It isn’t clear exactly when “Bigfoot” first emerged on the social scene in Cherokee County. I put the term in quotes because, while Bigfoot certainly is a word, the creature it allegedly denotes – a large, smelly, fur-covered beast who roams the woods but is only occasionally sighted – has yet to be demonstrated as actually existent.
Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of people throughout the country – perhaps even the world – who believe Bigfoot exists. There are plenty of those, and Cherokee County seems to be home to more than a few.
About a quarter-century ago – 1990, to be exact – the Daily Press ran a story about a woman who had called the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office to report a Bigfoot (some folks call it a “Sasquatch”) in her back yard. In that story, Jack Goss – then an investigator with the CCSO – is quoted as saying: “We kind of shook our heads when we got the call, but the lady sounded serious. She said Bigfoot was in her back yard. We thought she might have seen a bear, but she was really sure that it wasn’t. She said it was hairy and stank really bad.”
In 2004, the Press ran a story – written by yours truly – about a photo I had been given while in a downtown Tahlequah business. The picture was taken near Bathtub Springs, north of Punkin’ Holler (Pumpkin Hollow, for those who don’t read rural dialect) and showed something the possessor of the photo claimed was none other than Bigfoot. To be honest, it looked to me like a really tall guy in a hooded sweatshirt, but I’m no expert. So the Press ran the photo as an alleged image of Bigfoot.
Now, that word “alleged” is pretty important in the news business. People are always getting offended because they are presented as “alleging” something, when, in their mind, it by-golly happened! But “alleged” is a simple word to understand: It means someone claims a phenomenon occurred, or exists, but there isn’t any other proof (yet) beyond that person’s claim.
Still, “alleged” is also an easy word for a lot of people to overlook, and that is evidently what happened when we ran the photo of the alleged Bigfoot sighting. Soon after the story ran, the newspaper was swamped with calls, most of which were directed to me, since my name had been on the story accompanying the picture. We received a call from a woman who lives in the Pumpkin Hollow area who said she and her relatives had been “spotlighting” Bigfoot for years. She said the animals smelled of berries and urine, and once they were hit with a spotlight, they moved too fast for anyone to take a shot at with a rifle. Another woman called from Lost City, where, she said, three generations of her family had seen him, and that the creature seems to have an affinity for children.
The descriptions are always similar: 7 to eight 8 tall, covered in dark reddish-brown hair except on the face and chest, walking upright and smelling really bad. One witness likened the odor to a combination of berries and urine. Another said it had a smell similar to “an old man in a nursing home” (which may not be all that dissimilar to berries and urine).
We received a call from a Bigfoot researcher in Arkansas who had developed a Bigfoot call that he broadcast through a public address system he hauled out into the woods, hoping to draw one of the creatures to him. In fact, we received so many calls from people claiming to be Bigfoot researchers, Managing Editor Kim Poindexter put a moratorium on Bigfoot calls during regular office hours, since dealing with them was causing me to miss more pressing issues – like Tahlequah Public Works Authority meetings, hospital board meetings, and various community fundraisers that are more common small-town newspaper fare.
These calls came, in varying degrees of regularity, for a couple of years. Then the opus magnum of all Bigfoot sightings came to our attention, thanks to then-Cherokee County 911 Coordinator Darryl Maggard.
“In October, we received a call at about six in the morning from a man who said, ‘I know this is going to sound crazy, but it’s not a prank,’” Maggard said in a 2006 Daily Press story. “He had just seen what he believed to be Bigfoot. It was 7 feet tall and hairy, and from the anatomy it appeared to be female.”
Maggard said the man called from near the Welling Bridge area, and didn’t sound like he was in any way impaired.
“We’ve received calls in the past that you could tell were not believable – it was just someone who’d had a few too many,” said Maggard. “But he was obviously just a guy on his way to work. I really believe he saw something – there’s no doubt in my mind. But what do you do when you see something like that? I don’t know what I’d do. He decided to report it.”
Maggard’s view of the caller’s credibility may seem charitable to many, who would perhaps be more inclined to write off such reports as signs of mental illness. After all, most descriptions of Bigfoot closely match the figure that is a protagonist of sorts in the Patterson-Gimlin Film, shot in 1967 in northern California. The film purports to show Bigfoot in all his splendor, but has long been suspected as a hoax. Is it possible that all of the other alleged sightings, including those in Cherokee County, are simply fabrications based on the Patterson-Gimlin footage?
