Kushtaka: Half Man/Half Otter

Native legends are amazing vehicles to carry truths. What the Native People encountered, they incorporated into their legends to be passed down by generations to remember real events, real places, and real encounters, sometimes to teach important lesson for survival. 

The Native Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska tell a legend of a creature called the Kushtaka (koosh-tah-KAH). Let's examine this very unsettling and interesting creature of legend and lore and see if perhaps they were trying to archive something they encountered.

The Kushtaka are described as being half man/half otter. 

(LINK) The Kushtaka has been treated in some literature as a boogeyman or hobgoblin. This is inaccurate and does not honor how seriously the Tlingit feel the threat of the Land Otter People. In a sense, the Kushtaka deprived the victim of everlasting life, for his soul could not be reincarnated. The Land Otter lurked to “save”, that is, to capture, those who drowned or who became lost in the woods. The unfortunate captives were taken by the Land Otter People to their homes or dens and, unless rescued by a shaman, were themselves turned into Land Otters. Kushtaka often appeared in the form of relatives or friends to confuse the victim. Dogs were protection against Land Otter People, for not only were the animals afraid of dogs, but the dog’s barking forced the Land Otter People to reveal themselves. Small children were thought to be the most in danger of being captures by the Land Otter People and were warned not to wander off from parents or to venture away from home alone (Pelton and DiGennaro, 1992, p20).

Many refer to Kushtaka as being a shapeshifter, also a sort of a Bigfoot. 

Interestingly, when I was a kid, I had a relative on a mountain in West Virginia who left food on a tree stump by the woods. I asked her why she was leaving food near the forest and she said it was for the "white bear man." I asked her who that was and she said very simply, "he walks like a man, looks like a bear." I remember as a kid thinking it was a wild person in the woods and boy he must be hairy! 

But, on looking back, I realize we tend to use whatever animals are familiar to us. To the tribes in Alaska, something with a certain-shaped face and hair-covered body might be part man/part otter. To Marco Polo in Siberia, coming upon a tribe of hairy men, he referred to them as a dog-faced tribe. 

(LINKThe great explorer Marco Polo mentions Cynocephali indirectly while describing his travels to the island of Angamanian: "Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race."

Kushtaka legend has all the markings of a local people interpreting a very strange type of man to the best of their ability to reference them in comparison to the man they know and the animals they encounter. It is yet another fantastic First Nation's account of unusual beings within the forests....


  1. Want to know more, Sharon? Check this out!



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