Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest are renowned for their totem poles. These colorful, handcrafted totems are much more than decorative art – they are used to tell traditional creation stories and share valuable life lessons.
Totems also delineate the generations and social rank within each tribe. Families are represented by different animals and characters, which were given human traits to help people better identify with them. Raven is one such character that often appears on totem poles.
Native Americans believe Raven to be the great transformer, the one who released human beings from the cockle shell and gave them fire and other gifts. He created the land, and placed the stars in the night sky. Yet he is also a sacred trickster, a shift-changer who is gluttonous, greedy and only able to change the world by stealing, deceiving others or simply by accident.
Ravens are used as clan animals by many Native American tribes including the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nisgaa-Gitksan, Salishan and Menominee. Different tribes often have their own take on Raven creation stories. Here is an adaptation of the Tlingit story, “How Raven Gave Light to the World”:
The Eyak Indians of Alaska tell how Grey Eagle guarded the sun, moon, stars, water and fire, but wouldn’t share them with humankind. So Raven stole them from Grey Eagle’s longhouse and flew as high as he could, hanging the sun, moon and stars in the skies above. He then flew back over the land and dropped the water that formed into lakes, rivers and streams. As Raven continued on, the smoke from the fire stick blew back on him, turning his feathers black. When it finally burned his beak, he dropped the stick on some rocks, concealing the fire within them – a spark of which emerges when you strike two stones together.
Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan, Alaska is home to the world's largest collection of Native American totem poles, while the totems in Vancouver's Stanley Park are one of British Columbia's most popular attractions.
When the park was badly damaged by a windstorm in 2006, large pieces of scrap wood and timber were given to local Native artists and craftspeople. Coast Salish artist Richard Krentz selected a Douglas fir stump, transforming it into this Raven sculpture. The aptly named "Raven: Spirit of Transformation" is on display at Miniature Railway Plaza in Stanley Park.
Photo credit: Tlingit Raven Clan Totem Pole at Tlingit Heritage Center in Teslin, Yukon, Canada by Ruth Hager