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Bird of the week – Raven finds the first men – the art of Bill Reid

Raven and the First Men, with sculptor Bill Reid. Photo by Bill McLennan

Raven and the First Men, with sculptor Bill Reid. Photo by Bill McLennan

Where do we find Raven? When you want to find Raven, you look for him at the top of the tree, where he often sits, his eyes always moving, always looking and looking, gazing out across his world, watching for some mischief to get into or something to eat.

From the volume of words written about them it seems that I share my love of Corvids (Crows, Ravens and their allies) with a lot of people around the world.

The six Australian Ravens and Crows are no less fascinating than their north American cousins – particularly the massive Common Raven Corvus corax – which is the subject of this magnificent carving in yellow cedar by the late Haida artist Bill Reid.

You can see more on Bill Reid’s extraordinary work – which ranged from fine jewellery to massive totem poles – at the Bill Reid Foundation website. there is also an excellent presentation of Bill’s life and works at the The Raven’s Call.

The Bill Reid Foundation provides the following information about the creation of The Raven and the First Men sculpture, which was commissioned by Walter and Marianne Koerner for the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

The Raven and the First Men sculpture was:

…carved from a giant block of laminated yellow cedar. The carving took two years to complete and was dedicated on April 1, 1980. In Haida culture, the Raven is the most powerful of mythical creatures. His appetites include lust, curiosity, and an irrepressible desire to interfere and change things, and to play tricks on the world and its creatures.

The sculpture of The Raven and the First Men depicts the story of human creation. According to Haida legend, the Raven found himself alone one day on Rose Spit beach in Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). He saw an extraordinary clamshell and protruding from it were a number of small human beings. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his wonderful world. Some of the humans were hesitant at first, but they were overcome by curiosity and eventually emerged from the partly open giant clamshell to become the first Haida.

A number of First Nations carvers also worked on the project, including Reggie Davidson, Jim Hart, and Gary Edenshaw. George Rammell, a sculptor in his own right, worked on the emerging little humans in the later stages, and Bill Reid himself did most of the finishing carving.

There are many versions of the Haida myth and legends about Ravens and I caught up with quite a few of Bill’s works while I was in Vancouver city and Vancouver Island earlier this year, though I only found that Bill’s most iconic work was on display at the Museum of Anthropology in downtown Vancouver once I got back to Australia.

While I was in that fine city I did manage to find a copy of “The Raven Steals the Light” (University of Washington Press, 1996), a collection of short stories by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst that includes a number of Bill’s drawings.

The Raven Steals the Light has a Preface by the esteemed structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who says of the Raven that:

The first myth in this collection provides a good example of major cosmological themes that are common to all peoples in the region. It involves the Raven, a deity of the type called in English a trickster, which the old French word decepteur matches to perfection.

The fact that the Amerindians placed a deceitful, insolent, libidinous and often grotesque character with a penchant for scatology in the forefront of their pantheon sometimes surprises people. But indigenous thought places the Raven at the turning point between two era.

In the beginning, nothing was impossible; the most extravagant wishes could come true. However, the present era, in which humans and animals have acquired distinct natures, is stamped with the seal of necessity…in a universe that is undergoing constant change, the raven is both the ultimate rebel and the foremost maker of laws.”

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The Raven and the First Men, drawing by Bill Reid from The Raven Steals the Light

And here is a longer version of the Raven tale as told by Eldrbarry (aka Barry McWilliams – a Presbyterian lay preacher). This material comes from his site Raven’s Roost-Pacific Northwest Cultures: Their Stories and Art)

This tale I know was told among the Haida, and probably other tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

There are different stories about how Raven created the world and the first men. Some of them have the Raven forming the first people out of clay. But I like this story.

After the great flood had at long last receded, Raven had gorged himself on the delicacies left by the receding water, so for once, perhaps the first time in his life, he wasn’t hungry. but his other appetites, his curiosity and the unquenchable itch to meddle and provoke things, to play tricks on the world and its creatures, these remained unsatisfied.

Raven gazed up and down the beach. It was pretty, but lifeless. There was no one about to upset, or play tricks upon. Raven sighed. He crossed his wings behind him and strutted up and down the sand, his shiny head cocked, his sharp eyes and ears alert for any unusual sight or sound. The mountains and sea, the sky now ablaze with the sun by day and the moon and stars he had placed there, it was all pretty, but lifeless. Finally Raven cried out to the empty sky with a loud exasperated cry.

And before the echoes of his cry faded from the shore, he heard a muffled squeak. He looked up and down the beach for its source and saw nothing. He strutted back and and forth, once, twice, three times and still saw nothing. Then he spied a flash of white in the sand.

There, half buried in the sand was a giant clamshell. As his shadow fell upon it, he heard another muffled squeak. Peering down into the opening between the halves of the shell, he saw it was full of tiny creatures, cowering in fear at his shadow.

