Category Archives: Corvid mythology

Addressing anti-Indigenous behaviors in corvid fandom

There are few animals that generate the kind of enthusiasm and following that ravens, crows, magpies and other birds in the corvidae family do. Their presence in our lives is so significant, they appear in the creation stories and fables of nearly all peoples. Today, our love for these birds has given rise to what feels like an entire industry of books, jewelry, artwork, and of course literal fan clubs, some of which serve many tens of thousands of followers. This community is not only fun to be a part of, but is doing important things to improve the reputation of corvids among those individuals or communities who might consider them a nuisance.

There are a couple of common ways though that, in our attempt to uplift corvids, our fandom sometimes trivializes the traditional beliefs of Indigenous North Americans, primarily through cultural appropriation and erasure. If it’s a new or esoteric term to you, cultural appropriation is the act of copying or using the customs and traditions of a particular people or culture, by somebody from another and typically, more dominant people or society.1  Here are three small steps the non-Native community (of which I am a part) can take to more respectfully celebrate our love of corvids, and the people for whom they traditionally hold deep cultural meaning. 

#1 Don’t use the term  “totem” or “spirit animal,” choose an alternative

In every place and time that humans and corvids co-occur, people have made culturally important meanings, stories, and symbology about these special birds. As a united group of corvid fans, it may therefore be tempting to sample from these practices as a means of creating community. One common way I see this manifest is in the use of terms like spirit animal to describe someone’s connection to a particular corvid. Like animism (the belief that all material possesses agency and a spirit) the term itself appears to have been an invention of anthropologists, but its intent is to refer to Indigenous religious practices. Co-opting this practice as our own, no matter how well-intentioned, devalues cultural traditions that are not ours to claim. 

A quick Etsy search of the term demonstrates just how far we’ve allowed the abasement and monetization of this practice by non-Indigenous people (i.e wine is my spirit animal t-shirts.) Even in cases where our use of cultural appropriation doesn’t feel objectively derogatory (it might even feel honorific), its adoption by non-Indigenous people is the kind of cultural cherry picking that has long frustrated Indigenous communities

“Dear NonNatives: Nothing is your spirit animal. Not a person, place or thing. Nothing is your spirit animal. You do not get one. Spirit animals derive from Anishinaabe and other tribes deeply held religious beliefs. It is a sacred, beloved process that is incredibly secret.”

Mari Kurisato

To ignore those frustrations and claim that our use of this religious practice is either benign or born out of respect, is to prioritize the needs and feelings of ourselves above those for whom literal and cultural genocide remain contemporary battles.  In other words, it’s an act of racism. Of course, Indigenous peoples are not a monolith, and you may find individuals that feel no harm from non-Natives using this term, or even grant you specific access to it (though beware of plastic shamans.) In these cases, I offer that it’s harmless to decline using it despite any special permissions, while adopting it risks hurting and alienating the broader communities for which this or similar terms are sacred. 

Fortunately, there are many alternative ways to express kinship with corvids that do not rely on cultural theft. Here are a few of my favorites: muse, soulmate, best friend, fursona, daemon, icon, desired doppelgänger, secret twin, and familiar. 

#2 Recognize the diversity of Indigenous nations 

Pretty regularly, I see infographics pass through my social media feeds depicting either a photo or some kind of Indigenous-esque looking art and a sound bite about a “Native American” story about crows or ravens. While the intent here is obviously to celebrate a shared love of corvids, the means of doing so makes  no effort to actually learn the story or, importantly, from whom that story originates. 

There are 574 federally recognized Indigenous nations in the United States. There are even more when you include non-federally recognized tribes (ex: the Duwamish on whose lands much of the Seattle area is built.) While there is certainly shared knowledge and traditions, it’s important to recognize that these are independent nations with their own creation stories and traditions. For example, the story of Rainbow Crow (Mànàka’has), who brought warmth to the world by carrying a burning branch and sacrificing his voice and technicolor feathers in the process, is a Lenape legend.2 Alternatively, the story of Raven stealing the sun to bring light to earth is a Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit legend.3

Attributing them as simply “Native American” stories erases their cultural heritage by treating all Indigenous peoples as a monolith with unified cultural traditions. This is especially pernicious when these stories are told in the past tense, as if the people from whom they originate are gone. Putting in the effort to research where specific stories come from, and how and where that community exists now, is an important step to recognizing and respecting different tribal identities.

