The Squonk & The Hag

The Kushtaka

In the wild land of Alaska we can find lots of strange stories, such as the lost village at Anjikuni Lake we covered earlier this year. Alaska is wild, more than I think people outside of the state are aware of, and filled with natural wonders. With this wildness comes tales of the weird and supernatural. The indigenous tribes of the area have lots of stories about spirits, and terrifying things walking the shores and deep forests. Today we are trekking deep into those stories and taking a look at the legend of the Kushtaka.

The Kushtaka is one of the stranger stories I have come across as well as one of the more interesting. The Kushtaka come from the Tlingit and the Tsimshian tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Southern Alaska. In their stories Kushtaka are shape shifters, and can take the form of a man, or of an otter. Some Stories say they can take on any form of otter they choose, and some say they can only shapeshift into one kind of otter. Other stories say that they can also transform into a large hairy humanoid figure resembling a giant sea otter. 

Now unlike their furry, cute animal counterparts the Kushtaka are bad news. They are known to prey on those who are drowning or lost near the coasts and rivers. They have a fondness for children and are said to lure them close with their playful otter-like appearance only to grab them and drag them under. Some stories state that they can also mimic the sound of babies crying or a woman screaming to lure people in close. They also use their human appearance to trick people into getting close by acting like they are going to help the lost person get home, only to harm them once the person is completely alone with them. There are some stories of Kushtaka actually being helpful by saving people from freezing or drowning by turning the unlucky person into a Kushtaka. This is a double edged sword of sorts in those stories. The stories themselves have been categorized into “boogey man” tales that Tlingit women would tell their children to keep them from wandering too close to the ocean or away from camp. However, I feel like, after looking into it further, that this trivializes these stories. The Kushtaka can take the soul of a person and turn them into a Kushtaka, thereby in Tlingit culture making that person unable to reincarnate and consequently, the everlasting life that reincarnation implies. An encounter with the Kushtaka might go something like this:  As you’re walking through your village, or hunting in woods or fishing in the sea, a man or group of men approach you. These men look just like kinsmen, and you don’t have a clue that they’re really the Kushtaka. They might ask you to come with them hunting, or fishing. Seeing as you know them you unwittingly agree and pay the price. As once all alone with them they descend on you. In some cases, these malevolent creatures appear when you’re lost or injured, and claim that they intend to rescue you. Usually in the guise of friends or family again. However, they lead you deeper into the wilderness and either tear you into pieces, or turn you into a Kushtaka. Das scary. Here I have some selected stories about the Kushtaka. The first two are Tlingit stories and the last one is from a prospector in the 1900s.

This Tlingit folktale is called “The Land Otters’ Captive”, recorded by John Swanton of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

“Several persons once went out from Sitka together, when their canoe upset and all were drowned except a man of the KîksA’dî. A canoe came to this man, and he thought that it contained his friends, but they were really land otters. They started southward with him and kept going farther and farther, until they had passed clear round the Queen Charlotte Islands. At every place where they stopped they took in a female land otter. All this time they kept a mat made out of the broad part of a piece of kelp, over the man they had captured until at length they arrived at a place they called Rainy-village. At this place the man met an aunt who had been drowned years before and had become the wife of two land otters. She was dressed in a ground-hog robe. Then she said to him, “Your aunt’s husbands will save you. You must come to see me this evening.” When he came his aunt said, “I can’t leave these people, for I have learned to think a great deal of them.” Afterward his aunt’s husbands started back with him. They did not camp until midnight. Their canoe was a skate, and, as soon as they came ashore, they would turn it over on top of him so that, no matter how hard he tried to get out, he could not. In making the passage across to Cape Ommaney they worked very hard, and shortly after they landed they heard the raven. They could go only a short distance for food. When they first started back the woman had said to her husbands, “Don’t leave him where he can be captured again. Take him to a good place.” So they left him close to Sitka. Then he walked around in the neighborhood of the town and made the people suffer so much every night that they could not sleep, and was determined to capture him. They fixed a rope in such a way as to ensnare him, but at first they were unsuccessful. Finally, however, they placed dog bones in the rope so that they would stick into his hands, dog bones being the greatest enemies of the land otters. Late that night the land-otter-man tore his hands so with these bones that he sat down and began to scream, and, while he was doing this, they got the rope around him and captured him. When they got him home he was at first very wild, but they restored his reason by cutting his head with dog bones. He was probably not so far gone as most Victims. Then they learned what had happened to him. After this time, however, he would always eat his meat and fish raw. Once, when he was among the halibut fishers, they wanted very much to have him eat some cooked halibut. He was a good halibut fisher, probably having learned the art from the land otters, though he did not say so. For a long time the man refused to take any, but at last consented and the food killed him.”

This next one called “The Land-Otter Son” is from the same text. 

