Dialogues and Meditations on Tsims^ian Narratives, IV


IV. (pp. 229-281) "Secret Societies and Refractions".

pp. 233-5 myth of origination secret-societies

p. 233

M91 "Near the village of Kitamat was a big lake and this lake was the abode of a monster ... . ... So two young chiefs ... came to the lake ..., when suddenly there arose ... from the middle of the lake ... a strange being like a huge gayelth. After it emerged ... it ... swam towards the head of the lake. ... When it came to the head of the lake, there it disappeared. ...

p. 234

Then they saw slowly emerging from the lake a house, and this had in front of it a cedar bark ring, and this was hung over the entrance of the house ... . The house was soon fully emerged and then they saw a man coming out, and he started to dance in a very queer manner and beating time with


a stick on a board. The antics of the man were very funny and then they called this man mitla ... .

{The "stick" may be Strong’s 4132 /Mo^T./; the funniness Strong’s 4287 /MuT.T.eh/ "perverseness" : both words cognate with Tsims^ian /MiTLa/.}


Then the house slowly sank into the water.

Soon after there rose from the waters another house, similar in appearance, and again the man came out and danced a dance which appeared to be crazier than the first. So these men called it nulhim – very crazy. The men noted everything and memorized the songs they heard. When they had become thoroughly acquainted with all of it then the house slowly sank into the water and disappeared. ... .

... then another house arose from the waters of the lake. This house was more beautiful than the others and again the dancer appeared. He was dressed much better and they saw that while dancing he destroyed things that were in his way and threw fire and stones about in a destructive manner, and the songs he sang spoke of his power to destroy and his ability to compensate for what he destroyed. ... Seeing the man act in this destructive manner, they called it ludzista – destroy. After seeing the dancer doing all of these things then the house disappeared into the lake. ...

So ..., they heard another kind of whistle and calls sounding hawp, hawp, haup. This sound repeated over and over and then slowly another house emerged from the

p. 235

waters and they then saw the man coming out nude and very ferocious-like. He kept calling hawp, hawp, haup. ... This was repeated many times and they saw then that he carried many bones as if in a state of hunger. At this time the man reached [with his hands] and from nowhere he had [seized] a small body, as if a child’s, and this he started to devour very hungrily, and they saw that he was eating a small child and then it seemed to disappear into the house. Soon they heard calls of hawp, hawp, haup and then ... again the house slowly sank into the waters of the lake.


These Kitamat men ... councilled among themselves as to what to do. The leader, the young Eagle chief said, "The first two dances will be for the use of all the people and we shall teach it to them ... . ... The other halaits which we have seen, ... shall ... be the exclusive property of chiefs." When these men returned to their village they immediately called together their wise men ... to organize these halaits as they had seen them danced. ... . ... tribesmen in becoming members would pay tribute first to the halait chiefs for giving them powers, and also to all the halait group who were in attendance. ...

From among the Kitamat this new halait spread to other groups, including the Tsimshian and the Gitxaata and the Kitkatla".

p. 237 another myth of receiving supernatural power from an underwater-residing deity

In "M94 How Kwiyaihl Obtained his Halait ... two brothers who receive powers from an underwater being find a third brother dead and resurrect him".

p. 237 the original 3-tribe caerimonial community

"though Boas (1916:546) and Beynon ... point to the use of Kwakiutl terms ..., initiates would be sent to either Bella Bella or Kitamat ..., and the three cultures [Kwakiutl, Bellabella, and Kitamat] formed a ceremonial community".

p. 238 According to M94, it was "Nislaganos who first used naxnox among the Tsimshian" (an apparently historical statement).

p. 239 the distinction between shamans and heads of secret-societies

"In the ending of M91, with the receipt of secret society powers, the chiefs become halait, a term ... we assume ... referred originally only to shamans".

"Although halait designates both shamans and head of secret societies, ... the two are distinct, and have different sources of powers ... . ...

Shamans are ... called swanaskxw halait, while

leaders of secret societies are known as "wi halait" (wi singular / wuta plural, meaning great)."

pp. 241-4, 246-7 social classes



its definition






"an uninitiated person" (/am/ is ‘under’)



"They manufacture naxnox objects for secret societies".






