Native teachings: from Elder to Child

by taiki

This is a Haida story that I learned from PNW Native American elders at a Potlach event on Whidbey Island:

Once upon a time, there was a rotten little boy who lived with his mom and dad. He hated to be told what to do. He did not like when his parents told him to go there, do this, go to bed. He didn’t like any of it.

Sometime later, the whole tribe had a giant feast in honor of their Chief. But instead of going, he wanted to keep playing outside with the other kids. But his mom and dad told him he had to go to the feast because it was important. He wouldn’t budge. Finally, he relented (reluctantly) and went inside.

He asked him mom if he could play outside after he finished eating and his mom said yes. So he snarfed down all the food on his plate as quickly as possible. As he was rushing out to play, his mom told him, “Don’t forget to throw the salmon bones out into the river! And also don’t go too far to the West because there are dense forests and you might get lost. Also don’t go too far to the East because that’s where the Salmon People will take you and bring you down into the water with them!” That rotten little boy heard his mom and knew what she meant, but he said to himself, “I’ll throw the bones into river after I’m done playing.”

As he went off to play with the other kids, they decided to play tag but never discussed the boundaries. So he ran off far into the East, until he remembered what his Mother had said, and started to turn back as he knew the Salmon People were not a made-up legend. As he was coming back, he heard the crack of a twig behind him. When he turned around he didn’t see anybody. This time he started running back to his Mother, but could hear more twigs cracking behind him and thought it was one of the men from the Salmon People. As quick as he was, the Salmon tribe member was quicker and grabbed ahold of him. He took the little boy and jumped into the closest river and they both turned into salmon.

That rotten little boy actually liked it there underwater. Nobody told him what to do, where to go, everybody just did what they were supposed to without being told. One day, when they were traveling around looking for food, he looked back to find one young salmon girl. He realized that part of her fin was missing. She was struggling using all of her might to catch up with the rest of the group but had no luck. A terrible thought struck that rotten little boy. He realized it wasn’t nature doing this, but it was his own fault. While he was still human, he said he’d put the bones back into the river after playing, but he never really got back to the bones. He felt so miserable and sad for this young little salmon that he went right to the salmon chief.

“Chief, I must get back to my world! It is urgent. I have something to do!”

The Chief said, “But don’t you like it here? I thought you were always complaining about the upper world and everyone always telling you what to do. I thought you liked it here?”

“Yes, I do like it here, but there is one thing I have to do. And if I don’t, it might ruin somebody’s life.”

The Chief said, “You do realize, that if you go back to the upper world you can’t come back here. A human can only visit the salmon world one time and can’t get back once it leaves.”

“Yes, I am aware of that,” said the rotten little boy. “But I can’t stand watching somebody struggle for their whole life!”

The Chief sighed miserably and said, “Ok, if you really want to go, I will take you. You can ride on my back and I’ll change you back into human. You can do the rest.”

So up they went, the rotten little boy traveling on the Chief’s back, rapidly returning to the surface of the water. A couple of feet before arriving, the Chief bid the little boy farewell and the little boy swam back up to the surface. Once he felt the air, he also felt himself changing back into a human. All the villagers came running to greet him and wanted to hug and kiss him. But he had no time for this.

He ran all the way back to the place where he left his bowl with all of the salmon bones. And with the bones in his hands, he ran all the way back to the river. As he threw them into the river, he prayed to the little young salmon for forgiveness.

Moral: Don’t be a rotten little boy (girl)

History behind this teaching: Native Americans long ago made a treaty with the Salmon People that whenever they catch and eat a salmon, they return all the bones back to the river believing they will reform back into the same salmon, one of their most important food sources.

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