“There was a great famine at Sitka, and all the people went halibut fishing. Then a certain man went with his wife to the mouth of Redoubt bay. He had prepared barks some time before, and, when they got to this place, they made a house out of them. They fished there for a long time, but caught no more than one or two halibut a week. By the end of two months they had little to live on except shellfish and other things picked up at low tide. One evening they caught a small halibut at their fishing ground. They cooked a piece of it and put the rest on the drying frame in the brush house the man had constructed outside. Next day they heard a noise there as if something were being thrown down and moved about. The woman said, “What can that be?” Then her husband went out and was astonished to see two medium-sized devilfish lying there. He wondered how they had gotten up from the beach. Then he went in and said, “Wife (dja), I am in luck. There are two large devilfish out there. I do not know who brought them. Tomorrow morning we will take them and see if we can not catch some halibut. The person who brought them here is very kind, for I have been hunting everywhere vainly for bait.” The woman sat down and considered. She said, “Do you know who brought them here?” He said, “No.” Then she said, “I will tell you who brought them here. Don’t you remember that my son was drowned a year ago, and no one has seen anything of him since? It must be he, who has taken pity on us because he sees how poor we are. I will call his name if I hear anyone whistle tomorrow or any other night, for I know it is my son.” So the woman spoke. In the morning they went out with these devilfish and caught two halibut. Evening came on. After they had reached home and it was dark, they began to cook some halibut. Just as the woman was putting some into the pot a person whistled behind the house. Then she said, “We have longed for you, my dear son. Come in. Don’t whistle around us. We have been wishing for you for the last year, so do not be afraid. It is only your father and I. Come in.” Then it whistled again. The man went to the door, opened it, and said, “Come in, my son, I think you have come to help us because we are very poorly off here. The door is open. Come right in.” So the father said. And without their seeing him enter, all of a sudden he was seated opposite them with his hands over his face. Then they spoke to him, saying, “Is it you, my son?” He only whistled (by drawing in his breath). That was the way he spoke to them. Toward midnight he began to speak. The father said, “Is it you, my son?” The land-otter-man (kū’cta-qa or kushtaka) said, “Yes.” He motioned to them that there was something outside which he had brought for them. It was some more devilfish. He said, “In the morning we will go out.” The woman gave him a pillow and two blankets for the night, and he slept on the other side of the fire. So early in the morning that it was yet dark he took his father by the feet and shook him, saying, “Get up. We will go out.” He told him to take his fishing line, and they carried down the canoe. Then the land-otter-man stepped in and his father followed. His father gave him a paddle. The canoe went flying out to the halibut ground. It was his son’s strength that took them there so quickly. Then the land-otter-man suddenly stopped the canoe. He took the line and baited a hook with one devilfish tentacle. He baited all of the hooks and lowered them. Then he tied the end of the line to the seat. He said to his father, “Put the blanket over you. Do not watch me.” His father did so but observed him through a hole in the blanket. The land-otter-man, without causing any motion in the canoe, jumped overboard, went down the line, and put the largest halibut that he could find on their hooks. When he came in he shook the canoe and his father pretended to wake up. He gave the line to his father who began to pull up. Very many big halibut began to come up, which he clubbed and threw into the canoe as fast as he could. Then he turned the canoe around and started for home. The canoe was full. On the way the land-otter-man was in the bow holding a spear. After he had held it there for a long time he threw it. His father could not see that he had thrown it at a large seal. He brought it close to the canoe, gave it one blow to kill it and threw it into the canoe. When they came ashore it was almost daybreak. Then, motioning to his father that the raven might call before he reached shelter, he ran straight up into the woods. Now the man’s wife came down and began cutting up the halibut. By the time they had it all into the house it was dark. The same evening, before they knew it, he was with them again. Then the man took some pieces of raw halibut, cut them into bits and placed them before him. He turned his back on them and ate very fast. He could eat only raw food. About a week later they told their son not to go into the woods at night but to stay with them. So he did. When he wanted to go fishing he would awaken his father while it was still dark, and they would start off. Each time they brought in a load of seal, halibut, and all sorts of things. They began to have great quantities of provisions. After that they began to see his body plainly. His mouth was round, and long hair had grown down over his back to his buttocks. He took nothing from his father and mother but raw food. Some time after they began to pack up to come to Sitka. He now talked to them like a human being and always stayed with them. He helped load their canoe, and his father gave him a paddle. Then they set out, the land-otter-man in the bow, his father in the stern, and his mother between. When they came to Poverotni point (Kaodjîxîtî-q!a), the woman saw the shadow of her son’s arms moving, his hands which held the paddle being invisible. She said to her husband, “What is the matter with my son! He does not seem to be paddling. I can see only his shadow now.” So she moved forward to see whether he was asleep or had fallen into the water. Her son was not there. The blanket he had had around his knees was there, but he was gone. She said to her husband, “Your son is gone again,” and he replied, “I can not do anything more. He is gone. How can I bring him back?” So they went on to Sitka. When they came to Sitka, they reported all that had happened. The father said, “My son helped us. Just as we got around the point he disappeared out of the canoe.” So his friends gave a feast for him. lIis father’s name was Sᴀkī’, and the place where they fished for halibut is now called Sᴀkī’-ī’dî.”

