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Storyteller gives life to Nooksack stories

HEATHER MEADOWS, Wash. – It’s a sunny and clear day at Heather Meadows, in the shadow of 10,781-foot Mount Baker, and the meadow seems alive. The heather is fragrant. Deer tracks are visible in fields of blueberries and huckleberries. Glacier-fed creeks sing a rushing song as they flow to alpine lakes.

It’s an appropriate backdrop for Tammy Cooper-Woodrich’s presentation, as she gives voice to the Nooksack people’s multi-millennial connection to the mountain they call Koma Kulshan, its wilderness and the river that bears the people’s name.

“It’s a strong and vibrant place that attracts people from all over the world,” she said.

Cooper-Woodrich, a Nooksack storyteller, shared traditional stories and songs Aug. 26 at Mount Baker’s Heather Meadows Visitor Center.

She was dressed in a traditional cedar hat and a cedar cape made from the same tree. Her expressive face and sense of humor made the stories compelling, as did the timeless lessons contained therein – the importance of behaving properly, of being honest and sharing, of respecting others’ property.

Cooper-Woodrich is a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Stillaguamish Tribe and served on the Nooksack tribal council. She became a storyteller in 1985 and travels throughout Washington state, sharing traditional stories and songs.

Cooper-Woodrich sang a welcome song in the Nooksack language. She then told stories.

The first was about two sisters who wandered into the forest. The younger sister warned they shouldn’t go on because there were no adults with them, but the older sister said she knew the way. The girls became lost.

After a time, the girls found a house and knocked on the door. They were invited in by an old woman, who was knitting by the fire. The woman fed them and invited them to stay the night; she knew where they lived and would take them home in the morning.

The lady had two sons – Mink, who liked to bathe and groom himself, and Skunk, who angered easily and made a smell when angry.

Skunk fell in love with the girls, who fled while he napped. Skunk awakened and pursued them. He saw them hiding in the river and dove in but he couldn’t find them. He exhausted himself looking for the girls and laid down on the river bank to rest. When he looked up, he saw the girls hiding in a tree. The girls climbed down and ran home, leaving Skunk at the river.

“That’s why there are so many skunks along the river today,” Cooper-Woodrich said.

Cooper-Woodrich showed her drum to the audience; the surface was painted with a depiction of Cooper-Woodrich, surrounded by animals and telling stories to a child. On her knee is a skunk. She said the woman who made the drum had never met her and “didn’t know I told skunk stories.”

The second story was about a time Raven visited his sister. When he arrived, she was embarrassed because all she had to give him was some fish and water. She placed her cape over a beautiful basket she had made. When she sang a song and waved her drum over it, the basket was filled with salmonberries. The sister told Raven to take the berries home to his children, her nieces and nephews.

But Raven ate the berries before he got home. He gave his children the basket their aunt made but he didn’t tell them about the berries.

Then one day the sister visited Raven. After a time, he felt bad that he didn’t have more food to offer his sister. He got his drum, sang her song and waved his drum over her empty basket. But the basket remained empty. He tried again, but to no avail. Raven felt ashamed.

Raven’s sister sang her song and waved her drum over the basket, and the basket was again filled with salmonberries.

The lesson: You shouldn’t take something that belongs to someone else – in this case, a song.

Among Northwest Coast Native people, intellectual property – such as dances, songs and other artistic gifts – are inherited and are part of an individual’s wealth.

The third story was about some children who didn’t listen. A group of children went down to play at the river, although they had been told by the adults not to go. They played until dark and a little girl got cold, so a boy made a fire.

As the little girl warmed herself near the fire, she heard a sound. She cried out to the others that it was the Basket Woman, who lives in the woods and snatches up misbehaving children. The others said, “That’s just a story the elders told us. It was probably a skunk.”

This scene replayed a couple of times. Then, a nine-foot woman jumped out of the woods. She was hairy, smelly and carried a basket on her back. She grabbed all the children and put them in her basket and prepared to cook them at the fire.

The children used rocks they had in their pockets to rub a hole in the bottom of the cedar basket and escape. They rushed the Basket Woman and pushed her into the fire. The sparks from the fire turned into mosquitoes.

“The mosquitoes are still on the river today, biting people,” Cooper-Woodrich said.

Cooper-Woodrich closed with the Coast Salish anthem handed down by the late Chief Dan George, to whom she is related.

Cooper-Woodrich said many Nooksack stories were kept alive by Pamela Amos and Paul Fetzer, two anthropologists who interviewed Nooksack elders and recorded the stories in the 1940s and ’50s.

Here, in the shadow of Koma Kulshan – where ancestors fished for chinook, coho and chum salmon, hunted mountain goat for meat and pelts, gathered berries in alpine meadows and cultivated plants – the Nooksack stories were heard again.

<i>Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at