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When the word ‘shaman’ is mentioned, it is common for one to visualize semi-naked cat-skin clad witchdoctors, wheeling around fires in mild southern climates. Less often does one picture holy men wearing seal skins with bear fur boots, fighting frost spirits in northern polar landscapes. The opaque persona of ancient Alaskan shamans have secretive supernatural arts worth investigating, for they are rapidly disappearing into oblivion.
Yup'ik medicine man exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy. Nushagak, Alaska, (1890s) ( Public Domain )
In ancient Alaska people’s world views were stitched together with beliefs, myths, rituals and ceremonies relating to the most prevalent wildlife in any given area. In this animistic world, animals were given complex personalities and characteristics and shamans believed they could communicate with animal spirits and acted as community conduits between this world, and many others.
Traditional Alaskan Native religion included mediation between people, spirits, souls and immortal energies and beings, but by the end of the 19th century, Sagdloq, the last traditional Alaskan medicine man had died and so vanished his secrets, which scholars list as including: “ventriloquism, sleight-of-hand, how to travel to the sky and beneath the sea."
Most Alaskan Native cultures had spiritual leaders who mediated between humans, spirits and the community and Inuit cultures called this person the angakkuq (translated as ‘shaman’ in Russian and English literature). Similarities between the shamanism practiced by the tribes of north-eastern Asia and Alaska can be drawn, for example; shamans in both continents believed they released the souls of deceased animals to enhance the people’s success in hunting. Also, both attempted to cure the sick by bringing back their cleansed, stolen souls from etheric realms. Non- angakkuq could experience spiritual hallucinations and visions and almost every Alaskan Native claims to have memories of ghost animals, humans and ‘little people living in remote places’. Hearing voices from ice sheets or stones were discussed as everyday occurrences.
Angakkuq as depicted in the Dictionnaire Infernal , 1863 edition. ( Public Domain ).
To broaden the understanding of the spectrum of shamanism in ancient Alaska, it is necessary to closely inspect the supernatural beliefs and practices of predominant peoples who inhabited different parts of that landmass. It is a fact that when animal species change within an Alaskan landscape, so does the shamanism, as they are two ends of the same piece of string.
The supernatural encompasses supposed phenomena that are not subject to the laws of nature.  A supernatural manifestation or event requires a violation of physical law attributed to non-physical entities, such as angels, demons, gods, and spirits. It also includes claimed abilities embodied in or provided by such beings, including magic, telekinesis, levitation, precognition, and extrasensory perception. 
Historically, supernatural powers have been invoked to explain phenomena as diverse as lightning, seasons, and the human senses, which today are understood scientifically. The philosophy of naturalism contends that all phenomena are scientifically explicable and nothing exists beyond the natural world, and as such approaches supernatural claims with skepticism. 
The supernatural is featured in folklore and religious contexts,  but can also feature as an explanation in more secular contexts, as in the cases of superstitions or belief in the paranormal. 
Mouths of salmon streams in Southeast Alaska are filled with inscriptions pecked into hard rock like this one found near Hoonah.
Not only is Alaska history steeped in fur trading, whale harvesting and gold mining. It also has drawings on rocks that are usually associated with primitive people in exotic far-away lands.
Greek for rock carving, petroglyphs are among many enigmas of science. Because their true meanings are elusive, they remain a mysterious link to a people who inhabited the world a long time ago.
The petroglyphs, which are in abundance in Southeastern Alaska, are unique because they are associated with salmon streams, rather than primitive village sites, and they always face the sea. Mouths of salmon streams are filled with inscriptions pecked into hard rock-like sandstone, slate and granite, while good rocks for carving remain bare in villages near those streams.
To those familiar with the ancient beliefs and oral traditions of the Tlingit and Haida Indians, the petroglyphs show that salmon is life. These Native Alaskans, whose diet was primarily fish, were not hunters and had no agriculture. If the salmon failed to return, it could mean starvation for the clans.
It made sense, therefore, for them to try to avoid small runs and to do everything possible to try and increase the runs. They may have carved images of intermediaries, including deities, “Raven” and others in special favor with the Salmon People, on the rocks in an effort to bring salmon back to their communities.
Legend has it that a Tlingit boy named Shin-quo-klah, or “Mouldy End,” was punished by the Salmon People for wasting dried salmon. They took him under the sea, but later returned him to his people.
He became a great shaman. It’s said that his image is etched on a rock at Karta Bay, placed near where he died after he accidentally killed his own soul that was inhabited by a supernatural salmon at the time. Copies of the etching were all around the beaches of Hydaburg and Wrangell, where it’s believed his influence was being used with the Salmon People to insure adequate runs of salmon.
Petroglyphs also appear in the Kodiak Archipelago, where at least seven sites have carvings that depict human figures, animal forms and geometric designs. There are four large clusters of petroglyphs at Cape Alitak, at the entrance to Alitak Bay. Some Alaskans think that the designs were made to mark territory, to act as permanent signs that linked families with particular subsistence harvesting areas.
The oldest rock drawings appear to have been carved as early as 10,000 years ago, and archaeologists have found similar abstract symbols along the coast of Siberia. There is no way to discern the true intent or motivation of the artists, but the drawings are one of the few sources of ancient art that tie Alaska Natives to their heritage.
Petroglyphs and associated sites are under the protection of federal laws and state of Alaska antiquities laws.
The Fearsome Alaskan Tlingit Kushtaka: If it’s not One Thing, it’s an Otter
There are five important facts to know about otters: (1) They are believed to be one of the most intelligent non-human species on the planet (2) There is evidence that they have endured for more than 30 million years (3) They have been known to create tools (4) Every continent except Australia and Antarctica has an otter population and (5) If the legendary Southeastern Alaskan Kushtaka is any indication, they would like to steal your soul.
The Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples, indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest Coast of the United States and Southeastern Alaska, have a robust folklore surrounding a mythical and maniacal trickster race called the Kushtaka, which roughly translates as “land otter people”, a shape-shifting species of otter that is rumored to spend a lot of its time trying to lure unsuspecting humans away from their homes in order to turn them into more Kushtaka (which in Tlingit folklore basically amounts to preventing us from achieving reincarnation and consequent everlasting life). Sometimes they don’t bother, and simply tear a victim to shreds. Not cool. Bad otter.
