Traditional Attitudes Toward Bigfoot
in Many North American Cultures
By Gayle Highpine
| Here in the Northwest,
and west of the Rockies generally, Indian people regard Bigfoot with great
respect. He is seen as a special kind of being, because of his obvious close
relationship with humans. Some elders regard him as standing on the "border"
between animal-style consciousness and human-style consciousness, which
gives him a special kind of power. (It is not that Bigfoot's relationship
to make him "superior" to other animals; in Indian culture, unlike
western culture, animals are not regarded as "inferior" to humans
but rather as "elder brothers" and "teachers" of humans.
But tribal cultures everywhere are based on relationship and kinship; the
closer the kinship, the stronger the bond. Man Indian elders in the Northwest
refuse to eat bear meat because of the bear's similarity to humans, and
Bigfoot is obviously much more similar to humans than is the bear. As beings
who blend the "natural knowledge" of animals with something of
the distinctive type of consciousness called "intelligence" that
humans have, Bigfoot is regarded as a special type of being.
But, special being as he is, I have never heard anyone from a Northwestern tribe suggest that Bigfoot is anything other than a physical being, living in the same physical dimensions as humans and other animals. He eats, he sleeps, he poops, he cares for his family members. However, among many Indians elsewhere in North America as widely separated at the Hopi, the Sioux, the Iroquois, and the Northern Athabascan Bigfoot is seen more as a sort of supernatural or spirit being, whose appearance to humans is always meant to convey some kind of message.
The Lakota, or western Sioux, call Bigfoot Chiye-tanka (Chiha-tanka in Dakota or eastern Sioux); "chiye" means "elder brother" and "tanka" means "great" or "big".
In English, though, the Sioux usually call him "the big man". In his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, (Viking, 1980), a non-fiction account of the events dramatized by the excellent recent movie Thunderheart, author Peter Mathiessen recorded some comments about Bigfoot made by traditional Sioux people and some members of other Indian nations. Joe Flying By, a Hunkpapa Lakota, told Mathiessen, "I think the Big Man is a kind of husband of Unk-ksa, the earth, who is wise in the way of anything with its own natural wisdom. Sometimes we say that this One is a kind of reptile from the ancient times who can take a big hairy form; I also think he can change into a coyote. Some of the people who saw him did not respect what they were seeing, and they are already gone."
"There is your Big man standing there, ever waiting, ever present, like the coming of a new day," Oglala Lakota Medicine Man Pete Catches told Mathiessen. "He is both spirit and real being, but he can also glide through the forest, like a moose with big antlers, as though the trees weren't there... I know him as my brother... I want him to touch me, just a touch, a blessing, something I could bring home to my sons and grandchildren, that I was there, that I approached him, and he touched me."
Ray Owen, son of a Dakota spiritual leader from Prairie Island Reservation in Minnesota, told a reporter from (the) Red Wing (Minnesota) Republican Eagle, "They exist in another dimension from us, but can appear in this dimension whenever they have a reason to. See, it's like there are many levels, many dimensions. When ur time in this one is finished, we move on to the next, but the Big Man can go between. The Big Man comes from God. He's our big brother, kind of looks out for us. Two years ago, we were going downhill, really self-destructive. We needed a sign to put us back on track, and that's why the Big Man appeared".
Ralph Gray Wolf, a visiting Athapaskan Indian from Alaska, told the reporter, "In our way of beliefs, they make appearances at troubled times", to help troubled Indian communities "get more in tune with Mother Earth". Bigfoot brings "signs or messages that there is. a need to change, a need to cleanse," (Minn. news article, "Giant Footprint Signals a Time to Seek Change," July 23,1988).
