Symbols that tell a story – Raven and the sun

As mentioned in a previous post, there will be two “story-telling” benches flanking the healing totem pole within NLM’s forthcoming Native Voices exhibit.

Carved from the same western red cedar tree that is traditionally chosen for totem poles, the benches tell stories about traditional knowledge and healing passed on and preserved in Native American communities as part of tribal lore. In all of these stories, the “raven” and the “bear” symbolize people as leaders.

Bench A depicts the Salish traditional story of Bear and the Steelhead, which you can read about in the healing totem blog.

Bench B depicts how at great pain, Raven, bringer of light, delivered the sun, moon, stars and fire to humanity, and how they should be treasured as essential to our survival.

As the Salish tell it, Raven heard that a great Shaman lived under the ocean in a large longhouse with his beautiful daughter. He kept a great treasure from humans because he disliked them.

Wishing to possess the Shaman’s trove, Raven transformed himself into a Great White Owl, and waited each day on the beach for the Shaman’s daughter to surface. When she finally appeared above the waves, she spotted Raven in his guise and immediately fell in love. Imploring Raven to meet her father, they descended to her family longhouse beneath the Ocean.

At first the Shaman was very suspicious of the Great White Owl. But Raven worked hard to win his trust and, in time, he did.

The Shaman began to come and go, leaving Raven alone in the longhouse. Seizing his chance, Raven searched – and found — the Shaman’s treasure box.  Opening the lid, he was greeted by the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, and Fire. Quick as a flash, Raven raced back to the surface with his treasured cargo.

He freed the Sun, then the Moon, and next, the stars. And last, he released fire — and found pain. The fire burned his feathers black, and shriveled the skin of his claws. It burned much that part of Raven dropped on the beaches below and splashed onto the rocks.

This explains why, you can still see the sparkle of fire in certain rocks, and watch sparks fly when you smash two rocks together.

Illustration – courtesy of Jewell James


3 thoughts on “Symbols that tell a story – Raven and the sun

  1. Thank you for a great project and this website. Please do NOT refer to these stories as “myths”. It is disrepectful to Native cultures. The accepted term is “traditional stories”.

  2. Pingback: Garden Visit: The U.S. National Library of Medicine's Healing Herb Garden - Here By Design

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