They might be GIANTS
Bigfoot exhibit at Washington State History Museum is bound to leave an impression
[singlepic id=120 w=320 h=240 float=left]What is it that makes the Pacific Northwest a little wild, a little woolly – and sometimes downright creepy?
The first time I ever visited Seattle, in 1992, I went into a T-shirt shop to buy souvenirs and struck up a conversation with the salesgirl and another customer, both Puget Sound natives. Being from out of the area, I asked what Washington State was like, and for some reason the conversation drifted to serial killers: The salesgirl, I think, remarked that (at that time) Washington had an estimated higher percentage of them than any of the other 49 states. When I asked why, the other customer cited factors that seemed to conducive to multiple murderers: the rain, the many heavily wooded, unpopulated areas … and the belief that it’s more “socially acceptable” to be a loner in the Northwest than elsewhere.
But I didn’t mean to cast a pall on your day: This blog is not about crime. However, I can’t help but think the above observation helps explain another scary (sort of) Northwest phenomenon: that large, hairy walking cliché we know as Bigfoot, Sasquatch (from a Salishan term for “wild man”) and Skookum (another Salishan term, translated as “mountain giant” or “mountain devil” – although in the Chinook language it can be an adjective with such nice connotations as “big,” “strong,” “dependable” and “hardworking,” like Mr. Clean or Fess Parker, star of the TV series “Davy Crockett”).
It’s easy for us world-weary twenty-first-century Internet travelers to call the Sasquatch stories a lot of bunkum (NOT a Salishan word), although the Indian legends may go back millennia, and reported sightings by white people – starting with fur traders in British Columbia in the 1880s – are certainly reliable if it could ever be proven that the eyewitnesses weren’t drunk and/or lonesome and in need of companionship, if you know what I mean.
Or maybe that’s the key: I note that two of the more prominent Sasquatch Web sites – the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, or BFRO (www.bfro.net), and the Seattle-based Sasquatch Information Society (www.bigfootinfo.org) – both report a preponderance of the nation’s “sightings” having been made in Washington State (most of which involve just footprints, says the Sasquatch Information Society, with the notation “Record has not been validated or is being studied”), and a plurality of those occurring (in descending order) in Skamania, Pierce, King, Snohomish and Lewis counties. In fact, only last August, according to the BFRO, a King County man reported seeing a “large, hair-covered figure while riding on train near the Cascade Tunnel.”
August, of course, was the month that the Washington State Liquor Control Board hiked the price of booze 6.5 percent, so clearly someone got a few shots in before last call. Expect a hell of a lot more sightings once the state legalizes pot.
And yet, goofiness aside, look what happened with Roswell and so many other cockamamie UFO sightings: Those people all insisted they KNEW what they had witnessed, with the conspiracy theorists among them asserting that the government was covering up close encounters of the third kind (not just Jack Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s). Meanwhile, the more cynical among us – including myself, standing uncomfortably alongside conspiracy theorists on the other end of the spectrum – were convinced that there was nothing extraterrestrial about flying saucers. We WERE still fighting the Cold War, weren’t we? No doubt, the Pentagon was up to something – and covering it up, for obvious reasons…
We were ALL right, to a greater or lesser degree: Most of the documented sightings of flying saucers WERE real – they just weren’t alien craft – and the military DID have something under wraps all those years. Turns out, the Nazis had been experimenting with the aeronautical possibilities of flying discs and flying wings for some time. In the spring of 1945, as the Third Reich crashed and burned, U.S. forces captured as many eager German weapons scientists and as much of their research as possible before the Soviets could; then OUR scientists picked up the ball – or the Frisbee, in this case – and ran with it for a few decades. (Behold: the Stealth bomber.)
Getting back to Bigfoot: Did the hunters and trappers and trekkers and picnickers really stumble across the spirits of Native American lore in those dripping Northwest forests – or were they the spirits in a bottle of backwoods hooch, the bugbears of white people with overactive imaginations and too much free time? Were they sightings of true biological missing links – a human subspecies that refused to go extinct – or of some ageing hippies who missed the exit to Olympia and decided to homestead in the woods? And is the correct plural “Bigfeet”?
We may never know for sure, but anyone with a passing interest in huge unidentified bipeds will surely find the new exhibit “Giants in the Mountains: The Search for Sasquatch” at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma (Jan. 23 to June 27) intriguing, entertaining and educational. Taking a broad look at “the Sasquatch phenomenon” (per the museum press release), “Giants in the Mountains” draws on all the various aspects of the subject – the legends, the sightings, the hoaxes and the legitimate scientific research – and includes visuals ranging from Native American artifacts to contemporary artistic depictions to physical evidence collected by the late anthropologist Dr. Grover Krantz and Idaho State University professor/Discovery Channel expert Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum.
