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First Nations Legends

The Haida are one of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Their national territories lie along the west coast of Canada and include parts of south east Alaska.

Bill Reid’s sculpture The Raven and The First Men, showing Raven releasing humans from a cockle shell. Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Within Haida mythology, Raven is a central character, as he is for many of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, see Raven Tales. While frequently described as a “trickster”, Haidas believe Raven or Yelth or Hoya to be a complex reflection of one’s own self. Raven can be a magician, a transformer, a potent creative force, sexual deviant or ravenous debaucher but always a cultural hero. He is responsible for creating Haida Gwaii, releasing the sun from its tiny box and making the stars and the moon. In one story he released the first humans from a cockle shell on the beach; in another story he brought the first humans up out of the ground because he needed to fill up a party he was throwing. Raven stories on one level teach listeners how to live a good life, but usually by counterexample. Raven has been described as the greediest, most lecherous and mischievous creature known to the Haida, but at the same time Raven often helps humans in our encounters with other supernatural beings. Raven acquired such things as fresh water, salmon and the house for humans. Robert Bringhurst has noted that Raven never actually creates anything; he made the world by stealing, exchanging, redistributing, and generally moving things around.

Ta’xet and Tia are death gods among the Haida. Ta’xet rules violent death, while Tia rules peaceful death. Dzalarhons, a woman associated with frogs and volcanoes, and her husband, Kaiti (bear god), arrived at the homeland of the Haida from the Pacific Ocean along with six canoes full of people. Gyhldeptis is a kindly forest goddess. Lagua is an invisible spirit who helped the Haida discover the uses of iron. Shamans could speak with Lagua’s voice by clenching their teeth. Sin (“day”) is the sky god and chief deity.

Some of the mythology has been collected by poet Anne Cameron, who created interpretations for adults and children. Epic versions of the mythology by 19th century Haida storyteller-poets Skaay and Ghandl have been translated by Robert Bringhurst, whose Story as Sharp as a Knife, a collection of their works, won the Governor General’s Award. His translations, though, are controversial in Haida circles and some have charged him with cultural appropriation.
… from Wikipedia

In today’s world can we understand what totem poles are all about?

To grasp the symbolism and secrets hidden within totem poles, try this exercise: study the Great Seal of the United States or the Coat of Arms (the Armorial Bearing) of Canada. OK? The symbols bound up in these national emblems are roughly equivalent to a totem pole.

In general, totem poles, just like Great Seals and Coats of Arms mean: “This is who we are; we have prestige, we are united, and we are proud to derive from, fight for, and stand for the qualities these symbols imply.”

For example, the Coat of Arms of Canada features a lion and unicorn, British flag, maple leaves, fleur de lis and a motto, that sums up its national identity and origins.

What purpose did totem poles serve for Pacific Northwest Native people?

Totem poles are emblems that symbolized where a person stood within a big family grouping– not just a mother, father, sister, brother, but within a whole clan of relatives.

In a Native kinship system, people were considered related:
by blood,
by experience
by war exploits
and by adoption.
Each clan identified very strongly with the crests and figures carved on their totem pole.

Additionally, each totem symbol can be traced back to a mystical clan-founding ancestor. Totem origins are so far back in time that they are non-human. For example, a person exhibiting a Wolf totem believed one of their ancestors once lived with supernatural Wolves, and received permission from them when he returned, to use certain symbols. Using a figure meant a person was: “descended from ….” or had recently “encountered …” or had received “a gift from …” a supernatural being.

Because Native people had no written language, totem pole stories and symbols were shared only with the pole’s owner, the carver of the totem pole and whoever they chose to tell.

If the pole’s owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to academics, or left a written record, then the meaning of these old totem poles is known today. If the carver lived long ago and someone did not write it down in a form like we do, then its stories were repeated from person to person. This is called the oral tradition. While it’s not the worst way of remembering, it is certainly subject to changes and distortions over time. An old undocumented totem pole with hidden or special meanings may find that it’s story is lost or at least distorted over time.
… from

The Legend of the ThunderBird

… from

The Giant Bird
A Sacred Story
This story is by Peaceseeker, who said it is a true story that came to him from “beyond the mists,” perhaps from an Ancestor.
By Llewellyn Clark – Peaceseeker

How long ago was it?
It was only yesterday, as time is told in the old stories, before the coming of the white man. It was a time when “The People” lived with respect for all living things. It was a time when “Yah na see”, the mighty Buffalo, still roamed the great plains of this vast land, a time when Brother Wolf still howled at Grandmother Moon in the night. It was also a time of change, as the white man was building a road across the land for his Iron Horse.

