As a researcher of unusual historical phenomena, I investigate strange stories, but I had no intention of doing so in Alberta, Canada. Nevertheless, I came across something that was truly odd in the small vacation town of Banff.
I stopped into a trapper’s store called the Banff Indian Trader Shop. In the back was a glass case that housed a strange looking mummy, one that was supposed to have belonged to a merman. Just looking at it, it was obviously fake: different animal parts all combined to create a creature that likely does not exist.
A Merman in Lake Superior?
However, in the same case was an article entitled A Merman in Lake Superior that had been printed initially in the Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository in 1824, and a story credited to a Stoney Nakoda named Enoch Baptiste, which was translated by Horace Holloway in 1954. This is the story as it appears in the case:
“Northeast of Lake Minnewanka is a mountain with a high, sharp peak shaped like a tower. From a long distance you can see snow on its top, but there is never any on its side. The Mountain is so steep that snow does not stay on it. Because spirits lived on top of it, Indians called it Spirit Mountain.
“The nearby lake they called Minnewanka, which means Water of the Spirits. Whenever they traveled in the neighborhood of the lake, they heard the voices of spirits. As they passed by, they could see nothing that made the sounds, but they could hear the sounds.
“One time when our people were camping near the lake, my father heard what seemed to be the beating of a drum. The noise seemed to be coming from the water. He could also hear voices down in the lake. Soon he noticed that water was coming up on the shore. It came close to the camp, and then it went back again.
“Soon my father saw, near the center of the lake, a strange creature rise out of the water. It was half a fish and half human being. It had blown the water toward the shore, and then it had come above the surface. As my father stood watching, the fish-person sank back into the lake.
“Other people also saw the strange creature. They were so frightened that they broke camp and never camped there again. All Indians stayed away from that water. There was no fishing or canoeing on Lake Minnewanka until white people came.
“Strange creatures in other lakes were sometimes killed by lightening, but I never heard of this one being killed.
“Many Indians are still afraid of the lake. A few years ago some Indian boys were working there, helping to build a dam. They did not want to work at that place, because they had heard about the strange fish-person. One of the boys was killed in a strange accident. Some people say that the accident happened because the spirits did not like to have trees near the lake destroyed.”
Explanations for the Legend of the Merman
Obviously a strange tale, there is no information available regarding whether or not this story is even legitimate, if it is in fact a Native American legend. Assuming that it is, we have to look at the elements of the story to venture a guess as to why it was created. The first possibility is an unlikely one: that there actually was a creature spotted in the lake. Another is much more plausible: the mountain near the lake and the lake itself were considered holy locations, places called Spirit Mountain and Spirit Water, yet according to the Stoney Nakoda legend, the indigenous inhabitants were afraid of the location and avoided it; only the invaders frequented the location. The legend of a supernatural creature might have been created to keep settlers away from a perceived numinous location.
Although this is certainly possible, there are other, more modern stories to explain the merman at the Indian Trading Post, located near Banff Avenue Bridge. People in town have varied explanations, such as it coming from England in the 1940s and its creation as some kind of a freakshow attraction; but the executive director of the Whyte Museum in the Canadian Rockies has proof that another story is the true one: Norman Luxton (1876-1962), an important figure in the development of the Banff town, was the original shop owner.
The son of William Luxton, co-founder and chief editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, Norman worked for his father for some time before heading to Calgary, where he worked for the Calgary Herald. In 1901, he traveled to Vancouver, where he continued working as a writer for Town Topics. There, he met John Voss (1858-1922) who had a seemingly insane idea: to travel around the world in a century-old Nootka canoe. Norman decided to accompany John on this trip, and they left British Columbia and headed west. After traveling about 10,000 miles over the course of five months, the boat struck a reef off the coast of Fiji, and both men were injured, Voss severely. He was taken to a hospital in Australia and Luxton soon returned to Banff to recover.
In Banff, he became a prominent community member. He got the Crag and Canyon Newspaper up and running, built the King Edward Hotel and the Lux Theatre, and established the Sign of the Goat Curio Shop. He also established the trading post in which the odd mummy is located. The Whyte Museum has a collection of artifacts belonging to William Luxton, including a shipping bill from Java that reads “one fish-man.” Ted Hart, the museum’s director, believes that Luxton bought the piece when he was in the South Pacific in 1915 and then crafted a story, which was published in local newspapers, to bring customers into his trading post, thus resulting in increased revenue.
Many facts align to support this. Java, located in Indonesia, is 4,500 miles northwest of Fiji, where their boat was destroyed, and they claimed to have traveled about 10,000 miles before the crash. Given the size of their boat, it is likely that they chose to remain near the coast. If so, they would have passed very close to Java, so he could have purchased it there legitimately and then just made up a story to accompany it. His background in publishing and writing, and the prominent position he held might have stopped anyone from doubting his tale. In addition, he may have even convinced some Native Americans to back up the story, including Enoch Baptiste, who allegedly told the tale that is displayed in the case alongside the body.