Seagull Makes The Starfish

(a very tongue-in-cheek pseudo-Native American creation story for the starfish)

(by Jonathan Dale)

Listen closely, children. I know you think you have learned enough about your Amerindian culture already, reading all the stories and mythologies and legends in the white people's schools in your multicultural classes, and I know you prefer to watch the white people's television anyway, but I'm going to tell you about your heritage this time, instead of all those Navajo and Hopi and Sioux and Apache and Haida and Tlingat and whoever stories they tell you are yours. No, you aren't Haida, even though we have to tell the white men with their paper censuses that because they don't understand how many tribes there are. What are you? Well, sit down and listen and put away that walkman and maybe I'll tell you.

There, that's better. Where do I start? At the beginning would be best I think. In the beginning, after the world was created, back when all the animals spoke with each other and before that trickster, seagull, made people -- What do you mean, raven? There's no raven. You believe everything the white man tells you that you believe? It was seagull. Seagulls are clever and bold, like they say the raven is. Seagull was the first to learn to eat the mussels, you know how important mussels are for us. You don't? Well, take my word for it. In the days before, mussels were our most important food. Now I'm getting ahead of where I am, that comes later. Anyway, mussels are careful, and they were even in those days. They tie themselves to the rocks with strong threads. They live where the water goes up and down -- that's right, the littoral zone, but we never used white men's words like those -- so fish start to try to eat them but the water goes out before the fish pull them off, and animals tried to eat them, but their hard shells protect them. The mussels have quite a community, each slowly moving along, casting its threads before it and casting off the threads behind it, with the eldest taking the honored places at the base of their beds. In with them they harbor the mussel worms and the roundworms that eat the worms, the sea cucumbers, the peanut worms, the young sea urchins -- those two are old allies, because of the starfish, but I'm getting ahead of myself again. In those days it was a loud community, always talking and singing and especially laughing at all the animals that tried to eat them.

Like I said, it was the seagull that first learned to eat the mussels. The seagull, like the others, looked longingly at the mussels, but couldn't peck his way through their shells. The mussels laughed at the seagull and mocked him, because they were safe from his futile pecking. One day, after pecking especially hard at the mussels and hurting his beak, the seagull became furious. He ripped and tore at the mussels, and finally ripped one free. He still couldn't open it, but he burst into the air with the mussel clutched in his beak. He flew higher and higher in glee, but uncertain what to do next. The mussel laughed at him, though, as the mussels did, because they knew no one could eat them. The seagull was angry again at the mussels, in frustration, and began to screech. But before one word came out of the seagull's mouth, the mussel fell free. For a long moment it waited there, suspended, and then began to fall faster and faster at the ground. The seagull, shocked, went silent. The mussel fell and fell onto the rocks with a hard crack! and then the mussel was broken open. Well, the seagull was happy to see that, let me tell you. It landed by the mussel and pecked at it through its broken shell, and it ate it. And that's why mussels don't laugh anymore, they learned then of their own mortality and no longer have anything to laugh about.

Ever since that day, mussels have always feared the seagull, but the seagull also still hates mussels because those early days when mussels mocked him. So, sometimes the seagull still eats the mussels, even though they are the hardest thing for him to eat.

When seagull first made people -- that's right, it was seagull, shut up with the raven stuff, okay? -- when seagull first made people, he thought to make people who would eat mussels, so he could get more revenge on them. Seagull holds grudges long and hard. When seagull first tried to make people, he wanted to make them small, smaller than him. Also, it was his first time and he didn't know what they should look like, and he wasn't very good at sculpting yet. He had an idea of legs and arms and a head, but didn't know what all those things should be like, and wasn't good enough to make them different from each other. So he made a man with five long things sticking out of a central part, and he made the little man strong and tough so it could eat the mussels. But he didn't like that man very much, so he cast it into the sea and started over, and you know what he finally decided to make.

The man he cast into the sea survived, though, and is still alive. He cast it very hard against the waves and the waves cast it against the rocks and the rocks broke it into pieces, five pieces like the five limbs. But seagull had made the man so tough that each piece grew into a new man, each slightly different. Each one had five limbs, all the same as the others. These five men, each with five limbs, all the same -- all legs, or all arms, and one all heads and that one is the smartest, of course. These five men with five identical limbs each, living in the ocean, were the starfish. One remembered that seagull had made it to hate mussels, and it went up to the place where the water went in and out and the mussels lived and it ate the mussels and lived there, and it could live there because it was from the ocean but also like a man being made for land, and it could eat the mussels because it was strong enough to rip them open. That one is the ochre star, and it grew from an arm.

