Tag Archives: Haida

Raven Steals the Sun

Raven Steals The SunThis is an ancient story told on the Queen Charlotte Islands about how Raven helped to bring the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fresh Water and Fire to the world.

Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the
guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire.
Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden.
People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her.
In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he
pleased Gray Eagle’s daughter. She invited him to her father’s

When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle’s lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole. As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he
dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there
became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the
world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The
smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them
black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It
struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike
two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

Raven’s feathers never became white again after they were blackened
by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.

Ravens symbolize many things in different cultures. Native American tradition honors the raven as a symbol of courage and of magical guidance. The Arab culture calls the raven Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.” They are seen as oracular birds, used in divination. They are seen as symbols of death, life, the sun, magic, shapeshifting, and tricksters.

Legend from Ella E. Clark: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1953.

Image: Raven Stealing Sun, by Ken Mowatt.


Saving Dying Languages

Dying LanguagesThe clock on the kitchen wall at the Moraviantown Reserve seniors’ centre loudly clicks away the seconds as Velma Noah waits to see if any of the few remaining speakers of a vanishing language can remember the word for “beet.”

Five elderly women and a man stare ahead of them, silently searching for a word they may not have heard since they were children, when nearly everyone on this small reserve could speak the language. Ms. Noah frets the cover of an English-Delaware dictionary, which might hold a clue. But if the word for beet isn’t in the book and she can’t tease it out of the minds of the three women most likely to know, one more piece of the language could be gone forever.

Alma Burgoon is 80; Retta Huff, 86; and her cousin Mattie Huff, 90. Along with one or two other elderly women on the reserve, “they’re the last known speakers. They’re all over the age of 70,” says Ms. Noah, 36-year-old mother of four.

Suddenly there’s chuckling around the folding table as someone remembers: maxkeetkweek.

Europeans gave this language the name Delaware (or Munsee Delaware), but its advocates today are taking back the name Lunaape (or Lenape). Its once-large territory has been reduced to a rump at Munsee-Delaware Nation — also known as Moraviantown — a reserve near London, Ont., with a population of about 200.

Like dozens of First Nations languages across the country, Lunaape is in danger of disappearing within a matter of years. Canada’s indigenous languages are in a state of crisis. Unless the knowledge is transferred to a new generation, dozens of traditional tongues will breathe their last.

Only a handful of indigenous languages — principally Inuktitut, Ojibway and various dialects of Cree — can be expected to survive without active intervention, according to linguistics experts.

There is no specific point at which a language officially becomes endangered. “The way that linguists usually look at it is to take into consideration the normal course of language transmission,” says John O’Meara, a linguist at Lakehead University who has studied Lunaape since 1979. “By that I mean languages are passed on from one generation to the next. If at some point that process of transmission is broken, then you can deduce that the language isn’t going to be spoken by younger people in the future.”

Lunaape is on the list of nearly extinct languages as “Munsee.” British Columbia figures prominently, as the home of Bella Coola (20 speakers left by last count in 2002), Haida (55), Kutenai (12), Sechelt (40) and seven others. The Yukon tongue of Tagish is a heartbeat away from vanishing: Lucy Wren, the last native speaker, is in her 90s and there is sparse interest from the community in reviving the language.”

Native languages have declined because of economic and social pressure to speak English and French. Language activists also blame assimilationist education policies; children sent to residential schools were often punished for speaking the languages they had learned at home.

“What happens, then, when you begin to devalue the languages?” asks Keren Rice, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, and director of its Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. “People didn’t speak them to their children because they didn’t want their children to have the hard time that they had.”

Should a full language revival prove unworkable in some communities, experts like Prof. Poser suggest there are other ways of bringing about a linguistic comeback.

“We can certainly imagine a situation in which children learn native languages in school as written languages, together with much cultural information, just as European children not very long ago learned Latin, or as many Jews still learn Hebrew.”

For Ms. Noah, who spends a couple days each week rounding up most of what’s left of her community’s Lunaape speakers so she can practice the language, reviving Lunaape isn’t simply a matter of remembering vocabulary and syntax; it is a mission to restore traditional culture, and thus identity. Without it, she says, Moraviantown will continue to struggle with problems like drug addiction and high secondary school dropout rates.

“It’s not the social workers that’ll help, it’s the language. If you know your language, you know who you are,” she says.

Excerpted from: Adam McDowell, National Post, January 24, 2009.