Tlingit Myths and Texts (1909)

“No one knows just how the story of Raven really begins,” says Dekinā’k of the Box House people in Sitka, Alaska, “so each starts from the point where he does know it.” Could there be a more perfect way of introducing a creation myth than this?

The importance of Raven to the stories of the Tlingit — who settled in southeastern Alaska around 10,000 years ago — would be hard to overestimate. Raven is a culture hero and trickster (like Prometheus), a shape-shifter (like Proteus), but he is also the creator of the earth. Back when there was no light in the world because a rich old man on the Nass River kept it all to himself, Raven “thought over all kinds of plans for getting this light into the world and finally he hit on a good one.” The rich old man who kept all the light to himself had a daughter, whom Raven impregnated by transforming himself into a small piece of dirt in a drop of water, which she swallowed. When Raven was born a human boy, he cried incessantly until his grandfather, the rich old man, consented to let him have the three bags he so noisily desired. The first contained the stars and the second the moon, which he threw up into the sky. Taking the third bag (which contained the sun), the boy “uttered the raven cry, ‘Gā,’ and flew out through the smoke hole.” The old man, tricked out of his treasure, could only complain: “That old manuring raven has gotten all of my things.” Meanwhile, the world as we know it had begun.

Tlingit Myths and Texts is a report on Tlingit culture made for the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in 1908. These reports are not always thrilling to read. Yet in this case the reporter — American ethnologist, folklorist, and linguist John Reed Swanton (1873–1958) — approached his task with such respect for the beauty of the tales told to him by the people he encountered in Sitka and Wrangell, Alaska, the book remains enlightening and delightful.

Raven is the chief protagonist in Tlingit Myths and Texts. Always on the move, always scheming, always stirring up trouble wherever he goes, Raven dives into a whale’s mouth and builds a fire; he travels to a town of ghosts, who rob him blind; he teaches a perpetual loser to be the Greatest Gambler in the World; he steals salmon from men and herring from gulls — then he flies away, crying .

In addition to the many Raven tales, there are some wonderful origin stories. We learn, for example, how the killing of a giant clam in a little bay on the Tenakee inlet caused the place to smell horrible and allowed many things to grow there, how the seal people created killer whales out of wood and chalk, and how a cruel woman who burnt her mother-in-law with hot coals was transformed into the first screech owl.

Metamorphoses abound in the Tlingit’s stories. One of the most terrifying of these is “The Woman Taken Away by the Frog People,” in which a girl is coaxed away from her village by a frog disguised as a handsome young man:

Pointing toward the lake he said, “My father’s house is right up there,” and the girl replied, “How fine it looks!” When they went up to it, it seemed as though a door was opened for them, but in reality the edge of the lake had been raised. They walked under. So many young people were there that she did not think of home again.

When eventually, after much effort, the people of the village liberate the girl from the frog people, she is listless and unable to eat. “After a while they hung her over a pole, and the black mud she had eaten when she was among the frogs came out of her, but, as soon as it was all out, she died.”

Although primarily a collection of tales whose origins predate the Tlingit’s first contact with Europeans (in the eighteenth century), Tlingit Myths and Texts also records the catastrophic results of this contact.

The very short tale that Swanton titles “How Protestant Christianity Was First Heard of at Sitka” is particularly haunting, because of all that it leaves unsaid. The teller of the tale — who is again Dekinā’k of the Box People — recounts how a man traveled south from Sitka and returned after two months:

When he came ashore he called all the people to a dance and told them that God (Deki’-anqā’wo, Distant-chief) had come down from heaven to help them. Then all the women made beadwork for their hair and ears. One evening, when they were through with that, they again began dancing. While the women danced they would fall flat on their backs. When this happened, in accordance with directions the man had received below, they brought up salt water, wet part of each woman’s blanket and flapped it against her breast to make her come to. This prevented the smallpox from having any effect upon her. They kept on dancing a whole year.