Bulletin 39, Bureau of American Ethnology

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Date: 1909

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53.

THE CREATION ACCORDING TO THE TLINGIT INDIANS OF SOUTHERN ALASKA1

ByJOHNR.SWANTONn/an/an/an/a

At the beginning of things there was no daylight and the world lay in blackness. Then there lived in a house at the head of Nass river a being called Nasshakiyel, "Raven-at-the-head-of-Nass" (the principal deity to whom the Tlingit formerly prayed but whom no one had seen); and in his house were all kinds of things including sun, moon, stars, and daylight. . . . With him were two old men called Old-man-who-foresees-all-troubles-in-the-world and He-who-knows-everything-that-happens. Next to Nasshakiyel, they prayed to the latter of these. Under the earth was a third old person, Old-woman-underneath, placed under the world by Nasshakiyel. Nasshakiyel was unmarried and lived alone with these two old men, and yet he had a daughter, a thing no one is able to explain. Nor do people know what this daughter Was. The two old persons took care of her like servants, and especially they always looked into the water before she drank to see that it was perfectly clean.

First of all beings Nasshakiyel created the Heron as a very tall and very wise man, and after him the Raven (Yel), who was also a very good and very wise man at that time.

Raven came into being in this wise. His first mother had many children, but they all died young, and she cried over them continually. According to some, this woman was Nasshakiyel’s sister and it was Nass-hakiyel who was doing this because he did not wish her to have any male children. By and by Heron came to her and said, "What is it that you are crying about all the time?" She answered, "I am always losing my children. I can not bring them up." Then he said, "Go down on the beach when the tide is lowest, get a small, smooth stone, and put it into the fire. When it is red hot, swallow it. Do not be afraid." She said, "All right." Then she followed Heron’s directions and gave birth to Raven. Therefore Raven’s name was really Ichak, the name of a very hard rock, and he was hence called Hammer-father. That is why Raven was so tough and could not easily be killed.

Heron and Raven both became servants to Nasshakiyel, but he thought more of Raven and made him head man over the world. Then Nass-hakiyel made some people.

All of the beings Nasshakiyel had created, however, existed in darkness, and this existence lasted for a long time, how long is unknown. But Raven felt very sorry for the few people in darkness, and, at last, he said to himself, "If I were only the son of Nasshakiyel I could do almost anything." So he studied what he should do and decided upon a plan. He made himself very small, turned himself into a hemlock needle, and floated upon the water Nasshakiyel’s daughter was about to drink. Then she swallowed it and soon after became pregnant.

Although all this was by the will of Nasshakiyel and although he knew what was the matter with his daughter, yet he asked her how she had gotten into that condition. She said, "I drank water, and I felt that I had swallowed something in it." Then Nasshakiyel instructed them to get moss for his daughter to lie upon, and on that the child was born. They named him Nasshakiyel also. Then Nasshakiyel cut a basket in two and used half of it for a cradle, and he said that people would do the same thing in future times, so they have since referred its use to him.

Nasshakiyel tried to make human beings out of a rock and out of a leaf at the same time, but the rock was slow while the leaf was very quick. Therefore human beings came from the leaf. Then he showed a leaf to the human beings and said, "You see this leaf. You are to be like it. When it falls off the branch and rots there is nothing left of it." That is why there is death in the world. If men had come from the rock there would be no death. Years ago people used to say when they were getting old, "We are unfortunate in not having been made from a rock. Being made from a leaf, we must die."

Nasshakiyel also said, "After people die, if they are not witches, and do not lie or steal, there is a good place for them to go to." Wicked people are to be dogs and such low animals hereafter. The place for good people is above, and, when one comes up there, he is asked, "What were you killed for?" or "What was your life in the world?" The place he went to was governed by his reply. So people used to say to their children, "Do not lie. Do not steal. For the Maker (Nasshakiyel) will see you."

Some time afterward a man died, and Raven, coming into the house, saw him there with his wife and children weeping around him. So he raised the dead man’s blanket with both hands, held it over the body, and brought him back to life.

