The Native American attitude toward nonhuman species is reflected, in part, in the fact that various animal species are treated in origin stories as though they are human. Fish, other animals, and even celestial bodies such as stars are portrayed as living in societies with their own customs and villages, which must be approached with the same degree of caution and respect as would be accorded to human communities. Humans are seen as owing a great debt to the humanlike animal characters that are the central figures in origin stories, for these characters are the ones who first set up the world in such a way that humans are able to successfully live in it.
Gregory Schrempp, 1998
According to Tlingit mythology, animals were once humans who were frightened into the woods and the sea by the daylight that Raven let out of a box. Traditional Tlingits believe that people and animals are relatives who can cross into each others’ worlds. Animals have the ability to appear before people in human form and to interact with them in meaningful ways. In some Tlingit stories, such as The Woman Who Married the Bear, animals and humans even marry and raise families. Similarly, as in the story of Salmon Boy, humans can be transformed into animals in supernatural encounters and experience life in the animal world.
Salmon Boy: A Tlingit Legend
Local variations of Salmon Boy are told throughout southeast Alaska. Clan storytellers tell how Salmon Boy learned to treat the salmon with respect so the fish would return each year to feed the people.
A little boy went home for lunch after playing at the beach. “I’m hungry, Mother,” he said. Mother gave him a piece of dried fish. “This fish is moldy,” he complained as he threw it away.
The boy’s treatment of the fish insulted the Salmon People so they decided to teach him a lesson.
When the boy went back to the beach, he disappeared. His mother and father went looking for him, and they searched everywhere. They hunted for him all summer. After many months, they gave up.
The boy had been captured by the Salmon People. They took him far out to sea to their country, where he became a coho (or silver) salmon. He stayed with them for a year.
The Salmon People knew the time had come to return to the rivers to spawn. They told the boy, “We’re going back to your country,” as they paddled along in their canoes.
The boy’s mother was standing by the water still grieving for her lost son, when she saw a beautiful salmon swimming there. She called to her husband to come and catch the fine fish.
As she started to cut the fish in the usual way, her knife hit a copper neck ring around the salmon. She cried out, “This is my son. Here is the copper ring that I put around his neck. He must have been captured by the Salmon People.”
The mother wrapped the salmon in a cedar-bark mat and laid him in the smokehouse. The next day they heard sounds coming from the smokehouse. In place of the salmon, they found a man with long hair. He became a great shaman (a ritual specialist) who could talk with the Salmon People.
This story is a composite of the versions collected by John R Swanton and George T. Emmons at the Tlingit villages of Sitka and Wrangell. This short version emphasizes the story line, omitting the rich detail and complexity present when told by Tlingit storytellers.
Bears, the most important land animal, typifies the relationship between humans and animals. In nature a bear behaves like a human and competes for the same resources. It can walk on its hind legs, fish for salmon, and use its dexterous paws to eat berries and nuts. When pursuing a bear, the hunter carefully carries out a special ritual, for he is killing a creature whose soul is akin to his own.
The Woman Who Married the Bear
In some Tlingit legends, animals appear before people in human form and may even marry them and raise families. In this story the human wife learns to treat the bear with respect. The bear teaches her the ritual observances for its proper killing, which she brings back to her human community.
A young woman went out to pick berries. On the way home she stepped in a pile of brown bear’s droppings. She cursed the bear for always pooping in a pathway where a person could step in it.
The brown bear heard her insults. He appeared to her as a fine looking young man. “Come with me,” he said. She followed him a long way up into the mountains.
They came to a place with people—at least that’s how it seemed to her. When she awoke at dawn, she pushed aside the blanket and saw brown bears instead of humans asleep around her.
She married the bear, who looked like a man to her, and they had two children. In the meantime, her five brothers searched for their sister. They found her footprints alongside the bear tracks, and then they knew that she had gone with the bear.
The brown bear had a vision. He told his wife, “Your brothers are making medicine against me. The youngest will get me.” The wife marked where they lived, so her brother could find the den.
“Your brother is getting close,” the bear said.
She begged him, “Please don’t harm my brother.”
The brown bear knew her brother was going to kill him. So he instructed his wife: “Don’t be careless with my skin. Drape it so my head points toward the setting sun.”
The wife took his instructions back to her people. That’s why hunters still follow them today.
This story is a composite of the versions told by Tom Peters (collected by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer) and by Sheldon and Mary James, Sr., and Minnie Johnson (collected by Frederica de Laguna). This short version emphasizes the story line, omitting the rich detail and cultural complexity present when told by Tlingit storytellers.
The raven also moves between the creature and human worlds, bestowing gifts yet playing tricks on humans in an extensive series of stories. He has a dual personality. As a culture hero and transformer, Raven is credited with shaping much of our world. As a trickster, he is driven to outlandish adventures by his selfishness, greed, and hunger.
Raven rattles conventionally depict a complex scene in which a human reclines on the back of a raven while his tongue connects with the tongue of a frog. Meanwhile a second bird’s head, formed from the raven’s tail, holds the frog. High-ranking men carried these rattles with the scene inverted as they danced ceremoniously.