Mathiessen reported similar views among the Turtle Mountain Ojibway in North Dakota, that Bigfoot whom they call Rugaru "appears in symptoms of danger or psychic disruption to the community. When I read this, I wondered if it contradicted my hypothesis that the Ojibways had identified Bigfoot with Windago, the sinister cannibal-giant of their legends (see Track Record #14); I had surmised that because I had never heard of any other names for, or references to Bigfoot in Ojibway culture, even though there must have been sightings in woodlands around the Great Lakes, and indeed sightings in that region have been reported by non-Indians. But the Turtle Mountain band is one of the few Ojibway bands to have moved much farther west than most of their nation; and Rugaru is not a native Ojibway word. Nor does it come from the languages of neighboring Indian peoples. However, it has a striking sound similarity to the French word for werewolf, loup-garou, and there is quite a bit of French influence among the Turtle Mountain Ojibway. (French-Canadian trappers and missionaries were the first whites that they dealt with extensively, and many tribal members today bear French surnames), so it doesn't seem far-fetched that the Turtle Mountain Ojibway picked up the French name for hairy human-like being, while at the same time taking on their neighbors positive, reverent, attitude toward Bigfoot. After all, the Plains Cree even though they retain a memory of their eastern cousins tradition of the Wetiko (as the Windigo is called in Cree) have seemed similarly to take on the western tribes view of Bigfoot as they moved west.
The Hopi elders say that the increasing appearances of Bigfoot are not only a message or warning to the individuals or communities to whom he appears, but to humankind at large. As Mathiessen puts it, they see Bigfoot as "a messenger who appears in evil times as a warning from the Creator that man's disrespect for His sacred instructions has upset the harmony and balance of existence." To the Hopi, the "big hairy man" is just one form that the messenger can take.
The Iroquois (Six Nations Confederacy) of the Northeast although they live in close proximity to the eastern Algonkian tribes with their Windigo legends view Bigfoot much in the same way the Hopi do, as a messenger from the Creator trying to warn humans to change their ways or face disaster. However, mentioned among Iroquois much more often than Bigfoot are the "little people" who are said to inhabit the Adirondacks Mountains. I never heard any first-hand stories among the Iroqouis about encounters with these "little people" for that matter, I never heard and first-hand stories in that region about Bigfoot, either but the Iroquois pass down stories about hunters who occasionally saw small human-like beings in the Adirondacks (which are not all that far from the Catskills, where Rip Van Winkle was alleged to have met some little bowlers) (and slept for 100 years -HF). Some present-day Iroquois assert that the "little people" are still there, just not seen as ofen because the Iroquois don't spend as much time hunting up in the mountains as they used to. Many Iroquois seem to regard both Bigfoot and the "little people" as spiritual or interdimensional beings who can enter or leave our physical dimension as they please, and choose to whom they present themselves, always for a reason.
Stories about small, humanoids who inhabit wild places are found in many areas of the world, especially Europe. (The Kiowa tell a story about several young men who decide to go exploring south from their Texas home for many days, seeing many new things, until they came to a strange forest [obviously the jungles of southern Mexico] whose trees were home to small, furred humanoids with tails! This they found to be too weird, so they immediately headed back for home). I never thought to connect the stories about the "little people" with the Sasquatch until Ray Crowe brought up the possible connection. After all, if there may be large relatives of humans living in remote areas, would it be so impossible for there to be small ones? Details that stretch credibility, such as pots of gold, pointed and belled caps, games of ninepins, etc., could conceivably be embellishments added over generations to some genuine accounts of sightings.
Throughout Native North America, Bigfoot is seen as a kind of "brother" to humans. Even among those eastern Algonkian tribes to whom Bigfoot represents the incarnation of the Windigo the human who is transformed into a cannibalistic monster by tasting human flesh in time of starvation his fearsomeness comes from his very closeness to humans. The Windigo is the embodiment of the hidden, terrifying temptation within them to turn to eating other humans when no other food is to be had. He was still their "elder brother", but a brother who represented a human potential they feared. As such, the Windigo's appearance was sort of a constant warning to them, a reminder that a community whose members turn to eating each other is doomed much more surely than a community that simply has no food. So the figure of the Windigo is not so far removed from the figure of the "messenger" coming to warn humankind of impending disaster if it doesn't cease its destruction of nature.
The existence of Bigfoot is taken for granted throughout Native North America, and so are his powerful psychic abilities. I can't count the number of times that I have heard elder Indian people say that Bigfoot knows when humans are searching for him and that he chooses when and to whom to make an appearance, and that his psychic powers account for his ability to elude the white man's efforts to capture him or hunt him down. In Indian culture, the entire natural world the animals, the plants, the rivers, the stars is seen as a family. And Bigfoot is seen as one of our close relatives, the "great elder brother"