(White Raven), blown, hot-sculpted, sand-carved glass. (Russell
Johnson / Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2017)
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Preston
Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight" by Miranda
Shkík Belarde-Lewis and John Drury (University
of Washington Press, $50 hardcover, 144 pages, 115 color illustrations).
The book has been available at Tacoma's Museum
of Glass during an
exhibition of the same name that runs through Sept. 2, featuring
Singletary's glass art. The book is now available more widely. All
glass art is by Singletary, an American Tlingit, with photos by
Russell Johnson. In this essay, Belarde-Lewis examines the multiple
versions of the "Raven and the Box of Daylight" stories, and explains
how she and Singletary curated the exhibition.
ONE DAY, MY SON asked me, "How do we know if history is true?"
He was 9 years old at the time, and his question shocked me. I explained
to him that there are those who remember what happened, there is
the evidence of what happened, and there are those who write it
down. I told him that if enough of the stories match, then we all
agree that is what happened. I reminded him that this is
how it "easily" works when the written word is the documentation
for history, and that when it comes to Native history, we have to
get the story right every time we tell it.
High-level discussion with a 9-year-old. But his question has immediate
relevance to this exhibition. There are countless Raven stories
in the Tlingit community, and there are many versions of how Raven
came to bring the light to the world. The stories are not necessarily
contradictory, but they do emphasize different points and have different
details, depending on whom the caretaker of that story was and how
he or she was taught to tell the story. During the four years that
glass artist Preston
Singletary and I have been working on an
exhibition with Tacoma's Museum
of Glass, he and I have continuously wrestled with questions
at the intersection of oral history, the defining nature of art
and the universal elements contained within this particular Raven
THE BACKSTORY: Illuminating the treasured story of Raven, and its
THE EXHIBIT: The
Museum of Glass exhibition, 'Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box
of Daylight,' explores a Tlingit story
Some of the questions raised: How can this exhibition showcase
the universal aspects of the "Raven and the Box of Daylight" story?
What is the best way to explore Tlingit oratory through glass? Who
has the authority to tell the stories? How do we as curators and
institutions encourage and support artists who are affirming tribal
truths and history through their art? When there are several versions
of the same tribal story, is it possible to craft one exhibition
narrative that honors multiple tellings of the story?
(Baskets), blown and sand-carved glass. (Russell Johnson /
Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2016)
When Singletary and the Museum of Glass asked me to curate this
exhibition in late 2014, the planning of an exhibition based on
the iconic Tlingit story of "Raven and the Box of Daylight" was
well underway. This story describes the time when the world was
"Nass Shaak Aankáawu (Nobleman at the Head of the
Nass River) was hoarding many treasures, including the light. When
Yéil (Raven) learned that the man had a daughter who
drank from a stream every morning, Yéil turned himself
into a hemlock or spruce needle and floated into her cup. She drank
him; became pregnant; and Yéil, born in human form,
became the love of their lives. Nass Shaak Aankáawu
provided every luxury and toy to his precocious grandson. When the
child cried for the boxes that held the stars, the moon and the
sun, his grandfather could not refuse him. One by one, Yéil
T'ukanéiyi (Raven Baby) incessantly cried for and released
the stars, the moon and the daylight, much to the dismay of Nass
Shaak Aankáawu but much to the benefit of the people
and animals of the world. Realizing he was the victim of extreme
deceit, Nass Shaak Aankáawu forever marked Yéil
by holding him in the smoke of the fireplace, altering his color,
turning him from the white spiritual being into the black color
he is today."
Preston Singletary working
in the Museum of Glass hot shop. (Ken Emly, 2010)
THE STORY OF "Raven and the Box of Daylight" has captivated the
imagination of Tlingit peoples for thousands of years, just as it
has captured the imagination of non-Tlingit anthropologists since
the late 1700s. Its appeal is multifaceted: It has drama, it helps
explain the world, and it has many similarities to other iconic
stories from other cultures and religions that are easily compared.
Its symbolism and the way elements of it resemble other stories
around the world have helped it to be regurgitated ad nauseam by
academics. Many a non-Native children's book author has appropriated
the story. The late linguist, poet and author Xwaayeená
Richard Dauenhauer called the story "one of the most hackneyed"
of Tlingit stories.
