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
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.
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.