The Gonakadet:
Mother-In-Law Trouble

Next to "Raven," the most popular subject for totem pole art was the Gonakadet. Known also to the Haidas as "Wasgo," this monster is generally depicted as an aquatic wolf with some aspects of the killer whale. One story about it relates that it had a head like a "house," but whether this referred to shape or to its size is no longer known.

There are many Gonakadet stories but the most popular one concerns a high-born young man who was having mother-in-law trouble. Being the wife of a chief and used to having her own way, she seems to have despised him because she could not dominate him as she would have liked to and especially was she irked by his gambling. After each meal she would order every bit of food put out of sight so that there would be nothing left when he came home. Then she would order the slaves to put out the fire so that he could not cook anything for himself. When the gambler would come into the community house long after dark, the woman could remark, sarcastically, "My fine son-in-law has been cutting wood for me." A similar remark would be flung at him at every opportunity.

Although the young man had a kind and loving wife he found that he could not endure her mother's constant nagging forever. At some distance back of the village there was a lake in which the monster Gonakadet was reputed to dwell. Here at the lakeside he built himself a small cedar cabin where he lived alone. But he was not idle since it was his intention to try to trap the monster. First he felled a tall cedar tree into the lake and carefully stripped it of its branches. Then with fire-hardened hardwood wedges and stone maul he split the log nearly to the butt. Next he inserted long crosspieces, which sprung the two halves wide apart and held them there at great tension.

When summer came and the villagers left for the fishing grounds the young man went with them and caught many salmon. These he took to his cabin and with them baited his trap. By letting the bright red salmon down into the water on a line, the Gonakadet was finally lured into the space between the sprung tree-halves whereupon he knocked out the trigger and the monster was trapped. For hours it thrashed about, at times dragging the tree completely under water but eventually it gave up the struggle and died.

Now the young man removed the Gonakadet from the trap, skinned it and carefully dried the skin. When it was cured he got into the hide and went into the water. As he had hoped, dressed in the skin, he had all the powers of the Gonakadet itself. He explored the lake bottom, finding there a beautiful house, which had been the home of Gonakadet.

The secret of his good fortune he kept from everybody but his wife and she was charged to reveal it to no one.

The following spring found all the people's dried salmon used up and the village was faced with the prospects of famine. Then the young man put on his Gonakadet skin and swam in the sea every night. Only his wife knew of his whereabouts and to her only he revealed the supernatural aspect of his gift. "I will be back each morning before the raven calls," he said, "but if the raven calls before I return, do not look for me, for I shall be dead in this life."

That night he caught a salmon and before the raven called he brought it to the village and laid it on the sand in front of his mother-in-law's house. Rising early next morning this woman spied the salmon and concluded that it had drifted there with the tide. According to custom, all the village was invited to partake of it.

The following night the young man caught two salmon and left them in the same place. When the mother-in-law found these she was overjoyed and wondered what it was that was bringing her this good fortune. "It must be a spirit," she thought.

The son-in-law now slept during the day, being tired from swimming in search of salmon all night. His mother-in-law would berate him soundly, saying, "Imagine men sleeping all day when there is a famine. If it were not for me going around picking up dead fish the whole village would starve!" His wife, however, knew who was providing the salmon.

The next morning the woman found a halibut before her door, and sensing a rhythm in the strange happenings predicted two halibut would be there on the morrow. The young man, hearing her prediction, fulfilled it by catching two halibut. Then she told her husband, the chief, to forbid anyone to go on the beach until she had gone first, giving as her reason that "she had had a vision." Of course she wished only to make sure that she should get full credit for everything that was found. Then she predicted that she would find a seal and, as she had foretold, a seal was there in the morning. The hair was singed off, the skin scrubbed white and the seal cooked whole for the benefit of the community.

People now began to regard her as a great shaman and she did everything in her power to encourage such belief. She ordered a claw headdress made, such as shamans wear, and a rattle and an apron decorated with puffin's beaks, and a mask, which she named "Food-Finding Spirit." She continually talked about "her spirits" and sang songs about their power. High caste people paid much attention to her and praised her spirits. Popularity made her still more cruel to her son-in-law and she now spoke of him derisively as the "Sleeping Man."

As time went on she called successively for two seals, one sea lion, two sea lions, one whale. Now she was selling food to the villagers and had so much stored away in boxes that the people were awed by her great wealth.

Each night the task had been getting greater for the young man and he had barely gotten in with the whale before the raven called. To his wife he cautioned, "Do not take any of that food unless she offers it." And then he added, "If I am found dead in this skin, put me along with the skin in the place where I used to hide it, and you will get help."

Then the day came when the pseudo-shaman called for two whales. The young man caught them, but to bring them in exceeded the strength even of the Gonakadet. All night long he struggled to get them ashore but just as he reached the beach the raven called and he fell dead, instantly.

The mother-in-law went out as usual and found the two whales with a strange monster lying dead between them. All the villagers came down to see it. It had claws like copper and a big head with long upright ears. Two great fins stood up on its back and it had a long curling tail. The simple villagers thought it must be one of the shaman woman's spirits.

Just then they heard someone crying and upon looking in that direction saw the chief's daughter approaching, weeping bitterly. "Why does the chief's daughter call that monster her husband?" they asked each other.

When the girl reached the shore she turned on her mother angrily, saying, "Where are your spirits now? You lied! You said you had spirits when you actually had none. That is why this happened to my husband."

Everyone in the village was now crowded about. "Mother, is this your Food-Finding Spirit? Why did your spirit die? Real Spirits never die. If this is your spirit bring it to life again."

Then the girl requested the help of someone who was spiritually clean and they opened the monster's mouth revealing the body of her husband. "He must have been killed by that monster," said the villagers.

When the young woman and her helpers went to the lake to deposit the body according to the dead man's instructions they saw the trap and the tools he had made it with and then for the first time they knew the truth. All the village went there to see for themselves and to pay their respects to the man who had saved them from starving. That is, all but the mother-in-law, for her shame was more that she could bear and she died in convulsions, bloody froth coming from her mouth.

Every evening thereafter the bereaved young lady went to the tree containing her husband's body and wept. But one evening she perceived a ripple on the waters of the lake and then she saw the Gonakadet rise. Speaking in her husband's voice it called her to it. Then it said, "Get on my back and hold tight." She did so and down beneath the waters it plunged.

They still live there beneath the surface in a beautiful house and their numerous children are known as the "Daughters of the Creek." They reside at the head of every stream and to see them or either of their spirit parents will surely bring one good luck.