I asked “Giants of the Mountains” curator Gwen Perkins, specialist for school and online programs at the Washington State History Museum, about the exhibit:
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AmeriCollector: There was a Sasquatch exhibit at the State Capital Museum in Olympia a couple of years ago. Is this different?
Gwen Perkins: “Giants in the Mountains” is the same exhibit that was at the State Capital Museum. However, we have added new artifacts for the show, due to the increased space in Tacoma. Among some of the new things visitors will see will be more casts from Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, a “tree twist-off” and native masks from the collections of the Washington State Historical Society and the Burke Museum. We were also fortunate to be able to include illustrations by artist Rick Spears, illustrator for “Tales of the Cryptids.”
AC: Do you have a personal historical or anthropological interest in the Sasquatch legends and sightings? Did you volunteer to curate this exhibit?
Gwen: The exhibit itself was actually organized by the Washington State Historical Society, with myself as lead curator.
The idea of doing a Sasquatch exhibit was birthed after I had done a significant amount of research for one of our school programs here, in which a professional actor portrayed Dr. Grover Krantz and allowed students to ask him questions. Not long after that, the State Capital Museum in Olympia was trying to decide on a major exhibit for their museum. Sasquatch was suggested, due to the popularity of that presentation and staff members’ interest in the subject.
The exhibit premiered in Olympia in 2007. It did very well at that museum and so we wanted to bring it to Tacoma in order to give more people a chance to see it, examine what’s on display and draw their own conclusions. We’re all excited to see it back, particularly those of us who were involved in the original exhibit curation and programming. The Sasquatch community is a great group of people: One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this subject is the opportunity to connect with visitors from across the nation.
The exhibit also coincides with another on display called “Icons of Washington History.” After all, what better icon of the Pacific Northwest can you think of than Sasquatch? (That’s my opinion, of course.) But one of the other points of the exhibit that I wanted visitors to understand is how far-reaching stories of Sasquatch really are, not only in terms of place but time as well. So while it’s seen as a regional story to many Washingtonians, the exhibit itself also explains that there have been stories and reported sightings of this being that go back hundreds of years.
AC: Does the exhibit lean toward belief or skepticism, or does it intend to present both sides of the subject and let the visitor decide?
Gwen: The exhibit does not take one point of view or another. We present the story of this being and leave it up to the visitor to draw their own conclusions.
AC: Have there been any recent sightings, and what individuals or agencies keep tabs on these?
Gwen: Sightings of Sasquatch are reported constantly and across the nation. One of the organizations most diligent in tracking these sightings is the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. They have a web site where they track sightings across the nation: As I type this, Washington has had 479 reported incidences since September of 2007. BFRO is just one of a number of groups that shares information. There are several websites and blogs devoted to Sasquatch: Cryptomundo (www.Cryptomundo.com), Bigfoot Times (www.BigfootTimes.net), Oregon Bigfoot (www.OregonBigfoot.com) and North American Bigfoot (www.NorthAmericanBigfoot.blogspot.com), just to name a couple. These groups aren’t all in the Northwest, either: One of the most active is located in Texas – the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservatory (www.TexasBigfoot.org).
AC: What do Native Americans of the Western Washington tribes think of the interest in Sasquatch? Are there any investigators/proponents among them?
Gwen: I think that you will find there is just as much diversity of opinion among the tribes as in any community as to whether or not Sasquatch exists but also as to which form this being takes. I have met some who are out there actively investigating Sasquatch but many more who perceive this being as part of the environment and the natural cycle of life. I have also met Native Americans who were not believers as well.
Decide for yourself. The Washington State History Museum is located at 1911 Pacific Ave., in downtown Tacoma, right off 1-5. Hours are Wed. to Fri. from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (with extended hours and free admission every third Thursday from 2 to 8 p.m.); Sat. and Sun. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults; $7 for seniors (age 60 and above); and $6 for students and military with valid ID. Children (age 5 and below) and members are FREE. For more information, call (888) BE-THERE or visit www.WashingtonHistory.org.
Drawing by Rick Spears/Darby Creek Publishing and are from “Tales of the Cryptids” by Kelly Milner Halls. (Rick Spears)
Images courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, author of Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science