We do not know his name: Klatsassin and the Chilcotin War

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Magic in the Homathco Canyon

by Henry Solomon with Terry Glavin

There was another strange animal from the days of the old-timer people, Henry said.

“Something like a big bird,” he said, “but it make lots of noise when it’s coming. Some kind of yapping, you know. And it had big wings on him. It was a real big bird. Real strong too, I guess. Maybe the devil or something.”

That would be the nentŝelgha?etŝīsh. It appears to have confined itself to the coast and to the narrow inlets that cut into the mountains of the Xeni gwet’in country from the saltwater. It was known to the Chilcotins who travelled from time to time down the Homathko River to fish, and further downriver to Bute Inlet to trade. Sometimes, a Chilcotin party might winter down on the coast and come back in the springtime, when the snow in the high passes could still be traversed by snowshoe.

“He do trapping, and wintertime down Bute Inlet them bear go all winter. That river there [the Homathko], he used to sell them beaver and the bear hide, that time he sell them down there, to some white people I guess. Long time ago. Mabel’s dad used to sell them down there.”

The bird gets its name from its reputed habit of sneaking up behind unsuspecting travellers and tearing through their buttocks to get at their entrails. I suggested to Henry that I wouldn’t want to meet one of those things.

“No. Me too,” he said.

Henry said he knew the coast people were afraid of the nentŝelgha?etŝīsh, and the idea was, if you could hear it coming, you hurry to a tree and stand with your back to it so the bird couldn’t attack.

Henry said he couldn’t imagine what kind of an animal it was.

“Could you think of what that’s like, Terry? Do you know what the hell it is?”

The only thing that came to mind was a supernatural creature the people on the coast were long familiar with, represented in dances by huge cedar masks depicting a long-beaked bird. It caught the imagination of people throughout the coast, whatever it was.

“I guess them guys, they know. They should know,” Henry said. “Those guys who lived around the coast. How about Vancouver Island, them Indians?

Did they ever hear of a big bird like that?”

So far as I could recall, Vancouver Island people were aware of it too.

The coast was where it was seen, Henry remembered. Down the Homathko Canyon, and down into Bute Inlet.

“That’s where you see him, long time ago,” he said.

In Chilcotin stories, the Homathko Canyon was often a source of dread. It was from the darkness of the Homathko Canyon that a party of warriors from the coast emerged in the days of the old-timer people. It was summer­time. The Xeni gwet’in were in the nearby mountains digging wild potatoes.

“Must have been sometime in July, like,” Henry said. “They’d be down by Potato Mountain. Chunažch’ez. Potato Mountain.”

The women were up in the alpine digging the root that was a staple in the Xeni gwet’in diet and the men were off hunting, probably for black bear. The Bute Inlet Indians crept up the mountainside and slaughtered all but two of the women, who were taken as captives. But there was a young boy who witnessed the slaughter, and he hurried away to tell what had happened.

By the time the boy met up with the hunters, the attackers were well on their way back to their home territory, so the deyen, as the shaman is known in Chilcotin, began to sing.

“He started to sing, you know,” Henry said. “And then pretty soon he get a bird sitting right on his hand. A kingfisher, so he just blow on it, and the bird, he started making noise, and the bird just took off down to catch the people before he get to the coast down there.”

“There’s a big rock wall along the edge, along the side of that river. One way out, and one way in.”

The Bute Inlet war party saw the kingfisher, but didn’t think anything of it.

Back in the mountains, the deyen told the kingfisher to make the attackers fall asleep. While they slept, the Chilcotin hunters caught up to them and traversed the alpine above the canyon, just below the timberline. The Bute Inlet party was trapped inside the canyon and the Chilcotins surprised them in their sleep, freeing the two women and killing all but two of the Bute Inlet party. The pair of survivors made it back to the village that later became known as Church House, but the deyen was not through with them. One survivor told his story, and after he was finished, blood gushed from his mouth and he died. The same kind of death took the second survivor.

Source: Henry Solomon, "Magic in the Homathko Canyon," Nemiah: The Unconquered Country Terry Glavin (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1992), 92-93.

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Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History