After that both Raven and her husband told this woman that there was no death, but she disbelieved them. Then Raven said to her, "Lie down and go to sleep." And, as she slept, she thought she saw a wide trail with many people upon it and all kinds of fierce animals around. Good people had to pass along this trail in order to live again. When she came to the end of the trail there was a great river there, and a canoe came across to her from the other side of it. She entered this and crossed. There some people came to her and said, "You had better go back. We are not in a good place. There is starvation here, we are cold, and we get no water to drink."

This is why people burn the bodies of the dead and put food into the fire for them to eat. Burning their bodies makes the dead comfortable. If they were not burned their spirits would be cold. This is why they invite all those of the opposite clan as well as the nearest relations of the dead man’s wife, seating them together in one place, and burn food in front of them. It is because they think that the dead person gets all of the property destroyed at the feast and all of the food then burned up. It is on account of what Raven showed them that they do so.

Because Nasshakiyel got it into his mind to wish for daylight in the world, he had wished for a grandchild through whom it might come. Now, therefore, although he knew what answer he would receive, he sent for He-who-knows-everything-that-happens and questioned hill to see whether he would answer right: "Where did this child come from? Whose is it? Can you tell?" And the other said, "His eyes look like the eyes of Raven." That is how he came to get the name Raven.

After a while the baby began to crawl about. His grandfather thought a great deal of him and let him play with everything in the house. Everything in the house was his. The Raven began crying for the moon, until finally they handed it to him and quick as a wink he let it go up into the sky. After he had obtained everything else, he began to cry for the box in which daylight was stored. He cried, cried, cried for a very long time, until he looked as though he were getting very sick, and finally his grandfather said, "Bring my child here." So they handed Raven to his grandfather. Then his grandfather said to him, "My grandchild, I am giving you the last thing I have in the world." So he gave it to him.

Then Raven, who was already quite large, walked down along the bank of Nass river until he heard the noise people were making as they fished along the shore for eulachon in the darkness. All the people in the world then lived at one place at the mouth of the Nass. They had already heard that Nasshakiyel had something called "daylight," which would some day come into the world, and they used to talk about it a great deal. They were afraid of it.

Then Raven shouted to the fishermen, "Why do you make so much noise? If you make so much noise I will break daylight on you." Eight canoe loads of people were fishing there. But they answered, "You are not Nasshakiyel. How can you have the daylight?", and the noise continued. Then Raven opened the box a little and light shot over the world like lightning. At that they made still more noise. So he opened the box completely and there was daylight everywhere.

When this daylight burst upon the people they were very much frightened, and some ran into the water, some into the woods. Those that had hair-seal or fur-seal skins for clothing ran into the water and became hair seals and fur seals. Hair seal and fur seal were formerly only the names of the clothing they had. Those who had skins called marten skins, black-bear skins, grizzly-bear skins, etc., ran into the woods and turned into such animals.

Petrel was one of the first persons created by Nasshakiyel. He was keeper of the fresh water, and would let none else touch it. The spring he owned was on a rocky island outside of Kuiu, called Dekinu, where the well may still be seen. Raven stole a great mouthful of this water and dropped it here and there as he went along. This is the origin of the great rivers of the world, the Nass, Skeena, Stikine, Chilkat, and others. He said, "This thing that I drop here and there will whirl all the time. It will not overflow the world, yet there will be plenty of water." Before this time Raven is said to have been pure white, but, as he was flying up through the smoke hole with Petrel’s water, the latter said, "Spirits, hold down my smoke hole." So they held him until he was turned black by the smoke.

After this Raven saw a fire far out at sea. Tying a piece of pitch-wood to a chicken hawk’s bill, he told him to go Out to this fire, touch it with the pitchwood, and bring it back. When he had brought it to him Raven put it into the rock and the red cedar saying, "This is how you are to get your fire, from this rock and this red cedar," and that is the way they formerly did.

Thus Raven went about among the natives of Alaska telling them what to do, but Nasshakiyel they never saw. Raven showed all the Tlingit what to do for a living, but he did not get to be such a high person as Nasshakiyel, and he taught the people much foolishness. At that time the world was full of dangerous animals and fish. Raven also tied up some witches, and so it was through him that the people believed in witchcraft. Then he told the people that some wild animals were to be their friends (i.e., their crest animals) to which they were to talk.

