Alaska is one of the last remaining untamed wilderness areas in the world. It is extremely cold, very remote, and the sun doesn't always shine. It's no wonder that they call it the "Land of the Midnight Sun." The Tlingit and the Tsimshian have called this cold, beautiful country their home for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Here, they have lived by hunting, fishing, and foraging for food in the snowy forests and the freezing rivers. However, each time they go out to hunt or to forage for food, they have to be wary, armed, and on their guard, for Alaska is said to be home to a variety of terrifying monsters. Sasquatch, the Adlet, Thunderbirds, the Amarok, and even the notorious Sheepsquatch call this country home. But among the most sinister and the most dangerous of these monsters is a shapeshifting beast that is said to be half man and half otter. The Tlingit know this creature as the Kushtaka, the Otterman.
According to Tlingit legend, the Kushtaka (pronounced koosh-tuh-kuh) is a mythological shapeshifting beast that is said to be half man, half otter, and wholly monstrous. Loosely translated, the word kushtaka (or Kooshdakhaa) means "land otter man." This creature is believed to inhabit the hundreds of lakes, rivers, and ponds that lie scattered throughout the Alaskan landscape. The Kushtaka is thought to be especially prevalent in the temperate forests of Southeastern Alaska. In its native habitat, it can be assumed that this creature feeds on fish and mollusks like its animal kin, although it may be more than willing to devour the flesh of its victims if it feels so inclined.
Because the Kushtaka is a shapeshifter, pinning down exactly what the creature looks like is somewhat difficult. Most descriptions say that the Otterman is exactly that: half man and half otter. It is said to be bipedal and stands at around the height of a man, at around six to eight feet tall. The creature is covered in sleek, dark brown or black fur, having the hands of a man with taloned fingers, humanlike feet, a long tail, large glowing eyes, and a mouthful of needlelike teeth. Others say that the Kushtaka looks more or less like a Sasquatch, although there seems to be enough differences between these monsters for them to be two entirely different creatures. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as "Alaska's Other Bigfoot." When the Kushtaka has assumed another form, however, it becomes much more difficult to identify. It is said that the only thing that can differentiate the Kushtaka in another form (like that of a person) from the real deal is that its teeth never change, remaining long and very sharp.
The native peoples of Alaska are wary of the Kushtaka and the waters that it calls home to the point of paranoia, for the monster's cruelty and sinister nature seem to have no bounds. In other words, it is considered to be both malicious and very evil. The beast is said to be as intelligent as any human, and is more cunning. The Kushtaka is known for being able to eerily mimic the sound of a crying baby and the screams of a woman, and it uses these sounds to entice people into the forest or to the water's edge. Once the monster's prey is close enough, it tears them into pieces with its claws and teeth. Either that, or it will turn the victim into another Kushtaka. It will also lure sailors further away from the shoreline to their demise, much like the Siren in Greek mythology. The creature preys mostly on small children, as a child's innate curiosity makes it fairly easy to lure them in close enough to where the Kushtaka can reach them. On a more frightening note, the Kushtaka is said to abduct human babies as well, tying in with European tales of faeries and changelings. If the creature keeps the baby for long enough, the infant will eventually become a Kushtaka itself. Additionally, the Otterman is also known to emit a high-pitched three-part whistle, which consists of a low whistle, a high whistle, and another low whistle. Presumably this serves to entice any potential victims into coming closer, but it could also serve as a means of communication with others of its kind. And according to some legends, one should never speak the Kushtaka's name, especially three times in a row. This is said to summon forth the monster, and is very likely to make the Otterman very angry.
Paradoxically, there are instances of the Kushtaka behaving kindly or in an otherwise benevolent manner towards people. In some stories, the Otterman is portrayed as saving people from drowning or freezing to death by turning the person into another Kushtaka. It does this by creating illusions of the person's family and friends to distract them while the Kushtaka transforms them into one of its own. Strangely enough, these illusions are somewhat otterlike in appearance (which would alert any human with knowledge of such things). Exactly how the Otterman is able to transform people into more of its kind is unknown, but it undoubtedly involves magic. This sudden change allows the person to survive the extreme cold of the Alaskan rivers and seas, but this is viewed as being a decidedly mixed blessing at best. On one hand, they are gifted with supernatural powers that no human has. On the other hand, however, that person, now a shapeshifting beast, will never again be able to resume their lives as humans among their families and friends. Perhaps the Kushtaka, like people, varies in regards to temperament and personality from one individual to another. It is said that there is an entire race of these creatures, after all. But it would seem that the stories of the evil Kushtaka far outweigh any others.
