How the Fish Came Into the Sea

A Tlingit Myth.


“After Raven bring daylight to all the people he keep walkin’ north, lookin’ around, he keep going up, up north. And he see something big, big just like a scow way out on the sea, like a floating box, and he ask:

“‘What is it out there?’

“‘That’s a tank. All different kinds of fish in there. They try to keep them in there so there’s no fish going around this ocean.’

“Well, he’s thinkin’ about it, how he’s gonna get it. Raven send that black and white bird with the long tail—the magpie—to go up and cut a cane for him, and he fix it like octopus finger, he carve it like two tentacles of the octopus. He’s gonna try to drag in that big scow with it, no matter how far off a thing is, that octopus finger cane will always reach it.

“In the evening Raven got all the peoples together and they beat drums. He hold the cane in his hands and move it around, going up, going down, going around, testing it. All right. That woman said she’s satisfied with it. Then he get all the peoples down on the beach and they begin to sing, and he start to hook it, he tried to pull that thing ashore. And he tried again.


“Saying to the people ‘Sing stronger all the time’ and he tried again.

“And he begin to draw it in to shore little by little. Finally he pull it onto the beach and he jump inside, and he open each door. He open the doors for smelts (fish, small fish) and the smelts comes out from that tank. After that herrings, and oolichons, and out of the other sides, king salmon first, and humpies, and coho, and later on the one they call the fall fish, dog salmon, and last comes the ones that stop, the halibut and flounders and cod, and he pushed them out.

“See, just the way he opened the doors, is just the way they come every year. No mistake on it. And Raven is satisfied, he released all that fish to go around this world.”


The late Billy Wilson Senior, of Hoonah, Alaska, recalling legends of the Tlingit. Photo by Paul Bragstad

This Tlingit legend was told to Paul Bragstad, a California teacher, photographer, and fisherman, by Billy Wilson, Senior, in Hoonah, Alaska, in 1974. Billy Wilson, a fisherman and silversmith all his life, died the following year at the age of 85.

The legend not only tells how all these fish came into the world, but also accurately defines, with the sequence in which the doors are opened, the order of their annual migration.

The ones that “stop,” or stay, are those that do not migrate.

The original transcript has been edited by this author and a few details added from a variation of this legend in Tlingit Myths and Texts by John Swanton, 1909.

(Original recording and transcript by kind permission of Paul Bragstad.)