History in its many forms is kept alive to teach us lessons. This collection of Haida parables make reference to an oral history revealing common sense, truth, and at their root even scientific wisdom. They surely illustrate the connection we have with, and the need to teach stewardship of, the oceans. As you read “look past the written word and you will find yourself in the world of a people whose fate is intimately tied to the ocean people, the sky people, and the forest people. (1)”
Salmon Boy – How the Haida and Salmon are as one.
The people of Haida Gwaii off the west coast of British Columbia have an interesting parable about a boy who is transformed into a salmon and upon return to human form becomes a wise leader. It teaches respect for the salmon, the need for stewardship of their ocean pasture, and how we should respect and care for all living creatures, especially the ones we use as food.
Bronze by Tom Jay – Seattle
A long time ago, a young Haida boy was hungry so his mother gave him a piece of fish to eat. The boy looked at the fish, but refused to eat it saying it was no good and threw it in the fire. Soon he went out to play with the other children. They were swimming at a nearby beach when the boy swam too far out and drowned. The salmon people caught his soul and swam with it back to their village under the sea.
Once in their undersea salmon village the salmon people changed into human form and revived the boy to live as one of their own. The boy saw the salmon village was much like his own with houses and children playing. When the salmon boy said he was hungry, he was told to catch one of the Haida from the land, cook and eat it. There was one condition however; after eating it he must return the bones and whatever else was left to the beach to nourish the land of the humans, but he was lazy and didn’t pay much attention to this task. After a while he told his new salmon mother that his eye hurt. She asked the salmon boy if he had been sure he had returned all the left over parts of his meal to the beach. The boy looked around and found an eye from his meal that he had missed properly attending to. He threw the eye onto the beach and soon his own eye stopped hurting.
After a long time when the salmon people returned to the rivers of Haida Gwaii to spawn, salmon boy went with them. There he was caught by his own mother who recognized him by a necklace he was wearing. She set this salmon aside and after a day or two the boy’s head emerged from the fish’s mouth. After a few more days the boy came out entirely leaving his salmon skin behind. Thereafter, the reincarnated boy became a shaman, a wise man, who taught his people to become caring stewards of the salmon and their ocean pasture.
We have remembered his lesson as we return to the sea to renew our stewardship.
The Creation of Orcas – Once a man found two wolf pups on the beach. He took them to his home and raised them. When the pups had grown, they would swim out in to the ocean, kill a whale, and bring it to shore for the man to eat. Each day they did this. Soon there was too much meat to eat and it began to spoil. When the Great Above Person saw this waste he made a fog so that the wolves could neither find whales to kill nor find their way back to shore. They had to remain at sea, those wolves became whale wolves, the Orca. It is said that sometimes when the moon is full Orca’s will come to shore to sing with their brothers, you can tell this has happened in the morning if you find fresh wolf tracks walking into the ocean. This 16.5-metre canoe could take 5 tonnes of cargo and needed a crew of 10 paddlers and a steersman. Alfred and Robert Davidson carved the canoe near Masset in 1908. It was painted by Charles Edenshaw, the renowned Haida artist. At the bow are two mythical Sea Wolves — part Wolf, part Killer Whale. It sits in Canada’s National Museum.
The Devil-fish’s Daughter
The Haida man was a Shaman and hauled his canoe onto the rocks with the intention of finding and killing the Devil-fish, but whilst he was searching, the great monster itself emerged from its hole and dragged the Shaman down into its dark deep den. His forlorn family felt for sure that he was dead and so paddled mournfully away. The creature that had entrapped the man was a female Devil-fish and she had dragged him into the very deep recesses of the town where her father lived. He was Chief of the Devil-fish. In time the Shaman married the female Devil-fish which had caught him.A Haida Indian was rowing his canoe at low tide along with his family of his wife and two children. They had been on the water for hours, when they came across a place where some Devil-fish stones lay. There were tracks left by the Devil-fish (octopus) which led them to where its food lay, all piled up in a heap.