It was late in the afternoon; Wakan Tanka was watching the Mighty Buffalo on the land below. There was stillness in the air and the smell of rain. The clouds in the distance said that Mother Earth would soon be replenished with rain and there was the smell of danger in the air. If you listened carefully you could hear the sound of Thunder in the distance. As Father Sun moved closer to the edge of the world, the sky darkened, lightning played among the clouds and Old Man Thunder roared with a mighty voice. The Mighty Buffalo lifted their heads from grazing and gathered their young about them. The young calves moved closer to their mothers as thunderbolts filled the sky. The herd milled aimlessly and watched with fear and with anger knowing that death was near at hand.

There was the sound of a mighty wind and a dark shadow crossed over the land. The Bird of Thunder dropped lower over the edge of the herd and a young calf was lifted into the air. Soon other shadows dropped near the earth and more of the young calves were taken. Lightning streaked across the sky and the voice of Old Man Thunder spoke with a vengeance. The Mighty Birds that brought the storm disappeared in the distance as Mother Earth opened her arms to receive the rain. The herd returned to their grazing now that the danger was past. Again the Mighty Thunderbird had stolen from the herd and loosed another storm upon the land. Everything was as it should be, the herd had grown too large and Mother Earth had needed the rain.

As the Giant Birds disappeared into the distance, “She Who Ran Away”, a young heifer with her second calf gave thanks to Wakan Tanka that this calf had been spared. Her first calf had been given to the Thunder Birds. Many of her friends had also lost their offspring to these storm bringers and spoke often of the ache this had instilled in their hearts. She thought again of the pain she had suffered at this great loss and gave another silent prayer that this would happen no more. “She Who Ran Away” prayed this prayer with a pure heart and asked only to improve life for the herd and for future generations. Sometimes prayers are best not prayed.
The road for the Iron Horse was cutting deeply into the plains and many white men were filling the land. Many times in their migration the Mighty Buffalo herds had to cross these iron tracks to better grazing. The white man, not knowing Mother Earth, found great sport hunting many of the herd members as they traveled near the Iron Horse. The white man took the hides of these Buffalo east in his journey and found they were worth much barter. Soon many white men came and slaughtered all the Buffalo, leaving Mother Earth strewn with the carnage, a graveyard filled with the bleached bones of a once mighty race. “Yah na see” had disappeared from the land.

Old Man Winter had lost his hold on the land. The North Wind was weak from his long stay and soon would be the time to plant. Where once the lands rolled like the sea with the Mighty Buffalo, there was only grass. The birds of the air had finished their winter sojourn in the south and would soon be returning to the land. The Giant Thunderbirds would soon be bringing the storms and rain to feed the new growths. Every year the Giant Birds returned to the north to build their nests in the high places and bring their young into the world. As the Thunderbirds moved over the plains and looked upon the Earth, they found that the Buffalo were no more. Without the Buffalo there was not enough food for these Mighty Giants and many died on their journey to the north. So few reached the nesting area that only a few chicks were hatched this season. The loss of these mighty herds made migration very difficult and many of the young birds died on their way south that fall. Soon they were no more. Wakan Tanka looked down and cried.

Author’s Note:
There have been several sightings in the last few years of a very large bird with a wingspan of over 20 feet. It has been estimated that a bird of this size would be capable of lifting a young buffalo calf off the ground.
Any bird this large would need a large thermal updraft to help hold it aloft in any long flight. There is almost always a large thermal updraft in front of a moving storm. This would of course give the impression that these large birds, “Thunder Birds”, were bringing the storm with them. Hence the name, “Thunder Birds”. The loss of the Buffalo would have a devastating effect on the migratory habits of a
bird of this size.