The Kushtaka has been treated in some literature as a boogeyman or hobgoblin. This is inaccurate and does not honor how seriously the Tlingit feel the threat of the Land Otter People. In a sense, the Kushtaka deprived the victim of everlasting life, for his soul could not be reincarnated. The Land Otter lurked to “save”, that is, to capture, those who drowned or who became lost in the woods. The unfortunate captives were taken by the Land Otter People to their homes or dens and, unless rescued by a shaman, were themselves turned into Land Otters. Kushtaka often appeared in the form of relatives or friends to confuse the victim. Dogs were protection against Land Otter People, for not only were the animals afraid of dogs, but the dog’s barking forced the Land Otter People to reveal themselves. Small children were thought to be the most in danger of being captures by the Land Otter People and were warned not to wander off from parents or to venture away from home alone (Pelton & DiGennaro, 1992, p20).
Despite the fact that the Kushtaka are considered evil and overwhelmingly regarded with a certain level of trepidation, perhaps because otters are just so darn cute and fuzzy, there are instances of benevolent behavior on the part of the Kushtaka. While they generally are credited with merrily tricking Tlingit sailors farther offshore to die, imitating the cries of an infant, or screams of a woman to lure hapless victims into rivers, or preying on small children, occasionally a tale is told of Kushtaka saving lost individuals from freezing to death in the Alaskan wilderness or freezing ocean by conveniently transforming them into a Kushtaka. More often than not, they are just plain mean. Consider a Tlingit folktale called “The Land Otters’ Captive”, recorded by John Swanton of the Bureau of American Ethnology.
Several persons once went out from Sitka together, when their canoe upset and all were drowned except a man of the KîksA’dî. A canoe came to this man, and he thought that it contained his friends, but they were really land otters. They started southward with him and kept going farther and farther, until they had passed clear round the Queen Charlotte Islands. At every place where they stopped they took in a female land otter. All this time they kept a mat made out of the broad part of a piece of kelp, over the man they had captured until at length they arrived at a place they called Rainy-village (Sî’wu-â’nî).
At this place the man met an aunt who had been drowned years before and had become the wife of two land otters. She was dressed in a ground-hog robe. Then she said to him, “Your aunt’s husbands will save you. You must come to see me this evening.” When he came his aunt said, “I can’t leave these people, for I have learned to think a great deal of them.”
Afterward his aunt’s husbands started back with him. They did not camp until midnight. Their canoe was a skate, and, as soon as they came ashore, they would turn it over on top of him so that, no matter how hard he tried to get out, he could not. In making the passage across to Cape Ommaney they worked very hard, and shortly after they landed they heard the raven. They could go only a short distance for food.
When they first started back the woman had said to her husbands, “Don’t leave him where he can be captured again. Take him to a good place.” So they left him close to Sitka. Then he walked around in the neighborhood of the town and made the people suffer so much every night that they could not sleep, and determined to capture him. They fixed a rope in such a way as to ensnare him, but at first they were unsuccessful. Finally, however, they placed dog bones in the rope so that they would stick into his hands, dog bones being the greatest enemies of the land otters.
Late that night the land-otter-man tore his hands so with these bones that he sat down and began to scream, and, while he was doing this, they got the rope around him and captured him. When they got him home he was at first very wild, but they restored his reason by cutting his head with dog bones. He was probably not so far gone as most Victims. Then they learned what had happened to him.
After this time, however, he would always eat his meat and fish raw. Once, when he was among the halibut fishers, they wanted very much to have him eat some cooked halibut. He was a good halibut fisher, probably having learned the art from the land otters, though he did not say so. For a long time the man refused to take any, but at last consented and the food killed him. (Swanton, 1909, p189)
In case you are under the mistaken impression that Kushtaka sightings are ancient history, in 1900, a gold prospector named Harry Colp and three companions, exploring the Patterson Glacier north of Thomas Bay (Known locally as “The Devil’s Country”, and called “The Bay of Death” by the native Tlingit due to a 1750 landslide that killed 500 villagers, incidentally attributed to the machinations of malevolent Kushtaka), returned with a tale of a disturbing encounter with the Kushtaka. Colp wrote about his encounter, but the manuscript he penned was not discovered until after his death by his daughter, and has since been reproduced as “The Strangest Story Ever Told”.
I left come the next morning, which was a fine sunny day. I took only the rifle with me, and when I came to the ridge, sure enough there were a few grouse hooting. I shot two and had gotten them when I bagged another one, which fell down the ridge about a hundred yards before it hung up.
While on my way down to pick it up, I found that piece of quartz. Up to that time I had paid very little attention to what the country I was in looked like, as it was so heavily timbered and brushy. The formation didn’t show up and I had no tools with me to uncover it. The top of an old snag had broken off and fallen, scraping the top moss and loose dirt for a space of about eight feet wide and eighteen or twenty feet long, uncovering this quartz ledge which is where I found this piece.
This ledge was worked smooth by a glacier at one time. I couldn’t find anything to break a piece off with, so I used the butt of my gun to get that piece. In so doing, I broke the stock of my gun, thus ruining it for further use. This didn’t worry me any, as I knew there was not game in the country larger than a grouse and damned few of them. “My first thought was of the richness of the quartz and of you fellows and getting back to town to round you all up so we could get busy on it. After looking over and enjoying the feeling of knowing I had made a rich find, I covered the ledge up again with moss, limbs, and rotten chunk.
Finishing that job, I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks, so I could come back to it again or tell you where it was if anything should happen to me. This I did, climbing straight up over the ledge on the ridge till I reached the top, which was about six hundred feet above where I found the ledge.
I looked down below me and picked out a big tree with a bushy top, taller than the rest and about fifty feet to the right of the ledge. Looking over the top of this tree from where I stood, I could see out on Frederick Sound, Cape of the Straight Light, the point of Vanderput Spit (Point Vanderput) and turning a little to the left, I could see Sukhoi Island (Kodiak) from the mouth of Wrangell Narrows.
Satisfied with that, I turned half round to get a back sight on some mountain peaks, and lying below me on the other side of the ridge from the ledge was the half-moon lake the Indian had told me about.
Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again. Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn’t call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys-yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.
I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, and then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long claw-like fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe or how I hung on to that piece of quartz is a mystery to me.
