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Wanderings of an Artist: Paul Kane and the “Scookum” of Mount Saint Helens

According to Merriam-Webster online, the word skookum is a noun derived from early Chinook Jargon, an all-but-extinct American indigenous language that first came to use as a pidgin trade language in parts of the Pacific Northwest. It has a number of meanings, although perhaps the most prevalent among them are “strong,” “brave,” or “powerful.”

Skookum has other meanings too, which include “monstrous,” or even “evil spirit.” Similar derivatives appear in other indigenous dialects throughout the region, such as the Chehalis word skukm, which possesses similar meaning.

Perhap the word’s earliest appearances in print occurred in 1859, in writer and artist Paul Kane’s renowned work, Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America: from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territory and back again. Arguably Kane’s magnum opus, it has been referred to as, “likely among the best books anyone will read who is interested in Native culture and general life in the early wilderness.”

Kane grew up in Toronto, Canada, where he taught himself painting during his youth. Encouraged by his early successes, as a young man he began to travel, first visiting Europe and following in the footsteps of his many heroes of portraiture, often engaging in the time-honored method of imitation of the great European artists in order to further hone his skills.

A self-portrait by Kane from the middle 1800s.

Returning from overseas, between 1845 and 1848 Kane turned his focus toward the lands west of his home, gaining support for his journey from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which took him first to Sault Set. Marie, and eventually all the way past the great Rockies and on to Vancouver.

Over the course of his journeys, Kane painted the rugged Canadian landscapes and, more often, the First Nations people who lived there, ultimately becoming recognized for his many contributions to our modern knowledge of the region and its peoples at that time. 

During the course of his travels, Kane also wrote of visiting what he called the “Haunted Volcano” of Mount Saint Helens. On a journal entry dated March 25, 1847, Kane writes, “I started from the Fort for Vancouver’s Island in a small wooden canoe, with a couple of Indians, and encamped at the mouth of the Walhlamette.”

Kane’s depiction of Mount Saint Helens erupting at night.

The following day, he stopped to sketch the distant volcano, although he lamented not being able to get closer to the area, due to the “superstitions” of his native company. Kane gives the following record of the occasion:

“March 26th — When we arrived at the mouth of the Kattlepoutal River, twenty-six miles from Fort Vancouver, I stopped to make a sketch of the volcano, Mount St. Helen’s, distant, I suppose, about thirty or forty miles. This mountain has never been visited by either Whites or Indians; the latter assert that it is inhabited by a race of beings of a different species, who are cannibals, and whom they hold in great dread; they also say that there is a lake at its base with a very extraordinary kind of fish in it, with a head more resembling that of a bear than any other animal.”

“These superstitions are taken from the statement of a man who, they say, went to the mountain with another, and escaped the fate of his companion,” Kane wrote. This man, according to his guide, “was eaten by the ‘Skoocooms’,” which he refers to as “evil genii.” Here, there is a bit of confusion with the terminology, for at other places in the text, Kane more explicitly references a supernatural “Evil Genius” to whom the Chinook attributed their bad luck:

“Amongst the Chinooks I have never heard any traditions as to their former origin, although such traditions are common amongst those on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. They do not believe in any future state of punishment, although in this world they suppose themselves exposed to the malicious designs of the scoocoom or evil genius, to whom they attribute all their misfortunes and ill luck.”

Generally, Kane appears to interpret the “Scookoom” he is told of by the Chinook as being a kind of evil spirit, and one which the indigenous residents certainly believed to exist around Mount Saint Helens. During his visit to the within site of the mountain, he further mentioned that he “offered a considerable bribe to any Indian who would accompany me in its exploration, but could not find one hardy enough to venture. It is of very great height, and being eternally covered with snow, is seen at a great distance.”

Like many early accounts from surveyors, frontiersmen, and others who would travel into these regions and learn about the traditions among the Indigenous Americans, Kane’s account appears to present another early record of what is known today as the Sasquatch, and notably, what is perhaps the earliest appearance of its regional variant, commonly known today as “Scookum,” to ever appear in print.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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