Black Cat and the Sable

The translation of the following tale of Pogump, or Black Cat and the Sable, was given me by Mrs. W. Wallace Brown. 1 The original was told into the phonograph in Passamaquoddy by Peter Selmore, in the presence of Noel Josephs. A bark picture of Pookjinsquess leaving the island, representing the gulls, and Black Cat on the back of the Snail, was made by Josephs. A copy of this picture is given at the end of this paper.

Mrs. Brown tells me there is a story which accounts for the hump on the back of Pookjinsquess, as follows: While leaning against a tree, some one cut off the tree above and below her shoulders, and she consequently carries the hump on her back.

Cooloo, the great bird that overspreads all with his wings, was a chief. His wife was named Pookjinsquess. The Sable and the Black Cat went in a stone canoe to a place where they make maple sugar. In this journey they were lost, and separated from each other. Sable in his wanderings came to a peculiarly shaped wigwam. He went in and found within a large Snake. The Snake said he was glad the Sable had come, as he was very hungry. The Snake told him to go into the woods and get a straight stick, so that when he pierced him he would not tear open his entrails. Sable then went out and sang in a loud voice a song which he hoped his brother the Black Cat would hear and come to his aid. 2 The Black Cat heard him and came to him. Then the Sable told the Black Cat the trouble he was in, and how the Snake was going to kill him. The Black Cat told Sable not to be afraid, but that he would kill the big Snake. He told him that he would lie down behind the trunk of a hemlock tree which had fallen, and that Sable should search out a stick that was very crooked, obeying the commands of the big Snake. When he had found a stick, he should carry it to the Snake, who would complain that the stick was not straight enough. The Black Cat instructed Sable to reply that he would straighten it in the fire, holding it there until the steam came out of the end. 3 While the Snake was watching the process of straightening the stick and the exit of the steam, Black Cat told Sable that he should strike the Snake over the head. The Sable sought out the most crooked stick he could find, and then returned to the wigwam where the Snake was. The Snake said the stick was too crooked. The Sable replied, “I can straighten it,” and held it in the fire. 4 When it was hot he struck the Snake on the head and blinded him. 5 The Snake then followed the Sable, and, as he passed over the hemlock trunk, Black Cat killed him, and they cut him in small fragments. Black Cat and Sable called all the animals and birds to the feast; the caribous, wild horses, and swift animals and birds were first to arrive at the feast. The Turtle was the last, and got only the blood. Then the Black Cat and Sable returned home to Cooloo, whose wife was Pookjinsquess. She thought she would like to have for her husband Black Cat if she could get rid of Cooloo. But Black Cat offended Pookjinsquess and made her angry. To make way with him she invited him to go with her for gulls’ eggs. She took him across the water in a canoe to an island which was very distant. There they filled baskets with eggs and started home in the canoe. A large, very beautiful bird flew over them. They both shot their arrows at it. The bird fell, and Black Cat jumped into the water to get what they had shot. When he got to where the bird fell he could not find it. Pookjinsquess went off, singing as she went the following song, which has been written out from the phonographic record by Mr. Cheney, and left Black Cat on the island.


I think there are internal evidences of the antiquity of this song, although the English sentence, “Wait for me,” shows the modern character of certain of the words. This sentence seems to supply the place of unknown Indian words. Several Indians assured me that the song was old. According to Leland, Pookjinsquess sang the following words when she left Black Cat:

Niked ha Pogump min nekuk
Netsnil sagamawin!
Which he translates,
I have left the Black Cat on an island;
I shall be the chief of the Fishers now.
The best I can make out of the phonographic record given me by Peter Selmore of the words which she sang is,-
Er tin le ber nits nah o o o o.
Wait for me.
Nick ne ar ber yer hay ey.

The second line sounds like the English “Wait for me,” but is not distinct. The end of the first line is violently explosive. The third line ends in a word expressive of strong feeling, possibly revenge.

In a version of this story by Leland, Pookjinsquess leaves Black Cat on the island, and paddles away, singing songs. In his story, Black Cat was carried off from the island by the Fox, who swam out to get him.

Black Cat called to the gulls to defile Pookjinsquess with their dung. They flew over her, and as she looked up they covered her face with bird-lime. 6 They then burst out in a laugh, which they still have, when they saw how changed her face was.

