The Haida are a native North American people living around Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands and parts of Alaska. Their territory spans between British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA. As islanders they lived in a rugged landscape with abundant wildlife and cedar forests, and developed an affinity with the sea which also provided food for them. Over the centuries their environment helped to shape a rich and wonderful culture. One of the products of that culture was a mythology that produced stories that explained how the natural world around them worked. Many of these stories feature Raven who has a twofold nature of being a provider bringing benefit to humans or a trickster. Presented here is a retelling of one of those stories.
The Coming of the Salmon
Long ago among the Haida people a little girl had a magnificent dream. She dreamed of a beautiful fish that she had never seen before. When she awoke from her dream she cried because she wanted the beautiful fish so much. Her father who was an Haida Chief asked her why she cried and she described the fish to him. However, he could not help her because he had never seen such a fish and did not know where to find one. So he went among his people and described the fish to them and asked them if they knew where he could find one. The people had seen plenty of fish of many different kinds but they had never seen a fish like the one his daughter described in her dream and could not help him.
Meanwhile his little daughter continued to cry and cry and cry for what no one could give her. She cried so much her health began to fail. Her worried father called a Great Council of the medicine men and chiefs from the neighboring villages to seek their help. They all came and sat around the fire in his great lodge. After all the formalities were over he told them of the dream that was upsetting his little girl. He described the fish to them as she had told him and asked if they knew anything of it.
All the chiefs and all of the medicine men listened carefully to what he said. They thought long and hard but none of them knew anything of the big, beautiful, fish or where it could be found. Then one medicine man stood up and after paying his respects tothose present said,
“Our Chief’s daughter weeps for something from a dream that we have never seen. None of us have seen a fish likes she describes. There are many fish in the waters and some are big but not as big as she describes. If we could find such a fish our people would benefit greatly. Maybe there is one among us who knows where such a big and beautiful fish can be found.”
Then one very old and wise medicine man stood up and after paying his respects to all present said,
“With the agreement of this council I will go to the cedar trees where my good friend Raven lives and ask him for his counsel. He is very wise and knowledgeable and I ask permission to bring him before the Council and seek his advice.”
All of the chiefs and the medicine men agreed so he went to Raven to ask if he would attend the council and bring his wisdom to bear on the problem. Raven agreed and returned with his friend the old medicine man who sat before the council with the wise bird perched on his shoulder. Thus spoke Raven,
“I know the fish in the dreams of the daughter of the chief. I know its name and where it lives. She is dreaming of a big and beautiful fish called a salmon. These fish live a long way from here at the mouth of a great river. The Haida people are my friends and so I will fly far and swift and I will bring back a salmon.”
With that Raven flew fast and hard high up in the sky until he saw far below the mouth of a mighty river opening into the sea. Circling around he saw swarms of salmon swimming in the sea. Swooping down quickly he caught in his claws the small son of the Salmon Chief and flew quickly back to the village of the Haida people with the fish in his talons.
The Salmon Chief was shocked at the loss of his son and sent out scouts who leapt high in the air out of the water and saw the direction in which Raven flew. The Chief Salmon called together his people and they followed their scouts in pursuit.
Arriving back at the Haida village Raven dropped the salmon before the young daughter of the chief. Immediately on seeing the fish she stopped her crying and laughed and clapped her hands in delight. Then Raven told the old medicine man that many, many, salmon now followed him and would soon be swimming into the mouth of their river.
The medicine man then told the counsel what Raven had said and it was decided that a great net would be woven ready for their arrival. When the salmon swam into the mouth of the river many of them were caught in the net. To keep all of the salmon from escaping the people passed a leather thong through their gills tying one end to a large boulder and the other to the people’s great totem which was a living cedar tree. They named it ‘Nhe-is-bik’ and carved the images of a Thunderbird, a chief, and a salmon upon it. This was the beginning of a magical event that happened from then on every year as the salmon returned looking for their lost son.
© 04/04/2018 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright April 4th, 2018 zteve t evans