When I came to, it was night and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukhoi Island, cold, hungry and crazy for a drink of water. But only to satisfy the latter urge, I started for Wrangell, and here I am. You no doubt think I am either crazy or lying. All I can say is, there is the quartz. Never let me hear the name of Thomas Bay again, and for God’s sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat! (Excerpt from “The Strangest Story Ever Told”, Handwritten Manuscript, Colp MS 140, Alaska State Library)
Now how does such a screamingly adorable fuzzyhead like an otter get mixed up in this sort of soul-eating behavior, you ask? I mean, for god’s sakes, Otters hold each other’s paws when they are swimming and cover their eyes as they swim on their backs napping. They ooze cuteness. The Tibetan symbol for universal love involves the pairing of the six traditional enemies – garuda and snow lion, otter and fish, crocodile and sea-snail. According to Ojibwa legend, an otter was entrusted with the secrets of the Grand Medicine Society. Zoroastrians hold ceremonies to honor dead otters they find in the wild, and consider it an act against nature and their gods to kill one. Otters are widely regarded as fun-loving, industrious, sociable creatures. How do we reconcile the soul-stealing, flesh-rending, child kidnapping monstrosity that is the Kushtaka with the insufferably whimsical creature that launched a thousand children’s stories like The Wind in the Willows or inspired American naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton to say, “the joyful, keen and fearless otter mild and loving to his own kind, and gentle with his neighbor of the stream full of play and gladness in his life, full of courage in his stress ideal in his home, steadfast in death the noblest little soul that ever went four-footed through the woods”? The trickster element of the Kushtaka is understandable, as one can imagine the playful otter pranking people with abandon, but that does not account for the more malevolent aspects that appear to be more central to Kushtaka mythology. A few people have begun to suspect the otter of hiding depravity and criminal insanity, such as Richard Martin of Coast and Kayak Magazine, who said, “Otters exhibit no self control, no family values, and practice lots of kinky sex” (“The Dark Side of Sea Otters”, 1997), but Mr. Martin is in the minority.
Otter behavior can seem very human to us, and this can be misleading. “The suggestion is that we understand (rationalize, make sense of) the actions of others by ascribing to them the kinds of thoughts, perceptions, motivations that we ‘know’ govern our own behavior as individuals. Thus we make sense of the behavior of a pet dog or a filmed otter by ‘anthropomorphizing’ the animal – by ascribing to it a human intellect with human values, goals, and reasoning abilities. We appear to do the same with more metaphoric creatures as well” (Kronenfeld, 2008, p128). In fact, otters have been described as “charismatic megafauna”, that is, easy to anthropomorphize, magnets for conservationists, and lending themselves to marketable toys and popular zoo exhibits. The ease with which the otter can be anthropomorphized may give us a clue as to why it was viewed so ignominiously by the Tlingit, and also may explain a difference in perception between the sea otter and land otter. As observed in anthropologist Richard Barazzuol’s thesis The Tlingit Land Otter Complex: Coherence in the Social and Shamanic Order, “The land otter was probably perceived as the most human-like animal in that environment. The sea otter had a prestigious place in Tlingit society as a bringer of wealth during the period of the fur trade until its near extinction in the nineteenth century. However it is the land otter that occupied a prominent place in the belief systems of the Tlingit. Particular attributes of the land otters lead to the perception that it has the ability to create a symbolic bridge uniting human and animal. It was seen as an ambiguous figure which had the ability, like the Tlingit themselves, to function well both on the land and in the water” (Barazzuol, 1981, p.74).
Due to a direct association with Tlingit shamanism i.e. one who manages to escape the land otter people and return home is regarded as prime shaman material (also, some Kushtaka myths allow for humans who have been turned into Kushtaka to occasionally return home to their village and provide assistance to relatives), the Kushtaka represents a symbolic link between the living and the dead. As observed by anthropologist Kenelm Burridge, the most significant confrontation with truth and reality among traditional societies is death. How you die, when you die, and where you go when you die are cross-culturally fraught with significance. In a harsh environment like the Alaskan wilderness or coast, death can come suddenly and unexpectedly, and bodies may never be recovered. Tlingit treatment of corpses is cosmologically significant in that they believe with proper preparation a dead person’s spirit is reincarnated back into the clan lineage. An unrecovered corpse presents a significant liminal problem – does the Tlingit individual who disappears in a blizzard or drowns at sea get reincarnated despite the lack of proper ceremonial? The problem is solved by saying that the unrecovered fatality has “gone to the land of the otter people”. The application of this theory to those who are psychologically troubled (they are regarded as having been captured by otter people, but were incompletely turned into Kushtaka), further suggest that this is a symbolic means for dealing with the marginal, either socially or ritually.
Next time you are at the zoo admiring the antics of the playful otters as they slip and slide, look for the little gleam in their eyes that says, “I may be cute, but I’ll eat your soul for dinner and drag you away to the den of the land otter people, where I will vampirically turn you into one of us”. Otters have had it easy for too long. They know they are cute. They will use it against us. As William Burroughs said, “Like most qualities, cuteness is delineated by what it isn’t. Most people aren’t cute at all, or if so they quickly outgrow their cuteness … Elegance, grace, delicacy, beauty, and a lack of self-consciousness: a creature who knows he is cute soon isn’t.” Then they come for you.
Barazzuol, Richard. “The Tlingit Land Otter Complex: Coherence in the Social and Shamanic Order”. Masters Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, 1981.
Kronenfeld, David B. Culture, Society, and Cognition . Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin, 2008.
Pelton, Mary and DiGennaro, Jacqueline. Images of a People: Tlingit Myths and Legends .Englewood, CO: Greenwood, 1992.
Swanton, John Reed, 1873-1958. Tlingit Myths And Texts . Washington: Govt. print. off., 1909.
Worl Says Shamanism Still Influential in Tlingit Culture
Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl gives a talk on Tlingit shamanism as part of SHI’s Native American History Month Lecture Series. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.
The Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska no longer practice shamanism, but elements of it still exist in their culture today.
That’s according to Anthropologist and Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl, who spoke Monday as part of SHI’s Native American History Month Lecture Series.
Worl said shamanism used to be a major component of Tlingit life. She said every clan had a shaman before Russian and American colonization largely forced the Tlingit people to abandon their traditional religion.
“Shamanism is generally associated with hunting, fishing and gathering societies that often migrate with seasons to follow their food sources,” Worl said. “To bring food, health and protection from evil, shaman seek connections with animal powers through their rituals.”
The shaman’s responsibilities, she said, included maintaining the well-being of the clan acting as a military advisor assuring hunting and fishing success predicting future events and curing illnesses. To do that they performed rituals designed to ward off hostile and dangerous spirits, and call upon good spirits to support the clans’ welfare.
Tlingits believed that great shaman traveled in both the physical and spiritual world, and that spirits chose certain people to be shaman, she said.
