Land-otter The Indian
: The Strange Story Book
On the North-West part of America, and especially near the sea, a great
many tribes of Indians are still living, each with its peculiar customs
and interesting stories handed down from one generation to another. The
story which I am going to tell you now is a tale of the Tlingit tribe
and is about 'Land-otter,' as the Indians called him, whose parents
lived on the coast of Alaska.
* * *
That year the crop of maize had failed all through the country, and the
people took their boats and went out to catch halibut, so that they
might not die of starvation. Among them was a certain man and his wife
who made a little house for themselves just out of reach of the high
tides, and fished harder than any of the rest; but the halibut seemed as
scarce as the maize, and the one or two fish that they caught in a week
hardly kept them alive. Then the wife used to go to the beach at low
water and look for crabs or shrimps among the pools in the rocks, but
even so they grew thinner and thinner.
One night the husband came home with only one small halibut in his big
fishing-basket. They were both very hungry and could have eaten ten
times as many, but there was no good thinking of that, and the woman put
part of the halibut in the pot which stood on the fire, and hung the
rest of it outside in a shed.
'At least, there shall be something for breakfast to-morrow,' said she.
But when to-morrow came a strange noise was heard in the shed where the
fish was lying, as if someone was throwing things about.
'What is that?' asked the wife. 'Go and see who has got into the
shed.' So the man went, and beheld, to his surprise, two large
devil-fish on the floor.
'How did they come up from the beach?' thought he. 'But however they
managed it, they will be very useful,' and he hurried back to his wife
and said to her:
'We are in luck! There are two devil-fish in the shed; Whoever brought
them, it was very kind of him, and now we have such good bait we will go
out in the morning and catch some halibut.' His face as he spoke was
filled with joy, but the woman's grew pale and she sat down rather
'Do you know who brought them here?' she said at last? 'It was our son;
it is a year to-day since he was drowned, and he knows how poor we are,
so he has taken pity on us. I will listen at night, and if I hear anyone
whistle I will call him; for I know it is he.'
At dawn they got up and baited their lines with the devil-fish, and this
time they caught two halibut. As soon as it grew dark and they could see
no longer, they rowed back and pulled up their boat, and the woman went
inside and threw one of the halibut into the pot. At that moment she
heard a whistle behind the house, and her heart beat wildly.
'Come in, my son,' she said. 'We have longed for you these many months.
Fear nothing; no one is here except your father and I.' But nobody
entered; only the whistle was repeated. Then the man rose and flung open
the door and cried:
'Come in, come in, my son! You have guessed how poor we are and have
sought to help us,' and though neither the man nor his wife saw the son
enter, they felt he was somehow sitting opposite at the fire, with his
hands over his face.
'Is it you, my son?' they both asked at once, for they could not see.
Again he whistled in answer, and the three sat in silence till midnight
when the young man made some sounds as if he would speak.
'Is that you, my son?' asked the father again, and the son replied:
'Yes,' and made a sign, pointing outside the door, where more devil-fish
'In the morning we will go out,' he said in a strange voice, as if
speaking was difficult to him, and his mother gave him a pillow and some
blankets and he slept by the fire.
* * * * *
It was still dark when he took his father by the feet and shook him,
saying 'Get up, it is time to fish,' so they fetched the line and
dragged the canoe to the water's edge. When they were seated the son
took a paddle, and he pulled so hard that they had reached the feeding
grounds of the halibut in only a few minutes. After that he baited the
hooks and fastened the end of the line to the seat.
'Put the blanket over you,' he said, turning to his father, 'and be
careful not to watch me.' But the father did watch him through a hole
in the blanket, and this is what he saw.
The son got up very gently so that the boat should not move, and,
plunging into the sea, put the largest halibut he could find on the
hooks. When no more were to be had, he returned into the canoe and shook
it; his father perceiving this, stretched out his arms drowsily and
inquired if they had had any luck.
'Pull in the lines and see,' answered the son, and as they pulled, one
big halibut after another met their eyes. The canoe was soon full, and
they paddled home again.
On the way back the young man who was standing at the bow with a spear
in his hand threw it at a seal, which he dragged on board the boat, and
killed it with a blow from his fist. But as soon as they touched the
shore he looked at the sky and exclaimed that if he did not make haste
the raven might cry before he could reach a shelter, and ran off up to
* * * * *
It took the father and mother all day to take out the halibut and cut
them in pieces and salt them, so that they should always have something
to eat. Darkness came on before they had finished, and in the evening
their son was with them again. Then the father took some of the raw
halibut and set it before him, first cutting it into small mouthfuls.
He knew that drowned men did not like cooked food, and also that they
did not like being watched. So he signed to his wife to say nothing when
the son turned his back, and began to eat very fast, for he was hungry.
In this manner things went on for a whole week, and then his parents
begged him not to go back to the woods to sleep, but to stay with them,
which he did gladly. And every day before it was light, he woke his
father and they went off to fish together, and each time the canoe came
back full, so that at length they had great stores of food laid up in
At first, as we know, he was only a voice; then he would not let them
see his face, but little by little his body grew plain to them and his
features distinct, and they noticed that his hair had grown long and
reached his waist. At first, too, he could only whistle, but now he
could talk freely, and always was ready to help either his father or his
mother, and she used to go with them in the boat whenever she had time,
for she loved the fishing. Very soon, no longer fearing starvation, they
packed up their store of food and placed it in the canoe and pushed off,
for they were going back to Silka where they lived with their tribe. And
as they drew near the landing-place, the woman beheld the shadow of her
son's hands paddling, and wondered to herself, for his hands she could
'What is the matter with my son?' she asked her husband at last. 'I can
only see his shadow,' and she rose to find out if he was asleep or had
fallen into the water. But he was not in the boat, neither was there any
trace of him. Only the blanket, which had been across his knees,
remained in the bottom.
So they rowed on to Silka.
[From Tlingit Myths and Texts, recorded by JOHN R.
SWANTON, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American
Ethnology. Bulletin 39.]