Princeton Indigenous Studies Workshop

The Limits of Natural History: From Melville to The Tlingit Raven, Yéil
Mar 23, 2023, 4:30 pm6:00 pm



Event Description

Please join the Princeton American Indian and Indigenous Studies Working Group (PAIISWG) in welcoming Professor Sarah Rivett to share her talk, "The Limits of Natural History: From Melville to The Tlingit Raven, Yéil." 

In genus and myth cormorants and ravens are related: Corvus Marinus, Sea Raven, and Corvus Corax, common raven. Seventeenth and eighteen century theologians linked both birds to Satan. Leviticus reviles cormorants and ravens as unclean and unfit for human consumption. Yet ornithologists separate the common raven from its seafaring cousin. Buffon derides the raven for attaching to “the rock where they were bred” and sleeping in “straggling trees.” Western natural history derives its association of ravens and unregenerate earth from The Book of Genesis. The raven’s failure to return to Noah’s ark proves his apostacy. Biblical exegetes describe raven’s bad terrestrial habits: a carnivorous, scavenging nature enables raven to survive on dead animals washed up on bare patches of land. Eighteenth-century ornithology confines the raven to a terrestrial plane to demarcate unregenerative nature. This talk places western natural historical writings about the raven alongside the Tlingit Raven Cycle from southeast Alaska. Focusing on a sequence of stories about Raven and the Whale (Yéil ka Yáay), this talk shows that knowledge conveyed through the Tlingit story cycle reveals raven’s complexity as a being that moves seamlessly between land and sea. As such, raven takes on a different valance as trickster rather than apostate and as creator as well as destroyer. The Tlingit Raven cycle not only offers an alternate way of seeing and relating to non-human animals but also recenters human relationships to the natural world.

The Indigenous Studies Writers' Workshop is organized and sponsored by the Princeton American Indian and Indigenous Studies Working Group (PAIISWG), a graduate student organization affiliated with the Indigenous Studies Initiative. These workshops are opportunities for Princeton students, faculty, and visiting scholars to present and polish interdisciplinary works-in-progress on the topic of Indigenous Studies, broadly construed. If you would like to submit a piece of scholarship for the group to consider, please email [email protected]


Painting of a raven

Image from The Natural History of Birds by Eleazer Albin

Princeton Indigenous Studies Workshop Flyer
  • Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP)
  • University Center for Human Values (UCHV)
  • Princeton Access, Diversity, and Inclusion (ADI)
  • The High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI)