The Raven and the Oral Tradition of British Columbia's First Nations - Atlas Obscura
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The Raven and the Oral Tradition of British Columbia’s First Nations

Animal spirit stories are common in the Pacific Northwest, where dense forests edge rocky shores laced with fog, places that almost expect mysterious visitors. The raven character is especially central to the
oral tradition of the First Nations in British Columbia. Depicted as both a creator and a trickster, Raven’s exploits are told in hundreds of stories from the Tsimshian, Haida, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw
(Kwakiutl), and other indigenous nations.

Ravens survive in incredibly diverse climates, from the freezing Arctic to scorching North Africa, but they prefer wooded coasts like those found in British Columbia. In addition to being adaptable, they are incredibly intelligent, known to use tools and imitate almost any sound, including the human voice. Like these birds, the mythological Raven is clever and resourceful. Transforming from the creator of the
world in one story to a mischievous and gluttonous trickster in the next, Raven is as likely to help as to cause havoc. The oral stories helped fill the long, cold winters, and they also were incorporated into dance and ceremony. One way was through transformation masks: large mechanical pieces that reveal and hide a carved human face under an animal. Raven is often described as a shape shifter, and the dancers are able to change from bird to human and back again by opening and closing the mask, transforming at key points in the story.

In one creation myth, Raven lures the first humans out of a clamshell he finds on the beach, and in another he makes the sun out of a ball of grease. In others he molds people out of clay, and once he helpfully makes every 10th bear white as a reminder of the ice age. In a Haida story, Raven, hungry from flying over a world covered in water, goes to the sky country and takes the place of the chief’s daughter’s baby. At night, he plucks out and eats one eye from each villager. Banished back to earth by the half-blind sky people, he is taken in by his grandfather Seagull, who gives him a stone to break with his beak and throw into the sea. These pieces become Haida Gwaii.


In most of the stories, the Haida Gwaii archipelago of over 150 islands is where time begins and people first stumble into the world. Raven is almost always there. In present-day Haida Gwaii, he still is. Raven’s beak juts out from totem poles that dot the islands and his profile is painted on the front of houses. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site at the southernmost end of the archipelago has had human settlement for over 10,000 years, imprinted on the islands by mortuary poles, outlines of canoe landings, and moss-covered remains of log houses. Totem poles, including those depicting Raven, are left to stand in the soil rather than being shipped off to museums. The foggy beaches still hold some ancient mystery, where, walking like Raven down the sand, it is almost possible to imagine hearing voices murmuring in the shells. 

Totem Poles, Skedans