Although the story has been appropriated many times over, it has
resonance within the Tlingit community. It's still our story. Shdal'éiw
Walter C. Porter, a beloved and now-deceased elder from the Tlingit
village of Yakutat, Alaska, spent more than 20 years examining the
story and its differences, depending on whom was telling it. He
dissected its symbolism, analyzed its messages and compared it to
stories from around the world. After meeting in 2004, Singletary
and Porter began a dialogue based on the storytelling power and
potential of Singletary's glass art.
Porter studied the symbolism and messages contained within Tlingit
stories and compared them with the symbolism and messages of stories
in the Bible; with the teachings of Buddha; with ancient European
traditions; and with our indigenous relatives in Oceania, Australia
and Aotearoa (New Zealand). It was Porter's encouragement and his
focus on the universal traits of the "Raven and the Box of Daylight"
story that inspired Singletary to pursue this exhibition, a resolve
that was strengthened with urgency after Porter's passing in 2013.
(Raven Man), blown and sand-carved glass. (Russell Johnson
/ Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2017)
There are dozens of Raven stories. Raven is a trickster, and regularly
finds himself in trouble, or finds that the shortcuts used to benefit
him almost always backfire. Many times, the consequences of his
actions have influenced the world as we now know it. There are quite
a few "Raven and the Box of Daylight" stories; for this exhibition,
we examined five of them. Two of the tellings came from Porter,
from Yakutat, Alaska. The other tellings came from Daanawáakh
Austin Hammond, from Haines, Alaska; Lugóon Sophie
Smarch, from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and Kaasgéiy
Susie James, from Sitka, Alaska.
As I crafted the exhibition narrative, Singletary and I learned
from and were influenced by the various stories and tried to take
into account the different details that Singletary wanted to emphasize.
Our primary goal is to honor the essence of the story without veering
too far off into one version of it. We have made it a priority to
acknowledge the people and the details they know to be true. We
have an obligation to them, to recognize and honor how they understand
their own history as it is embodied in this particular Raven story.
Here is a deeper look at four different elements of the exhibition
and, within each, the variances between the stories, Porter's analysis
of the portion of the story and the pieces Singletary created.
Pulled Through Water), hot-sculpted and sand-carved glass.
(Russell Johnson / Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2017)
RAVEN IN THE WATER
In all the stories, Raven transforms into some sort of plant and
drops himself into the daughter's drinking water; however, the details
of his trials to be ingested by her vary. In Porter's tellings,
the daughter does not realize her water contained Raven, and she
drank him without incident. In his many presentations on the "Raven
and the Box of Daylight" story, Porter routinely drew attention
to the use of pure, blessed and holy water in many of our world's
religious and cultural practices.
In James' telling, the daughter complains and does not want to
drink from the bentwood box cup; the servants cannot keep the water
free from the spruce needles that keep finding their way into her
cup. After repeated attempts to clean the water, her mother tells
her to drink it anyway. Ironically, her mother tells her that the
spruce needle is not going to harm her.
Smarch told that Raven kept appearing in the water, and the girl
and her mother kept throwing the dirty water out but eventually
had to drink it. In all of the versions of the story, Raven persisted
and prevailed in his plan to sneak into the daughter's water and
be ingested by her.
In the Hammond version, a hole is dug near the river to help distill
it. The water is retrieved from the hole, and a feather is pulled
through the water to test its purity. Raven disguised himself as
a hemlock needle and fooled the feather so he would not be detected
as the feather was pulled through the water.
Hammond reminds the listener that during this point of existence,
Raven is what people of European descent call a spirit, that he
was a supernatural being, and he was able to trick the feather into
pulling through and not catching him in the water. The fact that
the daughter choked on a hemlock needle was not without notice by
the Nobleman. The man asked, "Why didn't the feather tell us?"
ka Keiwa.aa (Raven and
the Box of Daylight), cast lead crystal, kiln-cast glass.
(Russell Johnson / Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2016)
In their tellings, both Porter and Hammond made direct references
to the similarities in the "Raven and the Box of Daylight" story
and the Immaculate Conception detailed in the Bible, the event that
led to the birth of Jesus Christ. Hammond's version explicitly ties
together the similarity to the biblical story, stating, "
yes, the story of the Lord Above. Look at that, my friends. The
story of how the Lord Above was born."
In one of Porter's tellings, he asked the audience: If the daughter
became pregnant and was not yet married, she became pregnant as
what? As a virgin. He then asks, "Where else have we heard this
Hammond and Porter recognized the similarities of the Immaculate
Conception in the stories. Hammond's version makes the point that
the stories are similar, while Porter's telling views them as universal
traits found in stories around the world.