It is – but it’s also worth noting that, while the name “Bigfoot” may be relatively new, the concept of a large, hairy beast wandering in the woods is not new at all.
The history of the Wild Man
In his 1978 essay, “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea,” historian Hayden White delves into some detail about the myth of the “Wild Man,” which he traces back to the ancient Hebraic writings of Old Testament times. According to White, the Wild Man, for ancient Hebrews, represented an undesirable moral condition – a being just a little too associated with nature, rather than with Old Testament law. Such a being could be slain with impunity, since it did not have the ability to develop an understanding of morality. Yet it was physically more similar to humans than to animals.
The myth of the Wild Man continued into the Christian era and well into the Middle Ages, when the mythical being was presented as one who, living alone in the wilderness, was incapable of taking on the responsibilities of a father. According the White, both barbarians and the Wild Man represented “others” who were threats to society. Yet they differed in significant ways: “Whereas the barbarian represented a threat to society in general – to civilization, to racial purity, to moral excellence, whatever the in-group’s pride happened to be vested in – the Wild Man represented a threat to the individual, both as nemesis and as a possible destiny, both as enemy and as representative of a condition into which an individual man, having fallen out of grace or having been driven from his city, might degenerate.”
Perhaps most illuminating is White’s description of how the Wild Man was depicted during the Middle Ages: covered in dark hair, either gigantic or dwarfish, or perhaps horrible disfigured. He lived alone and lacked the capacity to speak. He was, in short, everything a civilized man was not.
White notes, however, an interesting transition that began occurring in portrayals of the Wild Man during the 12th century. He began to appear not only as an undesirable, but also as a protector of animals and the forests, and as a teacher of wisdom. As White points out, by the 12th century, “new agricultural tools and techniques were bringing vast areas of Europe under cultivation, as forests were cleared and broken, and the back country turned into sheep runs.” White speculates that with the social changes that accompanied those agricultural upheavals, the Wild Man may have come to be associated with what we might think of an early “hippie movement,” as people resisted the increased structuring of the land, and of their lives.
White is not claiming such Wild Men actually existed. He’s saying narratives about them existed, and those likely served the purpose of justifying particular ways of living for people who considered themselves to be members of a society. The stories of the Wild Man were “myths,” but in a larger sense than society usually attributes to that term.
The function of a myth
While we often equate a myth with a falsehood, to do so ignores some important aspects of myths, which scholars across a broad range of disciplines regard as having both form and function. In simple terms, the form of any myth is a narrative – a story with characters and a plot. Again, broadly speaking, the function of a myth is to make some sense out of a world that, quite often, does not.
As communication scholar Stephanie Kelley-Romano points out: “People need to have faith that there is a meaning to life.” That meaning is provided through narratives that demonstrate preferred ways of traversing existence. People may quibble over the historic accuracy of age-old political narratives (or even religious narratives), but the historical accuracy is less important than the meaning those stories provide to adherents of that particular philosophy. As an example, it is pretty well accepted in this day and age that George Washington – a real-life, yet mythic, figure in American history – never actually chopped down a cherry tree, and therefore probably never told his father, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.” The historical accuracy of that narrative has been debunked.
But is it more important that our understanding of George Washington’s life be completely accurate, down to the most minuscule historical detail, or that young Americans grow up with an understanding and belief that, to be a political leader in America, one should always be honest?
Consider another example: Would you feel the same way about the Christmas holiday season if you had never been told the myth of Santa Claus?
Don’t ponder that one too long; it could really mess with your head. But I’ll end this demonstration on the importance of myth with a quote from 20th century literary philosopher Kenneth Burke: “The debunker and his allies suffer with the debunked.”
So, here’s why this Wild Man myth may still be with us in the form of Bigfoot stories, in case you haven’t figured out that connection just yet. One of the more interesting studies of the existence of modern myths was conducted by the aforementioned Stephanie Kelley-Romano, and focuses on a phenomenon that is at least as far-fetched as Bigfoot sightings: alien abductions.
A connection with aliens
In a 2006 article published in Communication Quarterly, Kelley-Romano, who admits to remaining skeptical of the empirical reality of such abductions, examined 130 interviews of people who claimed to have been “taken” by aliens, and then returned to Earth. She identified four recurring narratives that emerged from the interviews.
