Charlie Joseph

Charlie Joseph
Kwakiulth, 1959

Transformational Raven Mask
Red cedar


Charlie Joseph was born and grew up in Alert Bay, a small town in British Columbia on Vancouver Island, Northwest Coast. He began dancing at the age of 3 and didn’t start carving until 22 in 1981. He was raised by his grand parents before he was taken by missionaries when he was six years old and placed in a residential school without speaking English. He was inspired by his great grandparents and watching young children carve. In 1997, after the loss of the Great Longhouse in Alert Bay, he was drawn by the tragedy to produce even more work to preserve his native culture.

He is a Hamatsa Dancer and a member of the Ma’amtagila Band. Today he still speaks his language and passes on stories and precious knowledge learned from his great grand parents. Dancing and carving were his natural talents. He apprenticed with Bill Reid, Simon Dick, Beau Dick and Wayne Alfred. 

Transformation masks are complex, intricately built masks designed to depict the dual nature of mythological beings. The Kwakwaka’wakw carried this art to its highest form. [16] The masks are used in dances, where the dancer may “open” the mask via a series of strings in order to reveal a second figure, usually a “human” mask concealed within an animal exterior. Transformation masks are constructed from several sections; the outer sections come together to form the animal or mythological form, which then split to the sides to reveal the interior mask. [16]

Hawthorn, Audrey. (1988). Kwakiutl Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-88894-612-0. Page 238.

Raven Steals the Light

 One of the best-known Raven myths tells how he stole the light and brought it to the world. The story goes back to a time before there were animals moving across the land, sea creatures swimming in the sea, or birds flying in the air – except, of course, for Raven, who has always existed and always will.

There was also an old man who lived in a house on a riverbank with his daughter, who may have been as beautiful as sprays of hemlock, or she may have been as ugly as a sea slug. They could not know, because in those days there was no light at all; they could not see a thing.

The old man kept a box in his house that held a smaller box that in turn held a still smaller box, on and on to the very smallest box of all, which contained all the light of the universe. Raven disliked the darkness, which caused him to bump into things and made it hard to engage in his favorite amusements.

One day while gallivanting around, Raven bumped into the old man’s house and overheard the man and his daughter talking about the light kept inside the infinite nesting boxes. Determined to capture the light for himself, he waited for the daughter to go outside. He transformed himself into a hemlock needle and slipped into a bucket of water. When the daughter drank the water and swallowed the hemlock needle, Raven changed himself into a tiny person inside her. He grew and grew until she gave birth. Raven-child looked strange indeed, but in the darkness the old man and his daughter could not see his long, sharp nose, his beady black eyes, and the few feathers that still clung to him.

Raven, in his child-guise, gradually won over the old man and started plotting to steal the light. One day, he asked the old man to give him the largest box. At first the old man refused, but Raven-child made such a ruckus that the old man finally relented and gave him the box. Over many days, Raven-child squawked and wheedled and ranted enough to get the old man to hand over another box to him, and another, and more and more. As the number of unopened boxes dwindled to the last few, a soft radiance spread through the room, revealing shadowy shapes never seen before.

In his sweetest voice, Raven-child cajoled the old man into letting him hold the light for a few moments, and finally the old man gave in, lifting a glowing sphere from the last box and tossing it to Raven. As the light flew toward him, Raven-child transformed himself into an enormous Raven, caught the sphere of light in his great beak, and flew up through the smoke-hole of the house into the deep darkness.

As Raven carried the light across the sky, the mountains and rivers became visible and life awakened across the world below. Raven, entranced, was not aware of Eagle, who saw him in the growing light and flew toward him. At the last moment, Raven glimpsed Eagle’s sharp talons and curved beak, and swerved to avoid the great bird of prey. As he did so, half the light he was carrying fell to the rocky ground and shattered. One large chunk and many tiny shards bounced back up into the sky, where they became the moon and stars.

Eagle pursued Raven beyond the rim of the world, where Raven, exhausted, dropped the remaining light, which floated on clouds until it rose up over the mountains to the east. In their house, the old man and his daughter watched as rays of light from the new sun slanted in through the smoke-hole. Now the old man could see that his daughter was indeed as beautiful as sprays of hemlock.

And that is how Raven brought the sun, moon, and stars to the world.