Finally, in 1900, a gold prospector named Harry Colp and three companions, exploring the Patterson Glacier north of Thomas Bay (Known locally as “The Devil’s Country”, and called “The Bay of Death” by the native Tlingit due to a 1750 landslide that killed 500 villagers, incidentally attributed to the machinations of malevolent Kushtaka), returned with a tale of a disturbing encounter with the Kushtaka.  Colp wrote about his encounter, but the manuscript he penned was not discovered until after his death by his daughter, and has since been reproduced as “The Strangest Story Ever Told”. This is an excerpt from that work.

I left come the next morning, which was a fine sunny day. I took only the rifle with me, and when I came to the ridge, sure enough there were a few grouse hooting. I shot two and had gotten them when I bagged another one, which fell down the ridge about a hundred yards before it hung up. While on my way down to pick it up, I found that piece of quartz. Up to that time I had paid very little attention to what the country I was in looked like, as it was so heavily timbered and brushy. The formation didn’t show up and I had no tools with me to uncover it. The top of an old snag had broken off and fallen, scraping the top moss and loose dirt for a space of about eight feet wide and eighteen or twenty feet long, uncovering this quartz ledge which is where I found this piece. This ledge was worked smooth by a glacier at one time. I couldn’t find anything to break a piece off with, so I used the butt of my gun to get that piece. In so doing, I broke the stock of my gun, thus ruining it for further use. This didn’t worry me any, as I knew there was not game in the country larger than a grouse and damned few of them. “My first thought was of the richness of the quartz and of you fellows and getting back to town to round you all up so we could get busy on it. After looking over and enjoying the feeling of knowing I had made a rich find, I covered the ledge up again with moss, limbs, and rotten chunk. Finishing that job, I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks, so I could come back to it again or tell you where it was if anything should happen to me. This I did, climbing straight up over the ledge on the ridge till I reached the top, which was about six hundred feet above where I found the ledge. I looked down below me and picked out a big tree with a bushy top, taller than the rest and about fifty feet to the right of the ledge. Looking over the top of this tree from where I stood, I could see out on Frederick Sound, Cape of the Straight Light, the point of Vanderput Spit (Point Vanderput); and turning a little to the left, I could see Sukhoi Island (Kodiak) from the mouth of Wrangell Narrows. Satisfied with that, I turned half round to get a back sight on some mountain peaks, and lying below me on the other side of the ridge from the ledge was the half-moon lake the Indian had told me about. Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again. Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn’t call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys-yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint. I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, and then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long claw-like fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick; while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe or how I hung on to that piece of quartz is a mystery to me. When I came to, it was night; and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukhoi Island, cold, hungry and crazy for a drink of water. But only to satisfy the latter urge, I started for Wrangell, and here I am. You no doubt think I am either crazy or lying. All I can say is, there is the quartz. Never let me hear the name of Thomas Bay again, and for God’s sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat!”

This last story, as it stands, needs some more context on what “might” have happened. In researching this story I came across this bit of information. Before 1900 there was a vessel, I couldn’t find a name, that was reported lost in the vicinity of Thomas Bay. It is also documented that vessels of CHinese immigrants were shipped to Alaska in the late 1800’s and continued until 1910 to work in the Salmon canneries. Many of these people were goat farmers in their homeland and it just so happens that mountain goats are plentiful in Thomas Bay. It is a plausible conclusion to state that in this instance a group of marooned Chinese immigrants might be what Culp saw that day. They would probably have had skins from the goats they were able to catch, sores from a poor diet, knew no or little English, and had different facial features than what Culp was used to seeing. If this is the case it is a tragic and strange story indeed. However it is just a theory. 

I want to stress here, no matter what, these stories of the Kushtaka are of major cultural significance to the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes and should not be mocked or theorized about. The land otter is of specific importance as it was seen by these peoples as a connection between human and animal, due to its human characteristics both physically as well as in its mannerisms, and  the Kushtaka represents a symbolic link between the living and the dead. The most significant confrontation with truth and reality among traditional societies is death.  How you die, when you die, and where you go when you die are cross-culturally fraught with significance.  In a harsh environment like the Alaskan wilderness or coast, death can come suddenly and unexpectedly, and bodies may never be recovered.  Tlingit treatment of corpses is cosmologically significant in that they believe with proper preparation; a dead person’s spirit is reincarnated back into the clan lineage. An unrecovered corpse presents a significant liminal problem, does the Tlingit individual who disappears in a blizzard or drowns at sea get reincarnated despite the lack of proper ceremonial?  The problem is solved by saying that the unrecovered fatality has “gone to the land of the otter people”. As such it is wise to give these stories due respect and to have reverence for other people’s beliefs. As such we here at the podcast hope these stories that we have shared have not offended those that these stories come from and we hope we have covered them well, and as thoroughly and respectfully as possible. 

With that we come to the close of the podcast. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns please send us an email or connect with us on our social media! 

Sources (Tlingit story) (first hand accnts)

Swanton, John Reed, 1873-1958. Tlingit Myths And Texts. Washington: Govt. print. off., 1909.

Colp, Harry D. The strangest story ever told. New York: Exposition Press, c1953

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