First was the “physical salvation” narrative, in which aliens are visiting earth to save humanity. According to Kelley-Romano, such stories – which are the most common of the four themes she identified – demonstrate several aspects of a common myth identified by Joseph Campbell, perhaps the most popularly read mythologist of the 20th century. That myth, the “hero’s journey,” involves a protagonist who is taken away from his or her common surroundings to undergo an adventure, during which said protagonist learns some sort of arcane knowledge that, upon return home, is used to “restore the world.”
According to Kelley-Romano, “By articulating the typical hero’s quest, narratives of physical salvation keep the individual abductee at the center of the action. The story is about why s/he is special and the rewards that s/he gains as a result of his/her experience.”
The second common theme of alien abduction stories is the narrative of hybridization, in which extraterrestrials are using humans as host bodies to continue their own species. “Generally, these narratives express a fear of an over-reliance on technology and that [the abductees], as individuals, have no power over the medical advances of contemporary culture,” said Kelley-Romano. “Read at the most literal level, these stories express a fear of the technolicalization of procreation.” These are the stories that involve the now infamous “probes” that have become something of a joke in discussions of alien abduction.
The third recurring theme is similar to the first theme of salvation of humanity, but it operates on a more individualistic level. It is the narrative of “alien self-help.” The aliens act as a positive force in the lives of humans, the impetus for human change, said Kelley-Romano: “Narratives of betterment of humanity work to convey social values through individual growth. The aliens described in these stories are concerned with the spiritual and mental evolution of humanity.”
The final narrative category is the “cosmic community” narrative, the tone of which is “awe-filled and sacred,” according to Kelley-Romano: “These abductees often report a connectedness to God and incorporate traditional spiritual elements into their stories.” She gives an example of one abductee, who stated that “the one [alien] in the black cloak once told me they have been referred to by some of the ancient ones written about in ancient religions: Native American, Egyptian, Greek, African, etc. So they have been around a long time.” As Kelley-Romano points out, these “cosmic community” narratives contain “less description of abduction vents and more contemplation of the significance of events.”
Most Americans are believers
With a growing number of Americans believing in the existence of extraterrestrial life (76 percent in a 1996 Gallup poll), and that such extraterrestrials have visited earth (33 percent), Kelley-Romano’s rather unorthodox study may give us a glimpse into the ways modern myths become increasingly solidified in our culture. She references American philosopher William Barrett, who, though he was speaking of artistic creations, may also be applied to the creation of myths when he writes, “the forms of imagination that any epoch produces are ultimately data on what that epoch is.”
But where does this leave the lonely, smelly, unshorn Bigfoot? Unlike aliens, he’s rarely seen with fellow Bigfoots, carrying out probing exams of people, and he rarely communicates in any way at all.
(An exception to the singular Bigfoot rule emerged in Arkansas a few years ago, when a man hunting deer during muzzle-loading season claimed to have seen two Bigfoots cavorting in the woods. When asked why he didn’t shoot, he reminded his interviewer that is was muzzle-loading season; he would only have one shot, and there were two of them.)
Might modern reports of Bigfoot sightings be a continuation of the Wild Man myth that Hayden White demonstrates to have been around for a very long time? Might this myth, like the four identified by Kelley-Romano as common to alien abductions be, to paraphrase William Barrett, “data on what our particular epoch is?” In other words, despite the unlikely representation of empirical reality presented by such reports, could the fact that people still claim such a creature exists tell us something about our current society?
Have we perhaps become so well-coifed, perfumed, and relatively small in the modern world that seeing the antithesis of such a life provides some relief? Or, is Bigfoot real, and he just hasn’t been captured yet, as reality television and various organizations set on proving his existence would have us believe?
Either way, if you happen to find yourself in the woods, and you see a large, hairy creature, go sauntering by on two feet, disappearing into the trees, here’s some advice: As 911 Coordinator Darryl Maggard said in the 2006 Daily Press article about the female Bigfoot sighting, if you think you’re in danger, call 911. But if your Bigfoot sighting is anything like most all others, you won’t feel like you’re in danger.
So you might think about just keeping your sighting to yourself, and consider yourself lucky to be one of the few to actually see a humanoid that wasn’t dressed in the latest fashion, wasn’t concerned about getting his shoes dirty, didn’t care how bad he smelled, and obviously had never paid too much for a haircut. Moreover, he’ll likely be the only creature you see that day that isn’t staring at a smartphone.
But whatever you do, don’t try to track him down. Because, wherever he disappeared to, it’s practically guaranteed that he’s not there anymore.