For the same reason, another important practice is to research on whose land you currently enjoy the corvids you watch or photograph. 

As Larissa Fasthorse explains, “Always know whose land you’re standing on. Who are the original people of that land? You need to find that out. You need to know those people, and,  where are they? Are they still there? If not, why? Where have they gone? Start to learn, start to educate yourself. Whose land are you profiting from and how can you start to pay that back in your own way.”

Larissa Fasthorse, interview on Here and Now 10/12/20

So the next time you see an interesting legend about corvids, do some research to learn about the actual people behind that story. Beware of sharing memes that make no effort to do that work. That’s generally a sign that they were not written by someone of that cultural heritage and are more interested in gaining likes and shares than honoring other people. Know on whose ancestral land your corvid watching takes place, and seek out print or digital resources to learn about those people. 

While the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be fine, a willingness to seek out knowledge beyond what caught your initial attention is the best way to ensure you’re not engaging in cultural cherry picking. There are several great resources to starting doing this including Whose Land, which is an Indigenous-led project. You can also find more local resources that may serve you better, including the websites of individual tribes.

#3 Buy books and artwork directly from Indigenous sellers

Be it from Navajo, Tlingit, or Haida origins, Indigenous depictions of corvids are unequivocally beautiful. It’s only natural that corvid lovers might wish to enjoy such artistry in jewelry, paintings, sculptures, or books. As long as it’s not in the pursuit of a costume or other forms of identity theft, purchasing and displaying Indigenous art is encouraged, especially when you can use it to draw more attention to the artist. Sadly though, the number of Indigenous creators are far out-numbered by non-Native people looking to profit off their culture. 

For example, the Alaska Department of Commerce and Development estimates that 75-80% of what is branded as Native art, was not actually made by Alaska Natives, resulting in the redirection of millions of dollars away from Alaska Native communities.4  So before swiping that credit card, make sure that the creator of that piece has the cultural heritage to claim ownership of it. As the Indigenous led Eighth Generation collective puts it, make sure it was created by “inspired Natives” and was not “Native-inspired.” Don’t be afraid to ask shop owners or gallery curators this question directly. That’s not only an easy way to find out, but it signals to that purveyor that sourcing directly from Indigenous creators is something their customers require. Buying directly from Indigenous artists is an even better option. 

Here are a few Indigenous creators and collectives and a slideshow of their products: 
Eighth Generation
I-Hos Gallery
B. Yellowtail
Warren Steven Scott
The Shortridge Collection
Seaalaska Heritage Library

As always when buying from artists, expect the price to reflect that the piece supports a livelihood and don’t attempt to barter. The goal shouldn’t be to simply obtain a beautiful object, but to celebrate and support the person who took great care to craft a sharable piece of their identity. 

Reconciling the ongoing pain caused by centuries of brutality, land theft, and cultural erasure will not be an easy process. It’s uncomfortable, for example, to realize that while your intent was simply to love on corvids, something you’ve done or said is being called out as anti-Indigenous. But it’s essential that we are willing to engage with that discomfort because it’s through that process that we learn and initiate positive change. Inviting Indigenous voices into your spaces is the most important way to start or continue that effort. Please look for the following individuals who are but a drop in the list of fantastic people you can find. And if you appreciated this article, please consider making a donation to one of the individuals or organizations listed below.

