Sunday, September 14, 2008

First Nations and an Imperfect World

Growing up in Victoria, I was exposed a lot to Native American culture and history, in school and elsewhere. Never mind that the art often came in the form of tourist souvenirs; at least my family twice had the privilege of watching bona fide totem poles being carved, and, once, of sitting and listening to a drumming circle at the shore of Elk Lake

It is customary in leftist events (especially demonstrations) – which tend to celebrate e.g. saving the rainforest through decriminalizing marijuana and joining the European Union and stopping discrimination against women to pacifism – to mention that said event is taking place on Coast Salish territory. Certainly not all encounters are prejudicial. There is undoubtedly, however, a widespread stereotype that natives are lazy, alcoholic, and petty criminals, which a handful of classmates repeated without being challenged.

At any rate, as for the natural history of First Nations and their interactions with the temperate rainforest in British Columbia down all the way to Oregon, though it is rather a botanical than anthropological work — a helpful text is Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Lone Pine, 1994), by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. It is principally intended as a field guide, to help the botany enthusiast identify the plants he encounters on his rambles. There is a fair range of diverse detail, though, and I am quite satisfied with its plentiful images of the plants to help identify them in the wild, as well as with the paragraphs that verbally list the manifold uses of plants like the cedar tree or tule (a type of rush that grows in watery ground, for instance).

Anyway, what principally interested me here, given the context of Sunday and religion, are the native creation myths. There is not one overarching myth. Around Victoria, the major groups are the Coast Salish, the Nootka (a.k.a. Nuu-chah-nulth) and, to the north, the Kwakiutl (a.k.a. Kwakwaka'wakw), though the Haida (a.k.a. xaa.aadaa 7laaisiss, but "Haida" is fine for most mortals) from the Queen Charlotte Islands are also prominent. Not only are the myths and legends of these tribes diverse; there are, of course, still greater differences between their beliefs and those of the Native Americans in the prairies and the East. What I like about the Pacific Northwest Coast myths is that they are not humourless, and that they, far from painting the world in black and white, recognize psychological complexities. The spirit-figures in them (e.g. the Raven) have the moral ambiguity, and the capriciousness, which also characterize the gods of ancient Greece.

The tome of native legends, which I thought we had in our apartment, we either don't have, or it is temporarily hidden among the thousands of other books. Fortunately, my grandfather mentions Tlingit tales (the Tlingit being a people which inhabits the general vicinity of the Alaskan panhandle) in his unpublished memoirs,* as these tales were recounted in Raven, by Dale Burlison De Armond (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1975).
In the first story, it is told how Raven created the world from earth and stones. The world that he created did not please the Raven; it was not the way he had envisioned it. So he destroyed it and formed another world, which he didn't like either. After further efforts, he gave up trying to create a perfect world. He said, "To hell with it!" and left the world imperfect – and so it has remained. [ . . . ]

In further stories, the Raven brings light, water and fire to the earth, and sets the sun in the firmament. This was after a flood, which he had caused himself, out of curiosity; for though he may be an intelligent, clever and wise bird with an enchanting voice, whose sounds are characteristic in southwestern Alaska, he is also a rogue, who likes to do mischief.

As all the people had died in the flood, or he had turned them into stone, he created new people out of leaves. That is why many people die in autumn, when the leaves fall from the trees.
* Erinnerungen: "Ein Traum ist das Leben" (German-English translation by me)

Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest (Introduction to excellently detailed series of essays)
Flickr Photos (Kwakiutl, Coast Salish, Haida)

Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Publisher's information on book)

Tlingit Myths and Texts (Myths as stiltedly recorded in 1904 by John R. Swanton)
Seeking Native American Spirituality (Amusingly but justly irate warning against quack spirituality)
Society-Tlingit (Short essay on the Tlingit)

[N.B. Edited November 2, 2014.]

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