Raven in flight (Copetersen Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Raven is an ancient bird around the world, pictured on the walls of Egyptian pyramids, on Viking banners unfurled in long-ago battles, and woven into Native American basket designs throughout Southern California. Sometimes on a day in our canyon when all is still, you can hear the Ravens flying past, the air whirring in their wings to remind us of the sacred sound of a bullroarer.
Raven is a bird of power.
“Of the numerous bird species found in Cahuilla territory, the carnivores were most respected and assumed to have great power,” Cahuilla anthropologist Lowell Bean writes. “The golden eagle, turkey vulture, raven, and various species of hawk were all potential bearers of great power, often being representatives of supernatural beings. Songs celebrated them; places were named after them; powerful objects were made from them; and reverence, pride and appreciation for them were commonly noted.” 1
Raven (Alan Vernon Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
In Southern California Native American homelands, ornithologist C. Hart Merriam heard these names for Raven: Cahuilla: Ahl'what; Serrano: Ah-traht'; Luiseño: Chim-me'-itch, Kah-wē'-ah.2
Raven and Crow
Raven is constantly being confused with his smaller relative, the American crow. Quick way to tell the difference: Crow’s caw-caw call vs. Raven’s croaking awk. Another way: Their tails. Raven’s is wedge-shaped, with longer tail feathers in the middle. Crow’s tail feathers are basically the same length, so the tail opens like a fan when Crow is flying. Retired biologist June Siva, also Dorothy Ramon Learning Center’s vice president, says, “Ravens have a thicker beak than crows. That’s how I tell them apart.”
Unfortunately, anthropologists and linguists are not always bird savvy, and in the old stories that were shared with them, the two birds sometimes get confused or are named as though Crow and Raven are one and the same. Crow, who didn’t live in the desert in older times, appears in some Desert Cahuilla stories instead of Raven, who does live in the desert. Here are two stories from Francisco Patencio:
Crow as Messenger
“Now the people were thinking whom they would invite to their fiesta, and they decided to have Tem al souit, meaning Day Star Snake, who lived away to the south in the Santa Rosa Mountains. They sent a message by Wild Turkey, who could smell out everything, to notify this Day Star Snake. He went, but could not go near to him because of the strong whirling winds which knocked him over. The whirlwinds were made by the great snakes in those days, but now they are the spirits of the great snakes. Wild Turkey tried hard to get near, but he was blown all about by the winds. So he came back, and they sent a man called Crow, and he carried the message through.” 3
Crow leads the Birds
(Raven, Blondinrikard Fröberg Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia commons)
“In the early time of the nukatem (spiritual beings, the first created by the Creator, Mukat), a drought occurred in the desert that caused great suffering among the birds. They were told by migrating ducks and geese of the pleasant climate of the mountains, and decided they must travel there themselves.” 4
“So the day birds held a meeting,” Francisco Patencio told in his 1943 book, “and elected the crow to be the captain. The night birds held a meeting the same way and place, only it was night time, and they elected the owl to be their captain. The day came to start. All the birds gathered … so happy to leave the hot dry desert and never come back any more.
“Then Captain Crow gave the order to start, and all the birds rose in the air, every bird except one. The mockingbird decided she would not leave her home. There were so many birds in the air that they darkened the sun. The sunlight could not get through — all the ground was a dark shadow. Then they flew away and beyond. Happy birds!
“Now, as soon as the shadows began coming in the evening, the night birds all began gathering together, every one of them. Captain Owl gave the order to rise in the air. They all flew up and they went on, so very many many of them. The sky was so full of them, it was just one sound of their talk.
“They flew all night, and just as the day was breaking they came up to the day birds that were just starting out. The day birds told the night birds that they were very happy to leave the desert … They were finding everything just as they were told it would be. So every morning as the day birds were starting out, the night birds came to go to bed, and they exchanged news of all that happened during the past night and day, and so all over the mountain the day birds were one sleep ahead of the night birds.
“They were … so very happy. They liked the cool air, the green trees, and the cold sweet water, like the springs on the desert in winter time … They wondered why they had not believed and come to this nice place long long before. They flew in the tall trees, they played in the green grass, they bathed in the pools, they ate the fruit and seeds and berries growing there.
“After a time some of the birds began to feel a little cold … Each day the sun shone less and less. … All of the birds began to suffer more and more. Some of them became sick and began dying. Their feet swelled and cracked and bled. The birds did not know what to do, so many of their friends dying and frozen in the ground. All the beautiful lakes and streams, the rocks and bushes, the ground were frozen like one solid piece of ice.
“Then Captain Crow called a meeting and ordered them all to come home to their own warm desert again. He gave the order to rise and fly towards the setting sun, but many could not fly, and were left dead and dying.
“Then they came to the great mountain that they had loved so much when they had passed. It was all covered with frozen snow; there was no water to drink … The birds began to suffer more than before. Now the snow fell, the rains fell, wetting and chilling them through. The fierce winds swept them into the freezing ground; they were too weak to get away. There was nothing to eat — everything was frozen stiff and hard.
“The birds had only one thought — to reach their own desert before they died. They flew on but left most of their friends frozen in the solid ice behind.
“There was great joy for the poor little birds that were able to get across the terrible mountains when they began to feel the warm air of their own desert below. When they reached home there were only a few of them left. … They found that the desert was still having dry years. There was very little to eat, and not much water, so they decided that the best thing they could do was to go down to the Salton Sink. There was always a spring of sweet water to be had there; not much, no, but always some.
Mockingbird (Ken Thomas Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia)
“So the crow called order again, and they all flew down to the little spring of good water in the Salton Sink. Here they were much surprised to find the mockingbird busy with her nest.
“They remembered the ice, the cold, and snow. They all decided that each kind of bird should make a song about the dreadful mistake that they had made, so that no birds would ever do anything like that again.
“Each bird began making a new song, telling all about the terrible time that had come upon them, all about the loved ones that were dead and left behind. All these sad songs the birds were songing (sic) every day, so that they would never forget, until the mockingbird got so troubled hearing so many sad songs so much of the time that she forgot her own song and only sings parts of other birds’ songs ever since.” 5
Dorothy Ramon Learning Center’s 501(c)3 nonprofit mission to save and share Southern California Native American cultures, languages, history, and traditional arts. We love to hear from our community: EMAIL. Subscribe, share! Thank you! Pat Murkland, Editor. September 29, 2021.
Bean, Lowell J., Sylvia Brakke Vane, Sue Myers, and James Toenjes, (Cultural Systems Research Inc.) Cahuilla Ethnozoology, 2007, for U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Palm Springs, p. 28.
Merriam, C. Hart 1907-1936. Indian Names for Plants and Animals among Californian and other Western North America Tribes, ed. Robert F. Heizer. Ballena Press Publications in Archaeology, Ethnology, and History No. 14.
Patencio, Francisco, and Margaret Boynton. Stories And Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, 1943, Palm Springs Desert Museum, pp 40-41
Cahuilla Ethnozoology, p 29
Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, pp 128-132