Twitter
Vincent Schilling (@vinceschilling)
Delores Schilling (@DelSchilling)
Jesse Wente (@jessewente)
Mari Kurisato (@wordglass)
Katherine Crocker (@cricketcrocker)
Chief Lady Bird (@chiefladybird)
Daniel Heath Justice (@justicedanielh)
Jay Odjick (@JayOdjick)
Kat Milligan-Myhre (@Napaaqtuk)
Alethea Arnaquq Baril‏ (@Alethea_Aggiuq)
Ruth Hopkins (@Ruth_HHopkins)
Nick Estes (@nickestes)
Kim Tallbear (@KimTallbear)
Kyle White (@kylepowyswhyte)
Ō’m”kaistaaw”kaa•kii (@mariahgladstone)
Indigenous folks in STEM
Plus everyone on this list

Instagram
Indigenous Rising (@indigenousrising)
Corinne Rice (@misscorinne86)
Ryan Young (@Indigenousvengeance)
Indigenous Women Who Hike (@Indigenouswomenhike)
Calina Lawrence (@calinalawrence)
Adrienne Keen (@nativeapprops)
Winona LaDuke (@winonaladuke)
Indian Country Today (@indiancountrytoday)
Tanaya Winder (@Tanayawinder)
Sarain Fox (@sarainfox)
Decolonize Myself (@decolonizemyself)

Organizations/Resources
Reclaim Indigenous Arts
Native Women in the Arts
Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women
Native American Heritage Association
Kituwah Preservation and Education Program
American Indian College Fund
Indigenous Environmental Network
Two-Spirit Resource Directory
Cultural Survival

Many thanks to Liz Landefeld, David Craig, and Vince Schilling for leaving their fingerprints on this article.

Literature cited
1 Cultural Appropriation (2020). In Oxford Online Dictionary https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/cultural-appropriation?q=cultural+appropriation

2 Hitakonanulaxk. Grandfather speak: Native American FolkTales of the Lenape people. Interlink Publishing Group, 4/30/1995

3 Williams, Maria. How Raven Stole the Sun (Tales of the People). Abbeville Press, 11/20/2000

4 Howell-Zimmer J. 12/2000. Intellectual Property Protection For Alaska Native Arts. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/intellectual-property-protection-alaska-native-arts

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Filed under Anti-racism, Birding, Corvid mythology, Crows and humans, Wildlife

Crow curiosities: Do crows collect shiny objects?

The notion that corvids, especially magpies, have a special affinity for shiny object has been around for more than a century.  In fact to refer to someone as a magpie is to describe them as someone who ‘compulsively collects or hoards small objects’.   This idea is so old hat that it can feel a bit frivolous to even wonder if it’s true.  The trouble with this bit of corvid whimsy, however, is that when we do investigate it, and scientists have, we find there’s no empirical evidence to support it.

'Crow Collects' by Cori Lee Marvin.

‘Crow Collects’ by Cori Lee Marvin.

For instance, one study presented both captive and free-living magpies piles of blue or shiny silver screws, rings, and pieces of tin foil near piles of food to which they had been previously habituated.1  They found that, rather than thieving and subsequently caching the gleaming objects, the birds were actually more nervous to take food than they had been previously.  In the 64 conducted tests, only two instances of contact between a bird and an object were recorded.

trial

Experimental set-up for magpie study.

Cornell crow expert Kevin McGowen, elaborates on this general conclusion, suggesting that perhaps the origin of this folklore is pet crows who are attracted to the objects of obvious value to their owner like coins, keys or jewelry.  Speaking personally as someone who has spent countless hours observing hundreds of individual crows in the field, I can also attest to the fact I have never witnessed anything resembling this behavior.  So there you have it, corvids do not, according to the best empirical evidence, show an attraction to, or are otherwise known to collect shiny objects.

And yet…

And yet I still hear anecdotes about this behavior that peak my curiosity.  For instance, once or twice a year I’ll see a headline about crows thieving shiny stones at the expense of bereft family members.  In Jewish culture, it’s tradition to leave a small stone atop a gravestone, as a way to honor the deceased and indicate that they’ve been visited.  For whatever reason, particularly across Ireland, these stones occasionally go for joy rides in the mouths of crows.  In Omagh, Patsy Kerlin who mounts headstones in his town’s graveyard recently told a local reporter that “It seems to be only the black shiny ones they take and a lot of them go missing.”  Even in my own neck of the woods at the University of Washington one of the gardeners at the Urban Horticulture Center regaled John Marzluff and I with his story of how the crows regularly steal the shiny metal placards that identify the center’s plants.

