Ravens in Native American Culture
The symbolic meaning of the Raven in Native American lore describes the raven as a creature of metamorphosis, and symbolizes change/transformation.
In some tribes, the Raven is considered a trickster because of its transforming/changing attributes. This is especially true for the Haida tribe, who claim he discovered the first humans hiding in a clam shell and brought them berries and salmon.
Each tribe had a name for the bird and because of its non-secretive habits, it is one of the most familiar birds to the casual observer. The Sioux tell the story of how a white raven used to warn buffalo of approaching hunting parties. The buffalo would then stampede, and the hunters would be left hungry. Eventually, an angry shaman threw the bird into the fire which turned it black.
Often honored among medicine & holy men of tribes for its shape-shifting qualities, the Raven was called upon in ritual so that visions could be clarified. Native holy men understood that what the physical eye sees, is not necessarily the truth, and he would call upon the Raven for clarity in these matters.
Foremost, the Raven is the Native American bearer of magic, and a harbinger of messages from the cosmos. Messages that are beyond space and time are nestled in the midnight wings of the Raven and come to only those within the tribe who are worthy of the knowledge.
The Raven is also a keeper of secrets, and can assist us in determining answers to our own “hidden” thoughts. Areas in our lives that we are unwilling to face, or secrets we keep that harm us – the Raven can help us expose the truth behind these (often distorted) secrets and wing us back to health and harmony.
Although there is no evidence that Raven was ever worshiped, as such, it is said by some that the Northwest peoples did used to leave food out on the beaches for ravens. In this form he is capable of inspiring awe and terror, although always there is that twinkle in the eye and the knowledge that it can be only moments before he says something that will inspire laughter. His creative nature usually shows itself through circumstance rather than intent, through the desire to satisfy his own needs, rather than any altruistic principles, but he seems genuinely fond of human beings, as related in “Raven finds the First Men”, amongst others.
In his later, perhaps younger guise, Raven, or Yetl/Yelth, is often the butt of his own jokes; these are the stories in which Raven is often undertaking a position taken by Coyote in the desert and plains regions of the South. In this guise, Raven is at his most devious and tricky, is also cruel, with little thought for anyone or anything other than his own stomach. He will go to great efforts to satisfy his appetite, from tricking his cousin Crow out of his entire Winter’s food supply, to tricking Deer into leaping onto some rocks so that he may be devoured, and even tricking an entire tribe into being killed by an avalanche so that he might eat their eyes.
He is the Raven at whom the young Haida men are allowed to laugh, but is also the Raven of whom to be most wary. He can be much crueler than his demiurge culture hero self. This Raven will have you in fits of laughter while he distracts you from the fact he is tricking you into doing something for him you may not actually want to do, and which may cost you dearly. Some of the stories do have Crow as the main character, and the main difference appears to be that Crow stories concern the themes of justice rather than greed, even if justice is not always seen to be done, as in the story of Raven and Crow’s Potlatch, mentioned above.
The only time at which Raven’s position in the Northwest coast culture bears any similarity to that in European culture is in his guise as one of the servants of the medicine lodge tutelary Baxbakualanuchsiwae, the Kwakiutl Cannibal Spirit, whose initiates practice ritual anthropology. This is a comparatively recent trend in the culture, and is not widely mentioned.
In Raven stories told by the Tlingit and other tribes along the Pacific coast and Canada, Raven likes to cause trouble for humankind, but his actions often end up benefiting us.
In the Haida legend “How Raven Gave Light to the World”, Raven wants to steal the boxes that hold the stars, Moon, and Sun for himself but the people ultimately benefit from his trick when the light is mistakenly released into the sky. The Inuit tell a slightly different version in which the young girl swallows a feather and later gives birth to the raven, whom she later entertains by giving him her father’s relic. In breaking the relic, light is let into the world.
In our new column, Raven Lore, we will be sharing with you the wonderful stories passed down through various native cultures in America and beyond. We hope you enjoy them!