Myths & Legends


Haida: The Beaver and the Porcupine

The Haida, historically sometimes spelled Hydah, are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Their main territory is the archipelago of Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in northern British Columbia, but a group known as the Kaigani Haida live across the Dixon Entrance on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska.

The legend that follows was originally collected by Lewis Spence, and published in The Myths of the North American Indians. It features a conflict between two supernatural beings, the beaver and the porcupine.
— Orly

This is the tale of a feud between the beavers and the porcupines. Beaver had laid in a plentiful store of food, but Porcupine had failed to do so, and one day when the former was out hunting the latter went to his lodge and stole his provision. When Beaver returned he found that his food was gone, and he questioned Porcupine about the matter.

"Did you steal my food?" he asked.

"No," answered Porcupine. "One cannot steal food from supernatural beings, and you and I both possess supernatural powers."

Of course this was mere bluff on the part of Porcupine, and it in nowise deceived his companion.

"You stole my food!" said Beaver angrily, and he tried to seize Porcupine with his teeth. But the sharp spines of the latter disconcerted him, though he was not easily repulsed. For a time he fought furiously, but at length he was forced to retreat, with his face covered with quills from his spiny adversary. His friends and relatives greeted him sympathetically. His father summoned all the Beaver People, told them of the injuries his son had received, and bade them avenge the honour of their clan. The people at once repaired to the abode of Porcupine, who, from the fancied security of his lodge, heaped insults and abuse on them. The indignant Beaver People pulled his house down about his ears, seized him, and carried him, in spite of his threats and protests, to a desolate island, where they left him to starve.

It seemed to Porcupine that he had not long to live. Nothing grew on the island save two trees, neither of which was edible, and there was no other food within reach. He called loudly to his friends to come to his assistance, but there was no answer. In vain he summoned all the animals who were related to him. His cries never reached them.

When he had quite given up hope he fancied he heard something whisper to him: "Call upon Cold-weather, call upon North-wind." At first he did not understand, but thought his imagination must be playing tricks with him. Again the voice whispered to him: "Sing North songs, and you will be saved." Wondering much, but with hope rising in his breast, Porcupine did as he was bidden, and raised his voice in the North songs. "Let the cold weather come," he sang, "let the water be smooth."


The Finding of Porcupine

After a time the weather became very cold, a strong wind blew from the north, and the water became smooth with a layer of ice. When it was sufficiently frozen to bear the weight of the Porcupine People they crossed over to the island in search of their brother. They were greatly rejoiced to see him, but found him so weak that he could hardly walk, and he had to be carried to his father's lodge.

When they wanted to know why Beaver had treated him so cruelly he replied that it was because he had eaten Beaver's food. The Porcupine People, thinking this a small excuse, were greatly incensed against the beavers, and immediately declared war on them. But the latter were generally victorious, and the war by and by came to an inglorious end for the porcupines. The spiny tribe still, however, imagined that they had a grievance against Beaver, and plotted to take his life. They carried him to the top of a tall tree, thinking that as the beavers could not climb he would be in the same plight as their brother had been on the island. But by the simple expedient of eating the tree downward from the top Beaver was enabled to return to his home.

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