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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature

Vivian Martindale

"Raven: A Trickster Tale From The Pacific Northwest."

According to the book "Raven: A Trickster Tale From the Pacific Northwest" and a website sponsored by the author Gerald McDermott and the publisher Voyager/Harcourt Books (ISBN 0-15-265661-8), "Raven, of Native American tradition, is a powerful trickster on a cosmic scale.  In this mysterious story, he searches for the light hidden in the house of Sky Chief.  But how will he get inside the house?  And once inside, how will he escape to bring light to the world?" This is a popular and frequently told story about how Raven steals the sun from a chief thus bringing light into the world. This retelling of the same story in a picture book format is a jumble from several versions found throughout the Pacific Northwest including Alaska.

Mind you, McDermott is an excellent artist however, small children (recommended reading level is 2nd grade) might not like the looks of Raven as a boy because his body is depicted as a child's yet complete with a Raven's beak. The Sky Chief and the rest of the community resemble Aleut people in dress as well as in physical features. And in one section of the book, when the people are gathered in the house containing the sun, they are similarly dressed in elaborate costumes, which to me have a heavy Russian influence. In fact they do look like Russians from the far northern areas of Russia. The artist/author, McDermott, illustrates the people as generic and they all have the same features. No one, with the exception of the chief, his daughter and of course the beak-nosed Raven are depicted as individuals.

In this book, there are no acknowledgements and no introductions offered by any tribal agencies or personal acknowledgements from any Native peoples, which probably suggests the author did not have anyone from the Native community review the book for authenticity. Published in 1993, the book won the Caldecott Honor award in 1994 as well as many other awards: the American Library Association Notable Children's book, the Boston Glove-Horn Book Honor, the New York Public Library's '100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.' The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. The Caldecott Medal "shall be awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year." The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association makes this award annually.

McDermott is the author of over 25 books and films. (Further information on this author can be found at his website located at Currently, he is the Primary Education Program Director for the Joseph Campbell Foundation on mythology in education. McDermott retells and illustrate folktales and myths from around the world including Papagayo, the Mischief Maker. As well, the author has published stories about coyote and other stories from Africa and Mexico. At the age of 4, McDermott began studying art when he was admitted to the Detroit Institute of Arts. His biography, obtained from his website, claims he has a "deep understanding of the transformative power of myth. His work is an evocation of the human quest for unity and completeness." McDermott worked closely with Joseph Campbell, his mentor for many years. According to McDermott's publisher's biographical profile, the relationship to Campbell influences his artwork and writing. "Campbell was instrumental in making this gifted artist aware of the psychological depths of mythology and the possibilities of integrating cultural and archetypal symbols into his art." The author also claims he does extensive research into the symbolism and background of the culture he is writing about. I suppose that if this fact were true, he would be aware of the danger to generalize such a story about how 'Raven' brought light to the world. As well, his illustrations/paintings would probably have depicted Pacific Northwest and Alaska Native peoples as looking less like Russians, and Native peoples of Alaska's Northern regions. And finally, the heavy influence on this author by Campbell adds to the question of whether or not this author believes that the term 'myth' or 'tale' lends itself to the interpretation of being 'false.'

I am leery because this book is not recommended by any Native organizations. I wouldn't even attempt to call it authentic, however any validity I might give it comes from the artist's talent as both a writer and illustrator. The dialogue is acceptable, however, if teachers and parents want something more authentic both aesthetically and literary I would hope that there are more books out there about Raven. I wouldn't recommend this book unless a teacher is introducing it in a comparative manner. In particular I would hope that one could find this same creation story written by an author who is more knowledgeable about Alaska Natives and Native people's in the Northwest and better yet perhaps a book written by Native peoples themselves.

In conclusion, I give this book 4 salmon. 0 to 8 salmonsalmon Something smells fishy! This book is a rotten salmon and bad for the digestion of little minds. However, I feel I must add that if one is insistent on using Caldecott award books in the classroom, I would advise you to search for an alternative book about this story or perhaps invite an Elder from your region to tell the story in the oral format.

Note: For more assistance with incorporating Raven into your lessons plans, I found this website which focuses on McDermott's book. This site has a section titled "Teacher connections" and "Children's connections" all with links on helping teachers to introduce children to Raven stories plus how to write Raven stories, lesson plans, and a section on history.

The book reviews are a result of students enrolling in special topics course Ed 493 Examining Alaska Children's Literature taught by Esther A. Ilutsik in the Spring of 2004.

The book reviews are written by the students and are a reflection of their own analysis of the books and have not been altered in any way. The reviewers have given permission to share the book reviews on the HAIL website.






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Last modified August 21, 2006