because these creatures are something distinctive which Easterners do not have. The beasts represent the mystery, strength, and untamed nature of large parts of the Canadian west, especially British Columbia. As this area moves fully into the twentieth century, becomes thoroughly “civilized” and populated, the monsters may vanish. Then again, they may persist because they may really be there. (emphasis added)8

In a similar vein, anthropologist Richard Preston compared the non-Aboriginal description of the sasquatch to that of the Wendigo as described by the Algonkian-speaking peoples of eastern and central North America. He observed that “the odour, size, footprints, and other aspects of appearance and action parallel descriptions of the Sasquatch.” He considered it an open question as to whether this was due to (1) the occurrence of the sasquatch in the eastern Subarctic, (2) the symbolic experience of people with conjuring-like vision experiences all across the continent, or (3) the diffusion of oral traditions across the Subarctic.

Despite Preston’s apparent ambivalence, the second and third alternatives listed by him: “symbolic experience of people” and “diffusion of oral traditions across the Subarctic,” appear to be the more commonly accepted interpretations of the Wendigo in the anthropological literature...metaphorical and symbolic interpretations are also the most common anthropological explanations of accounts of the “bushman,” the name by which the sasquatch is known in the narratives of the Northern Athapaskan people of northwestern Canada and the interior of Alaska.

The perception of the sasquatch as “mythical” (as narrowly interpreted to mean “untrue, having no basis in fact,” or supernatural) is by now so long-standing that anthropologists and some folklorists may resist proposals which imply the need for re-examination of these long-held views. An observation by Ernest Hook may warrant repeating here:

New scientific and technical discoveries may threaten…the “psychic capital” invested in current scientific views….[which are] challenged implicitly or explicitly by a new report. Of course, the longer one has held views and invested energy in them, the more reluctant one may be to alter them. This inevitably results in conceptual inertia that some have associated with aging.22

Philosophers of science may be among the most likely to understand that when a position has been accepted as true for some time, there is a possibility of succumbing to the “fallacy of past practice, where tradition is used to justify an act or the truth of an idea.”Further affirming the importance of myth and metaphor, Schick and Vaughn noted that, “a claim about reality, whether embodied in mythic or metaphoric language or not, is still a claim about reality. As such, it's either true or false, and discovering which is still a job for critical thinking.”