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Before ‘Smallfoot’ and Bigfoot, native tribes told stories of child-stealing creatures of the woods

Visitors won’t find the words “myth” or “story” in a new Sasquatch exhibit at the White River Valley Museum.

It’s not that the big hairy guy is treated as fact. It’s just that he’s treated with respect at the Auburn museum.

“Sasquatch, Ancient Native Perspective on the Mysterious Beings of the Woods” looks at the histories of Bigfoot-like creatures that lived, imagined or not, alongside the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

“Native cultures take these very seriously, and they continue to do so today,” said curator Patricia Cosgrove. “By and large, people don’t talk about these.”

The exhibit uses only ancient oral histories related by living tribal members or found in recorded ethnographies. Cosgrove opted not to interview tribal members about their personal experiences.

“We don’t hold a perspective (on Bigfoot’s existence),” Cosgrove said. “We’re presenting the native dialogue that was collected. We really wanted to turn away from the commercial and hoax perspective altogether here.”

Centuries before the release of the yeti-themed “Smallfoot” movie, human-like creatures were stealing food, canoodling with women and causing general mischief in the lives of coastal Indians, according to those native stories.

Nineteenth Century anthropologist Franz Boas recorded the daily activities of tribal members along with their stories. Boas believed that folklore was as much a part of anthropology as any other aspect.

Boas charted folk tales, noting similarities. He believed they spread from group to group like a common language — but with variations.

“They have these deep, deep oral histories,” Cosgrove said of local tribes.

“In amongst the how-to-fish, inheritance patterns ... come up stories about these beings that are not human and not animal,” Cosgrove said. “There is a marked commonality up and down the coast about what is said and felt and understood about these beings.”

A good deal of mischief that might today be attributed to annoying neighborhood kids was blamed on Sasquatch and his kin.

“In the mountains live many giants … who look almost the same as humans,” Quinault tribal member Bob Pope told anthropologist Ronald Olson in 1925. “They are great thieves ... Some still come around the village at night and borrow a harpoon or a drift net, but usually return it before morning.”

It’s just not Sasquatch in the exhibit. Though most seem to fit that archetype, the creatures vary in size, habitat and personality traits. Some live in the woods, others in water, still others in the air.

A chart on the wall of the museum notes the similarities and differences between 15 two-legged, human-like creatures of several tribes in Washington and British Columbia.

“Stealing is a big theme,” Cosgrove said. “Many stole food or stole women or stole children.”

The exhibit isn’t large, but it’s rich in detail. There is a small amount of Sasquatch-themed native art.

A highlight of the show is the oral histories about several creatures that Cosgrove collected for the show. They include:

Dzoonokwa: A forest giant who lives on Vancouver Island, Dzoonokwa is covered in dark hair. She speaks in a quavering voice through pursed lips. Kwakwaka’wakw children who wander outside at night could get snatched by the creature, who might cook and eat them or just raise them as her own children.

Sasquatch: Muckleshoot tribal members did not speak of Sasquatch. Doing so would draw one to you, says tribal member Romajean Thomas. They are human-like, covered in fur and over 7 feet tall with 20-inch long footprints. They can render humans unconscious with just one touch and are known to steal dried fish and women. Don’t whistle at night — that’s how they communicate.

Slapu: Ann Jack, a Muckleshoot woman born in the 1840s, told Auburn anthropologist Arthur Ballard about Slapu, a hairy ogress that also was called Snail Woman. She, too, was a stealer of children.

Stick Indians: According to Muckleshoot member Greg Swanson, Stick Indians are tricksters who steal salmon, tools and other items but eventually bring them back. They would not harm a person unless attacked.

The creatures bothering the Suquamish tribe, as related by Swanson, were smaller than humans.

A Suquamish elder, Ellen George, said her grandmother was a small girl living at the mouth of the Duwamish River when “wild men” entered their home one night to steal fish. Her family caught one and kept him.

“He used to go hunting, and in a short time he would come back with a deer with its neck broken, (even though) he didn’t have any weapons. (The people) kept him for a while and then they let him go. After that, they would find a deer or two with broken necks lying in front of their door in the morning. Then they would hang dried fish outside and the wild man would take it at night. So (after that) they never had to worry about (the wild men) coming back to rob them.”

An 1800s Suquamish man, John Adams, said there were no wild men left, Swanson related.

“They weren’t killed off, it’s just that they all became civilized,” Adams said. “Some of our own people had them as ancestors. One of my cousins had a sharp face and was a terrible man; that was because he was part wild man.”

As a counterpoint to the native show, a display in the museum’s permanent exhibit contains elements of pop culture’s take on Sasquatch.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

‘Sasquatch, Ancient Native Perspectives on the Mysterious Beings of the Woods’

Where: White River Valley Museum, 918 H Street SE, Auburn.

On view: Through Dec. 16.

Hours: Noon-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 6-8 p.m. first Thursday.

Admission: $5 adults, $2 children and seniors; first Thursday and third Sunday free

Information:, 253-288-7433

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