Raven was delighted. Here was a break in the monotony of the day. But how was he to get the creatures to come out of their shell and play with him? Nothing would happen as long as they stayed inside the giant clamshell.

They were not going to come out as long as they were so afraid of him. So Raven leaned over his head, close to the shell, and with all the cunning and skill of that smooth trickster’s tongue, that had so often gotten him in and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.

As you know the Raven has two voices, one harsh and strident, and the other which he used now, a seductive, bell-like croon which seems to come from the depth of the sea, or out of the cave where winds are born. It is an irresistable sound, one of the loveliest in the world.

It wasn’t long before first one and then another of the little shell-dwellers emerged from the shell. Some scurried back when they saw the Raven, but eventually curiosity overcame their caution and all of them had crept or scrambled out.

Very strange creatures they were: two legged like Raven, but otherwise very different. They had no feathers. Nor fur. They had no gret beak. Their skin was pale, and they were naked except for the dark hair upon round, flat-featured heads. Instead of strong wings like raven, they had think stick-like arms that waved and fluttered constantly. They were the first humans.

For a long time Raven amused himself with these new playthings. Laughing as they explored with wonder a much expanded world. Sometimes they helped each other, sometimes they fought over something they had found. Raven even taught them some tricks, but soon he became tired of their ceaseless activity.

For one thing, they were so helpless out in the world. They needed shelter from the sun and the rain. They were so fearful and seemed so small. And there were no girls among them, only boys. Raven was about to shove these tired, demanding and annoying creatures back into their shell and forget them, when, as so often happens with Raven, he had an idea for some fun.

Raven began to search for the girls. For it is the way of things in the world that there are both males and females of every creature. Somewhere there must be girls. Raven searched and searched. Under logs and behind rocks, he looked. But he could not find the hiding place of the first girls.

But as he searched, the tide was going out, and as it reached its lowest, the Raven spotted some giant Chitons clinging to the rocks. These giant shell fish had but one shell, fastened tightly to the rocks with huge soft lips around their edges. Raven pried one loose with his beak. And there inside was a girl. He pried off another, and another, and another in each was a girl. They were very similar to the creatures he had found in the clamshell, but more like the Chiton, softer and rounder, in contrast to the hard shell and strong muscles of the clam. And these were just as frightened of the Raven. He gathered them onto his back with difficulty, and brought them to the boys he had found in the clamshell.

Raven was expecting the boy creatures to be very happy he had found the girl creatures, but to his surprise. They were frightened of them and some even ran back into the Giant clamshell to hide. The girl creatures were just as shy and huddled together watching the males with fearful and curious eyes. Both the boy and girl creatures seemed very modest and sought to cover their bodies with strips of kelp and woven sea weed from the shore.

The boy creatures were astonished and embarrassed and confused by feelings they had never before had. They didn’t know how to behave. But some of them overcame their fear and began to do things to attract the attention of the girl creatures Raven had brought. Some began to show off the tricks they had been taught – leaping and running and wrestling with other boy creatures. Some of the girls creatures overcame their shyness, first with quick glances then finally allowing the boy creatures to approach them, and even leaving the safety of their huddled group of girl creatures. Gradually the two groups began to mingle into one and just as gradually the boy creatures and girl creatures overcame all their fears and paired off, walking hand in hand, their eyes absorbed in each other totally.

Raven watched all this with increasing interest and surprise. Among all the creatures of the world, there were few whose males and females were so very different. The males proud, agile and strong, the females gentle, soft and tender. Sometimes the males would be too rough in their play with the females and there would be tears. But those same tears seemed to have an emotional power over the males bringing out out of them protective instincts. The strengths of each balanced the weakness of each.

And since that day, Raven has never been bored. In fact, at times he has almost regreted bringing the first men and women together. From the strong muscles of the clam and the soft lips of the Chiton, from the pairing of these first people came the first families. Children were born, some strong and male, some soft and female. Many generations have been born, have grown and flourished, have built and created or fought and destroyed. Many have blamed the Raven for playing a terrible joke on humanity, for often men and women just barely get along, but somehow from this strange combination of reason and intuition, of muscle and emotion arose that which was needed for the race to survive the storms of life on the shores.

Raven himself felt strange protective urges for these first people. Though a glutton and trickster by nature, he would again and again provide for these creatures he found in the clamshell. In time he would bring them the Sun, Moon and Stars; Fire; Salmon and Cedar, teach them the secrets of hunting, and the world. Raven would watch these weak creatures become both strong and loving, courageous and compassionate, able to fend for themselves and survive.

And their children were no timid shell-dwellers, but they continued to be children of the wild coast, of the stormy shores between the land and the sea. They challenged the strength of the stormy north Pacific wresting their livelihoods from the sea even as they made their homes on its shores.

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