Consorting With Ravens

Raven and Crow’s Potlatch.

A Skagit Raven Tale

I found this story in a collection entitled Longhouse Legends by Emerson N. Matson. He describes it as a children’s story used to entertain adults at a potlatch, and it appears to be a Skagit (Salish) tale from western Washington State.

        Raven used to live high up in the upper Skagit River country. He was very lazy. In the summer when the other animals were busy gathering food for winter, he would be flying from rock to stump and stump to rock making fun of them. Raven just laughed when Crow (his cousin) urged him to follow squirrel’s example – but Raven never prepared for the cold months, when the snow would drift over the ground and cover all the remaining food.

But now Raven was in trouble. Winter had come and the snows were deep. He was hungry – and Raven loved to eat. He had to find someone who would share their food with him.

Raven went to see Squirrel. He had a huge supply of pine nuts and seeds and other food hidden all over the place. Raven poked his head in squirrel’s nest in an old fir tree. The squirrel had lots to eat. Raven politely begged for some food. Squirrel scolded him – that was always Squirrel’s way – “You refused to work and save for winter – and you poked much fun at me – you deserve to starve!”

Raven went looking for Bear. But Bear was sound asleep in his cave and could not be awakened. Raven looked around for some food, but it was all in Bear’s belly – Bear had already eaten it all and was sleeping till spring.

Raven was now very hungry. He thought: “Who can give me something to eat? Everyone is either stingy like Squirrel or sleeping like Bear and Marmot, or they have gone South for winter like the snowbirds.” Then he thought of Crow – he would be easy to fool!

Raven flew to Crow’s nest. “Cousin Crow, we must talk about your coming potlatch!” Crow answered. “I have not planned a potlatch”

Raven ignored his response. “Crow, everyone is talking about your potlatch – will you sing at it?” “Sing?” Crow had not known that anybody really cared for his singing voice – though, in those days, Crow’s song was much more like that of Wood Thrush than it is today.

Raven continued to talk of Crow’s potlatch. “You are very talented and possess a beautiful voice – everyone will be so disappointed if you don’t sing at your potlatch!”

“What potlatch? . . You really like my singing?”

“We love your singing, Crow,” Raven answered. “The Winter’s cold has chilled the forest and we’re cold and hungry and singing will help us forget our cold feet and empty stomachs. Now you get started fixing the food – looks like you have plenty here – and I will go invite the guests to your potlatch. You can practice your songs as you cook!”

Crow’s hesitation now overcome, he began to prepare all the food he had collected for winter, and as he prepared it, he practiced his songs. The more he thought the feast and how everyone wanted to hear him sing, the more excited he got about it.

Meanwhile, Raven was offering invitations to all the animals of the forest. (Of course, Marmot and Beaver were sleeping like Bear, and Robin and Goose were gone South) To each, he said the same thing: “Come to My potlatch! I have worked hard to prepare it. There will be much food at Raven’s potlatch and Crow is helping and will sing for us. There will be fern roots and wild potatoes, dried berries, fish, and meat. Come to My potlatch! It will be a great occasion.” Raven did not invite Squirrel however since he had refused to share his food with Raven. But all the rest of the animals were invited to Raven’s Potlatch.

When he returned to Crow – he was busy singing and cooking. Raven told him – “Everyone is coming – be sure and fix all your food – they will be hungry after their journey. And your songs are sounding so good! Crow’s potlatch will be a great feast!”

As the guest arrived, Raven welcomed each one to his potlatch. There was deer and mountain goat and mouse, rabbit, ptarmigan, and jay. The guests were seated and the food was brought out. Crow started to sit and eat – but Raven asked him for a song first. “It’s not good to sing on a full stomach, Crow”. So crow began to sing. Every time he would stop to eat – Raven would insist he sings another song. “You can’t sing with your mouth full, Crow!” Encouraged again and again by the guests – who were busy stuffing themselves with Crow’s food – Crow sang song after song after song – all day until night – and Crow’s voice became hoarser and hoarser until all he could do was “Caw – caw”.

As was the custom – the leftover food was collected by the guests and taken by them for their homeward journey. Even Raven had taken his share and left as Crow was cleaning up. Crow had nothing left to eat. ” At least,” Crow thought, “I won’t go hungry – I will be invited to their feasts.” For it was the custom that having been entertained, each guest was now obliged to return the favor and invite the host for a return potlatch.

But the invitations never came. Since all the guests thought it has Raven who hosted the feast, Raven was invited to enough dinners to keep his stomach full for several winters – and he never went hungry.

But Crow, who had been fooled, had been reduced to starving, and never regained his singing voice either. He was destined to spend his winters begging in the camps of men for scraps of food. And that’s where we find him today – squabbling over scraps in grocery store parking lots – Caw! Caw! Caw!”

The Potlatch is an important custom among the nations of the North Pacific coasts, as tribal communities gather to feast and celebrate with singing, dancing, and storytelling. The preparations are extensive, often taking a couple of years. The occasion of the Potlatch might be to honor the dead (which required two feasts a year apart), to celebrate a marriage or a birth, or to establish the host’s claim to names, rank, and privileges. Often the raising of a totem pole or the dedication of a house (which usually housed several extended families) would be the occasion for the feast. Always the Potlatch included lavish gift giving to the guests. In fact, the name “potlatch” comes from the Chinook word for “giving”.

There would be special dance masks and costumes, and elaborate ceremonies often lasting for days. There would be much singing and storytelling – the right to tell those stories being considered the property of the host as well. Because of the expense – only ranking wealthy chiefs could afford to host a potlatch – and guests would travel from great distances to attend – usually by canoe – to be welcomed at the beach with celebration and singing.

The potlatch was an important part of all social life – being a combination of a town hall – where property rights and status were recognized – hunting and fishing rights confirmed – and inheritances established – and a cultural center where ancestors were honored – coming of age celebrated – marriages confirmed – rights to personal crests and property confirmed by the many witnesses gathered. Status was very important – seating arrangements and value of gifts received depended upon positions in the social and political hierarchy. Sometimes a potlatch would even be given to shame someone for failing to meet an obligation.