“The majority of spirits with which the shaman makes his alliances are animals, animal spirits,” she said. “This reflects a widespread belief by cultures that practice shamanism that animals inhabited the world long before human beings and are essential to people because of the unique knowledge that animals possess.”
Worl said Tlingit clans last practiced traditional shamanism in the 1950s, but she said it still pervades the rituals and beliefs of Southeast Alaska Natives today. For instance, Tlingits – including the late-Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff – still believe that all objects possess some sort of spiritual essence, she said.
“I’ve had meetings here in this room, where people like our spiritual leader, Dr. Soboleff, has pounded on the table and says, ‘Everything has a spirit! Even this table has a spirit!’” Worl said, pounding her own fist on the podium.
About 15 years ago at a clan conference organized by the heritage institute, Worl said several elders attributed modern social problems, such as alcoholism and suicide, to Tlingit societies being out of balance.
“In our society we have a number of practices to ensure both social and spiritual balance, and they were holding that we were out of spiritual and social balance, and this was the cause of the social illnesses that affect our society,” Worl says.
She said that discussion led to some of SHI’s most successful cultural programs.
Worl said the influence of shamanism on modern Tlingit life is perhaps most evident in the use of sacred objects and regalia in ceremonial acts, including memorial celebrations.
“When our ceremonial and sacred objects are brought out and the spirits are addressed or called upon in the same way as they were in earlier times,” she said.
Many Tlingit elders are reluctant to discuss shamanism, perhaps due to the punishment Native people endured at the hands of colonizers for practicing their religion, according to Worl.
She said it’s unlikely traditional shamanism will ever be completely revitalized, but some Tlingits are looking at ways to incorporate more of the old practices in modern ceremonies.
Shamans and Kushtakas: North Coast Tales of the Supernatural
I like the visuals of the feather kite, with the entire village dangling beneath it.
*kite comes flying back towards the village*
"That looks like the people of our village," said his grandmother.
Cracked me up. I like the visuals of the feather kite, with the entire village dangling beneath it.
*kite comes flying back towards the village*
"That looks like the people of our village," said his grandmother.
Little book I picked up on my Alaskan cruise to give to my son’s Navaho mother-in-law.
Filled with nine interesting legends of the North Coast Aleutian natives: the Tlingit and Haida.
After reading an interview with of all people Dylan Carson from the band Earth, I sought out a good book on NW native peoples folklore. This one is alright. Like a lot of oral literature many of the stories contained herein are self-similar (see Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong for more thought on that), but that said I read the book straight through while sitting on the stairs of Seattle Children&aposs Theatre waiting for the early show of "Junie B. Jones" to get to intermission while on duty After reading an interview with of all people Dylan Carson from the band Earth, I sought out a good book on NW native peoples folklore. This one is alright. Like a lot of oral literature many of the stories contained herein are self-similar (see Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong for more thought on that), but that said I read the book straight through while sitting on the stairs of Seattle Children's Theatre waiting for the early show of "Junie B. Jones" to get to intermission while on duty as an usher.
What I really like that book is the sense of paranoia regarding the dark, kind of vaguely evil nature of the woods in the Pacific NW. Which is something I've felt even just on the south I-5 trip from Seattle toward Olympia. Its also a kind of thought that pervades Lynch's Twin Peaks, the mythos of the Green River Killer, meth culture, etc.
Even the shamans who are ostensibly the heroes of the stories are pretty sketch figures who live out in the woods, fasting, never grooming themselves and walking around near naked with only dirt and seal oil to cover them.
I bought this book at the State Capitol Museum in Juneau while on cruise in Alaska last summer. It&aposs a short read at 127 pages and nine stories, but it&aposs absolutely fascinating. Our society tends to regard otters as such cute, innocent creatures, but to the Tlingit and Haida their dual nature of living on land and sea makes them tricksters with dark intentions. The Land Otter People "rescue" the drowning and break down their spirit until they become mutant otter beings as well.
I am definitely ke I bought this book at the State Capitol Museum in Juneau while on cruise in Alaska last summer. It's a short read at 127 pages and nine stories, but it's absolutely fascinating. Our society tends to regard otters as such cute, innocent creatures, but to the Tlingit and Haida their dual nature of living on land and sea makes them tricksters with dark intentions. The Land Otter People "rescue" the drowning and break down their spirit until they become mutant otter beings as well.
I am definitely keeping this book on my shelf and I hope to read up more on Pacific northwest native mythology. . more
Inuit Myth and LegendBy Solomon Karpik, 1987 (courtesy DINA/PAN 83PR87 29).
Inuit mythology is a repository of Inuit culture, passed down by elders through generations to enrich and enlighten. Traditionally used in all aspects of daily life, Inuit mythology has undergone a resurgence in popularity as community groups aim to preserve traditional teachings as a method of cultural and political solidarity.
Mythology and Legend
The definition of a myth is as fluid as myths themselves. Myths are usually seen as narratives used to explain characters, experiences or phenomena of religious or spiritual importance that are illustrative of a certain community’s belief system. A legend is a story handed down by tradition, yet loosely based on history. Some mythologists, like David Leeming, are more relaxed in their approach to defining myths and legends, and include both in the category of mythology. Though myths may be fantastic, or unbelievable to some, this does not diminish their importance or the messages they contain.
The Inuit People
Inuit who make their homes across the vastness of Canada's Arctic belong to a much larger family that extends from the Bering Sea through Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland. These imaginative, hardy and resourceful peoples are linked not only linguistically, but by a distinctly similar culture and way of life, as seen through Inuit art, song, dance, myth and legend. Their songs and story forms of myths and legends, linguistically as well as stylistically, relate most closely to Siberian — and possibly Finno-Ugric and early Hungarian (Magyar) traditions . Thus, language and legend may give clues to ancient routes of migration.
Like all mythology, Inuit myths and legends are both entertaining and instructive. The Inuit designated the powers of good and evil to deities living in a spirit world closely entwined with the starkly beautiful northern landscape.
Ancient Inuit oral traditions were employed as the most important method of conveying and preserving ideas, augmented sometimes by small carvings that may have served as illustrations for events. Songs and dances also enhanced the meanings of myths and legends, which upheld the existing system, bolstered the traditional customs of Inuit society, and verbalized a sense of right and wrong. These early tales were intrinsically linked to Inuit shamanism.