Many, many years passed and the man started to become home-sick and greatly wished to see his Haida wife and family. He pleaded with the Chief to let him go, and after some hard thinking his request was granted. The Shaman soon departed and was given a canoe to depart with, so too was his wife, the Devil-fish. The two canoes were magical and sped along without oars. Soon the enchanted canoes reached his father’s dwellings. They were laden with much wealth from the Devil-fish kingdom which he used as gifts in a great potlatch ceremony and became a great Chief. After a while his own children finally found him and came to him. They were now adults and he organized a great home-coming feast, in fact, he held five great feasts, one following the other and at every one his human wife and children attended.
Eventually the Devil-fish wife pined more and more for her watery world. Then one day while she and her husband sat in her father-in-law’s house, they began to transform. In a brief moment the Devil-fish wife disappeared through the gaps between the floor planks. Her husband seeing his change form immediately took on his Devil-fish form and his soft shiny body followed his wife between the floor planks. They both returned to the realm of the Devil-fish and her father.
Many Haida legends tell of how Haida sometime share a mythical in-between life of both land and sea and thus share an innate knowledge of why it is important to be caring of both worlds.
This summers research voyage brought some new Haida wisdom to light. We’ll try to share with you some of that wisdom as told to us by our Haida shipmates and as discovered by the ships crews.
The Story of Uncle Fred and Little Fred as told by Chini Gene Davidson to Chini Russ George
(Chini means grandfather which both Gene and Russ are)
At one point in July the ship needed to make a port of call on the islands of Haida Gwaii just before heading west. We needed a new cook! Gene Davidson, a Haida elder and famous artist as well as a very well known ships cook was coming aboard. Gene turned out to be one of the small miracles that helped the voyage as he knew how to prepare nourishment for both body and soul. As the ship headed to sea Gene and I were standing on the deck looking out on the endless blue expanse of the Tang Gwan, the Haida Ocean.
“OK let’s see when Uncle Fred and Little Fred show up”, he said. ”
“Uncle Fred???” I said in puzzlement.
“Yeah” , says Gene, “Uncle Fred always comes to pay me a visit when I am out at sea. He’s a big male Orca whale and little Fred is always with him, a small male Orca whale.”
Uncle Fred and little Fred had been fishing a few decades ago near the village, Little Fred fell out of the boat and was sinking into the depths, his father dove in after him, and swam down to bring him back to the surface. But the water is very cold and they were heavily dressed. As other Haida in nearby boats rushed to rescue the two they arrived just in time to see Uncle Fred and Little Fred disappear. Some few days later as is common following deaths of villagers a whale, a Orca, swam by the village, this time a big male and a little male. It was the spirits of Uncle Fred and Little Fred reborn. Thereafter for countless trips out to sea Gene notes he is always visited by that pair.
A few days further into our voyage, punctuated with countless stops to fish for scientific data and samples to learn about this ocean, a cry from the deck is heard. “There’s a killer whale!” The crew always eager to observe the rare large life out here in the endless gray fog and gloom is looking to where the Orca was spotted. Sure enough “there he is over there” is the shout, then “hey there’s another one, a little one with him.” Gene is called from the ships galley to come quick out on deck to see. He arrives and smiles broadly, “Hey it’s Uncle Fred and Little Fred. See I told you they always come to visit me when I go to sea.”
He then proceeds to tell those of the crew watching the story he’s told me days before of Uncle Fred and Little Fred. There is rapt silence as he tells the tale until Eudora says “Oh WOW … I am covered in goosebumps.” As are we all.
Fortunately for the crew who were off shift and asleep when Uncle Fred and Little Fred came by, the returned from time to time over the next months at sea. It was remarkable as single male Orca’s are not an uncommon sight but what is very rare in deed is for single big rogue Orca’s males to ever be seen in the company of a young male Orca.
I’ve sure got a good story to tell my grandson and granddaughter. They will be better persons growing up knowing there is still some magic in the world. Tell your children and grandchildren too!
footnote: (1) the words of Guujaaw a Haida leader