Aside from the more lurid accounts of speculative research, late night campfire tales and horror novels, is there a more rational explanation for Alaska's demon, the Kushtaka? What is the scholar's take on this legendary creature?
Classical scholar, Mary Giraudo Beck explains, "Kushtakas [according to historical Tlingit belief] were human beings who had been transformed by land otters into creatures similar to themselves, but who retained some human qualities. [They had] the special mission of saving those lost at sea or in the woods and transforming them into half-human, half-otter beings like themselves."
The question arises: Are these stories based on anything other than imagination? Or were they based on actual events, possibly a First Contact scenario, in Native Alaskan history? Interestingly, the Land Otter People were also called The Slim Men. This would seem to indicate that they could be impressively human, although very differently shaped than "normal" humans, the Tlingit.
Who could these Slim Men have been?
In 2004 a friend I'd attended the small bush school in the nearby fishing village with, loaned me The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf. In it, the author postulates that Drake was the first European to discover British Columbia and the southern part of Southeast Alaska (where I live), in his secret mission to discover the Northwest Passage.
Historians and Drake aficionados, not to mention those invested in the idea that California was the furthest north Drake ventured, have since tried to poke holes in the idea. However, it is acknowledged that Drake's contemporaries were seeking the Northwest Passage's entrance on the Atlantic side and some of the powerful men backing these endeavors, high up in Elizabeth I's court, were also the ones who backed Drake's Pacific voyage. There are various essays by respected historians who, before this book was published, speculated that because of Drake's behavior on the voyage, that he was on a secret mission by Elizabeth I to find the Northwest Passage, or Strait of Anian, as it was called.
One of the problems historians have with Bawlf's account, is why there is now no clear documentary evidence of this secret mission. And why was it secret? I was curious, so I did some research and found that throughout the history of early exploration documentary evidence of newly discovered lands and passages was kept under lock and key, for the eyes of only a select group of people:
"The Feats of Rodrigues Cabrilho and Ferrelo [in possibly reaching the border of California and Oregon in the 1540s], high water marks of sixteenth-century exploration northward, were never mentioned in subsequent early accounts of California voyages. The explanation lies in deliberate Spanish policy....Mardrid considered it in her interest to keep geographic details as secret as possible....Maps from each new exploration were treated as state secrets and their data added to the master chart. The few that escaped destruction were filed away and remained unaccessible until they were encountered by modern historians. Later expeditions set out without detailed knowledge of previous accomplishments." (Flood-Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest 1543-1819 by Warren L. Cook, p. 4)
"As a result of King John's [of Portugal] strictly maintained policy of secrecy about these expeditions [to find an alternate route to the Spice Island through the Atlantic and Arctic], it is now next to impossible to find official records of these early Portuguese voyages. All charts, logs, and journals were confiscated and suppressed by the Crown, and their publication was prohibited under pain of death. There now survive only tantalizing but convincing traces of the manifold [exploratory] activities of this dynamic Portuguese ruler." (Ferdinanad Magellan: Circumnavigator by Charles McKew Parr, p. 172)
"Any public mention of the discovery of the eastern passage [discovered by Bartholomew Dias, 1487-8] was suppressed, and Dias was given no public recognition of his achievement....During the eight years following Dias's discovery, King John [of Portugal] concealed all news of further expeditions. It seems incredible that he could have suppressed every log and diary written in those eight years, but none has yet been found. There are some scattered clues here and there which suggest that...King John sent out as many as fifty exploring expeditions from Lisbon." (Ibid., p. 39)
This is, in essence, what Bawlf argues has happened to most of the documentary evidence of Drake's exploration of British Columbia and southern Southeast Alaska. In his book Bawlf follows the scattered clues to present a compelling picture.
But if Drake had made it this far north, what was his impact on a Native population that had never met a European? Is there any evidence that Europeans had been in the area before the first acknowledged Europeans arrived, namely the Russians and Spanish?
The Smithsonian magazine's online version notes: "...evidence is building that the English discovered Canada's west coast hundreds of years before it was officially charted by Spanish explorer Juan Perez. The latest piece of evidence...is a coin [found on the shores of Vancouver Island, March 2014]. The newly discovered coin bears marks indicating it was produced between 1551 and 1553 during the reign of King Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I....This is the third 16th century coin found along the coast. Thsi [sic] physical evidence adds support to documents that, during a 1579 voyage to North America's west coast, British sailor Francis Drake made his way further north than was thought."
In the classic 1885 anthropological text The Tlingit Indians by Aurel Krause (translated by Erna Gunther in 1956), the author notes: "Contagious diseases have repeatedly ravaged the Tlingit....According to the reports of Maurelle, the disease [small pox] is supposed to have been present among the Indians before the Europeans came." Did Drake's men expose them to this disease that was rampant in Elizabethan England?
