The following story is from The Raven and the Totem, my perennial bestselling collection of Alaska Native myths (click on the cover image to go to amazon.com). This particular narrative, which describes the events that caused a Tsimshian man to become a shaman, was originally told to Franz Boas in Nîsqa’e Tsimshian around 1894 at Kinkolith on the Nass River. This narrative is didactic, teaching young hunters to have compassion for animals. As a member of an Alaska Native tribe, I lived a largely subsistence lifestyle for much of my life. Because of stories like this that taught me to respect Nature and to have compassion for animals, I have twice in my life saved baby moose from drowning when their heavier and stronger mother tried to cross a raging river and the calf was swept away. In 1996, I was witness to the moment when a young man realized that he was a shaman, but that’s a different story. The wonderful illustration is by Larry Vienneau.
In a small village upon the Skeena River, three young brothers would hunt and kill squirrels. They hung the tiny furs to dry and collected the tails. Together they had killed so many squirrels that they had to go further and further away from home to find more.
One day, one of the boys was hunting alone far from the village when he saw a perfectly white squirrel running along the trunk of a very tall tree. The boy raised his bow to shoot, but he saw that it was so pretty that he could not kill this one.
The white squirrel ran into a hole in the tree and turned around and motioned for the boy to follow. The handsome young man approached and looked inside. He saw that it was a house with a great many empty beds. It was a community house for many people, but there was no one inside. It was entirely empty except for the white squirrel that stood in the middle waving at him to come inside.
“I cannot come in,” said the Tsimshian boy. “I am much too big.”
“Lean your bow against the Great House, and then you will be able to come inside,” replied the white squirrel.
The boy did so and to his surprise he became small enough to walk into the empty hall. He saw that the white squirrel was a beautiful young woman who was wearing a white fur coat. She told the boy to follow her up to the top of the Great Tree. When they arrived, an old man who looked like a chief spoke to him.
“I have been waiting for you to come. Why have you killed all of my people? All of my children and grandchildren are gone except for my favorite granddaughter who led you to the Great House. Why have you done this?”
The young man looked around and saw that this room too was empty, and then he answered the old chief, “I have not killed your people. I have never killed a person before. I do not know what you are saying old father.”
“Look around you,” said the chief. “See how we are alone here now where once these halls were full of my people.”
The boy looked again and replied, “But I did not kill anyone.”
The old man came close to the boy and spoke to him again, “I am the chief of the Squirrel People. You and your brothers have killed all of my children and now their skins hang outside your house.”
Suddenly the boy understood what had happened. He looked at the girl and saw that she was indeed very beautiful. He felt ashamed and saddened.
“We did not know that you live like people. We did not know that you love your children and grandchildren. I am sorry. Forgive me. I will tell my brothers not to hunt your people any longer.”
But the chief was still sad. “It is too late to stop killing us. We are all dead now. My granddaughter and I are all that is left.”
“But I did not mean to kill you all!” exclaimed the young hunter as a tear filled his eye. “Is there not something that I can do?” he asked the old father Squirrel.
“There is a way,” said the chief. “I can make you a great shaman and you can return my people.”
The young Tsimshian agreed, and so the old man began to work his powerful magic. He took the boy outside and tied his limbs to the tree. Then he pushed sharp needles with string through his skin and pulled them tight in every direction. There was a piercing needle for every dead squirrel. The boy screamed in pain, but the old man said that the pain was part of the power. When he was finished, the chief left the boy hanging for three days. On the third day he returned and sang his magic song for three more days. He did not rest, and he did not eat or drink either. After that, the chief left the boy alone.
One day, the boy’s two younger brothers were out hunting squirrels when they came across the carcass of their brother who had been lost for six days. It was hanging in a tall tree just as they had hung the squirrel furs at their house. They cut him down and took his body home.
That night, after they arrived with their dead brother, a magic filled the entire village and all of the dead squirrels came back to life. They ran back to the Great House and told the chief what had happened. After all of the squirrels were returned, the spirit of the young man flew back into his dead body and returned him to life. From that time on he was a great and powerful shaman and the Tsimshian no longer killed squirrels.
I tell both the story of saving a drowning calf moose and the time I was present at the awakening of a young shaman in my international award-winning short story collection, Alaskan: Stories from the Great Land. Click on the cover image (left) to go to amazon.com to order a print copy or to download the Kindle version of the book.