North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Transformations: Bear, Raven, and Humans

According to Tlingit mythology, animals were once humans who were frightened into the woods and the sea by the daylight that Raven let out of a box. Traditional Tlingit believe that people and animals are relatives who can cross into each others' worlds. Animals have the ability to appear before people in human form and to interact with them in meaningful ways. In some Tlingit stories, such as The Woman Who Married the Bear, animals and humans even marry and raise families. Similarly, as in the story of Salmon Boy, humans can be transformed into animals in supernatural encounters and experience life in the animal world.

Married the Bear
Married the Bear
A Tlingit Legend
Salmon Boy
Salmon Boy
A Tlingit Legend

Bears
Bears, the most important land animal, typifies this relationship between humans and animals. In nature a bear behaves like a human and competes for the same resources. It can walk on its hind legs, fish for salmon, and use its dexterous paws to eat berries and nuts. When pursuing a bear, the hunter carefully carries out a special ritual, for he is killing a creature whose soul is akin to his own.

Ravens
The raven also moves between the creature and human worlds, bestowing gifts yet playing tricks on humans in an extensive series of stories. He has a dual personality. As a culture hero and transformer, Raven is credited with shaping much of our world. As a trickster, he is driven to outlandish adventures by his selfishness, greed, and hunger.

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