Pacific Northwest The Pacific Northwest is an area along southeastern Alaska, the coast of British Columbia in Canada, Washington State, northern Oregon and Idaho and western Montana.
Culture • There were several tribes that lived in the Pacific Northwest, they included the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, Makah and Coast Salish. • The Pacific Northwest Indians lived along the rivers, bays and beaches of the rocky coasts between dense forested areas. • They depended on the rivers and sea for food and the forest for wood for their shelters. • They believed that the world was filled with spirit beings that lived in the animals and trees.
Mythology • Mythology is a set of beliefs centered around characters, often gods and spirits, through generations, often handed down through stories.
Potlatches • A potlatch is an important custom where the communities gathered to feast and celebrate with dancing, singing and storytelling. • Preparation often took several years. • The occasion could be a marriage, birth or the raising of a totem pole. • They always included lavish gift giving. • They would sometimes last for days. • They were important to the social structure of the tribe by establishing social rules and status.
The Tradition of Storytelling • During the long rainy and cold winters in their homes and at potlatches myths were told. These stories passed on tribal traditions and taught lessons to each generation. • The characters in these stories were illustrated in their artwork.
Raven • He is a glutton and a trickster. He is the most used character in Northwest Indian tales. He is a shape-changer and a spirit being. He could take any form, but he was usually in human or bird form. He is considered the creator, he found the first people in a giant clamshell and became their teacher and protector. He is often shown with the sun disk in his beak because he placed the stars, sun and moon in the sky. In his wings you will see salmon heads because he brought the first salmon. He is often used as a family crest.
Beaver • The Beaver is a hard worker pictured with large teeth, a cross hatched tail and often a stick in his mouth that he can gnaw on. Some stories say that the beginnings of the fish runs started with Raven’s setting the fish free from the Beaver’s lodge. He is a popular decorative and ceremonial figure in Northwest art.
Mouse Woman • The “tiniest of grandmothers and the busiest of busybodies”, she is the fairy god-mother of Northwest tales. A spirit-being, she could instantly change into many forms, though usually that of a white mouse or a tiny old Indian woman. Her big mouse eyes saw everything that happened. She always tried to maintain order and balance, though she often would help a young person in distress. She did this in exchange for some wool that she would unravel into a tangled mouse nest.
Eagle • He can be recognized by his hooked beak and crest-like “ears”. Eagle down feathers were used ceremonially and symbolized peace. A symbol of both power and prestige, Eagle was a popular clan crest.
Killer Whale • These Indians depended on the sea for their food and some tribes were even whalers. Killer whale’s crest was often carved or painted on the bows of canoes used for hunting in order to call up his spirit to guide them in the hunts. Killer whale can always be recognized by his tail flukes, dorsal fin, teeth and of course his blow-hole.
Wolf • Wolf can always be recognized by his canine teeth, long ears and curled tail. Revered as a good hunter, the body of this wolf is a face that represents the spirit believed to dwell within the animal form. Such spirit faces are often seen within animal forms.
Owl • Owl can always be recognized by his distinctive eyes. Owls were often feared and associated with death. But through ever watchful with eyes that never closed and by being solitary, Owl still was often outwitted by the resourceful Raven who stole the fire from him to give to man.
Bear • Bear was always hungry and greedy and always pictured with his distinctive face and a tongue that is hanging out. He was usually Raven’s enemy. This Bear has taken Salmon, his favorite food.
Mountain Goat • Mountain goats were hunted for their wool which was prized and woven into dancing blankets and made into ear ornaments for upper class Indians. He is recognizable by his curved horns and small hoofed feet. Offending him was sure to bring destruction. Coyote, a popular Northwest trickster married Mountain Goat’s daughter.
