The Seattle Seahawks National Football League team’s emblem has deep roots in history — from Asia to the American Northeast. The logo is an adaptation of a design from a mask in a museum in Maine, 2,522 miles east of Seattle.
The mask was created by North American Indians who came from Asia 11,000 years ago, crossing the Bering Strait when it was a land bridge.
Those Indians are the Tlingits and Haida, but they tell a different story of how they got here — a mystical story about a raven who created the world.
The Seattle NFL team’s emblem story starts with a Raven in Tlingit folklore called Kit-ka’ositiyi-qa-yit and a hawk — today’s “Seahawk” — and how Raven’s father gave him knowledge and strength to create the world.
As in similar creation stories in many world cultures, it tells about creating light, the stars, sun, moon, water, plant and animal life — and humankind.
Accepting modern scholars’ theory that Native Americans (“First Nations” in Canada) came from Asia, two of the immigrant groups — the Tlingits and Haida — settled mostly in the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska.
Tlingits live just south of Ketchikan but also northward across islands and mainland as far as Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat, and 100 miles inland in Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon Territory.
The name Tlingit essentially means human beings — with the Tlingits believing that there is little difference between humans and animals.
“The Creator has blessed our people with these lands and waters for their use as mariners, fishermen, hunters, gatherers, and traders,” says the Central Council of the two tribes.
“Our people take great pride in our ability to cultivate and harvest the resources of the land and sea in a responsible manner. We recognize the value of and retain reverence and respect for all life of the land and sea that we harvest to give us strength and sustenance.
“Haida and Tlingit values do not permit waste; we use every bit of the salmon, herring, hooligan, deer, seal, crab, clams, gumboots, mussels, seaweed, berries, and all that the land and water provide.”
According to their traditions, the Tlingits revere the hawk for its spirit, and have transferred that spirit from the animal world into the human spirit.
It’s based on an ancient story of a raven asking a hawk to bring back some of the fire that could be seen burning at a great distance — much farther than Raven could fly. Hawk agreed, and Raven gave him a branch with pitch on one end to capture the fire.
“My brother, be brave,” Raven said to Hawk. “Be brave, what you are doing is good for all the people of the world.”
After the long flight, Hawk flew around the fire three times. On the fourth circle the fire jumped onto the branch and then Hawk flew back. At that time, hawks had long beaks.
On the way back, Hawk became very tired and the fire burned closer and closer to his beak, making it bend into a hook. He was also in great pain but could not cry out, lest he drop the fire.
As Hawk approached, Raven could see that he was tired and flew out to help him. “I am with you,” he said, while again telling him, “It is a good thing what you are doing.”
Back on shore, Raven took the fire from Hawk and threw it on the rocks, trees, the forest, river, animals and onto human beings.
“That time then, Raven put the spirit in all things,” says Gene Tagaban, a Tlingit from Hoonah, Alaska. “Now we have the fire. Now we have the spirit. Now we are alive! Now we are all part of it.”
This rosy picture of our Native American neighbors changed dramatically with the arrival of European explorers, and later fur traders, miners and settlers. They brought with them white man diseases against which the Indians had no immunity.
What followed was a tragedy that plagued the indigenous peoples throughout the Americas — the scourge of smallpox, measles, influenza and other diseases wiping out millions of natives.
Yale historian David Brion Davis calls it “the greatest genocide in the history of man. Yet it’s increasingly clear that most of the carnage had nothing to do with European barbarism. The worst of the suffering was caused not by swords or guns — but by germs.”
First contact with Europeans by Tlingits was with Russian explorer Aleksey Chirikov in 1741 near today’s Sitka. It was not a happy meeting. Two boatloads of seaman rowing ashore for fresh water never returned.
During the hundred-plus years that followed, more outsiders came and battled the Tlingit — a time also punctuated with periods of friendly trading. Then two events changed everything:
First, Indian deaths due to white man diseases devastatingly reduced their numbers and their power. Then in 1867, the U.S. purchased Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million ($123 million today) and Americans flooded in — mostly looking for gold.
The Tlingit did their best to stop American development of canneries, mines and logging that was destroying their culture, but it was no use. American military power was too much and the Tlingits eventually joined the workforce — even at one point objecting to immigrant Chinese laborers competing with them for the jobs.
Despite the changing times, the Tlingits kept much of their traditions, and today still tell their children about Raven and Hawk.
