Untamed wilderness is both wondrous in its beauty and threatening in its separation from the careful tool-wielding hand of man. It's hard not to imagine all manner of mysterious creatures surviving in places people rarely tread.
This is something I've been thinking about tonight after speaking with my stepfather. He's from Southeastern Alaska. I've been to visit several times. It truly is a beautiful part of the country, a huge state with a low population density both in modern times and the past. The rich mythology of the native people speaks of all sorts of strange creatures.
In 1900, a group of prospectors traveling in the Thomas Bay area reported a rather odd encounter, as related in this excerpt:
"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."
The Strangest Story Ever Told, Harry D. Colp
Given the wide variety of wildlife in the area, one can come up with a variety of possibilities for what these men might have seen, but the sighting is often associated with a long existing native legend of the Tlingit people of Southeastern Alaska, a legend about a shape-shifting creature called the kushtaka.
In the Tlingit language, the word kushtaka roughly translates as "otter man of the land". These creatures are a type of shape-shifter that the myths report can assume several forms including that of a human and an otter. In addition, the legends also grant them a sort of in-between form that would correspond roughly to what was described in the above sighting, explaining why the existing kushtaka legends have been associated with it.
The stories of the kushtaka don't present an entirely consistent account of their behavior of the creatures. While often they are presented as dangerous tricksters who lure men, particularly Tlingit sailors, to deaths with illusions and faked cries of love ones, other stories talk of them saving people from drowning or cold. What's interesting, though, is that in both the hostile and friendly accounts, they often end with the human being turned into a kushtaka. In the least friendly versions of the stories, the kushtaka tricks end with them not just inadvertently leading humans to drowning, but with the creatures attacking and murdering them.
Though even the friendly encounters are arguably bad for the human benefactors. For example, if a person is saved from drowning by the creatures, their souls will be trapped with the creatures and they'll become a kushtaka. Given that the native beliefs of the Tlingit involve a soul passing onto the Land of the Dead and subsequent reincarnation into descendants, being stuck as a kushtaka and separated permanently from the tribe might be considered by some a fate worth then death.
The alleged anti-kushtaka protection methods are reflective of the environment and culture that produced them: fire, copper, and human urine. Of course, avoiding the creatures entirely and areas they are believed to frequent is also recommend in the myths. Although I've focused on the Tlingit in this entry, many other native Alaskan groups have similar legends.
I've not talked about other shape-shifting legends of the natives of North America in my Magical Mondays segments, so just I'll note that the kushtaka are somewhat distinct in that they are a distinct class of being as opposed to being the result of a type of evil human magic. From my admittedly cursory review of the mythology of the indigenous peoples of North America, the latter is more common.