(Adapted by Dorthea Calverley from The Beaver Men, by Mari Sandoy)
The beaver is perhaps the world’s most orderly and responsible creature . . . Plainly the beaver was adaptable. Herbivorous (plant eating) without defense of hoof, horn, tusk or shell and without speed or guile, the beaver in America managed to remain practically unchanged, except in size, from the castoroides of the early Pleistocene until long after the glacial ice was forgotten. He lived at the same time as the greatest land animals of the earth’s history: the giant wide-horned bison, the mastodon and mammoth, the great ground sloth, the saber tooth tiger, and an early form of the condor.
Castoroides was a giant of his time too, leaving his remains from central Newfoundland to California and from Alaska to Florida and Texas. A part of a leg-bone discovered near the Arctic Circle; an almost complete skeleton of a miniature one in Indiana, and a front tooth eleven and a half inches long in Ohio.
Only the population explosion of early man following the retreat of the ice endangered the much smaller post-glacial beaver. Although laws were passed in the 16th century to protect it, the European beaver became almost extinct except in far north Scandinavia and Siberia.
In America early man lived in a friendly relationship with the beaver, so that millions of them still lived when the Europeans came. Folk tales of the giant beaver still abounded in many tribes; the story of the creation of the land masses of the earth being attributed to the creature diving into the waters that covered the earth, and bringing up some mud which grew into the land.
The folk-tale told by Charlie Yahey, last modern-day prophet of our Beaver Indians tells a different story:
Nahata was the Creator and Beaver and Muskrat were made first of all the animals. To form the earth, he told Beaver to dive first, but Beaver drowned. When he came to the surface, his front paws were curled under his tummy; that is why even today when we kill a beaver, his paws curl like that.
Muskrat was then ordered to go. Twice he dived, and at the end of the second dive, after a long, long time, he just made it back to the surface. “In his hand, his small hand he had held a little dirt . . . Nahata took the earth, threw it up in the air, and it came down and made all the world. This tribe called itself ‘tsa-tine,’ “people of the beaver.” Yahey added that “Nahata went on making everything good, everything man can eat, moose, caribou, bear, beaver, rabbit. Man started making things too, but he made everything wrong, everything wrong, everything that eats man [including] the giant beaver . . .” Evidently in their tribal mythology the giant beaver, castoroides, was carnivorous and man-eating.
The early explorers wrote and printed tales of the beavers more fantastic and incredible than any told by the Indian. Being gullible, the Europeans swallowed the tall tales told by the Indians, who were probably highly amused at the white man’s silly belief in the “science fiction” of the day. Or perhaps the white man, as he does today, simply concocted tall tales to sell his books.
The startling fact remains that there were giants beavers, as their fossil remains show. By word of mouth, with no writing and no books, tribal memories of animals long since extinct can persist into the twentieth century and are retold by Indian elders in the Peace River County today.