We all know of some of the tribes studied by anthropologists: Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Ojibwe, Tlingit, Anishinaabe, Navajo, Sioux, Kiowa, Amarak, Sami, Ainu, or Sanhaja – but they study other tribes too – cyclists, bikers, punk rock fans, medics, ecologists, groups bound together by kinship or interest – their stories and knowledge too often hidden from people outside the tribe by the language or jargon only the tribes members have learnt. Anthropologists study them because they are interested in what humans are beneath, (and because of) their colour, dance, kin, friendships and art.
Ecologist are a tribe in this sense. Though a small, poor and unwanted one. No one listens to ecologists. They seem afraid they might tell them to be kind to the mice that nest in walls. Or that you can’t have so many salmon without birch and pine, eagles and bears. So if at a meeting of fifty or sixty ecologists, an ecologist found and told old stories that might help us see ourselves more clearly, then its likely the stories would go unheard outside of this gathering. And another way of thinking about man’s relationship with the world would remain hidden.
Thomas Thornton and Yadvinder Malhi have found such a story in the tales of Raven told by the tribes of Washington, British Columbia, Alaska and Kamchatka. The Lakota’s (Sioux) tell similar stories of the Coyote too. Or if you prefer of Loki, in the fragments of the Norse tales that have somehow survived. They have written about them in, The Trickster in the Anthropocene.
In these traditions Raven is not a god but a wild angel, a djinn and a friend to man. He is a trickster and keeper of secrets. He is a hero and a clown. He is a being we have no word for. A creature missing from modern European moral tradition. We think in simple dualities such as good/evil, war/peace and hope/despair. The world is much more strange and entangled. Nothing is simple, everything exists near or beyond understanding. Raven is a creature of dream flying in the waking world. As far beyond control, even his own, as the people you talk to and hold in sleep.
Raven did not create the world but he did change it. Doing so without knowing what would happen. Like humans in the twentieth century, in the wonder and darkness of an age of iron, Raven’s incompletely planned chaotic acts have unanticipated effects to which he is forced to adapt. In many versions of the myths he starts off pure white but is burned black when he steals the sun. It is raven who set mankind free long ago. He is responsible for reshaping the world. For giving fire to man, for the tides, for birth and death, for salmon, for daylight and freshwater.
Raven’s stories are useful because they illustrate the complex dynamic, indeterminate and unknowable hidden nature of the earths systems in which humans are only one of the great powers. Raven’s havoc-wreaking changes, for better and worse, mirror humanities creativity and the unintended disruption we cause. They provide a way to think about the risks we take as we try to walk a path into the future.
You can read the Salishan tribes version of their raven’s misadventures here. They were written down as part of the salvage ethnography of Franz Boas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The versions we have were told by informants from communities maimed by contact with European culture and the diseases brought from the old world. The person who told them may not have been a poet and even if he was then English was probably his second language. The Salishan language he spoke was one of many dialects spoken, probably haltingly, by the person recording the tale. Thus what we have are plain compared with the richness known to those for whom raven was a living presence. Try to imagine the stories told in the houses of the Haida snowbound in winter storm, danced and sung to slow drum beat. Told to people who knew the forest and shore in all weathers, who fished and foraged watched by raven’s.
I highly recommend reading Yadvinder’s papers on the effects of the extinction of the megafauna.
Doughty CE, Roman J., Faurby S., Haquea A., Bakker E.S., Malhi Y., Dunning J.B. and Svenning J.-C. (2016) Global nutrient transport in a world of giants. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 113 : 868–873 10.1073/pnas.1502549112
Malhi Y., Doughty C.E., Galetti M., Smith F.A., Svenning J.-C., Terborgh J.W. (2016) Megafauna and ecosystem function from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA, 113 (4) 838-846.
BANNER PICTURE: Raven steals the sun. Painting by Raul Chavez.