"Giants in the Mountains: The Search for Sasquatch" does not attempt to prove or disprove the existence of sasquatch, but instead looks at how and why the story is so ingrained in the cultural fabric of the Northwest.
The story of sasquatch certainly goes far beyond the 1987 movie “Harry and the Hendersons” or recent beef jerky TV commercials. It has been told for centuries among Northwest Indian tribes.
That mix of ancient mythology and modern commercialism is the focal point of a sasquatch exhibit that opened Saturday at the Washington State History Museum.
“One of the themes of the exhibit is to look at sasquatch from a perspective that people don’t think about how far-reaching the story is,” said Gwen Perkins, the co-curator on the exhibit. “If you look back into history, this type of story has been reflected in legends and stories all over the world. But this story also has such strong connections to the Northwest.”
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Sasquatch is a word derived from the Salish word “sesqec,” meaning “wild man,” Perkins said. In other parts of the world, the name is Bigfoot, Yeti or Wild Man. Definitions of the names vary from “ape man” to “bad luck spirit” and from “big elder brother” to “evil cannibal spirit.”
The exhibit is built around about 40 significant items, including casts of alleged footprints, ancient stone carving and Indian masks.
One of the key artifacts is a prehistoric stone head borrowed from the Maryhill Museum of Art. The carving was found in the Columbia Basin in the 1890s and is believed to date from 1,500 B.C. to 500 A.D., Perkins said.
“When you see them, they resemble gorillas. There have been at least four of these stone heads,” Perkins said.
There was a lot of debate when they were found, Perkins added, questioning how people at that time would have seen a gorilla-like creature.
“Anthropologists have one belief about it, sasquatch people have their belief about it,” said Susan Rohrer, manager at the State Capital Museum. The head was part of the exhibit when it appeared in Olympia in 2007-08.
“What is the origin of them, why are these stone heads there? It really is a cornerstone of the exhibit,” Rohrer added.
Another part of the exhibit looks at the story of sasquatch in Northwest Indians culture.
“There are easily hundreds of sasquatch legends, particularly here in the Northwest,” Perkins said.
One told frequently by the Nisqually Tribe of Indians is the story of the giant hairy beast Tsiatko, believed to mean nocturnal demon.
“They thought it was huge, with 18-inch feet shaped like a bear’s. One thing that keeps coming up, here and on the east side, sasquatch supposedly has an owl voice,” she said.
The exhibit also includes five Indian masks, four of which are believed to have been made in the 1920s.
Also on display are a number of footprints casts, including items from the collection of Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, a Discovery Channel Bigfoot expert and professor at Idaho State University. There also are casts from the late Dr. Grover Krantz, a noted Bigfoot researcher and anthropologist from Washington State University.
“He was one of the first scientists to come out and say sasquatch exists,” Perkins said of Krantz. “That had a pretty major impact on how people looked at the possibility of this being real.”
Perkins admits not everyone who sees the exhibit will be convinced sasquatch is real. She recalled a letter to the editor written to The Olympian when the exhibit appeared at the State Capital Museum. The letter’s author asked why the museum would not do an exhibit on the tooth fairy if it did one on Bigfoot.
That was the lone dissent, however, said Rohrer, the Olympia museum manager.
“We had huge attendance. We had people fly in from out of state for this exhibit. I had people from Southern California call to see where was the nearest airport to Olympia so they could fly in,” Rohrer said.
Then there was the day Meldrum and Bob Gimlin spoke at the museum. Gimlin is famous for being part of the group that filmed what they claim was a Bigfoot in Northern California in 1967.
“We held two programs that day, but we still must have turned away 200 people,” Rohrer said.
“I never had an exhibit when I had to stand between a speaker and the public so the speaker could go get dinner,” she added. “Meldrum was on the floor of the museum for 12 hours that day, people just wanted to speak to him, show him evidence.”
Gimlin is scheduled to speak at the Tacoma museum in June.
“It’s an exhibit that has a really focused interest group,” Rohrer said. “There are scientists, naturalists, pop culturists, ethnographers, the hobbyists, people who enjoy the unknown. It’s kind of one of the last unknowns, kind of like UFOs.”
“We understand this is a topic that is very strongly under debate. We’re trying to portray a very balanced view,” Perkins said. “In a sense, whether the creature actually exists isn’t as important as the impact it has had on the people who live out here.
“If you come here looking for an exhibit poking fun at people or mocking the story, this is not your exhibit. This is too important to many people, like the tribal communities, the people out there researching sasquatch. We want to present those sides of the story as well as the side about people who are making money off of this.”
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640