The Raven in Haida Culture

With the release of Eden Robinson’s latest book in the Trickster Trilogy, Trickster Drift, we wanted to explore the Raven in Haida culture, and the mythology that she has entwined in the series. Read on to learn about the trickster Raven, who is an essential part of being Haida.

What is a Trickster?

The Raven is a trickster – a figure found throughout Indigenous cultures from around the world. While tricksters are constructed very differently from culture to culture, they share similar characteristics; namely, they are most often foolish and childlike troublemakers. Some tricksters can be harmless, others heroes, and still others even cruel or selfish.  

Trickster by Gordon Miller 1990 Watercolour 

(Trickster by Gordon Miller)

Another common thread among tricksters is that they are wanderers, both physically and spiritually. “They often travel between the spirit world and the tangible world, as well as the areas in-between.”[i] Some, like the Raven, can shape-shift to become human, spirit, animal, or even inanimate objects.

Who is the Raven?

The animal that Raven is patterned on is inventive, intelligent, known to use tools, and can imitate almost any sound, including the human voice. Like these birds common in the Pacific Northwest, the Raven is just as clever and resourceful.

Raven’s most commonly used Haida name is Wee’git, though he could also be called Xhuuya (his personal name), Nankil'slas (voice handler), or Yaahl (raven). “It is typical of Haida culture for men to acquire several different names in their lifetimes-- especially powerful and distinguished men-- so no Haida people would be confused by Raven's many names.”[ii] 

Haida Ravens

Image from Atlas Obscura

“In Haida culture, the Raven is the most powerful of mythical creatures. His appetites include lust, curiosity, and an irrepressible desire to interfere and change things, and to play tricks on the world and its creatures.”[iii]

It is important to note that while Raven is central to how Haida see the world, he is not thought of as a god per se. “He symbolizes creation, knowledge, prestige as well as the complexity of nature and the subtlety of truth. He also symbolizes the unknown and is there to show that every person sees the world in a different way as another.”[iv] Perhaps he could be known as a Guardian Spirit? He is also a healer, a keeper of secrets, and was never feared unless he was misused.

Why are Raven Stories Told?

Author Eden Robinson remembers, "When I was growing up, we would sit around the kitchen table after supper and have coffee and cigarettes and just tell stories; many of them were Wee'git stories.”[v] Telling Raven stories is a way to be together, learn, and to pass the time. After all, the winters in the Pacific Northwest are notoriously grey, cold, and long.

Wee'git is a transforming raven and he has a very specific role in our culture. We tell our children Wee'git stories to teach them about protocol, or nuyum. But he teaches people this protocol by breaking all the rules. He is the bad example, the example of what not to do. So his stories are always funny and he's a very lively character.

– Eden Robinson [vi]

The stories are about the history of the Haida go back to the beginning of time. “Many stories describe the Raven's encounters with supernatural beings and how he acquired other useful things for humans from them, such as fresh water, salmon, the fish weir and the house.”[vii] The most well-known story, of course, is Raven and the first men.

Raven and the First Men

According to Haida legend, the Raven found himself alone one day on Rose Spit beach, on Haida Gwaii. Suddenly, he saw an extraordinary clamshell at his feet, and protruding from it were a number of small creatures. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his wonderful world. Some were hesitant at first, but eventually, overcome by curiosity, they emerged from the partly open clamshell to become the first Haida.

 

Bill Reid Raven and the First Men

 

(Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid) 

 

...It wasn’t long before one, then another of the little shell brothers, timidly emerged. Some of them immediately scurried back when they saw the immensity of the sea and the sky and the overwhelming blackness of the Raven. But eventually curiosity overcame caution and all of them crept or scrambled out. Very strange creatures they were, two-legged like the Raven. There the resemblance ended. They had no glossy feathers, no thrusting beak, their skin was pale and they were naked except for their long, black hair on their round, flat-featured heads. Instead of strong wings they had stick-like appendages that waved and fluttered constantly. They were the original Haidas, the first humans. [viii]

Read More about Raven

Raven has a myriad of stories, but they are mostly spoken. Here are some recommendations to help you learn more about the Raven in Haida culture:

Raven Brings the Light

Raven Brings the Light (Harbour Publishing)

This tale originates from a story told to the author by Chester Bolton, Chief of the Ravens, from the village of Kitkatla around 1975.

Ravens Feast

Raven’s Feast by Kung Jaadee (Medicine Wheel Education)

After the Raven (Yaahl) had finished creating the world; he realized that he was lonely. So he invited the whole world to join him in Haida Gwaii for the greatest feast you could ever imagine. At the end of the Feast each person, from all 4 sacred directions, was given a special gift that would change their lives forever!

Raven Steals the Light

The Raven Steals the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst (Douglas & McIntyre)

Ten masterful, complex drawings by Bill Reid are accompanied by ten episodes from Haida mythology told by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst. The result brings Haida art and mythology alive as never before in an English-speaking world. The collection includes, says Reid, "a good selection of bestiality, adultery, violence, thievery and assault, for those who like that sort of thing."

 

Be sure to join Raven Reads over on Facebook to discuss the theme of our Fall Subscription Box - Haida Culture, and Eden Robinson's Trickster Drift release. 

 

 

 

 

References:

[i] The Canadian Encyclopedia 

[ii] Native Languages of the Americas 

[iii] Bill Reid Foundation 

[iv] Spirit of the West Coast Art Gallery 

[v] CBC

[vi] CBC

[vii] Canadian Museum of History 

[viii] Bill Reid and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC