A story of Gonakadet and mother-in-law trouble

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

On p. 70 of Keithahn's Monuments in Cedar, there is a photograph of a petroglyph of Gonakadet carrying a whale. Keithahn believes this to be the earliest representation of the monster.

Often it is assumed that "Old Witch" and "Gonakadet" are synonyms. However, this is probably not the case, as the subtitle of the story, "a story of mother-in-law trouble," makes somewhat clear. There are many Gonakadet or Sea-Wolf stories. In another, told in David Wisnieski's The Wave of the Sea-Wolf, the Sea-Wolf rescues a Tlingit princess. The Sea-Wolf is male in some tales, female in others.

In the story told by the Old Witch pole in the State Office Building, a high-born young man has difficulties with his pompous mother-in-law, the bad-humored wife of a chief. She deprives him of light and food and makes his life miserable with nagging.

Behind the village is a lake in which the monster Gonakadet lives. The young man lures the monster into a trap where it dies. He hopes that wearing its skin will give him supernatural powers.

The following spring the village suffers from famine. The young man dons his Gonakadet skin and goes fishing. He catches a salmon and leaves it in front of his mother-in-law's house. In the morning she assumes it is a gift of the tide, and she shares it with the villagers. The next morning, there are two salmon. The young man grows so tired from fishing that he sleeps all day, while his mother-in-law lets fly with even nastier nagging.

Next morning there is a halibut. By now the mother-in-law sees a pattern, and predicts two halibut on the following day. Then one seal. Then two seals. The well-fed villagers begin to believe she is a great shaman, and she starts to dress like one. She grows even crueler to her son-in-law. Eventually the mother-in-law predicts two whales. The young man produces them, but he has used up all his strength as well as his supernatural strength to do so. He lies dead on the beach between the two whales. His grieving wife reveals his secret, and the credulous villagers then realize that the mother-in-law - the Old Witch - has lied about her powers.

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