The Woodcarver’s Gift
A Native American tale (Tlingit)
As retold by Cristy West
In the Queen Charlotte Islands, there was a young chief whose wife fell sick and died shortly after their marriage. The young chief was deeply saddened. No one could console him.
Then a wood carver from that village came to the chief and offered to carve an image of the wife who had died. He was a skilled at making the totem poles and masks for that clan and knew the ways of Shagoon, the spirit beings and ancestors. The carver said, “I have seen your wife. I have seen the two of you walking together. If you will allow me, I would like to carve her image.” The young chief agreed.
The carver took a piece of red cedar and began working on it. The carver made a likeness of the wife. Then he dressed it in the same fashion as the wife had dressed.
When he was finished, he went to the young chief and said, “Now you can come and have a look.”
When the chief went inside the carver’s hut, he saw his wife sitting there just as she always looked. He was very happy.
“What do I owe you for making this?” he asked the carver.
“It is because I felt badly for you that I made it. Do not pay me too much.” But the chief paid him well.
The chief took the statue home and dressed it in his wife’s clothes and put her marten-skin robe over the shoulders. He felt that his wife had come back to him. He talked to the image and treated it just as he had treated his wife.
One day as he was sitting very close to the image, he felt it move. He thought it must just be his imagination. But still he was not sure and every day he went back and examined it closely. He thought that at some time it would come to life.
After a while, members of the village came to see the image. Many could not believe it was not the woman herself until they had examined it closely.
The image became more and more alive in the imagination of the young chief even though it did not move or speak. Then one day it gave forth a sound from its chest and the chief knew that it must be ill. When he moved it from its place, they found a small cedar-tree growing from the floor. They left it there to grow.
Every day the image of the young woman appeared to be more like a human being. People from other villages heard the story and came to see the statue and the cedar tree growing near it. They were astonished. In all this time the statue never moved or talked very much but the husband began dreaming about what she wanted to tell him. She became alive in his dreams. In this way the chief was healed and his sadness passed.
That cedar tree beside the statue became a very large tree. It is because of this that the cedars on the Queen Charlotte Islands are said to be so good. When people there look for red cedar trees and find a good one, they say, “This looks like the baby of the chief’s wife.”
Storytellers, artists and creative arts therapists who work in therapeutic settings hope that, like the wood carver in this story, they may draw upon their skills and so convey gifts of healing for those in need. Their compassionate gestures are inspired by a deep sense of empathy, not monetary gain. And the process of recovery – in this case the young chief’s journey of bereavement – is a mysterious passage, one that follows its own unique course.
The woodcarver in this tale is familiar with the ways of “shagoon.” Similarly, skillful storytellers, working intuitively, will draw from the vast reservoir of myth and folktale, hoping to stumble upon a tale that, like the sculpture, will become a catalyst for transformation in the imaginations of listeners. We offer our tales in the spirit of humility and then step back, never knowing quite how the tales will be received or what consequences will result. If a story “takes,” the effect seems a matter of grace and is never completely understood.
In this tale, the red-cedar which emerges from the base of the statue is a transcendent symbol for the wife who has died. In the wondrous true-to-dream logic, the story seems to imply that the statue has given birth to the tree, just as the young wife might have given birth to a child if she had lived. The tree – and this story about it – reminds us of our own “evergreen” potentials. It affirms the enduring power of love and the inexhaustible human capacity for self-renewal.
This is just one of dozens of tales I have discovered in preparing the Spirit of Trees website. I am struck again and again by the immense power of trees as a healing symbol. In our outer lives, trees provide beauty, food, shelter, fuel, music and more; indeed, they provide the very oxygen we breathe. Equally important, at a psychic level, trees guide our dreams, console our hurts, inspire us to reach toward new heights. As hidden roots penetrate unseen depths, so, too, stories about trees connect us to hidden dimensions of the soul. In retelling these stories, we tap into wisdom that is ancient as the earth itself.
Source: This story is adapted from the tale, “The Image that Came to Life,” found in John R. Swanton’s Tlingit Myths and Legend, Washington, Smithsonian, 1909. I am also indebted to Dr. Alida Gersie for making me aware of this story, a version of which appears in her fine book Storymaking in Bereavement, there titled “The Image Which Spoke through Dreams.”
Cristy West PhD is a storyteller, writer, and creative arts therapist living in Washington, D.C. She is the editor and program coordinator for the Spirit of Trees website.