The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



Hoolool of the Totem Pole

A Story of the North Pacific Coast.


    THE upcoast people called her “Hoolool,” which means “The Mouse” in the Chinook tongue. For was she not silent as the small, grey creature that depended on its own bright eyes and busy little feet to secure a living?
    The fishermen and prospectors had almost forgotten the time when she had not lived alone with her little son, “Tenas,” for although Big Joe, her husband, had been dead but four years, time travels slowly north of Queen Charlotte Sound, and four years on the “Upper Coast” drag themselves more leisurely than twelve at the mouth of the Fraser River. Big Joe had left her with but three precious possession—“Tenas,” their boy, the warm, roomy firwood house of the thrifty Pacific Coast Indian build, and the great Totem Pole that loomed outside at its north-western corner like a guardian of her welfare and the undeniable hallmark of their child’s honorable ancestry and unblemished lineage.
    After Big Joe died Hoolool would have been anchorless without that Totem Pole. Its extraordinary carving, its crude but clever coloring, its massed figures of animals, birds and humans, all designed and carved out of the solid trunk of a single tree, meant a thousand times more to her than it did to the travelers who, in their great “Klondike rush,” thronged the decks of the northern-bound steamboats; than it did even to those curio-hunters who despoil the Indian lodges of their ancient wares, leaving their white man’s coin in lieu of old silver bracelets and rare carvings in black slate or finely-woven cedar-root baskets. [Page 81]
    Many times was she offered money for it, but Hoolool would merely shake her head, and, with a half smile, turn away, giving no reason for her refusal.
    “The woman is like a mouse,” those would-be purchasers would say, so “Hoolool” she became, even to her little son, who called her the quaint word as a white child would call its mother a pet name; and she in turn called the little boy “Tenas,” which means “Youngness”—the young spring, the young day, the young moon—and he was all these blessed things to her. But all the old-timers knew well why she would never part with the Totem Pole.
    “No use to coax her,” they would tell the curio-hunters. “It is to her what your family crest is to you. Would you sell your crest?”
    So year after year the greedy-eyed collectors would go away empty-handed, their coin in their pockets, and Hoolool’s silent refusal in their memories.
    Yet how terribly she really needed their money she alone knew. To be sure, she had her own firewood in the forest that crept almost to her door, and in good seasons the salmon fishing was a great help. She caught and smoked and dried this precious food, stowing it away for use through the long winter months; but life was a continual struggle, and Tenas was yet too young to help her in the battle.
    Sometimes when the silver coins were very, very scarce, when her shoulders ached with the cold, and her lips longed for tea and her mouth for bread, when the smoked salmon revolted her, and her thin garments grew thinner, she would go out and stand gazing at the Totem Pole, and think of the great pile of coin that the last “collector” had offered for it—a pile of coin that would fill all her needs until Tenas was old enough to help her, to take his father’s place at the hunting, the fishing, and above all, in the logging camps up the coast.
    “I would sell it to-day if they came,” she would murmur. [Page 82] “I would not be strong enough to refuse, to say no.”
    Then Tenas, knowing her desperate thoughts, would slip, mouse-like, beside her and say:
    “Hoolool, you are looking with love on our great Totem Pole—with love, as you always do. It means that I shall be a great man some day, does it not, Hoolool?”
    Then the treachery of her thoughts would roll across her heart like a crushing weight, and she knew that no thirst for tea, no hunger for flour-bread, no shivering in thin garments, would ever drive her to part with it. For the grotesque, carven thing was the very birthright of her boy. Every figure, hewn with infinite patience by his sire’s, his grandsire’s, his great-grandsire’s, hands meant the very history from which sprang the source of red blood in his young veins, the birth of each generation, its deeds of valor, its achievements, its honors, its undeniable right to the family name.
    Should Tenas grow to youth, manhood, old age, and have no Totem Pole to point to as a credential of being the honorable son of a long line of honorable sons? Never! She would suffer in silence, like the little grey, hungry Hoolool that scampered across the bare floors of her firwood shack in the chill night hours, but her boy must have his birthright. And so the great pole stood unmoved, baring its grinning figures to the storms, the suns, the grey rains of the Pacific Coast, but by its very presence it was keeping these tempests from entering the heart of the lonely woman at its feet.
    It was the year that spring came unusually early, weeks earlier than the oldest Indian recalled its ever having come before. March brought the wild geese honking northward, and great flocks of snow-white swans came daily out of the southern horizon to sail overhead and lose themselves along the Upper Coast, for it was mating and nesting time, and the heat of the south had driven them early from its broad lagoons. [Page 83]
    Every evening Tenas would roll himself in his blanket bed, while he chatted about the migrating birds, and longed for the time when he would be a great hunter, able to shoot the game as they flitted southward with their large families in September.
    “Then, Hoolool, we will have something better to eat than the smoked salmon,” he would say.
    “Yes, little loved one,” she would reply, “and you are growing so fast, so big, that the time will not be long now before you can hunt down the wild birds for your Hoolool to eat, eh, Little Spring Eyes? But now you must go to sleep; perhaps you will dream of the great flocks of the fat, young, gray geese you are to get us for food.”
