(from the Lenni Lenapé Archives)
The Lenapé story of Rainbow Crow is an early creation myth that describes how crow brought fire to humanity. As with many Native American legends, this story serves many functions as it explains changing weather patterns, the seasons, nature, the elements, different animal characteristics, and — as a story about the crow, it explains why the crow is black, and how it lost its voice.
The story is told by Bill “Whippoorwill” Thompson, principal chief of the Eastern Lenapé Nations, however, according to the Native American Embassy, there is some speculation that it may originate with the Cherokee.
A story such as this would serve to give children an understanding of the changing of the seasons, with knowledge that the winter will pass, the snow will stop, and that warmer temperatures will eventually return.
The courage of Rainbow Crow also speaks to the merits of bravery, community responsibility, and pride in oneself. The lesson learned is that, in addition to doing the right thing to help others, one must recognize one’s good traits and take pride in one’s good qualities. Honourable actions are rewarded with respect.
In this story, the crow is a messenger of a different kind — his capacity for flight and his courage lead him on a mission to save humanity. By taking the initiative and venturing up to meet the creator, crow loses his rainbow colours and beautiful singing voice, but succeeds in saving his people by bringing fire to warm them during a long, cold winter, with endless snow.
I found the text on a website (nativeamericanembassy.net) while searching for Native American crow myths. As a creation myth, it immediately interested me for its positive story of courage that is rewarded, with the crow appearing in a variation on the messenger archetype.
As an “encounter” with crow, the story of Rainbow Crow provides a symbolic representation of that part of myself that might feel charred, or burned, from an experience of ‘going out on a limb’ to help someone. While I may have been hurt in the process, I realize from this story that what is most important is seeing the positive aspects of how this experience changed me. I may have lost my ‘rainbow colours’ and may no longer feel like singing, but I have earned the respect of my peers, and this in itself has tremendous value. It is better to have pride and respect in one’s own accomplishments than to focus on one’s losses.
When I think of crow in light of this story, I perceive the animal in a completely different fashion. No longer is the bird strange, eerie, or foreboding; but rather crow becomes a noble creature, with wisdom and intelligence. The act of saving all other species from extinction by bringing fire is a highly symbolic metaphor.
Fire is a symbol frequently used to represent knowledge, spirit, and intelligence. It is a great force within, providing heat, energy, and passion. It is the heavenly light of day, and the earthly light of night. In this story, only the crow is capable of flying up to the Creator. No other animal can succeed but crow.
I think the Lenni Lenapé story of Rainbow Crow provides a relevant example of how the crow has been widely recognized as an intelligent teacher: a messenger which brings to humanity many lessons, most importantly perhaps, the lesson of courage, honour, bravery, and ultimately, knowledge of self.
It is interesting that this story differs from the mythologies of the Celts who, like the Britons, considered the crow a frightening harbinger of death. The crow also differs from the symbolic association of the crow with love and fidelity, as found in some cultures of Eastern Asia.
I think this story is a strong indicator that humans have long looked to the crow for guidance and wisdom. The story conveys a great deal about the Native American tribes of the east, especially, as it articulates cultural mores and values. As a teaching tool, the creation story reveals valued characteristics of courage, strength, and honour that would be encouraged in young people.