Interestingly, the Seattle football team’s mascot “Seahawk” does not exist in the animal kingdom. It’s the sharp-eyed osprey that could best claim that designation because 99 percent of its diet is seafood. Though related to eagles and owls, ospreys have different claws than other raptors.
They are among the hawks that have a reversible outer toe, allowing them to grasp their prey by two toes in front and two behind. They also have barbed pads on the soles of their feet that help them hang onto slippery fish. Ospreys are so smart that when they’re flying, they hold their catch with its head facing forward to reduce wind resistance.
The University of Cornell’s ornithology lab says ospreys live up to 25 years and are excellent hunters — catching a fish one out of four dives into the water.
Prior to the 2014 Super Bowl, Seattle art history students and Professor Emerita and Burke Museum Curator Robin K. Wright searched for the original art source of the Seahawks logo and asked Burke Curator Emeritus Bill Holm if he knew.
He did, showing a photograph of an eagle mask in Robert Bruce Inverarity’s 1950 book, “Art of the Northwest Coast Indians.”
It looked like an early Seahawks team logo. Then an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper in 1975 confirmed that Seahawks general manager John Thompson had identified the mask as THE definitive inspiration for the Hawks’ logo.
The original mask was then tracked down in the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine, and was loaned for an exhibition at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
A Burke article explains how the mask works: “A dancer would enter the big house wearing the mask in its closed position, dancing counterclockwise around the fire — imitating the movements of a large raptor — with firelight reflecting in the mask’s mirrored eyes.
“At a certain point, the drummers would beat faster and the dancer would dramatically open the mask and reveal the inner human face and long-necked bird rising above.”
The Seattle Seahawks began in 1972, when a group of Seattle business and community leaders started planning for a Seattle NFL franchise. Two years later, they got it and hired John Thompson as general manager, and Jack Patera as head coach.
Then they asked the public for a team name, and 1,700 names flooded in. “Seahawks” was the winner, submitted by Clark McMillan.
Next, they needed a logo, and general manager Thompson said, “Our intent was to follow the Northwest Indian culture.”
Artist Marvin Oliver from the Quinault Tribe of the Olympic Peninsula came up with the raptor design the team uses today, with only two major revisions since the original.
Now there’s also a new alternative logo — a fierce-looking head-on shot of the Seahawk.
Happy was Raven when the Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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What a bird!
“An Osprey may log more than 160,000 migration miles during its 15-to-20-year lifetime. Scientists track Ospreys by strapping lightweight satellite transmitters to the birds’ backs. The devices pinpoint an Osprey’s location to within a few hundred yards and last for 2-3 years. During 13 days in 2008, one Osprey flew 2,700 miles — from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to French Guiana, South America.”
— Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Tlingit Raven…
“In the mythology of many Northwest Indian tribes, Raven is honored as a culture hero. He is a revered and benevolent transformer figure who helps the people and shapes their world for them, but at the same time, he is also a trickster character and many Raven stories have to do with his frivolous or poorly thought out behavior causing trouble for him and the people around him. Raven is noted for negative traits such as gluttony, greed, and impatience as well as for his heroism and great deeds.”
— Native Languages of the Americas
White man diseases…
Among the diseases brought to the New World by Europeans that killed millions of Native Americans who had no immunity against them were:
Bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis and pertussis (whooping cough).
The totem pole…
Totem poles are common in Southeast Alaska, with the greatest number in Ketchikan. They are usually carved from cedar or spruce, and then painted. The images tell stories about the clans they belong to. At the highest level are the eagle and raven clans, with beaver, fox, bear and frog as sub-clans.
The raven has a straight beak, while the eagle has a curved one. A human figure on top represents the village watchman — ever alert to approaching danger.
Figures in Indian lore…
In the Tlingit and Haida tribes, these are what some of the animal figures represent:
The EAGLE is the “Aristocratic lord of the Sky Realm; part of Thunderbird’s entourage or live with other lordly Eagles; occasionally transforms into a human dancer.”
The HAWK “Transforms regularly into Hawk Woman or Hawk Man; hates Mosquitoes; quite regal; stand-offish but will assist humans.”
The RAVEN is “Powerful, ever-transforming trickster; ever hungry; ever curious; deviant; compulsive; crooked, corrupt and deceptive but somehow likeable; ever politically incorrect.”