By Velma Walis
Sasquatch, or something like it, appears in the legends of the northern Athabascan Gwich’in people as Na’in, the brushman. Is he a myth, a monster or a lonely man?
The Na’in was held in fear and admiration, although none could swear he ever actually saw one. If someone dared say they did, people laughed, yet some believed.
It is said that the Na’in, also called Brushmen, were men who were ostracized from the group for disobeying tribal rules.
The rules of the wandering Gwich’in bands were simple and stern, because survival was their main concern. The rules helped the people survive their harsh environment, but they also were social requirements meant to keep peace.
Some men, and occasionally women, did not abide by the rules, so the band leaders would ask the person to leave.
The condemned person usually tried to prove he could survive without the group. But isolation taught otherwise.
Physically, survival was possible. Emotionally, the human raved companionship. The rejected person would find himself slipping into the guise of a Na’in. He would hover behind bushes spying on people. If he became lonely he tried to kidnap a woman, and sometimes succeeded. Others saw brushmen as nonhuman, but with human appearances and magical powers.
For instance, the brushman possesses the ability to use mind power to lull you to sleep and then steal your loved one. Even after contact with Western culture, the Gwich’in people believe the brushman to exist. In the late 1800s an infant was said to have been stolen by a Na’in and later returned. Although the Na’in was feared, he also was romanticized.
As a teenager, my mother often wished she were stolen by a Na’in. My husband told of a time when he hunted above the mountainous Chandalar country and a large, dark an dressed in skins appeared from the woods and knelt down to drink water from a stream. Jeffrey called out to him, wanting to believe he was just another hunter.
The startled man looked up and then ran away. Jeffrey told others, and they laughed, for what was the typical response to anyone who said they saw a Na’in.
Despite people’s skepticism, not long ago a sensible couple traveling down the Porcupine River spotted a man walking alongside the beach.
When he heard their motor, the man disappeared into the willows. The couple searched the area but found only moccasin tracks.
Later that fall, in Fort Yukon, meat and fish that hung on drying racks were missing. People said it couldn’t have been dogs because there would have been tracks, and camp robbers (gray jays, blue jays and Stellar Jays) always leave a mess.
Again, even in modern times, the myth of the brushman sends excitement through the heart of small Alaska communities.
Perhaps the spirits of those long ostracized and rebellious individuals still do roam the land, searching for food and companionship.
© Alaska magazine, Sept. 1998, Vol. 64, No. 7.
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