The Background of the Raven Stories

A Brief Introduction

The Raven stories of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest give us a glimpse of the customs and life of a people who depended on and respected their enviornment. The lives of the many tribes of the Northwest coast: Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl, Makah and Quileute-Hoh, and the Coast Salish (to name a few) were closely linked to both forest and sea.

Between Forest and Sea

These Indians lived along rivers, bays and beaches of rocky coasts between dense rain forests of spruce, fir and cedar and the fog-shrouded sea abounding in salmon, whales and otters.

From the towering cedar trees they made plank houses that sheltered them in the cool wet winters, dugout canoes in which they traveled, their tools and even most of their clothing.

Their food came mostly from the rivers and sea - seasonal runs of salmon which they smoked; passing migrations of whales which were hunted from wooden canoes; and the crabs, clams and oysters which they gathered at low tides.

Both the forest and sea enriched them with a bounty reflected in their beautiful art and lavish Potlatch feasts.

Spirit World

It is not surprising that they believed their world was filled with spirit beings (like Raven) dwelling in animals and trees. They lived between steep mountains and deep valleys shadowed with mysterious forests and the misty fog bounded rocky islands and shores of the Northwest coasts.

Before a tree could be felled to be made into a house or canoe; whenever game was taken or a whale was killed, its spirit had to be properly thanked and released lest misfortune should result. Spirit songs would be sung and rituals observed.

The Raven Myths

Raven, like Mink and Coyote and other spirit beings of the Northwest mythology, was as fickle and unpredictable as nature and its seasons. Raven was a shapechanger, who could assume any form - human or animal. Raven was a glutton and trickster, but he showed pity for the naked people he found in a giant clamshell. His trickery brought them the essentials for existence in a harsh world - game and fish and fowl, fire, clothing, shelter - and with them the rituals that would protect them from the dark spirits lurking about.

The Raven Stories are both entertaining - as Raven's mischief often backfired, but also instructive - teaching us about the Northwest Indians' way of life and the origin of their customs.

Raven and Mouse Woman

There could not be two more opposite individuals among the Spirit beings of the Northwest Mythology than Raven and Mouse Woman.

Raven was the Creator-Trickster of the Northwestern Indian mythology. A voracious glutton, his appetite was only matched by his enthusiasm for mischief. A shape changer, he could take many forms. He loved to upset things and cause trouble.

As he sought to satisfy his appetites and often as a result of schemes and tricks that backfired, Raven established the ways of dealing with the chaotic natural world, taming it for the benefit of mankind.

Mouse Woman was the busiest of busybodies and the tinest of Grandmothers. Upset whenever the proper order of things was disturbed, she always sought to restore order and maintain balance. She was as dedicated to undoing mischief as Raven was in creating it. As a Spirit person, she could go anywhere and her mouse ears often overheard trickery in the making.

In the stories, it was unually a violation of some custom that placed someone in peril or unleased and attracted monsters such as Cannibal Woman, or Monster Killer Whale.

But Mouse Woman's help always came with a price - her one weakness - a fondness for items of mountain goat wool, which she delighted in unraveling into a mouse nest of fur. To maintain balance, there must always be something given, if something is to be received in return. Of course trickery deserves trickery in return.

From Raven we often learn the reasons for various Indian customs and taboos, while from Mouse Woman, we see the consequences of failing to observe them and ways to restore order and balance.

Northwest Indian Art

Northwest Indian art is full of the "eyes" of the spirits that filled their world watching them at every moment.

The distinctive totem poles carved of cedar portray the myths and stories of the Raven and the other spirit beings with whom the indians had to interact constantly to maintain harmony with a fickle natural world.

The things they made are covered with the eyes and faces of this spirit world. From the wooden masks used in their dances, and the artwork painted on their house fronts; woven into the blankets they used in ritual and trading, and their distinctive conical rain hats; carved into bows of their canoes, their cedar boxes and the handles of their tools and weapons, the "ovoid" eyes were constantly watching. You can see their art at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology and The Royal British Columbia Museum - First Peoples Exhibit

A Storytelling Tradition

In the cedar slab houses during the long rainy winters, and at the potlatch feasts where social order and position was established by lavish gift giving, the storytellers passed on tribal tradition with the stories of Raven and the other spirit beings that had been carved, painted and woven into everything around them. Many of the stories of the peoples of the Northwest Coast are considered private property of a household or clan, though the Raven myths are generally common to the whole culture.<

Further Reading

You may want to read more of the stories of Raven, Mouse Woman and the other myths and legends of the Pacific Northwest Indians.

Here are some of many books you may want to look for at your local library.

For older readers - Bill Reid, The Raven Steals the Light, Dale De Armond, Raven.

For more on the Northwest Indians and their life and customs and art see:

Thanks for visiting! Your input, remarks and suggestions are welcome! Especially to other links with information on the peoples of the Pacific Northwest and their stories and art.
Please E-mail me at:

You are viewing: -- © 1996 Barry McWilliams
Follow These Links to: Back to Raven