    “I’ll tell you if I do; I’ll tell you in the morning if I dream of the little geese,” he would reply, his voice trailing away into dreamland as his eyes blinked themselves to sleep.
    “Hoolool, I did dream last night,” he told her one early April day, when he awoke dewy-eyed and bird-like from a long night’s rest. “But it was not of the bands of gray geese; it was of our great Totem Pole.”
    “Did it speak to you in your dreams, little April Eyes?” she asked, playfully.
    “No-o,” he hesistated, “it did not really speak, but it showed me something strange. Do you think it will come true, Hoolool?” His dark, questioning eyes were pathetic in appeal. He did want it to come true.
    “Tell your Hoolool,” she replied indulgently, “and perhaps she can decide if the dream will come true.”
    “You know how I longed to dream of the great flocks of young geese flying southward in September,” he said, longingly, his little thin elbows propped each on one of her knees, his small, dark chin in his hands, his wonderful eyes shadowy with the fairy dreams of childhood. “But the flocks I saw were not flying gray geese, that make such fat eating, but around the foot of our Totem Pole I saw flocks and flocks of little tenas Totem Poles, hundreds [Page 84] of them. They were not half as high as I am. They were just baby ones you could take in your hand, Hoolool. Could you take my knife the trader gave me and make me one just like our big one? Only make it little, young—oh, very tenas—that I can carry it about with me. I’ll paint it. Will you make me one, Hoolool?
    The woman sat still, a peculiar stillness that came of half fear, half unutterable relief, and wholly of inspiration. Then she caught up the boy, and her arms clung about him as if they would never release him.
    “I know little of the white man’s God,” she murmured, “except that He is good, but I know that the Great Tyee (god) of the West is surely good. One of them has sent you this dream, my little April Eyes.”
    “Perhaps the Great Tyee and the white man’s God are the same,” the child said, innocent of expressing a wonderful truth. “You have two names—‘Marna’ (mother, in the Chinook) and ‘Hoolool’—yet you are the same. Maybe it’s that way with the two Great Tyees, the white man’s and ours. But why should they send me dreams of flocks of baby Totem Poles?”
    “Because Hoolool will make you one to-day, and then flocks and flocks of tenas poles for the men with the silver coins. I cannot sell them our great one, but I can make many small ones like it. Oh! they will buy the little totems, and the great one will stand as the pride of your manhood and the honor of your old age.” Her voice rang with the hope of the future, the confidence of years of difficulty overcome.
    Before many hours had passed, she and the child had scoured the nearby edges of the forest for woods that were dried, seasoned, and yet solid. They had carried armfuls back to the fir shack, and the work of carving had begun. The woman sat by the fire hour after hour—the fire that burned in primitive fashion in the centre of the shack, stoveless and hearthless, its ascending smoke curling up through an aperture in the roof, its red flames [Page 85] flickering and fading, leaping and lighting the work that even her unaccustomed fingers developed with wonderful accuracy in miniature of the Totem Pole at the northwest corner outside. By nightfall it was completed, and by the fitful firelight Tenas painted and stained its huddled figures in the black, orange, crimson and green that tribal custom made law. The warmth of the burning cedar knots dried the paints and pigments, until their acrid fragrance filled the little room, and the child’s eyelids drooped sleepily, and in a delightful happiness he once more snuggled into his blanket bed, the baby Totem Pole hugged to his little heart. But his mother sat far into the night, her busy fingers at work on the realization of her child’s dream. She was determined to fashion his dream-flock of “young” totems which would bring to them both more of fat eating than many bands of gray geese flying southward. The night wore on, and she left her task only to rebuild the fire and to cover with an extra blanket the little form of her sleeping boy. Finally she, too, slept, but briefly, for daybreak found her again at her quaint occupation, and the following nightfall brought no change. A week drifted by, and one morning, far down the Sound, the whistle of a coming steamer startled both boy and woman into brisk action. The little flock of Totem Poles now numbered nine, and hastily gathering them together in one of her cherished cedar-root baskets, she clasped the child’s hand, and they made their way to the landing-stage.
    When she returned an hour later, he basket was empty, and her kerchief filled with silver coins.
    On the deck of the steamer one of the ship’s officers was talking to a little group of delighted tourists who were comparing their miniature purchases with the giant Totem Pole in the distance.
    “You are lucky,” said the officer. “I know people who have tried for years to buy the big Pole from her, but it was always ‘No’ with her—just a shake of her head, [Page 86] and you might as well try to buy the moon. It’s for that little boy of hers she’s keeping it, though she could have sold it for hundreds of good dollars twenty times over.”
    That all happened eleven years ago, and last summer when I journeyed far north of Queen Charlotte Sound, as the steamer reached a certain landing I saw a giant Totem Pole with a well-built frame house at its base. It was standing considerably away from the shore, but its newness was apparent, for on its roof, busily engaged at shingling, was an agile Indian youth of some seventeen years.
    “That youngster built that house all by himself,” volunteered one of the ship’s officers at my elbow. “He is a born carpenter, and gets all the work he can do. He has supported his mother in comfort for two years, and he isn’t full grown yet.”
    “Who is he?” I asked, with keen interest.
    “His name is Tenas,” replied the officer. “His mother is a splendid woman. ‘Hoolool,’ they call her. She is quite the best carver of Totem Poles on the North Coast.” [Page 87]