Inuit myths and legends are usually short dramatic forms dealing with the wonders of the world: the creation, the heavens, birth, love, hunting and sharing food, respect for the aged, polygamy, murder, infanticide, incest, death and the mystery of afterlife. Inuit storytellers continue to remodel old myths and create new legends.
Inuit myths are rarely simple, usually abounding with behavioural codes that may only be fully understood by those living within that society. The stories reinforce a close relationship with all of nature, as well as the belief that animals have the magical power to hear and understand human words. For this reason, hunters in their camps, when singing or speaking of walrus or seal, may carefully refer to them as maggots or lice, or call caribou lemmings, thus confusing the animals that are necessary for their survival.
Myths and Beings
A fundamental tenet of Inuit mythology is the belief in other worlds beneath the sea, inside the Earth and in the sky where some gifted angakoks (shamans) have the power to journey in trances and in dreams, visiting places that ordinary mortals would only experience in the afterlife.
Dreams have always played an important part in the lives of Inuit, perhaps serving as the basis for some myth forms. Dreams are interpreted with care. Dreams of polar bears are said to have sexual overtones. Dreams of weasels suggest troubles. Bird dreams forewarn of blizzards.
Some Inuit myths are thought-provoking in their deceptive simplicity. An extremely short example is as follows: Onto a boy's arm came a mosquito. "Don't hit! Don't hit!" it hummed. "Grandchildren have I to sing to." "Imagine," the boy said, "So small and yet a grandfather."
Among the most famous Inuit myths is the legend of the sea goddess, known by various names (Sedna, Nuliayuk, Taluliyuk, Taleelayuk). In the myth, a young girl is cast into the ocean, where she becomes the keeper of all the sea mammals.
The legend of Lumiuk (Lumak, Lumaag) tells of an abused blind boy who finds refuge in the sea, where he recovers his sight and ends his abuse. The legend of Kiviuk (Kiviok, Kiviuq), a major mythological figure in the same sphere as Sedna, explains the abundance of fish and the absence of trees in the Arctic tundra while the legend of Tikta’Liktak tells the story of a young hunter’s journey home after becoming lost on an ice floe.
Supernatural beings accompany many Inuit myths, including: Mahaha, a demon that terrorizes the Arctic and tickles its victims to death Ijiraat, shapeshifters that may change into any arctic animal but may not disguise their red eyes Taqriaqsuit, shadow people who are rarely seen but often heard Qallupilluk (or Qalupalik, see below), scaly, human-like creatures that snatch children into the sea Inupasugjuk, giants who capture humans and Tuniit, who are seen as simple-minded but extremely strong ancestors of the Inuit.
Ancient tools and art objects may lie preserved in the permafrost unharmed for countless centuries waiting to be discovered, but oral culture represents a valuable intellectual possession that, once lost, has no way of returning. Thus, many programs exist to promote the use and understanding of traditional Inuit myth and legend. One such program was developed by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and encourages readers to speak with elders in the community to learn more, and to pass the stories on themselves, thus reinforcing the importance of listening and storytelling to the survival of oral culture.
Inuit ArtKenojuak is one of Canada's best-known printmakers (courtesy West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative). By Joe Talirunili (courtesy DINA/POV 132S60 1). By Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (courtesy DINA/BL102PRB2 14). Soapstone miniature mask, Igloolik region, NWT, Dorset Culture (courtesy NMC). Walrus tusk, Igloolik region, NWT, Dorset culture (courtesy NGC). Caribou antler, Igloolik area, NWT, Dorset culture (courtesy NGC). Jessie Oonark, Baker Lake, NWT (reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Jessie Oonark).
The Inuktitut word Inuit is a fairly recent Anglo-French Canadian term and will be used in this article only with reference to the historical and modern Canadian Inuit . Greenlanders, who speak a dialect similar to the Canadian Inuktitut and whose art and artifacts are often almost identical to those found in the Canadian Arctic for the past 4000 years, call themselves Katladlit. Siberian (or Asiatic) Inuit and the Inuit of western and southwestern Alaska call themselves Yuit. They speak a dialect called Yupik, and their art forms, except during Thule culture , bear few stylistic resemblances to those of the Canadian Arctic. Yet there exist strong iconographic and thematic relationships between the art forms, indicating a common ancestry or various cultural interchanges, or both.
The history of Inuit cultures and the art of the various regions and times can only be understood if the myth of a homogeneous Inuit culture is discarded altogether. Though it has not been possible to determine the exact origin(s) of the Inuit, nor of the various Inuit cultures, five distinct cultures have been established in the Canadian area: Pre-Dorset, Dorset, Thule, Historic and Contemporary.
Pre-Dorset culture developed out of the migrations of people coming from Siberia via the Bering Strait 4000-4500 years ago (see Prehistory). While few art objects of this period seem to have survived, the exquisitely shaped artifacts discovered - particularly the projectile points of harpoon heads and lances fashioned from carefully selected lithic material (stones) - are not merely functional but also of considerable aesthetic value. These objects can in fact be called art even though they lacked imagistic intentions. Through their simple splendour and sensitive craftsmanship they exude the kind of “hunting magic” that perpetuated itself in the succeeding Dorset culture. Pre-Dorset culture lasted for over 1000 years, and it extended into the beginning of the first millennium BC.
Dorset culture started to evolve between 700 and 500 BC, and can be called the first Indigenous Canadian Arctic culture. It spread from Coronation Gulf to the bottom tip of Newfoundland and to the entire west coast of Greenland. Several problems have arisen in dating Dorset art, particularly its origins. In the chronology established by Danish archaeologist Jorgen Meldgaard for the Igloolik area, with the highlights occurring between 500 and 1000 CE , art emerges only in the Middle Dorset period, 400-500. Yet the well-known Tyara maskette, made with the same perfectionist artistry that characterizes the best of Dorset art, has been dated to before 600 BC. The explanation may lie in faulty carbon dating, or in the possibility that the maskette is a work from the Pre-Dorset culture that somehow survived. Two Pre-Dorset maskettes from the Igloolik area exist which are similar in appearance.
In Pre-Dorset culture imagistic supernatural objects may have been destroyed or discarded after use, as in other prehistoric and preliterate cultures, and the Tyara maskette could have been an incidental survivor, used or preserved in the later culture. Or perhaps the fine craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty of both the maskette and Pre-Dorset artifacts point to a magical purpose in their creation: that form does not merely follow function but increases efficacy.
