March 16, 2002

Wakiash and the First Totem Pole (Kwakiutl Legend)


Keywords: kwakiutl legend american indian legends native american oral story bedtime story indian stories origin of totem poles north american indian myth Northwest Coast tribes family crests Oral tradition oral history frog legend raven legend

Source: Kwakiutl oral tradition

The totem poles of Northwest Coast tribes were actually family crests rather
than religious icons, denoting the owner’s legendary descent from an animal
such as the bear, raven, wolf, salmon, or killer whale.

Coming into a
village, a stranger would first look for a house with a totem pole of his own
clan animal. Its owner was sure to receive him as a friend and offer him food
and shelter. “Totem poles also preserved ancient customs by making sure that
in every region within visiting distance of others the old stories were
repeated, and the old beliefs about the spirits, the origin of fire and other
myths, were basically the same despite linguistic differences between main
tribal groups.”1

*Wakiash was a chief named after the river Wakiash because he was openhanded
and flowing with gifts, even as the river flowed with fish.

It happened once
that the whole tribe was having a dance. Wakiash had never created a dance of
his own, and he was unhappy because all the other chiefs had fine dances.

he thought: “I will go up into the mountains to fast, and perhaps a dance
will come to me.”

Wakiash made himself ready and went to the mountains, where
he stayed, fasting and bathing, for four days. Early in the morning of the
fourth day, he grew so weary that he lay upon his back and fell asleep. Then
he felt something on his breast and woke up to see a little green frog.

still,” the frog said, “because you are on the back of a raven who is going
to fly you and me around the world. Then you can see what you want and take

The raven began to beat its wings, and they flew for four days, during
which Wakiash saw many things. When they were on their way back, he spotted a
with a beautiful totem pole in the front and heard the sound of singing
inside the house.

Thinking that these were fine things, he wished he could
take them home.

The frog, who knew his thoughts, told the raven to stop. As
the bird coasted to the ground, the frog advised the chief to hide behind the
door of the house.

“Stay there until they begin to dance,” the frog said.
“Then leap out into the room.

“The people tried to begin a dance but could do
nothing–neither dance nor sing.

One of them said, “Something’s the matter;
there must be something near us that makes us feel like this.”

And the chief
said, “Let one of us who can run faster than the flames of the fire rush
around the house and find what it is.

“So the little mouse said that she
would go, for she could creep anywhere, even into a box, and if anyone were
hiding she would find him.

The mouse had taken off her mouse-skin clothes and
was presently appearing in the form of a woman. Indeed, all the people in the
house were animals who looked like humans because they had taken off their
animal-skin clothes to dance.

When the mouse ran out, Wakiash caught her and
said, “Ha, my friend, I have a gift for you.” And he gave her a piece of
mountain-goat’s fat.

The mouse was so pleased with Wakiash that she began
talking to him. “What do you want?” she asked eventually.

Wakiash said that
he wanted the totem pole, the house, and the dances and songs that belonged
to them.

The mouse said, “Stay here; wait till I come again. “

Wakiash stayed,
and the mouse went in and told the dancers, “I’ve been everywhere to see if
there’s a man around, but I couldn’t find anybody.”

And the chief who looked
like a man, but was really a beaver, said, “Let’s try again to dance.”

tried three times but couldn’t do anything, and each time they sent the mouse
to search. But each time the mouse only chatted with Wakiash and returned to
report that no one was there.

The third time she was sent out, she said to
him, “Get ready, and when they begin to dance,leap into the room. “Then the
mouse told the animals again that no one was there, and they began to dance.

Wakiash sprang in, and at once they all dropped their heads in shame, because
a man had seen them looking like men, whereas they were really animals.

dancers stood silent until at last the mouse said: “Let’s not waste time;
let’s ask our friend what he wants. “

So they all lifted up their heads, and
the chief asked the man what he wanted.

Wakiash thought he would like to have
the dance, because he had never had one of his own. Also, he thought, he
would like to have the house and the totem pole that he had seen outside.

Though the man did not speak, the mouse divined his thoughts and told the

And the chief said, “Let our friend sit down. We’ll show him how we
dance, and he can pick out whatever dance he wants. “

So they began to dance,
and when they had ended, the chief asked Wakiash what kind of dance he would
like. The dancers had been using all sorts of masks.

Most of all Wakiash
wanted the Echo mask and the mask of the Little Man who goes about the house
talking, and talking, and trying to quarrel with others.

Waskiash only formed
his wishes in his mind; the mouse told them to the chief.

So the animals
taught Wakiash all their dances, and the chief told him that he might take as
many dances and masks as he wished, as well as the house and the totem pole.

The beaver-chief promised Waskiash that things would all go with him when he
returned home, and that he could use them all in one dance.

The chief also
gave him for his own the name of the totem pole, Kalakuyuwish, meaning sky
pole, because the pole was so tall.

The chief took the house and folded it
up like a little bundle. He put it into the headdress of one of the dancers
and gave it to Wakiash, saying, “When you reach home, throw down this bundle.
The house will become as it was when you first saw it, and they you can begin
to give a dance.”

Wakiash went back to the raven, and the raven flew away with
him toward the mountain from which they had set out.

Before they arrived,
Wakiash fell asleep, and when he awoke, the raven and the frog were gone and
he was alone. It was night by the time Wakiash arrived home.

He threw down
the bundle that was in the headdress, and there was the house with its totem
pole! The whale painted on the house was blowing, the animals carved on the
totem pole were making their noises, and all the masks inside the house were
crying aloud.

At once Wakiash’s people woke up and came out to see what was
happening, and Wakiash found that instead of four days, he had been away for
four years.

They all went into the new house, and Wakiash began to make a

Then the Echo came, and whoever made a noise, the Echo made the same
by changing the mouthpieces of its mask.

When they had finished dancing, the
house was gone; it went back to the animals. And all the chiefs were ashamed
because Wakiash now had the best dance.

Wakiash made a house and masks
and a totem pole out of wood, and when the totem pole was finished, the
people composed a song for it. This pole was the first the tribe had ever

The animals had named it Kalakuyuwish, “the pole that holds up the sky,”
and they said it made a creaking noise because the sky was so heavy. And
Wakiash took for his own the name of the totem pole, Kalakuyuwish.


1-Based on a version reported by Natalie Curtis in The Indian’s Book, 1997.
*Cottie Burland, North American Indian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1965,
p. 31.

Kwakiutl Legends
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