Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Native American Lore: The Giants of the Northern Rockies

In the years since I started writing this blog, I’ve become an avid folklorist. There isn’t much I enjoy more than a good story and I am more than willing to do some looking around to find one. Sometimes discovering a good story requires little more than paying attention to conversations going on around me (no, I’m not above doing a bit of eavesdropping if something catches my attention), but, more often than not, it takes a bit of digging. I try hard to visit the public library of any town I visit just to see what hidden gems they might have in their stacks. It dawned on me this week that I had never really explored the library at my own school. I quickly remedied that situation and, sure enough, found something of interest.

The myths and legends of the Native Americans have always fascinated me and it is always interesting to see if any of these old tales could possibly tell us anything about cryptid animals. While combing through my school library, I came across a book titled Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella E. Clark and checked it out. In it, Ms. Clark recounts a couple of tales that tell of giants that once roamed North America. I wondered if references to these giants could possibly be explained by early wood ape/sasquatch encounters. Below I will summarize a few of the more interesting legends regarding these giants I found in the book.


On their way to the Pacific Northwest, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition ran into a group of Flathead Indians in the Bitterroot Valley of what is now western Montana. The tribe was friendly to these white men, the first they had ever seen. The Flatheads shared not only their food with the explorers, but some of their folk tales involving giants they called Natliskeliguten, which in their language meant killers of men. According to historian H.H. Turney-High, “Fully half of the Flathead stories deal with these giants, and easily two-thirds of them mention them.” These giants were said to have amazing strength as illustrated in the following Flathead tale:

Once when a small hunting party came upon a giant asleep in the forest, they tied him with ropes of buffalo hair, sat upon his chest, and beat him until he wakened. Then he laughed thunderously, burst the ropes, and sent the men flying through the air as he rose to his feet. Seizing one of them by the ankle, he tossed the man across the Missoula River.

The Flathead Indians said the giants were visible to human eyes, but they usually avoided being seen. They gradually decreased in number because, at least according to some, there was not enough food for such huge creatures.

According to the legends of the Coeur d’ A’lene people of northwest Idaho, giants were common on their lands at one time. They were described as having a strong odor, “like that of a burning horn.” Their faces were black and they were as tall as a tipi. The giants would often approach a solitary tipi or lodge, but if several dwellings were grouped together they were not so bold. The giants were said to dress in bear or other animal skins with the hair left on. They lived in caves and had a great liking for fish. So much so, that according to the old stories, these giants often stole fish out of the Coeur d’ A’lene traps. Other than the curious examination of solitary tipis or lodges and the occasional theft of fish from Indian traps, the giants were said not to bother people much. The Coeur d’ A’lene did acknowledge hearing stories from other tribes of women being stolen by the giants, but had no tradition of kidnapping tales in their lands.


The Kutenais people were, according to a fur trader by the name of Ross Cox, who spent five years (1812-1817) trapping along the Columbia River, “the remnant of a once brave and powerful tribe.” The Kutenais numbers fell precipitously due to their nearly continuous warfare with the Blackfeet over the right to hunt the buffalo grounds immediately east of them across the Rockies. Presently, the Kuntenais people live in northern Idaho, northwestern Montana, and southern British Columbia. Their mythology is very similar to other tribes in the area and includes accounts of giants. The principal Kutenais contact for author Ella A. Clark, was a middle-aged tribesman named William Gingrass. According to Gingrass, the giants were much feared and “followed the big streams and whenever Indians went to a big stream the giants killed them and ate them.”

Tales of giants from the mythology of other tribes, such as the Assiniboines and Lemhi Shoshonis, can be found in the book, too. It seems that these tales are all but universal among the tribes of the Northern Rockies. I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone fortunate enough to come across a copy.

As I read these tales, I could not help but notice how similar many of the described characteristics and behaviors of these giants is to physical descriptions and behaviors of wood apes/sasquatches reported by witnesses in the present day. The Flathead Indians described a creature that was very tall and incredibly strong. They said the creatures could be seen (no spirit-type of entity here), but that made every effort to avoid human eyes. This furtive behavior is very similar to that described by witnesses who claim to have seen a sasquatch. More often than not, witnesses report a creature that beats a hasty retreat once it realizes it has been seen. Some have reported that the wood ape they saw became aggressive once it realized it had been spotted. Intimidation displays are sometimes reported that include tree-shaking, the throwing of objects, and roars or growls. More than one bigfoot witness has said something along the lines of, “It clearly was unhappy about me looking at it.”


The accounts of these giants in the mythology of the Coeur d’ A’lene people sound as if they came right out of a sasquatch 101 textbook. The giants reportedly had a “strong odor like that of a burning horn.” I admit that I am unfamiliar with what a burning horn might smell like, but witnesses over the years have repeatedly commented on the terrible stench emitted by wood apes. The description of a creature with a dark face closely matches most reports given by witnesses today. Almost all witnesses who report getting a good look at a sasquatch have described a creature that has dark skin (even if the hair on it is lighter in color). The Coeur d’ A’lene belief that these giants had an affinity for fish and stole them out of traps is something I have heard from the stories of other native tribes. In addition, wood apes have often been reported in or near water, perhaps in an effort to catch fish. None other than Bob Gimlin said that when he and Roger Patterson rode up on the sasquatch that would become known as Patty, she was crouched down on the edge of the water of Bluff Creek, possibly trying to catch a fish. Too, the behavior of these giants sneaking up close to isolated dwellings matches up to modern reports. It is the very reason many researchers today will move their tent away from base camp when out in the field. It is generally believed that these apes are more likely to approach an individual tent than a walk into a camp with several. Finally, the Coeur d’ A’lene people alluded to having heard stories of these giants kidnapping women on occasion from other tribes. There is a strong tradition of the kidnapping of women and children by these creatures in the lore of many Native American tribes. Truth be told, it is something that is still whispered about by some researchers to this very day. Critics might point out a discrepancy between the beliefs of the Coeur d’ A’lene and modern reports, that discrepancy being that these giants allegedly wore the skins of other animals. Reports along these lines are so rare as to be practically nonexistent today. Regardless, I am not so sure this is much of a discrepancy. The Coeur d’ A’lene did describe these giants as wearing “bear or other animal skins," however, and that these skins had “the hair left on.” Is it not possible that these Indians, because the giants they were seeing were bipedal and, therefore, in their minds, had to have been some kind of human, might really have been seeing a hair-covered creature?

Finally, the belief of the Kutenais people that these giants followed streams and creeks echoes the belief popularized by Smokey Crabtree, of The Legend of Boggy Creek fame, who once famously said, “They (bigfoot creatures) always follow the creeks.” Finally, the belief that these apes are, at least at times, cannibalistic is one that remains firmly entrenched in the minds of many Native American Tribes to this very day.

Maybe you can see why I enjoy searching out these kinds of tales. They are simply fascinating and when juxtaposed next to modern sasquatch sightings, really make you wonder who or what these giants might have been. It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun. These tales provide strong anecdotal evidence that tales of very large, incredibly strong, and malodorous creatures are not a 20thcentury creation at all, as so many believe. It would seem these forest giants have been around for a very long time.

They are not new at all.

Source: Clark, Ella E. Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies. Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

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