High Dorset art appears to be largely magico-religious in its purpose this appears to be so particularly for the "excaved" (hollowed out and perforated) Dorset bears and falcons relating in shape to harpoon heads. The points of the harpoon heads become the bear heads the line-hole openings become the front legs attached to the body (or bent backwards in a swimming motion) and the basal spurs become the hind legs (more or less abstracted). The excaved falcons resemble the excaved forms of the harpoon heads and simultaneously the skeletons of birds. The image of disembowelled creatures refers to a ritualistic technique used in shamanic initiations in many parts of the polar world from Siberia to Greenland: the shaman had to think of himself as a durable skeleton, devoid of flesh and blood, so that the helping spirits might consider it worthwhile to come to him. The skeleton designs incised (not etched) into many of the animal carvings have a similar origin and hint at several supernatural meanings: the body as spirit or dematerialized essence, as a kind of ritual form, or as an instrument for magico-religious purposes.
Linear or incised signs on many of the carvings - joint marks and crosses - can also be found in other prehistoric and preliterate cultures. They too seem to have supernatural associations and reinforce the largely magico-religious content of Dorset art. Several other image types exist in Dorset culture, such as the antler or wooden "face clusters," wooden masks, maskettes, human figures, multiple animal images, various birds and land and sea mammals (some with and some without skeleton markings). While their purposes are largely unknown, they do have common characteristics: most are carved in ivory or, to a lesser extent, in bone, antler or wood with the exception of the face clusters, they are very small - anywhere from 1 to 10 centimetres all are 3-dimensional, carved with strong or expressionistic features and with decisive strokes of the knife or graver. Except for the wood and antler carvings, they have a remarkably smooth finish despite their small size and expressionist form.
Petroglyphs have been cut in soapstone outcroppings near the sea at Wakeham Bay in Ungava, Québec, faces or maskettes not unlike the previously mentioned face clusters (see Pictographs and Petroglyphs ). The shapes themselves, however, are reminiscent of the Tyara maskette, which comes from nearby Sugluk (Salluit). While this similarity asserts a Dorset origin for the Tyara maskette, it brings the date of its origin further into question.
Thule culture is much easier to define and to date, but again some anomalies exist. Thule culture migration from northern Alaska into the Canadian Arctic began after 1000 CE and reached eastern Greenland by 1200. Thule is the most uniform of the Inuit cultures, covering as it did the entire Arctic of the western hemisphere, including the eastern tip of Siberia. That manifest uniformity was responsible for giving the Inuit the appearance of homogeneity, which is misleading except for Thule culture artifacts. Thule art across the Arctic was not as uniform as many social scientists once believed, and therefore the less conspicuous art forms of the Thule people in comparison to powerful Dorset and Old Bering Sea art of Alaska have led to the revision of many misjudgements by a new generation of archaeologists.
The Thule people, whose pre-Thule ancestry can be traced to southwestern Alaska but who had evolved into their new culture type in northern Alaska, were themselves the true ancestors of the contemporary Inuit. In Canada, however, the art forms of these two cultures reflect little of this relationship. This is in contrast to the Thule art tradition in Alaska, which continued well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The most frequent types of Thule art in Canada are combs, needle cases and "swimming figurines" (birds, spirits and humans), as well as various kinds of utensils and female effigies. In contrast to Dorset art, which had hardly any stylistic similarities to contemporaneous Alaskan art forms, Canadian Thule art is strongly dependent on Alaskan prototypes of the same culture and period.
While Dorset art, in its stark and expressionist form and technique, has a definite masculine quality, which in form and content relates to weapons and tools used by males, Thule art relates in almost every detail to female images, forms and uses. Utensils such as combs, thimble holders, needle cases, bodkins and pendants are obviously women's practical and decorative equipment the "swimming figurines" too are either female representations or relate to them in their shape. They are identical in their basic structure, with only the upper parts of their bodies shown the parts underneath the waterline, not being visible, are therefore not shown. These figurines obviously had a common origin, probably as amulets or for similar magico-religious purposes. It is therefore difficult to believe that these carvings were gambling pieces (tingmiujang), though they were the prototypes for the gambling pieces used after the breakup of traditional Thule whaling culture in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Besides being small, elegantly shaped and often beautifully decorated, almost all female figurines and statuettes of Thule art are faceless, in contrast to the Dorset figures, with their strongly expressed mostly male faces. The two notable Thule exceptions with beautifully carved faces are a comb from the Pelly Bay region and a marrow fork (or perhaps a bodkin for tents or umiaks ) from Strathcona Sound. There are a few other carvings with vaguely incised faces and also a few stick figures on combs, as well as a unique bow drill from Arctic Bay.
The Historical Period
The historical period begins with the demise of Thule culture, as the climate became colder and the whales disappeared, and the coinciding arrival of the white man in the Arctic in the 16th century. The unified art style also broke down, though some Thule effigies persisted into the 20th century, such as the swimming figurines that turned into gaming pieces and the female statuettes that turned into dolls. Certain women's utensils also continued, but carved in much cruder and less stylish forms.
At the start of the 19th century, the dolls, toys and animal carvings that were exchanged with whalers, sailors and explorers (who had then begun to visit on a more or less regular basis) gradually turned into trade and souvenir art, often quite exquisite. In fact, the trade carvings display a much greater skill than carvings made by the Inuit for themselves. By 1920 trade art (which was largely made out of ivory or bone) had lost all of its magico-religious meanings, and many carvings became replicas of tools and weapons of both Inuit and white men. In several areas liturgical art (replicas of Roman Catholic figurines) were produced regularly, as were inlaid or incised cigarette boxes, match holders, cribbage boards and sailing vessels. Even though the Inuit had lived a largely traditional lifestyle before WWII, their art forms - but not the techniques or processes for making their objects pinguaq or "toy-like representations" - became increasingly oriented to the white man's tastes and uses.
The Contemporary Phase
The contemporary phase was a logical outcome of the transitional and acculturated art forms of the historic period, and coincided with the gradual "opening up" of the North after WWII, with the launching of the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning system) and, most of all, with the emerging interest of Western nations in the art and culture of preliterate societies. Largely owing to the insights and promotional energy of James A. Houston , a young artist from Toronto, Inuit art as we know it today came into existence in 1948-49. He encouraged the Inuit to use their "natural talents" in creating art objects to help solve their economic problems. In this regard they were assisted by the Inuit Co-operatives .