"children of hypergamous marriages, illegitimate offspring, and individuals with negative personality traits" (literally, ‘unhealed’)

p. 249 the 4 secret-societies

"(1) Dancers, mitla;

(2) Dog-Eaters, Nulhim;

(3) Destroyers, ludizta/winamal; and

(4) Cannibals, xgedam/ulala."

p. 245 Of these 4 secret-societies, "mitla and nulhim are said to be universalistic in the sense that virtually everyone is, in fact, expected to belong to one or the other."

p. 251 autobiographical account of initiation of a girl into the Dancer society

"It was now breaking day and soon people saw a huge swan emerging from the water and they saw seated on top of the swan a small girl whom everyone recognized as myself, but it was my double. Then the naxnox whistles began to sound near the huge swan, and after floating about near the shore, it began to sink into the water and disappeared. ...

I ... was now being shown to all the village. A cord was tied to me and I was nude".

p. 255 gesticulations peculiar to particular secret-societies

"A person belonging to __

would __ ."


"hold right hand over heart and

left hand extended as far as the elbow with forearm raised."


"have right hand over heart and

left hand fully extended."


"extend both hands upraised."

p. 256 crystals

"Two crystals are said to require the great-halait to combat and master them before they can be used ... . In another source the powers are described as "taken from the air" ... . The first refers back ... specifically to crystals in M12, where Waux wife is turned into one."

pp. 257-8 chiefess’s whale of a return (whale as submarine ship)

p. 257

"a woman chief now planned that she would be gone to the heavens and would return in a whale. ...

p. 258

They saw the whale naxnox dive into the water and rise, and thus make a successful crossing."

pp. 265-6 initiation into the Cannibal society; euphemistic mention of death to members of the Cannibal society

p. 265

"The initiate, still nude, ... is on a leash and he endeavoured to break away. ... . ... it took many to hold the leash as he attempts to break away ... . ...

{This is a circumstance of a candidate for admission into shamanhood in some Siberian tribes.}


She bared her arm and the initiate ... came forward and bit her arm. ... When the initiate had bitten the human flesh, he became pacified ... . ... .

p. 266

... one must not speak of the death of any person in the presence of a xgedam halait, as it will revive the halait desire for human flesh. In the presence of the halait


one speaks of the death of others by saying, "So and so has become a salmon berry.""

{This might allude to the motile berries along the stream to the Lushootseed abode for souls of the dead.}

p. 267 possessing-goddess Hai>altila

"In describing the Cannibal Society ..., Boas (1916:546) states that the being-power possessing the initiate is named "Haialthilaqs". ... The name comes from the Kwakiutl and its core,

Hai>althila literally translates as "making well",

{cf. the name of Iroquois /HAIAwATHa/}

while the qs ending is from Bella Bella and denotes a female."

p. 270 legend of the origin of the Cannibal Society

"The first cannibal gave the Gitgaata people much fear ... . ... They left a dead child as bait. ... Seeing the carcass of the child, it rushed to get it and fell into the pit that had been dug. The people then began to throw the brew of devil’s club on him ... . Very soon the cannibal was overcome ... . ... When he was fully recovered, he was normal again, and he related his experience of the meeting of the being. ... he told them that he was now able to start the cannibal society".

p. 272 gradual return of a Cannibal-Society initiate to normalcy

"The Cannibal initiate ... is ... "made" into a human. Later, the initiate will sit with residents of the house in silence and after a time, is allowed to speak (Boas 1916:549). This is combined with a change from nudity to the wearing of clothes."

pp. 272-3 Kwakiutl similarities

p. 272

"there are striking similarities between Tsimshian and Kwakiutl secret societies, particularly Cannibals. Walens’ analysis (1981:153-63) of Cannibals is a

p. 273

useful complement to this one ... . ... In Kwakiutl thought, all humans are fundamentally cannibals ... . He further argues that the Cannibal society asserts that this is no longer a necessity".

Walens 1981 = Stanley Walens : Feasting with Cannibals. Princeton U Pr.

pp. 277-8 voluntary death of a particular chief’s impersonator

p. 277

"Legaix went into hiding and the slave was put up as Legaix, even to assuming his rights with the wives of Legaix. ...

{"The Classical Greek sources [Berossos] mention a Scythian festival, named Sakaia, borrowed by ancient Persians and performed even in Babylonia. During the festival, a servant was elected as king for two to five days; the elected servant who was called ''zoganes'', was allowed to do as he was pleased and was entertained by the royal concubines." ("ASFS")]}


And although this Chilkat slave knew he was to be sacrificed, yet he

p. 278

played the part of Legaix, even fooling the Gispaxloats people, and only the secret group knew what was happening."

"ASFS" = "Ancient Scythian Festival of Sakaia" http://landofkarda.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html


CARLETON LIBRARY SER., No. 139 = John Cove : Shattered Images : Dialogues and Meditations on Tsimshian Narratives. Carleton U Pr, Ottawa, 1987.