"To their astonishment the first visitors [to Alaska] found the knowledge and use of iron spread everywhere, even though it was scarce and highly valued. In 1741 Stellar saw iron knives, supposedly not of European manufacture, in the possession of two indians on Shumagin Island." Was Drake the one who first introduced the Native population to iron?
Despite this evidence, many scholars still insist that Drake couldn't have explored BC and SE Alaska because of the dangerous nature of the island, rock and reef infested waterways of these regions. How, they demand, could he have made such fast progress despite all the dangers?
In my reading of the early European seafarers, I noticed that again and again their answer to this difficulty, that all of them faced to one degree or another, was to kidnap the locals to gain navigation information and act as pilots.
For instance, in 1606, the Dutch explored the seas around Australia. One of their "chief activities was the kidnaping of natives in order that they could be taught Dutch of Malay and so disclose what knowledge they possess." The Dutch were surprised that when word spread among the indigenous people that the Natives "received us as enemies everywhere." (The Coral Sea by Alan Villiers, p. 120)
This same author notes that: "The whole way up the west coast of America, Drake kidnaped local and deep-sea pilots." Drake's immediate successor, Thomas Cavendish, followed his example in kidnapping pilots. Why wouldn't Drake have kidnapped the Natives to help him navigate through this confusing and dangerous archipelago?
And how would the Alaskan Natives feel about these alien people in their strange Elizabethan attire kidnapping their family members? Couldn't this be the basis of the Kushtaka legend?
I have been around land otters most of my life, since I grew up in the Alaskan bush where they are common. When, after reading Bawlf's book, I saw a picture of English sailors of Drake's day in their wasp-waisted ("slim") shirts, baggy, knee length breeches, and awkward sleeves, I immediately saw the resemblance to the land otter. Why wouldn't the Tlingit make that same connection?
As Mary Giraudo Beck comments: "In these stories [of the Land Otter People], instances of the benevolence of kushtakas suggest a duality in their nature to match their physical traits [they were at home in both the sea and on land]....Kushtakas, with their power of illusion, appear in the guise of dead relatives....One victim sees them as hybrid half-human, half-otter beings; another sees their upper lips caught up under their noses to resemble a land otter's mouth, their arms seeming to grow out of their chests rather than their shoulders."
To the Tlingits of former times the Elizabethan style of trimmed mustache and Van Dyke beard must have been strikingly reminiscent of the land otter, and their sleeves--which were unknown to Native Alaskan weavers---might have made it appear as if their arms were growing out of their chests.
Drake was known for his humane treatment of Natives, so perhaps that is where the duality of kindness and terror comes from. On the one hand he was kidnapping the Tlingits to be used as pilots, but on the other hand, he might have made more than one altruistic rescue. Some of the Natives, in addition, might have adapted to the European way of life and tried, now dressed in European, otter-like clothes, to lure their relatives (who had written them off as dead) over to the Dark Side of the Land Otter People.
But could such a brief encounter have brought such a lasting cultural memory that it produced the many stories of the Kushtaka? The stories speak of a Land Otter "kingdom." This would suggest a much longer stay than Drake could have spent in Alaska before completing his circumnavigation.
On the other hand, Bawlf points out that there is a curious discrepancy in the amount of men between Drake's Northwest sojourn and the next leg of his trip back home. Bawlf suggests that some of Drake's men were left behind to continue exploring for the Northwest Passage using a pinnace, an ancillary boat that could be rowed or sailed in closer to shore.
If that was the case, these Elizabethan sailors were doomed to not find the Northwest Passage back home. They might have ended up marooned in Alaska, kidnapping Native women and children to create famlies, and kidnapping men to help do the work in constructing a safe haven in the wilderness--their "kingdom."
Interestingly, the stories of the Kushtaka say that the Land Otter People, or Slim Men, traveled on a canoe that they identified with the skate (fish). The skate is, in appearance, very much like the sails used on pinnaces. It's mentioned in the Native stories that the skate-canoe could also be rowed.
If this scenario is correct, how long did the Elizabethan sailors survive in the Alaskan wilderness? How many Natives did they kidnap and interact with? They must have given up hope at some point that Drake would ever come back to rescue them. Did they attempt to take the pinnace out onto the open seas and try to make it home, either back-tracking through Spanish waters, or attempting to cross the Pacific and circumnavigate the globe? Did they perish at sea?
We have no way of knowing.
But it's quite possible that they left a lasting testament to their time in Alaska in the frightening stories, told down to this day, of the Land Otter People and their kingdom. Now when I'm on the water here I think of Drake and his men seeing these same waterways, the same sights. And I imagine that moment when the Natives met their first Europeans in a traumatic moment of First Contact that is forever captured in the legends of the Kushtaka.