by Frank Keim
Ever wondered why the Raven is called Tulukaruq in Yup’ik? Well, all it takes is a little imagination and a little twisting and turning of your tongue, mouth and vocal cords, and presto, you’ve got it. The Greek word for the idea is onomatopoeia, that is, the bird takes its name from the sound it makes.
In Yup’ik, they say, “Tulukaruut kayanguit neryuitaput,” which is a warning against eating Raven’s eggs. There is good reason for this because, as is also said, “Yugnun ciuliaqniluku qanruteklaraat tulukaruq,” or “They say the Raven is the ancestor of human beings.”
In this way, the Raven is also regarded as the creator of all things, including humans, much like the Christian God is said to be the creator. Unlike God, however, Raven had a real sense of humor and when he made the first man and woman, gave them this attribute, which explains why Yup’ik people have such a great sense of humor.
I think that’s what I enjoyed most about the people during the twenty years I lived in the Delta. But let’s learn some more about this really very uncommon Raven.
The Raven is known to scientists as Corvus corax, a Latin-Greek combination, meaning “the croaking raven.” It is found from Central America to Barrow, Alaska, and is the largest of all of our songbirds. Yes, it is a songbird. In fact, it is the most verbal of all songbirds on the planet, having more than 200 different vocalizations and many dialects.
Ravens are not only smart when it comes to talking, they are the most intelligent bird on Earth, smarter even than the African gray parrot. They have been described as crafty, resourceful, quick to learn and to profit from experience.
When elder Yupik speakers refer to them, they say, “Umyuartuut,” i.e., “They are wise.” They are also thought to have a higher awareness, “cella,” relating them to “Cellam Yua,” meaning The Great Spirit, or God, which brings us full circle again to the idea of Creator. Interesting, eh?
As with all great birds, the Raven has more than one name. He is also referred to as neqaiq (“food stealer,” also the name of the camp robber); tengmialleraq (“shabby old bird”); qer’qaalleraq (“shabby old croaker”); and Ernerculria, which means “the bearer of daylight,” and is the term of respect the elders used when telling legends of the Raven.
Speaking of legends, there are so many old Yup’ik (and other Native American) stories about Raven, they could fill a book. My favorite legend is the one about how Raven created the Milky Way, which was told to me by Alexander Isaac of Marshall. Alexander and his wife, Nastasia, are now gone, but if you’d like to hear the story in person, pay a visit to one of your elders. I’m sure they would be happy to tell you that story.
Something I really enjoy watching is the courtship behavior of birds. As it turns out, the Raven has some of the most fascinating rituals of courtship. Watch carefully in early spring and you’ll see the male fly wingtip to wingtip with the female, then peel off and dive like a peregrine falcon, often tumbling over and over in the air, not unlike humans who “fall head over heels in love.”
When perched on a tree limb, Raven couples are also very “lovey dovey” (to borrow a term from the doves), touching shoulders and often “kissing” (“beaking,” in Raven parlance) each other.
Before they get to this point, however, they go through a 3-4 year socialization period when they get to know each other, a lot like we do during our teens and 20’s. Then when the right bird comes along, Ravens mate for life.
After the ritual aerobatics comes the serious business of nest building and raising a family. They usually locate their bulky nests on a sheltered cliff ledge, constructing them of broken branches and lining them carefully with leaves, grass, moss, fur and feathers, in that order.
Climb up to one sometime and check out how comfortably they’re made. If you’re lucky, you may even find 4 or 5 light green brown-spotted eggs in the nest. Watch out for the adults, though. They can be aggressive defenders of their home turf. You may find the mother bird on the nest because she is the one who incubates the eggs. The male helps out by feeding her while she’s on the nest, and twenty days later, after the young hatch, he contributes his share in the feeding of the hatchlings.
Both of them also bring water to the young in their throats. It takes about 40 days to raise them to where they’re ready to take wing, although like most birds, they still have to be fed after they fledge and to learn how to hunt for themselves. If they learn well, however, they can expect to live a long and happy life of up to 25 years.
Again, learn more about the Raven by asking an elder in your town or village. You’ll enjoy every minute of the visit.