Instructing Myths

By , May 12, 2011

Like most people interested in myths and legends, I know that one of their primary purposes in a culture is to instruct the people. When I read a culture’s stories, I look for these lessons, even though I don’t expect to find them. While most myths teach broader themes on how people should behave toward each other and Nature that surely apply to humankind in general, these stories focus most of their instruction toward the specific cultures to which they belong. I found an exception recently, and it has inspired me to an exciting new project on the homestead.

I’ve grown up listening to and reading the stories of Northwest Coast cultures, particularly the Tlingits, Haidas, and Tsimshians. I own several printed collections of them. Perhaps my favorite is the slim volume, The Raven Steals the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst (ask at your local independent bookstore). Bill Reid was perhaps the greatest Haida artist to live during my generation. Bringhurst is a poet, cultural historian, and scholar of Native American literature. These two gentlemen present an illustrated collection of Haida Raven stories (Big R Raven—the trickster/creator spirit of the Northwest Coast) that revive their older, bawdier side, while injecting just the right amount of slyly modern sensibility. The stories are hugely entertaining, well worth re-reading periodically.

On my latest reading, I noticed a short but highly significant observation in the story, The Raven With a Broken Beak about a well-known Native tool.

I’ve always had in the back of my mind a desire to try making and using this item. I’d known of it for years as a marvel of engineering; the new information provided in the story convinced me that it would be a good idea for me personally to try to make and use one of my own.

The process has been fun and very educational. To share it with you will take a bit of time and effort, which I hope to spread out over the coming days.

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