Raven and the Haida People

The Haida people are native to areas of British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA. The  the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, is considered to be their heartland especially the two main islands.  The Haida tell many wonderful stories featuring Raven who in their mythology, legends and traditions is seen as a provider and bringer of light to humanity while also being a trickster.  It was Raven who was the transformer, healer and magician and yet is often presented as being greedy, lustful and mischievous. Yet despite these contradictions Raven is very much a cultural hero of the Haida.

Raven and the First People

In one creation myth they tell that before Raven all of the world was one enormous flood. The myth tells how there was once a time when there was nothing but water everywhere. One day Raven became bored and spread his wings and flew.  As he flew the waters began to recede. When Raven became hungry land was formed and Raven  settled on it and found food.

One day Raven heard strange noises coming from a shell.  This both intrigued and confused Raven. The strange sound from the clam became louder and more frantic and so Raven having a fine singing voice thought he would sing to it in the hope of soothing whatever was making the noise.  So Raven sung to it and eventually a small but extraordinary creature broke out of the shell. Indeed, it was a very peculiar with two legs, a head that was round and covered at the top in long black hair and soft skin. Unlike Raven it had no wings and no feathers.   This creature was the very first of the First People and more came from the shell and all of these were male.

To begin with Raven was intrigued but gradually grew bored with them and thought about putting them all back in the shell. Then he decided he would look for some females to keep all of these males company.   It so happened that Raven found some more people who were inside a another shell. Setting them free Raven discovered they were female people. He was enthralled as he watched how male and female interacted with each other and began to feel protective and responsible towards them.

Creation Myths

The Haida have other versions of  tales that tell how the world was created such as the one that follows.  There was a time when the world was just sky and water and in the water was a reef where the first beings lived.  The greatest of these beings lived upon the highest part of the reef and looked down on the lesser beings who lived on the lower parts of the reef.

Raven flew over the reef looking for a place to settle but could see no room to land. Therefore he decided to fly to the sky country and there he found the daughter of a Chief who had a young baby.   In the darkness of night Raven stole the child with the intention of taking its place as Raven Child.

Raven Brings the Sun, Moon and Stars

There is a very old story that tells how Raven brought the Sun, the Stars, the Moon and fresh water and fire to the world to benefit the people.  It tells how in the the beginning of the world the guardian of the Sun, Moon, Stars, fresh water and fire was Gray Eagle. He hated people and hid beneficial things from them. He hid the Sun, the Moon, the Stars and fresh water and fire from them and the people were cold and lived in darkness.

In these early days of the world Raven was pure white and he fell in love with the daughter of Gray Eagle who thought him very handsome in white.  One day she invited him to visit her in her father’s longhouse. When Raven arrived he saw that the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, along with fresh water were all hanging up around the sides of Gray Eagle’s home. When he knew no one was looking he stole them and also took a burning brand from the fire and flew out of the smoke hole in the roof  with his loot.  Flying up high in the sky he hung the Sun up and its light flooded out over the Earth lighting and warming  he day. In fact there was so much light he could see far enough to fly out across the ocean to an island situated in its middle .  When the Sun wet down he hung up the Moon and Stars in different parts of the sky and by this light he flew back to the land carrying the fresh water and the firebrand.  

When he reached the land he found what he thought was a good place and dropped the fresh water.  Where it landed on the ground became the source of all of the freshwater that creates all of rivers, lakes and  streams in the world today.

Raven flew on holding the flaming brand in his beak and as he flew the smoke from the fiery brand flowed over his snowy white feathers turning them black. As he flew the brand burnt smaller and smaller and eventually it began to burn his beak and Raven was forced to drop it.  The burning brand fell from the sky and crashed into rocks and instantly concealed itself inside of them. This is how the sparks that appear when two stones are struck together got in the stone and why we can make fire from them.

As for Raven he lost his white plumage after it was covered in soot from the firebrand and that is why today all of his feathers are black.

© 11/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 11th, 2018 zteve t evans

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Haida Tales: Raven and the Coming of the Salmon

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