Soapstone and ivory carvings from Povungnituk and Inukjuak (Port Harrison) in Québec were the first art forms to appear for sale in the south. Salluit (Sugluk), Cape Dorset and Repulse Bay followed, and soon the entire central Arctic was covered, from Kugluktuk to Arctic Bay, with other areas to join later in the 1960s and 1970s. The whole enterprise resulted largely from the support Houston and the Inuit received from the federal government, the former Canadian Handicrafts Guild and the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1957-58 Houston also introduced printmaking into Cape Dorset in the next 20 years, this craft spread to Povungnituk, Holman [Ulukhaktok], Baker Lake, Pangnirtung and, to a lesser extent, into several other arctic communities, including Clyde River.
In the new carving activities the emphasis is largely on soapstone and serpentine, which have become increasingly scarce, and stone is often imported from the south. Stone differs greatly from the organic materials used in prehistoric and historic times. Ivory is still used in several areas, especially at Pelly Bay and Repulse Bay, where miniature carvings predominate. Beached whalebone was first used at Arctic Bay but had largely disappeared by the mid-1970s. Instead, large whalebone fragments taken from prehistoric Thule culture sites became extremely popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially at Pangnirtung and Spence Bay. The use of this material had steadily declined, largely because of the US embargo on endangered species.
Though carving is still the largest art activity, Inuit printmaking has become the one providing the greatest financial returns for southern collectors and "art investors." Drawings and paintings are also produced in quantity, but they have never enjoyed the popularity of the prints. Every printmaker draws, but only a few artists paint (notably Pudlo Pudlat from Cape Dorset and Davie Atchealak from Pangnirtung). Wall hangings (embroidered, appliquéd or woven) are probably the most impressive of the newer two-dimensional art forms but, though highly valued by connoisseurs, they have not achieved the wide acceptance of the prints.
The new art forms do not have the uniform style and content characteristics found in Dorset and Thule art, but rather exhibit local and individual characteristics. Inuit art is easily recognizable as such, but only because of a predictable subject matter or a definite personal or local style. Most Inuit art shares a predominantly narrative or illustrative content that depicts the traditional lifestyle and techniques for survival, the animals of the North, the spirits of those animals or the shamans and mythologies which were the links to that spirit world. But here the similarity ends. In Baker Lake, for instance, Vital Makpaaq and David Ekoota Ikutaaq have initiated a style of massive stone carving, whereas Luke Ikseetaryuk developed out of antler characteristic images and compositions of his own which have no stylistic relationship to the stone carvings. Baker Lake printmakers and producers of wall hangings such as Jessie Oonark, Marion Tuu'luq, Luke Anguhadluq, William Noah and Simon Tookoome also have their own individual styles, as have at least 10 others.
A similar situation exists at Cape Dorset, where all the well-known artists are highly individualistic, including carvers Aqjangajuk Shaa , Qaqaq Ashoona , Kiawak Ashoona , Kumwartok Ashoona, Latcholassie Akesuk, Osuitok Ipeelee and Pauta Saila , and printmakers Parr , Pitseolak Ashoona and Pudlo Pudlat. Collectively, however, they are typical of Cape Dorset art, and it is possible to speak of a Cape Dorset style with its definite and crisp shapes and often quite original ideas.
In Povungnituk, too, the principal artists all have their own style and subject matter. The stylistic individuality of artists such as Alasua Amittuq Davidialuk , Joe Talirunili and Josie Papialook (Paperk/Poppy) is noticeable in both carvings and prints. These 3 artists were seldom imitated, but ideas of Charlie Sivuarapik , Levi Alasua Pirti Smith and Eli Sallualuk were followed by many of the lesser artists. These multiple Povungnituk styles have one common feature - high finish and craftsmanship. This characteristic applies to both the highly representational and the fantastic art of Povungnituk, but not to the works of Davidialuk, Talirunili and Papialook which, though also narrative, have retained a definite feeling of simple rawness and forceful, personal expression. Comparisons could be drawn between Pelly Bay, Repulse Bay and Arviat (Eskimo Point), all of which have styles that could easily be related to folk art , but here too there are many subtle and individual exceptions. In general, Arviat carvings of stone and antler are carved more crudely than the stones and ivories of the other 2 communities, yet John Pangnark’s abstract work from Arviat is extraordinarily elegant and sophisticated. Artists using whalebone, especially the vertebrae, which have naturally fantastic shapes, have a certain advantage, leading often to unusual sculptures. This applies particularly to Talovoak (formerly Spence Bay) artists such as Karoo Ashevak and Sakkiassee Anaija, but interesting work has also been coming out of the eastern and northern regions of Baffin Island.
The contemporary phase is evolving rapidly with changing styles and imagery, especially in the 3 Kitikmeot settlements at the most westerly side of the Central Arctic. There, among the most prominent artists, are Nick Sikkuark and Judas Ullulaq (at Gjoa Haven), Charlie Ugyuk (Taloyoak), and the late Augustin Anaittuq (Pelly Bay). Among the several major Inuit artists who, now middle-aged, have moved to the southern parts of Canada, are Manasie Akpaliapik (Toronto), and the brothers Abraham Anqhik (Salt Spring Island, BC) and David Ruben Piqtoukun (Toronto). Of the younger generation of contemporary Inuit artists who have developed reputations in the international art world are the late Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona.
Collectors and museums have started to pay very high prices for the work of these artists but even more so for the older, more "classic" carvings and prints. Yet while the production of the "new" art has increased noticeably, it unfortunately has been accompanied by an overall decline in quality. While there are still an astonishing number of very good artists producing a fair amount of outstanding work, the collective quality standards need careful watching. The better Inuit artists are largely aware of this dilemma. However, only the local northern buyers - the co-operatives, the North West Company and several individual wholesalers who purchase the work directly from the artists - can actually exercise some degree of influence over the quantity and quality of the production - or over-production - of this important aspect of Canadian art.
This unit can be used by art teachers in grades five through eight as a starting point for the study of three-dimensional form. Parts of this unit might also be appropriately introduced in a Social Studies, Home Economic or Woodworking class. Although some of the materials suggested for the lesson may not be readily available, I will try to suggest alternatives to aid in the implementation of this unit for non-art disciplines.
This unit, structured by three major objectives, introduces background information and provides activities for classroom use. A set of slides accompanying this unit will be on file at the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute office, which you may borrow to introduce your students to the Inuit family.
