Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest

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University of Chicago Press, 1983 - Nature - 292 pages
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"Nelson spent a year among the Koyukon people of western Alaska, studying
their intimate relationship with animals and the land. His chronicle of
that visit represents a thorough and elegant account of the mystical
connection between Native Americans and the natural world."—Outside

"This admirable reflection on the natural history of the Koyukon River
drainage in Alaska is founded on knowledge the author gained as a student
of the Koyukon culture, indigenous to that region. He presents these
Athapascan views of the land—principally of its animals and Koyukon
relationships with those creatures—together with a measured account of his
own experiences and doubts. . . . For someone in search of a native
American expression of 'ecology' and natural history, I can think of no
better place to begin than with this work."—Barry Lopez, Orion Nature

"Far from being a romantic attempt to pass on the spiritual lore of Native
Americans for a quick fix by others, this is a very serious ethnographic
study of some Alaskan Indians in the Northern Forest area. . . . He has
painstakingly regarded their views of earth, sky, water, mammals and every
creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. He does admire their love of
nature and spirit. Those who see the world through his eyes using their
eyes will likely come away with new respect for the boreal forest and those
who live with it and in it, not against it."—The Christian Century

"In Make Prayers to the Raven Nelson reveals to us the Koyukon
beliefs and attitudes toward the fauna that surround them in their forested
habitat close to the lower Yukon. . . . Nelson's presentation also gives
rich insights into the Koyukon subsistence cycle through the year and into
the hardships of life in this northern region. The book is written with
both brain and heart. . . . This book represents a landmark: never before
has the integration of American Indians with their environment been so well
spelled out."—Ake Hultkrantz, Journal of Forest History

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I had to get this for a university course and I became obsessed with it. The Koyukon way of thinking is so bizarrely different from my own, i had to read the book several times just to begin to understand exactly how fundamentally different it is. I just wrote this in an essay:
Nelson mentions that Eagles are essentially only dangerous when directly provoked, and tells a story of a time in which he climbed close to an eagle nest and they flew “alarmingly close” in a threatening manner. When he spoke to a Koyukon man about it, the man stated that the eagles “didn’t hurt [Nelson] because he ‘didn’t know any better.” He then stated that “if [Nelson] knew how dangerous that was, they would really come after [him].’” In another case, Nelson points out to a Koyukon man a difference of belief between a few tribes he has visited; he said one tribe believed that feeding grizzly bear meat to their dogs would make them become lazy, while another tribe shared a similar taboo but the consequence was that it would make their dogs more aggressive instead. The native American responded by explaining that there was no reason that differing taboos could contradict each other, just because different people believed them. “He easily accepted that other people’s dogs became lazy. ‘but for us it’s different,’ he explained. ‘If WE feed bear meat to our dogs, they get mean’” (183, original emphasis).
To reemphasize, Nelson states plainly, “If someone is raised to believe something, it works for that person whether or not it works for anyone else. Diversity is a virtue; there are many truths” (183).
This is just one of hundreds of insights into how different a truly isolated culture can be. The book is extremely easy to read for a well-documented, academic report and beautifully written as well. I do not read very often but this is certainly my favorite book of all time. This review honestly does not do it justice.

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