A Myth in the Making

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Native American Douglas Chilton (or Yaa nak.ch, his Native name) started carving a canoe this fall, when a raven alighted near his workspace. Chilton, who belongs to the Raven clan of the Tlingit Indians, viewed the raven’s appearance as a blessing, especially because he and his colleague Rosita Worl from Sealaska Heritage Institute had already worked out a raven design for the canoe prow.

"I’ve heard about such coincidences happening to other people, but this is the first time it’s happened to me," Chilton says. As word about the black-winged sentry spread, clan elders came to offer blessings and prayers, naming the raven "the watcher." (There is no Tlingit word for guardian.) When Chilton and his family members work on the canoe, the raven takes up a post in a nearby tree and periodically squawks a call, as if to say, "Hurry up!"

Chilton's canoe was commissioned for the new Ocean Hall, which will be opening next September at the National Museum of Natural History. He is at work now just outside the Sealaska in Juneau, Alaska (a contributor to the Ocean Hall). A Web cam is following Chilton’s daily progress, and from time to time, the raven can be seen there too. It has a slightly damaged wing, but it seems to be boldly patrolling the canoe and shooing away the curious.

Chilton remembers seeing a raven, which also had an injured wing, at a site 11 miles away when he was preparing the log for carving. He believes it’s the same bird and intends to honor the raven’s vigilance by incorporating its damaged wing into the canoe design. Though ravens are common in the Northwest, witnessing a myth in the making—online—that’s a rare sign of the times.

(Douglas Chilton and the raven, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

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