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The First People

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



A little reflection upon the operations of animistic imagination will go far to explain the conception of a First People, manlike in form, but animal or plant or stone or element in nature, which is nowhere in America more clearly defined than on the West Coast. The languages of primitive folk are built up of concrete terms; abstract and general names are nearly unknown; and hence their thought is metaphorical in cast and procedure. Now the nearest and most intelligible of metaphors are those which are based upon the forms and traits of men's own bodies and minds: whatever can be made familiar in terms of human instinct and habit and desire is truly familiar,— "Man is the measure of all things," and primitive mythic metaphor is the elementary form of applying this standard. At first it is the activities rather than the forms of things that are rendered in terms of human nature; for it is always the activities, the powers of things, that are important in practical life; the outward, the aesthetic, cast of experience becomes significant only as people advance from a life of need to a life of thought and reflection. Hence, at first, mythopoetic fancy is content to ascribe human action and intention, human speech and desires, to environing creation; the physical form is of small consequence in explaining the conduct of the world, for physical form is of all things the most inconstant to the animistic mind, and it is invariably held suspect, as if it were a guise or ruse for the deluding of the human race. But there comes a period of thought when anthropomorphism — an aesthetic humanizing of the world — is as essential to mental comfort and to the sense of the intelligibility of nature as is the earlier and more naοve psychomorphism: when the phantasms, as well as the instincts and powers, of the world call for explanation.

Such a demand, in its incipiency, is met by the conception of the First People. This is a primeval race, not only regarded as human in conduct, but imagined as manlike in form. They belong to that uncertain past when all life and all nature were not yet aware of their final goal — a period of formation and transformation, of conflict, duel, strife, of psychical and physical monstrosities, before the good and the bad had been clearly separated. "As the heart is, so shall ye be," is the formula ever in the myth-maker's half unconscious thought, and the whole process of setting the earth in order seems to consist of the struggle after appropriate form on the part of the world's primitive forces."

West-Coast lore is in great part composed of tales of the First People, and it is instructive that the stories and events in this mythology are far more constant than are the personalities of the participants. This harks back to the prime importance of the action: it is as if the motives and deeds of the natural world were being tried out, fitted, like vestments, now upon this type of being, now upon that, with a view to the discovery of the most suitable character. It indicates, too, that the tales are probably far older than the environment, which they have been gradually transformed to satisfy. To be sure, certain elements are constant, for they represent unchangeable factors in human experience — as the relation of Earth and Sky, Light and Darkness, Rain, Fire, Cloud, and Thunder; but the animal personalities, and to a less extent the monstrous beings, vary for the same plot in different tribes and different tellings — vary, yet with certain constancies that deserve note. Coyote, over the whole western half of North America, is the most important figure of myth: usually, he is not an edifying hero, being mainly trickster and dupe by turns; yet he very generally plays a significant rτle in aiding, willy-nilly, the First People to the discovery of their final and appropriate shapes. He is, in other words, a great transformer; he is frequently the prime mover in the theft of fire, which nearly all tribes mark as the beginning of human advancement; and in parts, at least, of California, his deeds are represented as al-most invariably beneficent in their outcomes; he is a true, if often unintentional, culture hero. Other animals — the Elk, the Bear, the Lion — are frequent mythic figures, as are certain reptiles — the Rattlesnake, the exultant Frog Woman, who floats on the crest of the world-flood, and the Lizard who, because he has five fingers and knows their usefulness, similarly endows man when the human race comes to be created. But it is especially the winged kind — the birds — that play, after Coyote, the leading rτles in West-Coast myth. The Eagle, the Falcon, the Crow, the Raven, and to a less degree the Vulture and the Buzzard, are most conspicuous, for it is noticeable that among birds, as among animals, it is the stronger, and especially the carnivorous, kinds that are the chiefs of legend. Nevertheless, this is no invariable rule, and the Woodpecker, whose red head-feathers were used as money among the Californian tribes, the Humming-Bird, and indeed most other birds known to them, figure in the myths of the region. Nor are smaller creatures — the Louse, the Fly, and the Worm — too insignificant for the maker of traditions.