One stayed in the ocean and used its strength to open snails and tubeworms and other things on the bottom of the ocean, and that one is the jewel star. That one had been the other arm.

One was thrown about more than the others and broken more, and its legs increased so it had ten -- it was from a leg -- and it was broken into two that seemed the same, but one eats sea cucumbers and is full of goodness and the other one is the evil one that looks the like the good one but eats all the other starfish. Those two are the sunstars, and they look the same.

One -- it was the other leg -- was less strong and brave, and it slides along the bottom anywhere in the ocean or in the place where the water goes in and out and eats the little things that grow everywhere and the broken things it finds. That one is the bat star.

The last one came from the heads, and it grew many many limbs, and because each one is from a head it is especially smart. That one is the sunflower star, and it is our tribe's special totem. No, of course our totem isn't the wolf, or bear, or salmon, or any of those things. Why should it be?

When all the tribes were formed, they all wanted totem animals who would help them survive in the world and teach them things, and all the animals wanted a tribe to honor them. Some took those animals you mentioned, the wolf or the lion whose teeth and fierceness could frighten their enemies. Some took birds like the hawk or eagle. One tribe wanted to pick seagull, but that cheater raven rolled himself in floured and fooled them, making himself all white, and by the time they realized, seagull had left in disgust, so they were stuck. That's why no tribe took seagull as their totem.

Almost all the tribes took big, fierce animals as their totems, because they thought they were strong. One tribe took salmon, and that was pretty smart, because the salmon come up the rivers each year to feed them. Our ancestors were the wisest, though. They looked and picked the starfish. Why is that wise? Well, I'm telling you. Starfish are the strongest animals. They can pull apart the mussels and clams, they hold to rocks in the biggest surf, and they can grow back after almost any injury. They can always find food, sometimes hidden in deep crevices and holes. That's because they're always hungry, so hungry that when they smell food in a deep place their stomach comes creeping right out down into the deep place to digest it. That's how some starfish eat clams buried in sand and how they eat the long tube snails that hide at the bottom of their tubes.

We picked the sunflower star, because he is the smartest of the starfish, and also the fastest. The sunflower star drives off all the other stars when they fight -- you've never seen starfish fight? Well, of course not, your generation is too impatient to watch them. They fight for a long time. Your generation doesn't have any patience, you don't respect the starfish. Starfish are patient, more patient than almost any animal. You should learn from them.

The sunflower star taught us many things in those days. He taught us to eat the mussels that were so important back then. He taught us to use him to scare the sea urchins out of their holes so we could catch him -- that's right, when the sunflower star comes towards the sea urchins they stampede in fear, and then we can pick them up easily. That's why sea urchins and mussels are allies, and the mussels protect the little urchins, like I said before.

We always paid respects to the starfish, in thanks. When we collected mussels, we always threw some into the water for the stars. When we ate oysters, we always put their shells back. We kept the mussel shells and used them in our art, to decorate baskets and make mosaics and jewelry. We often made the starfish pattern in our art -- you thought those were just stars, like in the sky? If you paid more attention to your elders you might know some of this, and maybe we'd show you how to make those things.

We also made baskets out of kelp, weaving the long stipes together while they were still wet and letting them dry and harden. And we traded the things we made for baskets and tools of redwood bark and wood, and traded the mussels for salmon from the Haida.

Our whole culture and religion were based on the starfish. The starfish gave us strength, healing, patience; inspired us to match their qualities. In winter when gathered round the fire, we would tell the epic tales of the starfish. The tale of the creation of the starfish by seagull, before the creation of people, the story of how we took starfish as our totem, the legends of the old rivalries between starfish and mussels and urchins, the tales of the mussel community before the starfish was made, so many more. We would dance the dance of the mussels and sing the song of the starfish -- oh, it's been years since I've heard that beautiful song sung. How did it go? Let me sing it to you, let's see --

What do you mean you have to go now? What's on television? Oh, you and your generation. You have no respect for your elders anymore. Go on, go and watch that white men's box of stories. But I won't tell you anymore. What do you mean I'm mixing up my stories with my days as a marine biologist? Get on out of here, but you'll never hear the song of the starfish, or learn the dance of the mussels, or the story of how the starfish got placed in the night sky, or....