Black Cat wandered about the island, until at last he found a wigwam of the grandfather, the “Morning Star,” who told him he was on a very dangerous island. He told him it was the habit of the Great Beaver to destroy every one who came to the island. 7

He told the Black Cat to climb a tree, and when he needed help to call out for him. Night coming on, water began to rise about the base of the tree, and the Giant Beaver came and began to gnaw at its base. The friendly ants 8 tried to keep the tree upright, but the water continued to rise and the Beaver kept on gnawing. Then the Black Cat in his sore dilemma called out, “Grandpa, come!” The grandfather responded, “I am coming; wait till I get my moccasins.” The water rose higher. Again Black Cat called out, “Come, grandpa, come!” “I am coming,” his grandfather said; “wait till I get my cap.” Again Black Cat called, “Hurry, grandpa!” “Wait until I get my pipe,” said the grandparent. But the waters had reached him. The tree swayed to and fro. “Come, grandpa, come!” said Black Cat for the last time. Then he said, “I am coming; wait till I open my door;” and then he opened the door of his wigwam and the Morning Star came forth, the water began to recede, and the Beaver swam away. 9 Then Black Cat’s grandfather told him to come down, and he would send him over the water to the other shore on the back of the Wewillemuck. Black Cat thought that Wewillemuck was too small to carry him over, but his grandfather told him to seat himself between his horns, and when he wished Wewillemuck 10 to go faster he should tap him on the horns. The grandfather then gave his grandson a small bow and arrows, and put him on the snail’s back between his horns.

As they were crossing the channel, Wewillemuck said to the Black Cat, “When we get near shore tell me.” But Black Cat gave Wewillemuck a sharp rap on the horns, and the snail jumped forward and went so far that both went a far distance inland. Wewillemuck said, “Why did you not tell me we were near the land? Now I cannot get back to the water again.” But Black Cat took his small bow and arrows, and with them carried Wewillemuck back to the water. So pleased was he that he said, “Scrape from my horns some fine dust, and, whatever you wish, put this powder upon it and it is yours.” So Black Cat scraped off some powder from the horns of Wewillemuck.

The Raven was told to build a wigwam for Cooloo, who was chief. Pogump (Black Cat) went to see the chief, and killed him with the powder. Black Cat went to see Pookjinsquess; he scattered a ring of powder around her wigwam, and then set it on fire. It blazed up and ignited the wigwam, burning up the old woman Pookjinsquess; whose ashes, blown about by the winds, made the mosquitoes. 11

Leland, in his version of this story, represents the Black Cat as identical with Glooscap, 12 and the Sable as a boy who had a flute by which he could entice to himself all the animals. The story of the sticks is similar, but the cutting up of the serpent is not mentioned. He says that Black Cat, who is preparing his arrows, and will return and destroy all, is Glooscap, who in another story kills the Snake, cuts him in fragments, and invites all the animals to eat him. The Turtle, the grandfather (adopted), arrives last, and only gets the blood for his share.

Fewkes, J. Walter. Contribution to Passamaquoddy Folklore: Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition. Reprinted From The Journal Of American Folk-Lore, October-December, 1890.

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  1. The version gives only the incidents as remembered, and can hardly be called a translation.[]
  2. Probably Sable had a m’ toulin, or magic power, and his song was heard by Black Cat, although miles away beyond hills and mountains.[]
  3. Evidently to excite the curiosity of the Snake.[]
  4. The fire was outside the wigwam, and the Snake put his head out of the wigwam, when he was struck. Possibly the Snake watched the process of straightening the stick through curiosity, and was off his guard.[]
  5. In another story which was told me, Glooscap turned the eyes of the Snake white in the following manner:
    “Once on a time Glooscap was cooking something in his wigwam, and the Snake wished to see what it was. So the Snake crawled up the outside of the wigwam and looked down through the smoke-hole into the cooking vessel. But Glooscap, who was stirring the pot of cooking food, held in his hand a great ladle. He noticed the Snake peering in at the smoke-hole, and, filling the bowl of the ladle full of the hot food, threw it into the eyes of the Snake. From that time the eyes of the Snake have been white.”[]
  6. According to the narrator, the bird that did this was a very large one. Possibly it was Cooloo, the offended husband of Pookjinsquess.[]
  7. Quahbet, or the Giant Beaver, was not on the best of terms with Black Cat, for Glooscap had slain many of the beavers, whose bones still exist, and are of giant size. This hatred probably arose, says Leland, from the time when Quahbeetsis, the son of the Beaver, inspired Malsumsis to kill Glooscap.[]
  8. The ants assisted Black Cat in many ways. They were also friendly to Leux, and on one occasion are said to have gathered the bones and fragments of the “Merry God” together and restored his life. Whether in the present instance they tried to keep the tree upright by piling the earth about its trunk or not, the narrator does not say.[]
  9. Possibly the gnawing of the Beaver is the ripple of the waves around the base of the tree.[]
  10. Mrs. Brown has identified Wewillemuck as the snail. Some of the Indians say that it is a large lizard like an alligator. The bark picture of this creature, made by Noel Josephs, is that of a nondescript difficult to identify.[]
  11. In this manner he obtains his revenge. Dr. Boas tells me he has heard a similar story of the origin of the mosquitoes on the West Coast.[]
  12. Mrs. Brown writes me that the Black Cat referred to is not identical with Glooscap. “There were very many of these mythological personages,” she says, “who were able to do things as wonderful as Glooscap, but they were not of his nature. He worked for good, they for selfish purposes.”
    Mr. Leland’s work exhibits throughout want of exactness in recording just what the Indians told him. It is in deductions and explanations that error is liable to arise. A story made up from the recital of several Indians is likely to exhibit their attempts to explain doubtful parts of the story.[]

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