Singletary often recalls how engaging Porter's tellings were of
this aspect of the story. He would interact with the audiences,
employing strategies like a pastor, calling for and getting a response
from the whole room: "And who here has heard a story like that before?
Who else was born to a virgin mother?" He would always solicit a
(Oystercatcher), blown and sand-carved glass. (Russell Johnson
/ Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2017)
In several versions of the "Raven and the Box of Daylight" story,
a pit is dug in the ground and lined with luxurious furs and skins
in preparation for the daughter to give birth; however, she had
a difficult and prolonged delivery.
James told that Raven is the one who did not want to be born on
martin skins and thus into luxury. In her version, it was baby Raven
who wanted a humble birth because what he was doing was for the
"poor people" without light.
Hammond told of an Elder, sometimes referred to as "the woman who
is curious," who insisted baby Raven needed a humbler area to be
born on. In both James' and Hammond's tellings, the fine furs and
skins were replaced with moss.
Hammond compared the Nobleman's desire to have his grandchild born
into luxury with the first attempt of Mary and Joseph to rent a
room at an inn.
Singletary has long been struck by this strong point of similarity
between the "Raven and the Box of Daylight" stories and the Bible,
as well as its strength as an incredibly poignant visual.
(Killer Whale Canoe), slumped, cast and sand-carved glass.
(Russell Johnson / Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2018)
In many versions of "Raven and the Box of Daylight" including
both ethnographic accounts and popular English versions of the story
at the beginning of his journey, Raven is white, one marker
of his supernatural status. Tlingit scholar and professor Maria
Williams wrote in her children's book "How Raven Stole the Sun (Tales
of the People)" that Raven was "pure white from the tips of his
claws to the ends of his wings." Hammond described Raven as a white
or translucent being early on in his telling of the story.
Depending on whom is telling the story, the details of how Raven
became black differ, but the results are always the same.
Smarch described how angry Raven's grandfather was when Raven released
all of his treasures into the sky. In her telling, he gathered the
pitch from all around the house, placed it into a bentwood box and
threw it in the fire. Raven could not find the smoke hole and flew
around in the black smoke, becoming the black bird we know today.
Raven sacrificed his supernatural state of being in order to bring
light to the world.
The final room of the exhibition reveals a world drenched in light
and the realms that were created when the beings were exposed to
full daylight. The beings that jumped into the sky with fright became
the sky beings. The beings that ran for cover in the woods became
part of the forest realm. Those that dived into the water became
water creatures. Those who stood tall and brave (or foolishly did
not run for any cover) remained as the human Tlingit people.
World of Daylight. (Russell
Johnson / Courtesy Preston Singletary, 2018)
MY SON ASKED me how we know whether history is true. Native peoples
and indigenous communities have witnessed the banishment of our
histories into the realm of myths and legends, in no way regarded
as legitimate "history." Despite the negative and harmful treatment
of our spirituality, our cultural practices and our stories, we
have lived through this before with many of our stories intact.
Native artists have the unique ability to make our truths tangible
and accessible to a wide variety of viewers. Art helps us recognize
each other's humanity, a vital act if we wish to move beyond this
contentious moment in time.
The story of "Raven and the Box of Daylight" contains messages
and symbolism of hope, forgiveness, tolerance, love and sacrifice
messages and symbolism that encourage humans to be kinder
toward each other.
Earlier, I asked how we would proceed with an exhibition narrative
when there are several versions of the same tribal story. The way
that Singletary and I have reconciled the multiple tellings is to
acknowledge the different versions, both in the flow of the exhibition
and explicitly in this essay. By going back to the essence and the
messages of our stories, we are being reminded that our history
carries the strength and wisdom of our ancestors.
For those of us blessed to be from communities that still have
these stories, and our own interpretations of what these stories
mean to us, we are now in the unique position to bring that history
fully into the present to share with the world. May all of our stories
help guide us into our collective future.
Miranda Shkík Belarde-Lewis (Ph.D.), curator of 'Preston
Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight,' is an independent curator
in the Seattle area and an assistant professor at the University
of Washington's Information School. She works to highlight and celebrate
Native artists, their processes and the exquisite pieces they create.
She is enrolled at Zuni Pueblo and is a member of the Takdeintáan
Clan of the Tlingit Nation.
Preston Kochéin Singletary is a renowned American Tlingit
glass artist who grew up in Seattle. His artworks feature themes
of transformation, animal spirits and shamanism through elegant
blown-glass forms and mystical sand-carved Tlingit designs. His
work is included in museum collections around the world.