Editor’s Note: This is the second post in Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage, an eight-part series with an open call for further contributions edited by Caroline Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.
J.W. Burns was employed as a teacher1 on the Chehalis Indian Reserve in British Columbia in the 1920s and 1930s when his now-famous 1929 article, “Introducing B.C.’s Hairy Giants: A collection of strange tales about British Columbia’s wild men as told by those who say they have seen them” was published with MacLeans Magazine. In it, Burns anglicizes stories he sought from Indigenous communities involving their relationships with what seemed to Burns a very mysterious being.2 Notably, Burns describes the “thrilling account” of an Indigenous man pursued by the being, whose anglicized name he records as Peter Williams — describing Peter’s account for Burns’s settler audience as being that of “a reliable as well as an intelligent Indian.”3 As Peter recounted his terrifying encounter to village elders, they nodded.4 His account of their reaction to the story suggests that his elders were aware of the being, but “for some reason not quite clear seemed not to wish the story to gain further publicity.”5 Burns’s article, then, published very much in contrast to the elders’ desires.
“I was startled to see what I took at first sight to be a huge bear crouched upon a boulder twenty or thirty feet away. I raised my rifle to shoot it, but, as I did, the creature stood up and let out a piercing yell. It was a man — a giant, no less than six and one-half feet in height, and covered with hair. He was in a rage […] I never ran so fast before or since […]”Account of “Peter Williams” as quoted in J.W. Burns, “Introducing B.C.’s Hairy Giants: A Collection of Strange Tales About British Columbia’s Wild Men as Told by Those Who Say They Have Seen Them,” MacLean’s Magazine, 1 April, 1929
With its publication, a being which had existed as a lived reality for Indigenous communities on the west coast of North America became mythicized by a Euro-Canadian settler. Indeed, the very derivation of the term “Sasquatch” is widely considered an anglicization of the Salish language family word se’sxac: “wild man”.6 In Salish communities and other Indigenous populations, beings like the se’sxac were closer to human than non-human being.7 As Loxton and Prothero 2013 remind scholars of John Green’s words:
“As pioneering Bigfooter John Green explained, “The Sasquatch with which [Burns’s] readers were familiar was basically giant Indians. They were called hairy giants it is true, but this was taken to mean they had long hair on their heads.”John Green as quoted in the abstract of Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero’s 2013 chapter “Bigfoot: The Sasquatch” in Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.“
Se’sxac-like figures were a lived reality for Indigenous peoples whose significance can still be seen and felt. The further incursions of settlers, and the interest from the publication of Burns’s article, prompted further and further reported sightings of different, “vague and indefinite” natures.8 Today “Bigfoot” enjoys tenure as one of North America’s most popular cryptids. As the being’s cultural origins were increasingly anglicized, settler media and its audiences increased efforts to legitimate, or “find” Sasquatch along western scientific boundaries, drifting further and further from its foundational, Indigenous, folkloric and cultural meaning.
The field of cryptozoology is often at the center of these legitimization efforts. Yet the beings cryptozoology conceives of as cryptids, or “unconfirmed species,”9 — mysterious and elusive creatures imbued with folklore and largely unrecognized by mainstream life sciences — have existed in folkloric and spiritual traditions since the beginning of the written record.10 Western science functions within binaries, and accordingly, so do its definitions of what it is to be human. As H. Peter Steeves posits in his 2007 “The Phenomenology of BigFoot”:11
“How do we make sense of our given humanity in a world where such creatures might exist? How do we know what is human and what is animal if we admit the possibility of a creature described as neither or both?”H. Peter Steeves, “The Phenomenology of BigFoot,” Between the Species: Vol. 7. 2007.