Once he gave a feast and invited persons to it from other places. He had two slaves after that, named Gidzaget and Gidzanuku. This is why the natives here had slaves. It was on account of his example. There was a man who had no arm, so Raven thought he would be a shaman and cure him. This is how the Tlingit came to have shamans. After there was death he showed them how to dance over the body placed in the middle of the floor.

Raven also taught the people how to make halibut hooks, and went out fishing with them. He had names for the halibut hooks and talked to them before he let them down into the sea. That is why the natives do so now. He also taught them to be very quick when they went out halibut fishing or they would catch nothing.

He also made different kinds of fish traps and taught the people how to use them. He made the small variety and a big trap, shaped like a barrel, for use in the Stikine. . . .

Then he showed them how to make a canoe. This he did on the Queen Charlotte islands. At first the people were afraid to get into it, but he said, "The canoe is not dangerous. People will seldom get drowned."

He taught them how to catch a salmon called ishken, which requires a different kind of hook from that used for halibut. The place where he taught people how to get different kinds of shellfish is a beach on the Queen Charlotte islands called Raven’s beach to this day.

After he was through teaching the people these things, he went under the ocean, and when he came back, taught them that the sea animals are not what we think they are, but are like human beings. First he went to the halibut people. They have a chief who invited him to eat, and had dried devilfish and other kinds of dried fish brought out. He was well liked everywhere he went under the sea because he was a very smart man. After that he went to see the sculpin people, who were very industrious and had all kinds of things in their houses, The killer-whale people seemed to live on hair-seal meat, fat, and oil. Their head chief was named Gonakadet, and even to this day the natives say that the sight of him brings good fortune.

While he was under the ocean he saw some people fishing for halibut, and he tried to tease them by taking hold of their bait. They, however, caught him by the bill and pulled him up as far as the bottom of their canoe, where he braced himself so that they pulled his bill out. They did not know what this bill was and called it "bill-of-something-unknown." Then Raven went from house to house inquiring for his bill until he came to the house of the chief. Upon asking for it there, they handed it to him wrapped in eagle down. Then he put it back into its place and flew off through the smoke hole.

Raven left that town and came to another. There he saw a king salmon jumping about far out at sea. He got it ashore and killed it. Because he was able to do everything, the natives did all that he told them. He was the one who taught all things to the natives, and some of them still follow his teachings. After that he got all kinds of birds for his servants. It was through these that people found out he was the Raven.

Once he went to a certain place and told the people to go and fight others. He said, "You go there and kill them all, and you will have all the things in that town." This was the beginning of war.

After having been down among the fish teaching them, Raven went among the birds and land animals. He said to the grouse, "You are to live in a place where it is wintry, and you will always look out for a place high up so that you can get plenty of breeze." Then he handed the grouse four white pebbles, telling him to swallow them so that they might become his strength. "You will never starve," he said, "so long as you have these four pebbles." He also said, "You know that Sealion is your grandchild. You must be generous, get four more pebbles and give them to him." That is how the sealion came to have four large pebbles. It throws these at hunters, and, if one strikes a person, it kills him. From this story it is known that the grouse and the sealion can understand each other.

Raven said to the ptarmigan: "You will be the maker of snowshoes. You will know how to travel in snow." It was from these birds that the Athapascans learned how to make snowshoes, and it was from them that they learned how to put their lacings on.

Next Raven came to the "wild canary," which is found in the Tlingit country all the year round, and said: "You will be head among the very small birds. You are not to live on what human beings eat. Keep away from them."

Then he went to the robin and said: "You will make the people happy by letting them hear your whistle. You will be a good whistler." . . .

Raven observed certain regulations very strictly when he was among the rivers he had created. He told people never to mention anything that lives in the sea by its right name while they were there, but to call a seal a rabbit, for instance, and so with the other animals. This was to keep them from meeting with misfortune among the rapids. Formerly the Indians were very strict with their children when they went up the rivers, but nowadays all that has been forgotten.

After this Raven went to Chilkat and entered a sweat house along with the chief of the killer whales who tried to roast him. Raven, however, had a piece of ice near him and every now and then put part of it into his mouth. Then he would tell the killer whale that he felt chilly and make him feel ashamed. "If I did not belong to the Ganahtedi family," said Raven, "I could not have stood that sweat house." For this reason the Ganahtedi now claim the raven as an emblem and think they have more right to it than anybody else.

