Raven, The Original Scientist
Written by Dr. S. Kounosu, PhD
Edited by Dr. W.F. Morrison, JD. (Haida)
Among Haida there is a story of how Raven brought Light to the World. I found it to be an intriguing story, for it takes us to the beginning. This is but one variation of many, many stories of Raven and, like the others, it teaches us many things. Often the things learned are not only the result of things heard, seen and remembered but also things felt. This story tells you and me what we might remember when experiencing problems.
Today this telling of Raven’s story is a story about Science and Scientists. There are many kinds of science; all peoples have their own, but I am a scientist in the “western” tradition. That is why I choose to tell the story in this way. I have a scientists interest in understanding; not only in understanding science but also understanding myself as a child of the universe.
This tale of Raven begins in a time when Earth was covered by a blanket of darkness, either there was no Sun or Earth was covered with a blanket of clouds so thick that almost no light penetrated the darkness. Shapes, like faint blurs, were discernible but without definition. It is entirely possible that millions of years ago this phenomenon actually occurred.
Western scientists have found evidence that in geologic times many disastrous things had happened to Earth. In recent news we learn that scientists from Alberta (Canada) went to the Gobi Desert and there discovered a dinosaur graveyard. Today the Gobi is a very dry area, too dry to provide the habitat for the dinosaurs of prehistoric times. But, millions of years ago the area was a big, warm swamp. In any event, at one time in history the area harboured herds of dinosaurs. Those Canadian scientists think that the Gobi dinosaurs were related to the ones that once roamed the Alberta seashore. The are we now call Alberta was once covered by a body of water now called the Gulf of Mexico. Dinosaurs are, of course, now extinct. But, locating the remains of prehistoric creatures in an area that today could not support those life-forms tells us that the climates of Earth, at different times, have been quite different from that which we are now familiar. Maybe this “Dark-time” of the Raven story is the one that killed off the dinosaurs. Who knows?
Raven, the Original Scientist*
Without the Sun to give heat and light, all was cold and dark. Imagine it being like a cold, starless winter night all of the time. People did not like this very much. Raven the Scientist was not happy either. So what did Raven do? Raven was a scientist, so turned it thoughts to the problem. But, more than merely unhappy and hurt by the suffering resulting from the dark and cold, Raven was driven to respond; this was Raven’s domain. Thus Raven was obliged to find a solution to the problem. Raven the Scientist thought long and hard, “What can be done to remove this blanket of darkness and cold from the World?”
Raven’s name (Nang Kilst laas) describes a spirit-being who is able to assume whatever physical shape and substance appropriate for the occasion. When assuming the Raven (bird) shape, Raven’s feathers are pure-white and, Raven’s power is derived from the ultimate power of Creating. So Raven is not “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” in the sense of the Christian God. Instead, Raven travels, watches, listens, and senses. Then, whenever encountering a disturbance of any sort Raven assumes the appropriate form, one which carries with it the knowledge, wisdom and specialized attributes of the thing into which it has changed. Thus when the “blanket of darkness” enveloped Earth, Raven had to “consult” al the knowledges and wisdoms contained in its ability to transform. This could be like many, many scientists combining all of the knowledge and information at their disposal for the purpose of finding a solution to the dilemma.
In the darkness Raven encountered difficulties. It was like a group of people trying to organize in the dark; bumping into one another, arguing and having difficulty in determining the order of speakers. Thinking was also difficult in the darkness; the mind wanders trying to see in the dark.
*An adaptation of an original Haida story of how Raven, a supernatural, spiritual being got the Sun, Moon and Stars.
Often when we know that something is wrong but cannot identify the nature of the problem our minds wander. The “Darkness” meant “Ignorance”. So, the manifestations of Raven had to do a lot of blundering and groping around. Even today, scientists do the same. Some people say that blundering and groping are the essence that makes Science. They say, “Trials and Errors” make science. I might add that the arguing/fighting are also important. For, we must talk with each other to make Science; no one knows everything. The Haida story simply says that “Raven bumped into things in the dark.” But I think it means that there were a lot of difficulties even in figuring out what was the problem.