In this way, cryptozoology functions within western, settler-colonial binaries, defining what is human by defining what is beast, and importantly, upholding attempts to legitimate Indigenous life ways to western standards of believability. But it can also be argued that cryptozoology challenges western scientific binaries and encourages discussions that fall outside of the dominant narrative. As Peter Dendle argues, “Cryptozoology thus fulfills an important role: it represents a quest for magic and wonder in a world many perceive as having lost its mystique.”12 In modern media, Sasquatch is nearly always described as a towering figure over seven feet in height, hairy, and ape-like: the possibility of “Bigfoot” looms unseen amid the boreal forests of North America, embodying the mysterious and the magical, and providing an other-than-human path to re-enchantment.13
Importantly, Sasquatch creates space for important questions. When does looking human make a creature human? In answer to this, Rod Preece conceives of the “Sasquatch pastoral,” a pastorality defined by “our desires and fears concerning the animal nature of humanity” and which are then “projected onto shadowy creatures — a manifestation of our awareness of the messy biological reality of what it means to be human.”14 Per Preece’s theorizing, Bigfoot reflects the human psychological tendency to project monstrous fears onto our environments.15 Other academics, like Dendle, support this analysis, reminding us that the psychological need for folkloric monsters is an ancient one: legends of creatures lurking just beyond reach and out of sight help define the fear of the unknown, and what it is to be human.16
The descriptions of nonhuman beings from folklore and myth highlight the processes that characterize social taboos and articulate tensions amongst various social groups. Importantly, monsters uphold boundaries for human societies—defining who humans are in opposition to who we are not. “Sasquatch” exists simultaneously outside of and within binaries. It upholds settler conceptions of frontier in which nature is unknown, potentially dangerous, and ultimately, ripe with mythic discoverability for Euro-North Americans, but it also works to erode these boundaries, prompting us to question dominant narratives about human-nonhuman relations.
Nearly a century has passed since Burns’s article was published and the se’sxac began its transformation from a lived reality for Indigenous communities to the figure of the Sasquatch. Efforts to legitimize Bigfoot have drifted from the being’s Indigenous roots, leaving many unaware of the creature’s folkloric entanglements and reinventions by settler bodies. As a field which studies other-than-human beings, Cryptozoology, and Sasquatch, offer us an example of the ways in which cryptozoological theory can be applied to explore the dualities between man and nature, power dynamics, and the folkloric entanglements within.
1. Wayne Suttles, “Some Questions About The Sasquatch,” 1976. Working Papers in Linguistics (UBCWPL) & Pacific Northwest Languages and Literatures (PNWLL) Press, Mar. 2018. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.
2. J W. Burns, “Introducing B.C.’s Hairy Giants: A Collection of Strange Tales about British Columbia’s Wild Men as Told by Those Who Say They Have Seen Them,” 1 April 1929. MacLean’s: The Complete MacLean’s Archive,. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.
6. Suttles, “Some Questions About The Sasquatch,” 1976.
7. Burns, “Introducing B.C.’s Hairy Giants,” 1929.
8. Peter Dendle, “Cryptozoology in the Medieval and Modern Worlds.” Folklore (London) Vol. 117 no. 2 (2006): 190–206.
10. Picture-Writing of the American Indian 10th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1888-9. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Painted_Rock_Tulare_County.jpg. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.
11. H. Peter, Steeves “The Phenomenology of BigFoot.” Between the Species, Journal for the Study of Philosophy and Animals, Vol. 14 No.7 (August 2007).
12. Dendle, “Cryptozoology in the Medieval and Modern Worlds,” (2006), 201.
14. Rod Preece, “Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities,” (University of British Columbia Press, 2014), 119.
16. Dendle, “Cryptozoology in the Medieval and Modern Worlds,” (2006).
Feature Image: The header image for this post is a composite image comprised of two layers. The underlying layer is a photograph, courtesy of Caroline Abbott, which features the coniferous and boreal forests outlying Yosemite National Park in California, USA (2016). This image was chosen for its geographic proximity to Painted Rock. The overlying layer features the amalgamated version of Moskowitz’s drawings with applied transparency [as seen in Fig. 2, above], itself an amalgamation (as described) of Kathy Moskowitz’s illustrations featured in “Mayak Datat: An Archaeological Viewpoint of the Hairy Man Pictographs.”, Bigfoot Information Project, 13 Aug. 2004, accessed 13 October 2022. Reused and adapted, with gratitude to the original illustrator, under permissions of Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Share Alike license (CC BY-SA 2.0).
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