In science, we often like to say “the plural of anecdote is not data”.  This is unequivocally true.  But just because they’re not data doesn’t mean they’re meaningless either.  I’m inclined to believe there’s more to these stories than random chance and I think they are worth exploring.  Perhaps these stories emerge out of confirmation bias, meaning people tend to report theft with respect to shiny things more often because they’re looking to confirm a suspicion they already had.  If so, it would be yet another fascinating example of the extent to which corvids have infiltrated our culture.  Or perhaps this is the work of curious juveniles as has been suggested by my crow colleague Dr. Jennifer Cambell-Smith.  If so, teasing out any evidence of discrimination or bias juveniles are using when selecting objects to explore could give us insight into how they learn about the world, or how our garbage is modifying that behavior.  Or perhaps crows do like to carry off with glossy objects, but for textural, rather than visual reasons.  At least some corvid species swallow small stones to aid in digestion and these stones are most often partially smoothed.2  These ‘grit stones’, however, are considerably smaller (on average only 2.9 mm) than I imagine grave stones are, so perhaps this behavior is evidence of poor grit stone selection among naive birds.

Or maybe it’s none of the above, we simply cannot say.  Which, for me, is exactly why I find these anecdotes so interesting.  While we can rule out that this behavior isn’t a manifestation of corvids’ love for bling, we can’t exactly explain this behavior either.   It’s yet another item on the shelf along with thieving golf balls and wiper blades where we can’t do much more than offer an educated guess.  So while I’m quick to clarify that crows are not attracted to shiny objects, I’m not dismissive of these anecdotes either.  My friend and colleague David Craig likes to say that every bird has a story, and citizen science is part of sharing that story.  In my book, the story of corvids and their light fingered behavior seems an ideal project for the crow minded bird nerd.

  1.  Shepard, T. V, Lea, S. E. G., and Hempel de Ibarra, N.  2014.  Thieving magpie’?  No evidence for attraction to shiny objects.  Animal Cognition 18: 393-397.
  2. Gionfriddo, J.P., and Best, L. B. 1996.  Grit-use patterns in North American birds: The influence of diet, body size and gender.  The Wilson Bulletin 108: 685-696

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Filed under Corvid mythology, Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Crows and humans, In the news

Why the crow is black and other mythology

Since humans began telling stories and writing them down, they’ve told stories about crows and other corvids.  This should come as no surprise considering corvids are found in nearly every corner of the world and are as connected to us now as they were centennials ago.  Whether they are sharing (or thieving) the food we grow, consuming the soft tissues of our dead, or delighting us with their company, corvids have infiltrated the most intimate parts of our lives. They walk the earth cloaked in black, and yet persist with the light of life even we perish through disease or famine.  It is this juxtaposition that I think made our human ancestors look upon those glossy feather and conclude they must have some greater tie to creation than their other avian kin.  Be it India, Rome, the Middle East or North America, they’ve been written into the oldest stories explaining how the facts of the world came to fruition.  With that in mind, let’s break from answering questions with the rigors of science this week and embrace the explanations offered by our ancestors.

“Raven and the First Men” by Haida artist Bill Reid. Photo by Christer Waara/CBC

Why the crow is black (According the the Greeks/Romans)

Apollo, the son of the most powerful greek God Zeus, had an important, albeit tumultuous relationship with crows.  The greek word for crow, corone, comes from the name of Apollo’s mistress, Coronis.  According to the version of this story told by Appolodorus, although Coronis and Apollo had been lovers, she left him to marry a mortal, Ischys.  The crow, then white, brought news of the marriage to Apollo who became so incensed he burned the bird’s feathers and then burned Coronis to death.  In other versions Coronis is herself turned into the black crow and it’s possible the Greeks saw a mated pair of crows as a representation of the forbidden love between Coronis and Ischys.  This may be one of the earliest stories of a woman marrying below her class for love.

Apollo

Why the crow is black (According to Muslims)

Muhammad, born sometime around 570 CE, is considered to be the founder of Islam and the last profit sent to earth by God, according to the Islamic faith.  A popular legend depicts a time Muhammed was hiding from his enemies in a cave.  A crow, then white, spotted him and cried “Ghar, Ghar!” (cave, cave!) to his seekers.  They did not comprehend the crow’s cries, however, and Muhammad escaped.  He turned the crow black for the betrayal and cursed him to only utter one phrase for the rest of time;  “Ghar, Ghar!”