All of these beings, in the age of the First People, were human in form; the present order of existence began with their transformation into the birds and animals we now know. In West-Coast myth, this metamorphosis often follows directly upon the cataclysm of fire or flood by which the First World was destroyed, thus giving the two periods a distinctness of separation not common in Indian thought. In many versions the transformation is the work of the world-shaper — Coyote or another — as in the myth of Olelbis, who apportions to each creature its proper shape and home after the earth has been restored. Even more frequently there is a contest of some sort, the outcome of which is that victor and vanquished are alike transformed. This may be a battle of wits, as in the Coos story of the Crow whose voice was thunder and whose eyes flashed lightning: 32 a certain man-being persuaded the Crow first to trade voices with him, and then to sell the lightnings of his eyes for the food left by the ebb-tide, whereupon the Crow degenerated into what he now is, a glutton with a raucous voice, while the man became the Thunderer. Again, the struggle may be of the gaming type: in a Miwok legend Wek-wek, the Falcon, participated with a certain winged giant, Kelok, in a contest at which each in turn allowed himself to be used as a target for red-hot stones hurled by his opponent; through over-confidence Wek-wek is slain, but he is restored to life again by Coyote, who is shrewd enough to beat the giant at his own game; while from the body of the slain monster is started the conflagration that destroys the world. In a third case, the contest is one of sorcery: the story of the Loon Woman tells how she fell in love with the youngest of her ten brothers as they danced in the sweat-lodge; by her magic she compelled him to accompany her, but he escaped, and the brothers, with the aid of their elder sister, Spider Woman, ascended to heaven in a basket; Loon Woman perceived them, set fire to the sweat-house, and all save the Eagle fell back into the flames; their bodies were burned and Loon Woman made herself a neck-lace of their hearts. Nevertheless, her triumph was brief, for the Eagle succeeded in slaying her, and placing her heart along with those of his brothers in a sweat-house, brought them all back to life, but with the forms and dispositions which they now possess.

The creation of the human race marks the close of the age of the First People. Usually the World-Maker is also the shaper of men, and it is the West-Coast mode to conceive the process quite mechanically: men are fashioned from earth and grass, or appear as the transformations of sticks and feathers; the Kato story is altogether detailed, telling how Nagaitcho made a trachea of reed and pounded ochre to mix with water and make blood. A more dignified creation was that of Gudatrigakwitl, the Wishosk Maker, who used no tools, but formed things by spreading out his hands. "When Gudatrigakwitl wanted to make people, he said, `I want fog.' Then it began to be foggy. Gudatrigakwitl thought: `No one will see it when the people are born.' Then he thought: `Now I wish people to be all over, broadcast. I want it to be full of people and full of game.' Then the fog went away. No one had seen them before, but now they were there." Most imaginative of all is the Modoc myth, recorded by Curtin. Kumush, the man of the beautiful blue, whose life was the sun's golden disk, had a daughter. He made for her ten dresses: the first for a young girl, the second the maturity raiment in which a maiden clothes herself when she celebrates the coming of womanhood, the third to the ninth festal and work garments such as women wear, the tenth, and most beautiful of all, a burial shroud. When the girl was within a few days of maturity, she entered the sweat-house to dance; there she fell asleep and dreamed that some one was to die, and when she came out she demanded of Kumush her burial dress. He offered her each of the others in turn, but she would have only this; when she had donned it, she died, and her spirit set out for the west, the home of them that had passed away. Kumush, however, would not let her go alone, and saying, " I know all things above, below, and in the world of ghosts; whatever is, I know," he accompanied her down into the caverns of the dead. There father and daughter dwelt, by night dancing with the spirits, which became skeletons by day. But Kumush wearied of this, and determined to return to earth and restore life upon it. He took a basketful of the bones and set out, but they resisted and dug sharply into his body. Twice he slipped and fell back, but the third time he landed in the world above, and sowing there the bones of the ghosts, a new race sprang up from them — the race of men who have since inhabited the earth.



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