Int the blundering around Raven the Scientist learned to be patient. Then, while casting about, attempting to understand the nature of the problem, Raven, from the corner of its eye, saw in the distance a small flash of light. Raven thought maybe it was something in the eye – trying so hard to see in the dark that – it created its own light. But rather than pass it off as something “in-the-head”, Raven focused on the spot where the light “may” have shown itself. Raven then, without rest, for fear of losing focus on the spot, moved slowly and carefully in that direction. This is the same way today’s scientists work. the little flash of light could mean a “flash of intuition”; something that the Scientist must have. Almost none of the important discoveries were made without it. Like Raven the Scientist, today’s scientist must focus on it and hold that focus, not letting anything interfere with it.
As Raven neared the spot where it seemed that the light had shown itself, instead of finding Light, it heard a small voice singing. This often happens in science, and if one is not careful, one misses important clues. You do not send off a large number of questionnaires, collect responses and find the answers in statistics. You have to go to that place, or, like Raven, a true scientist is “driven to respond”, though you do not know where it is taking you. You discover unexpected, and expected, things at totally unexpected places. And, listening to the “small voice” is all important.
The small voice was coming, Raven the Scientist later discovered, from an old man in a big, cedar-plank longhouse. He was singing:
“I have a box, and inside the box is another box, and inside it are more boxes, and in the smallest box of all is all the Light of the World. It is mine and I will never give any of it to anyone; not even to my daughter. Because, who knows, she may be as ugly as a sea-slug. And neither she nor I would like to know that.”
The old man, out of fear of the unknown, chose to keep himself in ignorance. You must understand one thing here. It was Dark, the daughter could be seen only indistinctly and, she might also have been as “beautiful as hemlock fronds against the Spring sky at Sunrise”. The “Dark” here may also mean “in doubt”. The old man must have had good reason to have become nasty, devious, stingy and lonely. He had all the Light of the World, but he did not want to share it with anybody; even deprived himself of the Light. One might suspect that the Darkness may be referring to the demented state of the old man’s mind. The Light may be intelligence, but he suppressed it deep inside the “box inside a box, which was inside a box, which was inside…”. People do this. They may have a beautiful thing in their minds, but keep it secret from everyone else. And, by doing so, they themselves do not see it either.
But, Raven the Scientist did not give up easy. He began planning his strategy for acquiring the Light for People. It would be difficult. According to the Haida story, Raven himself had doubts. Then, he noticed the old man’s daughter, the one in the song, who was living in the house with her father. He began to think about her. He could have been falling in love. But, it occurred also to him that she might be as “ugly as a sea-slug”. “on the other hand,” he thought, “she might just as well be as beautiful as a hemlock frond against a bright Spring sunrise.” The uncertainty of what her appearance might be kept Raven the Scientist in anxious ambivalence. And, like any young man who thinks he might be in love, the possibilities stirred Raven’s imagination. Science textbooks do not tell you, but this “stirring of imagination” is a very important element of science. If you do not have it you cannot do science. You can do routine technical works and “fake-it” as if you are really doing science, but that does not create anything new.
The Haida story tells that “in idle speculation”, stirred by thoughts of the daughter, Raven formulated an idea. Other versions of the story tell that Raven the Scientist tried many tricks and failed each time. This is also important. In science, you fail 10 times before you succeed once. You try and fail. You think again and fail. But Raven the Scientist did not give up; he was persistent. Any young guy can be romantic, but persisting in Love is not a usual quality among that age group. “Romantic” ideas in science are the same thing. The one who is persistent will usually get results.
In many ways Raven was tricky. He often tricked people. But, we forgive Ravens for those times because even when Raven does not mean to do so, he does many good things for people. In this case, tricks or shortcuts would not work. So, Raven decided to put the plan he had formulated into action. He figured out a way to get inside the old man’s house where the “boxes” were kept.
Raven noted that at regular intervals the daughter would go to a small pool of water, fed by an underground stream, to drink. In doing so, she would kneel at the edge of the pool, put her lips to the surface of the water and suck the water into her mouth and swallow. By drinking in this manner, the daughter could not see what she was drinking and, she was blind to whatever might be happening around her. Armed with this knowledge, Raven waited for his opportunity. From this incident, Haida learned a number of lessons; rely on “underground” water for your water supply, it does not freeze in the winter; do not lower your head to drink but bring the water up to your lips (incidentally, if a Raven’s feather is dipped into the water and the water beads up and drips off, the water is pure. But, if the water clings to the feather, it should not be drunk); and, a woman (for the above and other reasons) is never supposed to get water after dark.