The Kushtaka has a variety of supernatural abilities at its disposal. One of them, as already mentioned, is shapeshifting. The creature is said to be able to assume any form or guise that it pleases, and its most common form, of course, is that of an otter. Some say that it may become any species of otter (like a sea otter or a river otter), while others believe that it is limited to only one. The Kushtaka is also said to be able to take on human form and walk amongst humans if it so desires. Although most sources aren't very specific, it can be reasonably assumed that the monster is capable of assuming any form that it desires. Some say that it is able to take on the appearance of one's family, close friends, or even someone who has recently died!
In addition to its shapeshifting powers, the Kushtaka is possessed of supernatural strength, speed and agility in the water, and endurance. The creature is able to create illusions that enable it to deceive its victims and entice them into coming close enough for the Kushtaka to strike. It is able to appear and disappear at will, communicate telepathically, and it can (allegedly) manipulate time and space. The creature is able to survive in freezing conditions that would kill a person outright, and it can hold its breath underwater for long periods, although exactly how long is unknown. And finally, it is able to turn humans into others of its kind, a concept that is absolutely terrifying to the Tlingit. This is because the Tlingit believe that, in order to achieve reincarnation and eternal life after they die, they have to be human. Not only this, but their souls have to be intact as well. Being transformed into a Kushtaka deprives the victim of both of these things, and the transformation will last forever unless a shaman can be found who can rescue the victim. And not only that, but the shaman has to be powerful enough in the ways of magic and the spirits to reverse the transformation and change the victim back into a human. It might be reasonable to assume that medicine men with such powers are few and far between in the twenty-first century.
As dangerous and powerful as the Kushtaka is, it does have a few weaknesses. The creature both fears and despises dogs, and it is said that the animal's barking can force the Kushtaka to reveal its true form. That being said, it is also possible that dog bones can be used as weapons against the Otterman. A dagger carved from dog bone might be able to kill the creature, although this is purely speculation. But it must be emphasized that the bone should be taken from an animal that has already passed away from natural causes, as anything else is both immoral and unethical. In one way or another, dogs are not only faithful friends, but they are also willing to protect their human friends from the Kushtaka's evil. According to legend, the Kushtaka may be kept at bay with copper, human urine, and in some stories, fire. No reasons are given as to why these things hold sway over the Otterman. Theoretically, a copper blade may be able to wound or even kill the Kushtaka. It is also said that the monster doesn't like iron and steel. Shamanic magic could be used defensively against the creature and might be able to ward the monster off, although finding a shaman in this day and age who has the necessary power to do so would be a task in and of itself.
There are a great many stories and folktales that tell of the Kushtaka, and some of these stories may actually be true. One of the better-known of these stories is that of gold prospector Harry Colp and his three companions (their names are not given). In 1900, Colp and his associates set about exploring the Patterson Glacier north of Thomas Bay, in what was called "The Devil's Country" by locals. This place was known locally as "The Bay of Death" to the Tlingit, who recalled a horrible tragedy that took place there over one hundred and fifty years earlier. In 1750, an enormous landslide killed five hundred innocent villagers, and this incident was attributed to the evil of the Kushtaka. It is said that the village shaman broke his covenant with the monster, effectively sealing the fates of his people. Mr. Colp later returned with a disturbing story that he later wrote down. The manuscript itself wasn't discovered until after Colp's death by his daughter. She called it "The Strangest Story Ever Told."
Early in the morning one day, Harry Colp left his home, bringing his rifle along for the adventure. He came to a ridge, where he noticed some grouse frolicking about. Raising his rifle, Colp shot three of the birds. While on his way to pick up the third, he found a large piece of quartz. He hadn't been looking around much at the surrounding terrain, but he knew that it was densely wooded and full of brush. He noted that "the formation didn't show up," but he couldn't uncover the ledge without any tools. Fortunately, a snag had broken off and fallen to the ground, scraping off the moss and loose soil and leaving an area some eight feet wide and eighteen to twenty feet long. The entire ledge was made of quartz!
