Several Nuu-chah-nulth stories have been recorded about the arrival of Captain James Cook’s vessels, the first British ships to make landfall on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. One of these accounts mentions that the people from Nootka Sound first thought the ship was an island appearing from under the water, but that as the object grew larger, they then thought it was the work of Haietlik, the lightning snake. They believed that it was this supernatural creature working under the water that was making the ship move so fast. But who, or what, is Haietlik?
In Kwakiutl folklore, recognized for its abundance of gigantic sea-monsters, Haietlik is a massive lightning serpent that is both an ally and a weapon of the thunderbirds –the supernatural beings of power and strength that control the upper world. This serpent is not a winter creature as much as a creature of the cold. Indigenous to the Pacific-Northwest, haietlik are described as huge serpents with heads sharp as a knife and tongues that shoot lightning. Because of its characteristics, thunderbirds were said to use the haietlik essentially as harpoons, explaining why in Nuu-chah-nulth culture the lightning serpent is commonly associated with whaling.
Many Kwakiutl tales describe how the thunderbird launched the haietlik at a whale, causing enough injury for the thunderbird to carry the whale away in its talons without resistance.
The haietlik were also an important element in many Nuu-chah-nulth rituals. When people from two different tribes were to marry, the men of the groom's tribe arrived in the brides village in a haietlik formation -their canoes formed up in a line, moving in a zig-zag pattern around the cove- before landing and distributing blankets as gifts to every member of the bride's tribe. This ritual was emblematic of the nourishment the haietlik provided to the thurnderbirds by aiding them to catch whales.
The haietlik are said to live in the feathers of the thunderbird, but also like to travel under water, making sure the whales can’t stay deep, far from the hunter’s reach.
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-Swords, M. D. (1991). The wasgo or sisiutl: a cryptozoological sea-animal of the Pacific northwest coast of the Americas. J Sci Explor, 5, 85-101.