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Living in the Between: Raven and Story in Haida Culture
by Allison Steiger
published on November 16, 2013

Allison Stieger founded the Mythological RoundTable® group in Seattle, and ran it for eight years before turning it over to others in 2012. She holds an MA in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and has been teaching, writing and leading workshops on myth since 2004. She is currently writing a book on myth and creativity, and blogs regularly both at The Creativity Post and at Mythic Stories

Allison Stieger

Raven sculpture
(Photograph by Allison Stieger)

Living in the Between: Raven and Story in Haida Culture

The Haida people traditionally lived along the edges of what are now the Queen Charlotte Islands of Western Canada. To the east lay the North American continent, to the west, seven thousand miles of open ocean. They were and are a culture of the borderland – of a liminal space between land and sea, between the world of animals and of gods. They lived in “an older world in which gods are as innumerable, numinous, mortal and local as killer whales, rocks and trees”.(Robert Bringhurst, “A Story as Sharp as a Knife”, p. 18)

In the classical Haida language, they thought of themselves living at Xhaaydla Gwaayaay – "The Islands on the Boundary Between Worlds." However, they were also, as any culture imagines itself to be, at the center of the world. It is this interesting dichotomy that lends such power to their works of story and art: existing simultaneously at the center of the world and at it's edges.

The Haida culture was unique in that they were able to combine the hunter-gatherer way with the creation of towns that are more commonly associated with a crop-planting culture. They gathered food from the receding tide twice per day, ate berries and other crops gathered from the forests, and hunted the wide bounty of animal life that passed by.

“The Haida planted no crops, and yet they lived, like wealthy farmers, in substantial towns. The rich tradition of Haida art and oral literature is simultaneously rooted in the constant presence of the sea. Manna falls only rarely from the heavens; it emerges daily from the waves. And the primary realm of the gods, in Haida cosmology, is not celestial; it is submarine.” (65)

This bounty of available food gave the Haida the time and freedom for the creation of elaborate art such as totem poles and ceremonial masks, and for the telling of stories. As Bringhurst notes above, in many of the Haida stories the realm of the gods is located beneath the waves, not in some far-off celestial realm.

The ecological components of the world in which the Haida lived, died, and told their stories were complex. Haida Gwaii (their name for their homeland) was a land of water; water which lay just off their beach villages, which fell constantly from the sky, and which ran through the forest, nourishing and giving life to all its creatures, human, animal and mythic. The land of the Haida is green, forested, dense and damp, and their myths and art clearly reflect the landscape in which they lived.

          “The mythworld is structured like a forest or an animal. It wakes and feeds and sleeps and dreams and changes. And it is made of separate parts that live and die. These poems and myths, when they were oral, did the same. The poems themselves were ecological components of the world they describe. It can be navigated by traveling through space, but not through a space that obeys Euclidian rules.” (133)

Haida mythtellers told stories of the lives of the animals and spirit beings that surrounded them much more often than they told tales of human interaction with other humans. Haida villages were located primarily on beaches, and it is in this between space that human life existed (much as the Haida culture as a whole lived in the between space between continent and ocean). The beginning of the tale happened when the human took the small, sideways step into the world of the other, which took him outside the interstitial space of the world of the human into the forest, ocean, or sky world of the animal or god. This small step served the same function thematically as our classic beginning “once upon a time”. “Humans are only at home on the xhaaydla, the boundary or intertidal zone, at the conjunction of all three. A few strokes of the paddle or a few steps into the bush were enough to leave the human world behind.” (155)

Of all the animals and spirit beings that exist in the Haida world, none may be more important to the Haida sense of self than Raven; god, trickster, world maker. He is there at the creation of the world, and, in the following story, invites the first humans to come out of their hiding place to enjoy this new world:

“The great flood, which had covered the earth for so long, had at last receded and the sand ofRose Spit, Haida Gwaii, lay dry. Raven walked around the sand, eyes and ears alert for anyunusual sight or sound to break the monotony. A flash of white caught his eye and there, right at his feet, half buried in the sand, was a gigantic clam shell. He looked more closely and saw thatthe shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror in his enormous shadow. He leaned hisgreat head close and, with his smooth trickster's tongue, coaxed and cajoled and coerced them tocome out and play in his wonderful new shiny world. These little dwellers were the original Haida, the first humans.” (Bill Reid, The Raven and the First Men)

This is an original retelling of the story of the first Haida, retold by modern artist Bill Reid. The image of the spirit being Raven, crouched on the clam shell with the first humans sticking out, speaks powerfully to the level of importance that Raven plays in the imagination of the Haida, even to this day.

Haida society was traditionally divided into two moieties, Eagle and Raven. For a people living on the borderlands, yet also in the center, this division makes perfect sense. Eagle represents the central, regular, human society, the left-hand path. It is with Eagle that food is gathered, judgments are passed down, marriages happen. Raven is the realm of the myth in it's constantly changing form, that step away from the human world that must happen for art and story to exist.

It is because they are a people at the edge of the world that the Haida hold Raven in such high respect. They understand the need for that entry into the liminal spaces. Gods and humans alike are divided into Eagle and Raven sides; “it is part of the intrinsic structure of the world” (Bringhurst 67).

Claude Levi-Strauss has the following to say about Raven:

“The fact that the Amerindians placed a deceitful, insolent, libidinous, and often grotesque character with a penchant for scatology at the forefront of their pantheon sometimes surprises people. But indigenous thought places the Raven at the turning point between two eras... We can no longer do just anything. The trickster discovers this, often to his cost... Raven is both the ultimate rebel and the foremost maker of laws.” (Bringhurst and Reid “The Raven Steals the Light”, from the preface)

The trickster is able to pass through boundaries with great ease, and Raven is able to navigate the liminal space of the Haida easily, creating a path for the Haida to do the same, as they must in order to live and function where they do. Raven “knows how to slip through pores, and how to block them; he confuses polarity by doubling back and reversing himself; he covers his tracks and twists their meanings; and he is polytropic, changing his skin or shifting his shape as the situation requires.” (Lewis Hyde, “Trickster Makes this World”, 62)

These skills are much admired by the Haida people, as they were essential for their own survival. Indeed, it could be argued that the decimation of their culture with the arrival of the whites would have been lessened with more Raven-like behavior on the part of the Haida, to match the Raven-like behavior exhibited by their western invaders.

The Haida people created vast works of art and literature that were mostly lost through their encounter with the west. What remains shows us a slippery and murky path through their myths and images, much like a path through a coastal forest might be slippery and difficult to discern. Each mythteller and artist provides us with a way into their stories, but we must be willing as outsiders to trust ourselves to a path through the unknown, outside our western modes of understanding.

Allison with Haida shaman


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