Raven, in carrying out the plan he had formulated, waited for the daughter to go for a drink. He waited until after she had knelt at the water’s edge and began lowering her head. He flew up to her, transformed himself into a hemlock needle and dropped to the water’s surface, directly below where her lips would touch the water. And, as anticipated by Raven, she sucked the needle up and swallowed it with the water. The hemlock needle is soft and pliant and easy to swallow.
The story goes on that Raven “slithered down deep into her insides and found a soft, comfortable spot, where he transformed himself once more. This time into a small human being, an went to sleep for a long time. During his long sleep he began to grow.” You can guess that he became a baby for the young woman.
She did not know what was happening to her; something was growing inside her and, later, she could feel the thing moving. the old man, because of the darkness, was unaware of what was happening to her body. But, in due time, Raven, preceded by a gush of water, was born as a human grandson to the old man. The story says that he was an ugly, noisy boy, crying all the time; like Ravens do. the grandmother, suspecting that this “baby” was Raven, made a bed for him from moss, like the Raven’s nest.
The old man grew to love this new member of the family; he made toys for the boy and played with him. Today, that same relationship is enjoyed by Haida grandparents and their grandchildren. But, whatever the old man’s reasons for shutting the Light “inside a box, inside a box…” and his refusal to share this gift of life were, the key to unlocking the old man’s heart was Love.
Raven is a powerful Supernatural being. He could have simply taken the Light by his power, or transformed himself into a powerful human and simply wrested the boxes from the elderly man. I would imagine, if Raven was a scientist of the Euro-American type, he would have used force and took possession of the Light. But he did not force the old man to give up the Light, even for the good of the World. Rather, Raven the Scientist went through an elaborate strategy of gaining the Love of the old man. Had Raven simply used Force, the gift to people would have been flawed. In any event, it took a very patient effort over a long time period. That is the way of Native science.
As the story goes, Raven the Scientist gained the love and trust of the old man, one box at a time. This is also the way of Science. You do not come to know the heart of things all at once. You study things and find out one level of understanding before moving on to the next. You may be happy for a while with the Discovery, achieved by much love and devotion, but there is the next box to discover. “Discovery” means, “Take the Cover Off”, that is, “Open the Box”.
Raven the Scientist, discovered a box inside a box one by one. The “learning” took a long time. And, eventually, only a few boxes were left. Finally, Raven was down to the last box. A strange radiance began to show from inside this last box, and it gave off a wondrous warmth. Raven the Scientist/Grandson begged his grandfather to let him hold the Light with the heat for just a moment. Of course, the old man refused Raven’s requests.
In a way, the old man was not consistent. If you remember, the old man actually let Raven the Scientist know the Light was in the box by his singing. He meant to give the Light, otherwise he would not have sung his song. Often the older generations are funny in giving wisdom to the younger generations. They wish to give all they have to the young, but it cannot be given. They have to let the young learn.
For example, just before his death, Chief Dan George wrote a poem which reads;
“My grandchild … you carry my blood
and shelter my Hope.
There is wisdom in youth and there is
wisdom in age. One is loud and seeking,
the other is silent and true.”
This is a near universal feeling of the older generation. But the many pains in life, humiliations, and disappointments make the old look “nasty”. And the youth cannot see what is hidden “inside the box”. We the young say, “that drunken old Indian don’t know anything, let alone science”. By that, instead of opening one box, we put it into another box. Eventually we put the whole thing in a coffin box and bury him six feet deep, not knowing what is in it.
Well, the story of Raven the Scientist, however, has a happy ending. Raven finally succeeded in his efforts to persuade his grandfather to give the Light to him. Raven the Scientist carried the Light to the people and removed the “blanket of darkness” from the world. He may have employed “tricks”, but his Science was for the people. That is how people came to have Sunlight, and we have the Daylight, Moonlight, and Starlight today.
I think there was real astronomical phenomenon corresponding to the story, but the story of Raven the Scientist is not told for the purpose of asserting the truth of the matter. It is but one of the stories of Raven, which tells how people came to learn their Science. Incidentally, in the Light, the daughter turned out to be beautiful, as beautiful as a hemlock frond against a spring sky at sunrise.