Colp noted that the ledge had been worked smooth by a passing glacier at some point in the distant past. Knowing that where there was quartz there might be gold, he searched for a rock or something to break a piece off of the ledge with. He couldn't find anything, so he used the stock of his rifle to get a piece of the quartz, and he actually broke the stock in the process (it always pays to carry a hammer). He wasn't too worried about it at the time, as there weren't any animals that he'd seen in the area larger than the grouse that he'd shot earlier that day. He admired the richness of the quartz, and he immediately thought of heading back to town and gathering up his associates so that they could begin their work. He'd made a rich find, and he concealed the ledge "with moss, limbs, and rotten chunk."
Colp began to think, pondering if he should climb the ridge that was standing directly over the quartz ledge to find some landmarks in order to guide himself back to that particular spot, or at least tell his companions where the ledge was in case something happened to him. He then decided that this was the best course of action, "climbing straight up over the ledge on the ridge" until he reached the top, some six hundred feet above the quartz ledge. Looking down below, he scouted out a tree that was taller than the rest and which had a thick, leafy canopy. It was fifty feet to the right of the ledge, and he gazed over the top of the tree. From where he was standing, Colp "could see out on Frederick Sound, Cape of the Straight Light, the point of Vanderput Spit; and turning to the left a little, I could see Sukhoi Island from the mouth of Wrangell Narrows." Colp turned halfway around to get a view of the mountain peaks, and below him on the other side of the ridge "was the half-moon lake the Indian had told me about." What Mr. Colp didn't know was that he was about to encounter something that would scare the wits out of him...
"Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God that I never see or go through the likes of it again." Colp found himself confronted by a mob of "the most hideous creatures." Colp described them, saying that "I couldn't call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys, yet looked like both." These creatures appeared to be genderless, "their bodies covered with long course hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it." The creatures had their arms extended, trying to get ahold of him. He reported that "the air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint."
Momentarily forgetting about the broken stock on his rifle, he tried firing on the first creatures that came towards him. When that didn't work, he threw his rifle at them, turned around, and ran for his life! "God, how I did run!" Colp could feel the creatures breathing on the back of his neck, and the creatures slashed at his back with their long, clawlike fingernails. The stench of the creatures made him nauseous, and their yelling and screaming was driving him out of his mind! According to Colp's account, at this point his powers of reasoning left him. What happened next is unclear, as Colp himself had no recollection.
When Mr. Colp came around, he recorded that "I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukhoi Island, cold, hungry, and crazy for a drink of water." What was even stranger was that he was still holding on to that chunk of quartz! At this point, he made for the town of Wrangell. There, he recounted his terrifying encounter with the horde of hairy, stinking beasts, saying "You no doubt think I am either crazy or lying. All I can say is, there is the quartz. Never let me hear the name of Thomas Bay again, and for God's sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat!"
What did Harry Colp encounter on that fateful day? Could it truly have been a horde of Kushtaka that had attacked him? It is most certainly possible. One has to remember that the Kushtaka is a shapeshifting trickster, and it may be capable of assuming any form that it desires. Secondly, the Kushtaka isn't just the name of one monster: it's an entire race of creatures. But why would a group of Kushtaka take on the forms of a band of marauding Sasquatches, especially ones with stinking, oozing sores on their bodies? Perhaps it was just a group of Sasquatch with mange or some type of skin disease, but the possibility that these creatures may have been Kushtakas should not be ruled out.
Tlingit folklore and oral traditions do not have much to say when it comes to how to kill this monster. The Kushtaka is said to be impervious to bullets, thus leaving firearms out of the equation. The best way to find out how to dispatch one of these creatures is to speak to the native peoples of Alaska and see what they have to say. As mentioned previously, the Kushtaka fears and hates dogs. A dog, if large enough and having enough strength, might be able to kill the Otterman. It would be a bloody, violent struggle in which the Kushtaka might emerge victorious, due to its superior strength and perhaps its ability to shapeshift. Either that, or both the dog and the monster may sustain mortal wounds in their battle.