Why the crow is hoarse (According to Greek/Romans)

Apollo sent a raven to gather water for a feast but the raven was distracted by an unripened fig tree.  Determined to obtain the figs, the raven waited until the tree ripened, ate his fill, and then captured a watersnake to bring back to Apollo.  The watersnake, the raven explained, was the reason he was late and unable to collect the requested water, but Apollo saw through the lie.  As punishment, Apollo declared the raven could never again drink from the stream until the figs ripened.  Since the raven must now wait, his voice is hoarse from thirst.

Why owls and crows fight  (According to Hindus)

According to the great animal epic, the Panchatantra, the birds had come together to elect a king and choose his earthly appearance.  They had elected the owl and were beginning to organize his lavish coronation, when the crow arrived.  The crow laughed at their decision, protesting that the owl was too ugly, his features without tenderness, and his nature without pity.  Furthermore, Garuda, the eagle mounted Vishnu was already their king and to take another was a sin that could result in severe punishment by the Gods.  The others, scared by the crow’s warning, left in agreement.  Being nocturnal, the owl had slept through all this but now awoke to find his coronation canceled due to the crow’s persuasive words.  They have fought ever since.

“The Crows Trap the Owls in Their Cave by Lighting a Fire at the Entrance and Fanning it with Their Wings” Folio from the Kalīla wa-Dimna. The Kalīla wa-Dimna is an Arabic translated collection of fables which are believed to be largely inspired by the Panchatantra. This specific image references a story from Book III of the Panchatantra which tells of how crows were able to trap and burn their owl nemesis to death. Image c/o The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Why we die (According to Haida Natives)  

Ravens have a significant role in the creations legends of many different Native American tribes.  According to the Haida people of what’s now the Queen Charlotte Islands, Greater Raven was the creator that first called earth into being on the endless sea.  He then made humans out of both rock and leaf.  The people of rock were (as I can well imagine) more difficult to shape and were never finished.  The people of leaf, on the other hand, were quickly completed and ready to roam the land.  The raven instructed them that, like the leaf, they must eventually fall and rot back into the earth and thus death entered the world.

Why the sky is full of light (According to Tsimshian Natives)

Greater Raven, as mentioned above, eventually gave dominion of the world to his sister’s son, Lesser Raven, who it was said was as robust as stone and would live forever.  Unlike Greater Raven, Lesser Raven was both a trickster and had a voracious appetite.  To satisfy his hunger, Lesser Raven filled the earth with food, but feared he would be unable to find it, as at that time the earth was still dark.  Seeking a solution, Raven flew through a hole in the sky where he found another world much like our own.  When he saw the daughter of the Chief of Heaven collecting water he transformed into a needle and floated into her vessel.  When she drank the water and the needle, Lesser Raven impregnated her and was later reborn as her son.  The infant charmed the Chief and his wife and was granted permission to play with the box containing the light of day.  Suddenly, Raven took his original form and flew back to earth through the hole in the sky, taking the box with him.  Later, he broke the box out of anger and filled the sky with the sun, moon and stars.

Please visit Whose Land to learn more about the ancestral lands of the Haida and Tsimshian people. It’s our responsibility as occupiers to learn about the people who existed here before us and where they live today.

Why we bury our dead (According to Judaism)

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, an aggadic compilation of the Hebrew bible written in the 13th century, after Adam and Eve’s son Abel died, they did not know what to do with the body.  Seeing their distress, a raven killed one of his companions to show the grieving couple how to dig a hole and bury the body. To thank the raven for his kindness, God feeds baby ravens until their feathers turn black after which their parents take over.

***

Thus, be it the color of ravens or the intimate mysteries of human death, crows have offered a canvas on which early peoples the world over painted their explanations of life.   My thanks to Borgia Sax and his terrific book, Crow, which was the factual source and inspiration for this post.

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Filed under Corvid mythology, Crows and humans