The Kushtaka – or the Kooshdakhaa, as it is also known – is a monstrous, manipulative and sometimes deadly creature that is a staple part of the folklore of two specific groups of Native Americans living predominantly in the state of Alaska, but also in other portions of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their names are the Tsimshian and the Tlingit. The former are known as the “People of the Tides,” while the latter are referred to as being “Inside the Skeena River,” on account of the fact that they once inhabited significant portions of the Skeena River, British Columbia. It is within the teachings of these two tribes of people that we learn of the hideous creatures that provoke mayhem, terror and death throughout the region.
Dennis Waller is one of the leading experts in the field of the Kushtaka. He notes in his 2014 book, In Search of the Kushtaksa, that the word, “Kushtaka,” equates to “Land Otter Man,” which is highly appropriate, taking into consideration that this is precisely how the Kushtaka is described. It is important, however, to note that the creature is not, literally, half-human and half-otter. Rather, it can take on both forms. But things don’t end there: the Kushtaka can also manifest in the shapes of giant wolves – and very often bipedal, upright wolves – and also large, hairy humanoids not at all unlike Bigfoot. In the Bigfoot-seeking community, Waller observes, this has given rise to the thought-provoking theory that the Kushtaka may well be an Alaskan Bigfoot; one which, over time, has been incorporated into Native lore and legend. On the other hand, however, and as Waller also notes, for the Tsimshian and the Tlingit, the creatures are monsters with the power to change form. In that sense, the jury is very much out when it comes to their true identities.
The otter angle is a very intriguing one and is born out of the fact that otters are highly intelligent animals, that they have structured communities and even leaderships, that they are occasional tool-users, and that they even hold each other’s hands. These parallels - between the societies and actions of both otters and humans – amount to one of the key issues that led the Tsimshian and Tlingit people to associate them in very much the same fashion. There is, however, yet another aspect to the otter issue.
Otters are perceived as friendly animals – which, for the most part, they certainly are. But not for the two tribes that fear the Kushtaka. For the tribes-people, the engaging and outward character of the otter is merely a ruse, one which is designed to deceive and manipulate people, and to lure them into situations that range from the stressful to the outright deadly. Notably, tribal history maintains that each and every otter is secretly part-human; something which allows it to jump from form to form as it sees fit.
It is very eye-opening to learn that the Kushtaka has a notable way of luring its human prey into darkened forests, where it can work its evil ways: it mimics the cry of a baby, or that of a young child, in distress. Such similar, cunning activity has been reported in Bigfoot encounters in Texas and Pennsylvania, and also at Bridge 39 on England’s Shropshire Union Canal, the home of a hair-covered monster known as the Man-Monkey. Clearly, there is an undeniable connection here – a connection which is made all the more fascinating by the fact that these stories span not just countries, but even entire continents. This begs an important question: how, centuries ago, and from lands separate by thousands of miles, could such tales proliferate? Coincidence? Doubtful. Far more likely, the people of those widely varied areas and eras encountered extremely similar shapeshifters, ones that utilized the very same supernatural skills, mimicry and powers.
One of the primary activities of the Kushtaka is to steal the soul – or the supernatural essence – of its targeted victim. When someone loses his or her soul it is the responsibility of the tribe’s medicine man – or Shaman - to seek out the specific Kushtaka that made its victim definitively soulless, and then to hopefully wrestle it from the Kushtaka and reunite body and soul into one. The Kushtaka is known for its cunning and callous ability to lure sailors to watery graves, deep below the high seas. Oddly, but also paralleling the tales of shapeshifting fairies, and despite its malignant and dangerous reputation, the Kushtaka is sometimes helpful – even to the extent of saving someone in dire peril. It should be noted, however, that such positive cases are very much few and far between.
Although the vast majority of all reports of the Kushtaka come from the Tlingit and the Tsimshian people, that is not exclusively the case. A particularly spine-tingling story, dating from 1910, came from the late Harry D. Colp. It is cited in Maddy Simpson’s article, “Kushtaka: The Alaskan Half-Otter Half-Man Bigfoot.” Colp was an adventurer and a gold prospector, and someone who firmly believed that he encountered a colony of Kushtaka at Thomas Bay, which is located in the southeastern part of Alaska. It is also known as the “Bay of Death,” as a result of a huge landfall which occurred at the bay in the mid-18th century. Its far more chilling name, however, is “Devil’s Country,” on specific account of the Kushtaka legends and encounters.
According to Colp, as he climbed one particular ridge on the day in question, he developed a sudden sense of being watched. As Colp quickly turned around, he was terrified to see an entire group of horrific-looking monsters carefully and diligently pursuing him. In eye-opening fashion he described them as creatures that appeared to be half-human and half-monkey. He also described them as being sexless, suggesting, in all probability, that he meant no genitalia or breasts were seen. This is not at all surprising, as Colp said that the entire pack was covered by long and thick hair – aside from those areas covered by oozing, infected sores. As the monsters moved closer and closer, howling and screaming in the process, Colp wretched at the foul odor that emanated from their forms – and to the point where he almost passed out. Fortunately, and after hurling his broken rifle at them, Colp managed to outrun his hideous pursuers, ensuring that he did not fall victim to this grisly band of hungry beasts.
There is no doubt at all that the tale of Harry D. Colp has more than a few Bigfoot-themed overtones attached to it: the strange howling, the stinking smell, and the description of the animals appearing to be semi-human and semi-monkey are all part and parcel of what, today, passes for much of Bigfoot lore. Add to that the aforementioned ability of the Kushtaka to imitate the stressed cries of a baby – just as Bigfoot does – and what we have is an undeniable connection. That the Tlingit and the Tsimshian people are firmly of the belief that the Kushtaka is a shapeshifter, however, suggests something potentially mind-blowing: that Bigfoot may well not be the flesh and blood beast that so many cryptozoologists believe it to be. But, that it, too, has the ability to morph into multiple forms – and all of them monstrous.