We have heard the stories of how trickster Raven stole Light from Old Man Undersea [3/19/2021] and stole Fresh Water from the Beaver People [10/15/2021]. Greedy Raven was planning to keep the Light and the Water all for himself but, in his haste, spilled them, accidentally making Light and Fresh Water available for all the People. In the story of The Coming of the Salmon, Raven seems to manifest a more benevolent approach to the sharing of resources.
I give thanks to the Haida people whose wisdom gave birth to this story. I give thanks to all the storytellers before me — from the long ago days when it happened until now — who opened their hearts and offered their voices to keep this story alive. This is my telling for this day. I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened but I know that it is true.
It began, as so many things begin, with a dream. It began when the Chief’s young daughter lay dreaming of a great and beautiful fish. He was almost as long as she was tall and his scales glistened brightly. He was silver as moonlight and his back was speckled with tiny black dots as black as the night sky above her as she slept. Oh, this fish was strong! He leapt over rocks and up the rapids that churned the river. Oh, how the Chief’s little daughter loved that fish!
When morning came, the little girl ran to her father and told him of the great fish she had seen in her dream. “Father,” she said, “please bring me this fish.” But the Chief shook his head. “I am sorry, my dear daughter, but I have never seen such a fish.” And the Chief’s daughter began to cry.
The Chief asked in the Village, but no one had ever seen such a fish. And his daughter cried, and she cried, and she cried, for she longed to see that beautiful fish once more. Oh, how she cried!
At last, the Chief gathered all the elders, the wisest ones in the Village, but they all shook their heads. No one had ever seen such a great silvery fish who could leap and leap over the rocky rapids on his way upstream.
At last, the Oldest Man in the Village spoke up. “Raven lives in the cedars just over the hill. Often I bring him tidbits to eat and he speaks to me in a friendly way. Raven flies over all the world. Let me go ask Raven if he has seen such a fish on his journeys.”
The Chief and all the elders looked each other and nodded their heads. At last the Chief said, “It is agreed. Each of us will send with you a fish or a meaty bone as a gift to wise Raven.”
Soon the basket of the Oldest Man was filled, and he set off through the forest and up the hill, carrying that heavy basket. At last he approached the tall cedar trees where Raven liked to sit and look at the world. Raven smelled the beautiful fragrance of fish & meat. He flew down to sit beside the Oldest Man and croaked his greeting.
“Wise Raven,” said the Oldest Man. “I come to you bringing gifts from all the Villagers.” He set down the basket, and Raven began to feast. Raven ate & ate and when he raised his head from the basket, that basket was as empty and clean as if it had just come fresh from the basket-maker’s hands.
Raven cocked his head & looked at the Oldest Man and — since Raven is always curious — there was a question in Raven’s bright eye. “Why have you come?” he croaked.
Then the Oldest Man told Raven of the Chief’s little daughter & how she had dreamed a great silvery fish that leapt upstream like a dancer. He told of how she longed for that fish. “But none of us have ever seen such a fish,” he said. “And so she cries & cries. She cannot eat. She cannot sleep.”
Raven nodded his shining black head & spoke. “I know such a fish,” he croaked. “I will come with you & speak to the Council.” And so he did.
When all the Council had gathered in the Village, Raven spoke. “I know the tribe of whom the little girl dreamed. They travel far, but just now they have gathered to enter a river on the other side of this inlet. You have been generous to me, but I shall bring an even greater gift to you.” And off Raven flew.
Raven flew fast, and soon he returned, carrying a huge silvery fish. He gave it ceremoniously to the Chief’s daughter. “This,” Raven croaked, “is the fish you long for.” And the Chief’s daughter opened her eyes, red with weeping, and beheld the fish. She smiled. She laughed. She reached out her hand to stroked the gleaming silver scales. She offered her thanks to wise Raven.
Then Raven explained, “I have brought you the son of the Chief of the Salmon People. They saw me take him & watched to see which way I flew. The Salmon will come here to get back the Chief’s son. If you treat him with honor, they will enter a pact with you & return every year to hear your drumming & your songs of praise for them.”
Quickly the Villagers filled the biggest cedar canoe with seawater & put the great salmon in to swim freely. And as he swam, the Chief’s daughter sang to him — songs of love & praise, honoring his strength & beauty.
Soon the Salmon tribe swam into sight, lashing their strong tails & leaping up to show off their silvery beauty. The Chief of the Salmon spoke. “Give me my son.” And the Villagers placed his son back in the sea with his own people.
After the Salmon Chief’s son had told his father of how he was cared for and honored, after he had told his father how the little girl had shown her love for him with her songs, the Salmon Chief spoke to the village people saying, “Because you have cared for & honored my son, our people will return each year to feed you. But you must remember to honor us as well with your songs & prayers. And when we have given you good food to eat, you must place our bones back in the river so we can return again.”
And so it has been since that day. Each year the people of the Village welcome the Salmons’ return with songs & prayers. And — after they have feasted & have dried just enough fish to feed themselves during the hard times of the year — the people must gather the bones of the Salmon and, with words of thanksgiving, return them to their home in the river. And so the Salmon & the Villagers have cared for each other as the seasons & the years turn and turn.
With gratitude to the Salmon and to Raven and to all the Rivers of the world, I have been weaving. The Keeper of Rivers is beginning to reveal her shape & I have been gathering fibers to begin dreaming the River.
SONG FOR THE SALMON ~~~ by David Whyte For too many days now I have not written of the sea, nor the rivers, nor the shifting currents we find between the islands. For too many nights now I have not imagined the salmon threading the dark streams of reflected stars, nor have I dreamt of his longing nor the lithe swing of his tail toward dawn. I have not given myself to the depth to which he goes, to the cargoes of crystal water, cold with salt, nor the enormous plains of ocean swaying beneath the moon. I have not felt the lifted arms of the ocean opening its white hands on the seashore, nor the salted wind, whole and healthy filling the chest with living air. I have not heard those waves fallen out of heaven onto earth, nor the tumult of sound and the satisfaction of a thousand miles of ocean giving up its strength on the sand. But now I have spoken of that great sea, the ocean of longing shifts through me, the blessed inner star of navigation moves in the dark sky above and I am ready like the young salmon to leave his river, blessed with hunger for a great journey on the drawing tide.