It was from Raven that people found out there are Athapascan Indians. He went back into their country. So the Chilkat people to this day make their money by going thither. He also showed the Chilkat people how to make tcil, secret storehouses maintained some distance out of town, and he taught them how to put salmon into these and keep them frozen there over winter. So the Chilkat people got their name from tcil, "storehouse," and hat, "salmon."

Raven also showed the Chilkat people the first seeds of the Indian tobacco and taught them how to plant it. After it was grown up, he dried it, gathered clam shells, roasted them until they were very soft, and pounded them up with the tobacco. They used to chew this, and it was so good that it is surprising they gave it up. They made a great deal of money at Chilkat by trading with this among the interior Indians, but nowadays it is no longer planted. . . .

One day Raven saw a whale far out at sea and sat down on the beach to study how he should bring it ashore. Then he got some pitchwood and rocks of the kind that was formerly used in making fire, flew out to the place where he thought the whale would come up, and went into its open mouth. He made a fire inside of the whale and cooked everything there. Only he would not touch the heart. When the whale took in many fish he ate them. Finally he did cut the whale’s heart out and killed it, after which it began drifting about from place to place. Then he sang: "Let the one who wants to be high-born like me cut the whale open and let me out, and he will be as high as I am." He also sang: "Let the whale go ashore. Let the whale go ashore on a long sandy beach." Finally he heard waves breaking on a sandy beach, and he said again: "Let the one who wants to be high-born like me cut the whale open and let me out, and he will be as high as I am." Suddenly he heard the voices of children. These children heard his voice, went home and informed their parents. Then the people all came there and cut the whale open, and Raven flew off into the woods crying "koné, koné, koné."

Raven stayed up in the woods a long time in order to get the grease and smell off his feathers, and, when he came down again, he saw boxes and boxes of whale grease. Then he made believe he was surprised and asked the people where they got all of it. They said: "We found a whale that had come right in here where we could get it easily. So we are making oil out of it." Said he: "Did you hear anything inside when it first came ashore?" "Yes! there was some strange sound in there, and something flew out calling itself koné." Then Raven answered, "Years ago just such a thing as this happened, and all of the people of that town that heard the noise died. It brings bad luck to hear such a noise in a whale. You people must leave this right away. Don’t eat any of it. Leave it here." Then all of the people believed him and left their oil there. It became his. . . .

He went along again, saw a nice fat deer, and said to it, "My friend this is you, is it?" There was a deep, narrow canyon near by and Raven laid a rotten stick across it saying, "Let us go across to the Other side upon this," but the deer said, "No, I can not. It would break with me and I shall get hurt." "No, you shall see how I cross it." So Raven went over and Deer tried to follow him but fell to the bottom of the canyon and was crushed to death. Then Raven went down and ate him, stuffing himself so full that he could scarcely move. He then acted as though he were very sad and pretended to cry, saying, "My friend, my friend, he is gone." He pretended that the wild animals had devoured him.

After this Raven went to ground-hog’s house for the winter. The ground-hogs go into their their holes in September. At home they live like human beings and to them we are animals just as much. So Raven spent the winter with one of them and became very sick of it, but he could not get out. The ground-hog enjoyed himself very much, but Raven acted as if he were in prison and kept shouting to his companion, "Winter comes on, Winter comes on," thinking that the ground-hog had power to make the winter pass rapidly. The ground-hog had to stay in his hole for six months, and at that time he had six toes, one for each, but Raven pulled one of his toes out of each foot in order to shorten the winter. That is why he has but five nowadays.

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Chicago: "The Creation According to the Tlingit Indians of Southern Alaska1," Bulletin 39, Bureau of American Ethnology in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed May 25, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3H9NI76UQ7RPEYM.

MLA: . "The Creation According to the Tlingit Indians of Southern Alaska1." Bulletin 39, Bureau of American Ethnology, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 25 May. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3H9NI76UQ7RPEYM.

Harvard: , 'The Creation According to the Tlingit Indians of Southern Alaska1' in Bulletin 39, Bureau of American Ethnology. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 25 May 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3H9NI76UQ7RPEYM.