In The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir (published Fall 2016), Tlingit elder Ernestine Hayes explores the challenges facing Alaska Natives in their own land and recounts her own story of becoming a professor and a writer. This powerful follow-up to her previous memoir Blonde Indian asks: what happens once the exile returns home? The 2016-2018 Alaska State Writer Laureate will soon visit Washington State for a series of book events.
The following excerpt from the book’s prologue tells the story of Raven and the Box of Daylight:
At a time so long ago it can be measured neither by following the moon’s slow dance nor by tracing the sun’s brightened path, had moon and sun then been part of life, darkness was upon the face of the world. This circumstance made it difficult for human beings to conduct their ordinary lives. For example, how much more difficult to impress one another when decisions are made in the dark. How much more difficult to recognize an ally, how much more difficult to praise another’s significance, thereby increasing one’s own importance. How much more difficult to confront a shadow, to challenge the gloom. In an unbrightened world, light does not reveal itself. It must be stolen.
Liberated. Reclaimed, some might say.
Raven has always and not always been around to be amused at the pitiful antics of self-important human beings, and no doubt he found amusement in the ill-composed conditions of a darkened world. But, although he may have discerned intrigue and opportunity, although he may have sensed illicit adventure, although he could well have been distracted by wonders that he alone could see, nevertheless Raven decided to do something about the darkness.
Raven knew about an old man who lived with his daughter in a well-fortified house in an isolated place at the top of a river far away. This old man, it was said, kept in his house precious bentwood boxes in which could be found answers to the darkness. It was said that this old man guarded these boxes even more carefully than he guarded his daughter. He allowed his daughter to venture outside the house for such purposes as gathering roots and collecting water, but never did he allow his precious boxes to be removed from his house or even to be opened, or even to be looked upon, or even to be named.
Raven decided that it was a good time to investigate. But when Raven traveled to that old man’s house, built so close to the Nass River, he was unable to discover an easy entry. In other words, there was no doorway through which he could be invited; there was no window through which he could climb. Though Raven walked around and around and around that old man’s house, he never was able to ﬁnd a direct way to get inside.
But Raven noticed that every once in a while that old man’s daughter appeared outside the house and carried a container down to the rippling water, where she ﬁlled the woven water-basket from the fresh clear stream. Although Raven studied her every move, he was unable to perceive how she gained entry back into the house.
These riddles kept him puzzling for what would have been days had there been daylight and for what would have been nights had there been stars. After much deliberation, after careful calculation, after he ﬁnally decided that the proper moment had arrived, Raven transformed himself into a pine needle and dropped himself into the water that the old man’s daughter was about to drink, at which time that old man’s daughter, no doubt tasting water sweeter than she had tasted ever before, swallowed Raven in his pine-needle form. When that immediate inevitable moment revealed itself in its endless existence, Raven transformed himself and was transformed and that old man’s daughter became pregnant with Raven-child.
After waiting a while inside his mother’s womb, Raven allowed himself to be born, whereupon he entered the guarded house and reentered the unguarded world in the manifestation of a newborn human baby. At once he became something more dear to that old man’s eyes than even those precious boxes of light.
That delighted grandfather, that old man, loved to pretend to chase his grandchild from the front of his house to the back, past the curtained sleeping crannies, past the piled-high plain wooden boxes of dryﬁsh and seaweed, past the woven water-baskets, past the house posts, past the screen, around again to the opposite wall, catching him and spinning dreams and hopes into the contented air. The old man delighted more and more in his Raven grandchild, playing peek-a-boo games and singing him lullabies and feeding him tender tidbits of salmon cheeks and the steamed soft eggs of seabirds still crying for their young. At the rare times that Raven fussed, the old grandfather bounced baby Raven on his knee and nuzzled baby Raven’s neck and checked the moss around baby Raven’s sleeping place to satisfy himself that it remained dry and soft and safe.
After a while, after a not-yet-measured time, Raven began to cry for those bentwood boxes. No matter how strong the spirits that protected the boxes and the priceless objects inside, Raven must have been conﬁdent that the love his grandparent held for him was deeper and more secure.
When baby Raven cried for the ﬁrst bentwood box, the old man must surely have thought to refuse. But Raven kept crying, and the old man gave in, just as Raven knew he would do. Raven’s grandfather watched him open that ﬁrst box and admire all the stars that it contained. After only a while, not long enough for a grandparent to feel sated by his grandchild’s laugh, Raven tossed the stars into the sky, whereupon our world became brighter by the measure of one Box of Starlight, and the old man’s house became darker in the same regard.
Raven cried for the next bentwood box. As Raven knew his grandfather would do, the old man again said no, and when Raven kept crying, the old man ﬁnally gave in, just as Raven knew he would do. Raven’s grandfather watched him open the second precious box, this one containing the moon. Raven admired the moon for just a little while, perhaps playing with the full moon and again with the waning, and then he tossed the moon into the sky, whereupon our world became brighter by the measure of one Box of Moonlight, and the old man’s house became darker in the same regard.
Raven now cried for the last bentwood box. As Raven thought he would do, that old man resisted more than all the other times. And when Raven kept crying, the old man gave in, just as Raven knew that his grandparent would do. And so it was that Raven’s grandfather watched him open the last precious box, and Raven struggled light through the smokehole into a newly lighted world, whereupon our human world became brighter by the measure of a Box of Daylight, and the old man’s house became dark.