Raven and Crow’s Potlatch Raven used to live high up in the upper Skagit River country. He was very lazy. In the summer when the other animals were busy gathering food for winter, he would be flying from rock to stump and stump to rock making fun of them. Raven just laughed when Crow (his cousin) urged him to follow squirrel’s example-but Raven never prepared for the cold months, when the snow would drift over the ground and cover all the remaining food. But now Raven was in trouble. Winter had come and the snows were deep. He was hungry-and Raven loved to eat. He had to find someone who would share their food with him. Raven went to see Squirrel. He had a huge supply of pine nuts and seeds and other food hidden all over the place. Raven poked his head in squirrel’s nest in a old fir tree. Squirrel had lots to eat. Raven politely begged for some food. Squirrel scolded him-that was always Squirrel’s way- “you refused to work and save for winter-and you poked much fun at me-you deserve to starve!” Raven went looking for Bear. But Bear was sound asleep in his cave and could not be wakened. Raven looked around for some food, but it was all in Bear’s belly-Bear had already
eaten it all and was sleeping till spring. Raven was now very hungry. He thought: “who can give me something to eat? Everyone is either stingy like Squirrel or sleeping like Bear and Marmot, or they have gone South for winter like the snowbirds.” Then he thought of Crow-he would be easy to fool! Raven flew to Crow’s nest. “Cousin Crow, we must talk about your coming potlatch!” Crow answered, “I have not planned a potlatch.” Raven ignored his response. “Crow, everyone is talking about your potlatch-will you sing at it?” “Sing?” Crow had not known that anybody really cared for his singing voice-though in those days, Crow’s song was much more like that of Wood Thrush than it is today. Raven continued to talk of Crow’s potlatch. “You are very talented and possess a beautiful voice-everyone will be so disappointed if you don’t sing at your potlatch!” “What potlatch?. . .You really like my singing?” “We love your singing, Crow,” Raven answered. “The Winter’s cold has chilled the forest and we’re cold and hungry and singing will help us forget our cold feet and empty stomachs. Now you get started fixing the food-looks like you have plenty here-and I will go invite the guests to your potlatch. You can practice your songs as you cook!” Crow’s hesitation now overcome, he began to prepare all the food he had collected for winter, and as he prepared it, he practiced his songs. The more he thought of the feast and how everyone wanted to hear him sing, the more excited he got about it. Meanwhile Raven was offering invitations to all the
animals of the forest. (Of course Marmot and Beaver were sleeping like Bear, and Robin and Goose were gone South) To each he said the same thing: “come to My potlatch! I have worked hard to prepare it. There will be much food at Raven’s potlatch and Crow is helping and will sing for us. . There will be fern roots and wild potatoes, dried berries, fish and meat. Come to My potlatch! It will be a great occasion.” Raven did not invite Squirrel however since he had refused to share his food with Raven. But all the rest of the animals were invited to Raven’s potlatch!” When he returned to Crow-he was busy singing and cooking. Raven told him-”everyone is coming-be sure and fix all your food-they will be hungry after their journey. And your songs are sounding so good!” Crow’s potlatch will be a great feast!” As the guests arrived, Raven welcomed each one to his potlatch. There were deer and mountain goat and mouse, rabbit and jay. The guests were seated and the food was brought out. Crow started to sit and eat-but Raven asked him for a song first. “It’s not good to sing on a full stomach, Crow.” So, Crow began to sing. Every time he would stop to eat-Raven would insist he sing another song. “You can’t sing with your mouth full, Crow!” Encouraged again and again by the guests-who were busy stuffing themselves with Crow’s food-Crow sang song after song after song-all day until night-and Crow’s voice became hoarser and hoarser until all he could do was “caw-caw”.
As was the custom the leftover food was collected by the guests and taken by them for their homeward journey. Even Raven had taken his share and left as Crow was cleaning up. Crow had nothing left to eat. “At least,” Crow thought, “I won’t go hungry- I will be invited to their feasts.” For it was the custom that having been entertained, each guest was now obliged to return the favor and invite the host for a return potlatch. But the invitations never came. Since all the guests thought it was Raven who hosted the feast, Raven was invited to enough dinners to keep his stomach full for several winters-and-he never went hungry. But Crow, who had been fooled, had been reduced to starving, and never regained his singing voice either. He was destined to spend his winters begging in the camps of men for scraps of food. And that’s where we find him today-squabbling over scraps-caw, caw, caw!
Totem poles • Totem poles have been made in the Pacific Northwest since ancient times, however the size and number of poles increased in the 1800s. • They were carved from red cedar and have multiple figures carved into them. • There are different types. They can be house frontal poles placed against the house front, often serving as doorways. They can be interior house posts that support the roof beams. And they can be free standing memorial poles placed in front of the houses. • Only the best artists were commissioned to carve the red cedar poles. • The figures usually represent ancestors and mythological characters that were once encountered by the family’s ancestors. Therefore, the family could use the character as a crest. The poles proclaimed the status, identity and history of the owner. • It isn’t possible to interpret what the pole really means without knowing the history of the pole and the family that owns it.
Kwakiutl Village Totem Pole • The meaning of this pole was described by one of the members of the family who owned it: At the top is the Raven with the moon in his mouth. This figure identifies the owners of the pole as Ravens and relates the story of how Raven stole the sun, moon and stars from a rich man who kept them hidden in a box. Below the raven is a woman with a frog. They represent the story of a Ga.nax.ádi woman who teased a frog and was
carried away to the frog town where she married and had two frog children. She escaped by sending her two sons back to the house of her father to fetch a bone for the piercing of skin. They had her father break a dam in order to drain the lake where the frog village was located, killing all of the frogs except her two sons. The figures at the bottom of the pole all relate to another Raven story. Below the frog is Mink, Raven, then a whale with its head pointing downward. At the bottom is the Chief of all Birds. Raven took Mink along as his companion, and they were swallowed by a whale who took them across the water as a favor. The whale invited them to cut pieces from his blubber for food, asking only that they avoid his heart. The whale drifted ashore at Rose Spit on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). The people outside cut a hole for them to escape, and Mink jumped out all covered with oil. He rolled in rotten wood, giving his fur the appearance it has today, and Raven did the same thing. Raven and Mink walked around Haida Gwaii and found a big house. Inside lived a man with a bird beak who was the Chief of all Birds. Raven considered himself the Chief of all Ravens, and the Chief of all Birds was not pleased with him, and so he turned him into the ordinary Raven we know today.
Bibliography • www.washington.edu • www.washington.edu/burkemuseum • www.eldrbarry.net