There may yet be other ways to kill the Kushtaka. It was mentioned earlier that the monster may be kept at bay with copper, human urine, and fire. Exactly why the Otterman fears human urine is currently unknown at this time (possibly because of the smell), but it might be a good idea (albeit a disgusting one) to bottle some of one's own pee, just in case of an emergency. Why the Kushtaka is afraid of copper is another mystery. Copper was one of the very first metals to be utilized by modern humans for tools and weapons (with gold and silver being reserved for decoration and jewelry). It is soft and easily shaped by hammering, readily taking on useful forms that can be refined by rubbing on an abrasive stone saturated with water. It can be rather easily cast and hammered into cutting tools or weapons. Copper also work-hardens as it is hammered, making it stronger and better able to hold an edge. Perhaps it is this primitive connection with mankind's past that gives the metal power over the Kushtaka. It may be reasonable to suggest that the monster can be severely wounded or even killed by a copper blade, especially if the blade pierces the heart. The only disadvantage of a copper blade is that it isn't very rigid and will bend very easily if used for hard cutting or thrusting strokes. A copper weapon will also not hold a sharp edge for very long, and thus its use is limited by the metal's lack of resilience.
Another thing that may be utilized against the Kushtaka are the bones of a dog. Given the creature's hatred of the canine species, it is hardly surprising that, even in death, the dog may still be able to save those that it loved in life from the evil of the Kushtaka. If carved into a dagger, or mounted onto a wooden pole as a spear, it may prove to be extremely effective. But to kill the Kushtaka, it would have to pierce the heart (or possibly the brain). This is purely theoretical, however, and may not even work. It's the same with a copper blade, and while copper is harder than bone, the metal's softness limits its usefulness to two or three strikes before it bends and deforms to the point of being useless.
There are two other methods that may work against the Kushtaka: decapitation and fire. A steel blade should be used for this (copper makes for poor cutting weapons), and while not everyone can afford or knows how to use a sword, a machete is a great alternative. That is, assuming one is able to get close enough to the Otterman to do the deed without being torn to pieces in the process. After the creature is dead, its bodily remains should be burned to cinders immediately to prevent the creature from possibly regenerating and taking revenge upon its would-be killers. And rest assured that the Kushtaka's revenge will be both bloody and excruciatingly painful.
Despite the fact that the Tlingit and the Tsimshian are now living in the twenty-first century, they cling to the old ways and still very much believe in the existence of the Kushtaka. They are somewhat reluctant to speak of the creature with outsiders, fearful of the monster's wrath and the white man's skepticism. Little is actually known about this creature, and some of the information above is pure speculation from a learned man's point of view. But native Alaskans are slowly beginning to open up to outsiders about their beliefs and traditions, especially the younger generations. Some of the native people claim to have actually encountered a creature that they believe is the Kushtaka, and they want answers.
In the end, the Kushtaka remains one of the most fascinating creatures in Native American folklore. The Kushtaka is an extremely dangerous foe, however, and one can never be entirely sure if the person standing next to him is human, or if it is a shapeshifting otter-monster in disguise. Precautionary measures should always be taken whenever possible in case the worst should happen. When it comes to monsters, one cannot afford to make any mistakes. One moment of bad judgment could cost an innocent bystander his or her life, and protecting others from the things that lurk in the darkness should always be a monster hunter's top priority.
The credit for the artwork seen above goes to my good friend Andy Paciorek, a renowned artist who draws and paints monsters and creatures from folklore and legend. Because there are no accurate pictures of the Kushtaka to be found online, Andy drew this at my request. It's a frighteningly gorgeous piece, and I would encourage all of my readers and followers to check out Andy's work at Strange Lands. Andy has also authored a fantastic book of the same name. I received it for Christmas a few years ago, and I love it!! I asked for it not just for the text and the information inside (which is fairly in-depth), but for the truly frightening artwork provided for each creature. Andy's book, Strange Lands: A Field-Guide to the Celtic Otherworld, can be purchased on blurb.com.
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