A story from the Squamish Indians in British Columbia
Long ago when animals and human beings were the same, there were four brothers who went about doing good.
Coming to the Squamish Indians one time, they were persuaded by the chief to stay a while in his village. Knowing the wonder-working powers of the brothers, the chief said to them, “Won’t you bring the salmon people to our shores? We are often short of food. We know that salmon is good, but they never come to our waters.”
“We will persuade the salmon People,” replied the oldest brother, “if we can find out where they live. We shall have to ask Snookum, the sun.”

After a good deal of struggle and using a few tricks, the brothers got the Sun to tell them where to look for the Salmon People. “The home of the salmon is a long way off in that direction,” replied Sun, pointing toward the west. “If you want to visit them, you must first prepare much medicine and take it with you. Then all will be well.”
The brothers let the Sun go and he flew off into the clouds. After gathering many herbs and making much medicine, they said to the Squamish people, “Get out your canoes and make ready for a long journey. At sunrise tomorrow we will set out for a visit with the Salmon People.”
Next morning they all started westward. For many days they paddled, and finally they came near an island. There they saw what seemed to be a village. Smoke of all colors rose into the clouds. “This seems to be the country we are looking for,” said the brothers. “Sun told us that this is the home of the Salmon People.”

So the paddlers took the canoes to the beach, which was very broad and smooth. All the Squamish people went toward the village, the four brothers carrying the medicine with them. They gave some of the medicine to Spring Salmon, the chief of the village. As a result, he was friendly toward the whole party.
In the stream behind the village, Spring Salmon kept a fish-trap. Shortly before the visitors had landed, the chief had directed four of his young people, two boys and two girls, to go into the water and swim up the creek into the salmon trap. Obeying his orders, they had drawn their blankets up over their heads and walked into the sea.

As soon as the water reached their faces, they became salmon. They leaped and played together, just as the salmon do in the running season, and frolicked their way toward the trap in the creek.

So when the time came to welcome the strangers with a feast, Chief Spring Salmon ordered others of his people to go to the salmon trap, bring back the four fish they would find there, and clean and roast them for the guests. When the salmon were cooked, the chief invited his guests to eat.

“Eat all you wish,” he said, ” but do not throw away any of the bones. Be sure to lay them aside carefully. Do not destroy even a small bone”
The Squamish and the brothers gladly accepted the invitation, partook freely of the roasted salmon, but wondered why they were asked to save the bones.

When all had finished eating, some of the young men of the salmon village carefully picked up the little piles of bones the guests had made, took them the beach, and threw them into the sea.
A few minutes later the four young people who had earlier gone into the water re-appeared and joined the others. For four days the Chief thus entertained his guests with salmon feasts.
The care taken with the bones at each meal excited the curiosity of one of the visitors. On the fourth day he secretly kept back some of the bones and hid them. At the close of the meal, the rest of the salmon bones were collected in the usual manner and cast into the sea. Immediately afterwards, four young people came out of the white water. But one of them was covering his face with his hands.
Approaching the salmon chief the youth said, “Not all of the bones were collected. I do not have any for my cheeks and nose.” Turning to his guests, the salmon chief asked, “Did any of you mislay any of your salmon bones? Some are missing.” And he pointed to the face of the young man.

Alarmed by the result of his act, the Squamish youth who had hidden the bones brought them out, pretending that he had just found them on the ground. Now all the visitors were certain that their hosts were the salmon people.
“We have come to visit you, Salmon Chief, for a special purpose,” explained the oldest brother. “We came to ask you to let some of your salmon people visit Squamish waters, come up the streams of the Squamish people. My friends are poor, and they often go hungry. We shall be very grateful if your people will sometimes visit them”. “I will do as you request,” replied the salmon chief, “on one condition: they must throw all the bones back into the water as you have seen us do. If they will be careful with the bones, my people can return to us again after they visit you.”
“We promise,” said the four brothers.
“We promise,” said all the Squamish people.
Then they made preparations to return to their home across the water, toward the rising sun.

As they were leaving, the salmon chief said, “I will send Spring Salmon to you first in the season. After them I will send the Sockeye, then the Coho, then the Dog-Salmon, and last of all the Humpback.”
Ever since that time, long ago, different kinds of salmon, in that order, have come to the Squamish waters, to the sea, into the straits, and into the streams. And in the days of old, before the coming of the white people, the Indians were always very careful to throw the bones of the salmon back into the water.

… from

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