Anthropologists classify them as Eskimo. I chose to use the word “Inuit” because “Eskimo” regard themselves as the race of the Inuit, which is to say “The People”. The source of the word Eskimo has various etymological attributions: from an Algonguian word meaning “raw-meateaters”, from early French missionaries meaning “the excommunicated”, from the Norsemen meaning “little people-or from Indian neighbors speaking of them by the Indian appellation for foreigners meaning “snakes” or “enemies”. 1
This unit will present a brief description of the three overall locations where Inuit live or have lived over an extremely long history. The focus will be on the Alaskan Inuit. As the forty-ninth state of the United States, Alaska as a subject for study can easily be introduced through the study of the Inuit. From my own experience in Social Studies, I found that geographic locations held little significance until I began to travel in my adulthood. I hope that this unit, studying the Inuit through their images, will foster curiosity regarding the Inuit and Alaska in the first instance and perhaps the study of other cultures as well.
The Objectives of this Unit:
Objective No. 1:
The Arctic of the Inuit “extends more than 4000 miles from the coast of eastern Greenland in the east to the fringes of Siberia in the west, northwards into the high Arctic Islands, and southwards to the tip of Greenland, the west coast of Hudson Bay, and Prince William Sound in Alaska.” 2 (see fig.1 & 2, also Slide #1). Much of the wood used in the Arctic originated as driftwood brought to the Beaufort Sea by the Mackenzie River in northwest Canada and carried eastwards by the ocean currents. The Arctic has a short summer, when it is light for all or most of the time, and the land is not snowbound. The winter is long, and the darkness and ice close in.
The Inuit country is fearsomely unfamiliar. One can picture the people, but not the life of long dark winters and incredible cold, hardships, and dangers. Possibly even harder to understand is their incredible richness of colored imagery without an obvious palette in their monochromatic environment to derive inspiration from.
This brief background can lead to a discussion and activities centering around the concept of “contrast”, and how middle school students experience contrasts in their daily life.
(figure available in print form) Questions for suggested discussion:
It is established that the Inuit have been in their present Arctic homeland at least 2,500 years if not considerably longer. There is no definite answer as to which came first, the coastal or the inland Inuit. It’s like asking that age old question: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” This paper will focus on the Alaskan Inuit of the northwest coast.
Around the year AD 1000 the hunting of whales, especially the large bowhead whales which migrate northeastwards each spring through the narrow ice leads off the Alaskan Arctic coast, had crystallized into a specialized way of life for the Inuit among coastal communities.
To hunt whale and other sea mammals, the Inuit used kayaks (slide #2) and umiaks, open skin-covered boats up to 10 meters (33 feet) long, and in the winter they traveled by dog-sled. They established permanent coastal winter villages, which each included a number of substantial houses built of whale bones, logs and sods. 3
(see kayak-fig. 3 umiak-fig. 4 floor plan of inne—fig. 5)
A winter house in northwest coastal Alaska was called an “inne”. Built underground during the summer months, the inne was a permanent dwelling. The inne had one doorway with steps leading down into the shed. The shed led in two directions, one to a passageway leading towards the main living area, and another towards a stormy day cook room. Cooking was normally done in the main living area under an open skylight to let the smoke out. During bad weather, to avoid the danger of wet bedding from the open skylight, a skin covering was drawn over the opening and weighted down, and food was prepared in the stormy day cook room. This room had a small opening in the roof to let smoke escape. Heavy skins hung in the doorways prevented excess smoke from entering the main living area. Furs were also hung close to all doorways to keep out cold. Each inne became a schoolroom in the evening as parents told their children legends and stories important for their understanding of the future, the preservation of the past, and a way to pass some time when there was no longer enough light to carry out detailed tasks. (Slides #3-4)
(figure available in print from) In an Alaskan narrative, recorded by Edna Wildner, many details of preparing food and the running of an Inuit household can be of further interest here for a Home Economics or Social Studies class. (see bibliography)
Objective To have students understand the basic purpose of the structure of their home through the study of the floor plan of the Inuit “inne”.
Objective To make a miniature kayak, umiak, or vessel for transportation which will float.
Background Toward the end of the eighteenth century the Inuit began to have increasing contact with traders, explorers and missionaries. The family structure and belief system which is described below is that of the traditional Inuit before the influence of other cultures and beliefs, in particular Christianity.
The Alaskan coastal Inuit depended largely upon sea mammals for food and fuel, especially seals, whales, and walrus. If sufficient food were not taken during the warmer daylight months and preserved or stored for use in the winter months, starvation often ensued.
Inuit society was structured around the immediate family, plus the extended family of grandparents, cousins and other blood and marriage relationships comprising a family group with whom they lived in close proximity. All kinship relations, once established, remained in force until death. Whaling in particular required the cooperative efforts of the family group to hunt, skin, secure the food and make clothing. The interdependence of the family group was essential for survival.
The spiritual beliefs of the Inuit pervaded every aspect of their culture. They were shaped by their need to obtain food and to face the extreme and unpredictable forces in their environment. In The Coming and Going of the Shaman Jean Blodgett states: “The souls of animals and humans, the spirits, the “rest powers of the universe—all were things men had heard about in tales, were aware of from tangible evidence in their everyday lives, but which they neither fully understood nor controlled.” 4 The shaman or “angakog” was the person in the family group able to connect with these supernatural spirits and exercise control over physical forces and events. The shaman use thought to have special mystical powers, able to solve problems, cure illness and act as mediator between man and the greater forces of the universe. Shamans held a central place in the Inuit culture. Although shamans could be evil as well as good, the first shamans arose specifically to help man. The position of shaman was open to all but only those with inherent “supernatural” faculty could become a shaman. This “supernatural” faculty “is usually identified later in life rather than as a birth endowed right. It was indicated by unusual circumstances or behavior. Jean Blodgett states: “Such incidents as sickness, accidents, dreams or visions, and strange events were taken as evidence of a person’s proclivity for the role of shaman”. 5
The role of shaman often passed from an older to a younger member of the family. There was an apprenticeship period from five to twelve years, during which time the apprentice was under special taboos or restrictions such as abstinence from eating the liver, head, heart or intestines, or having sexual relations. His training involved learning stories with information about the various techniques during ceremonies instruction in taboos and religious observances and learning magic prayers, songs and the sacred shaman language.
All things whether living or inanimate had spirits. In addition to the spirits inherent in objects, regions of the world were inhabitated by local spirits singly or in groups. Sickness, death, bad hunting, or bad weather were viewed as caused by evil spirits. As a consequence the Inuit undertook to protect themselves against these evil spirits by the observance of certain customs and preventive measures such as special signs, offerings and taboos. When ordinary measures didn’t prevent or alleviate disasters, the service of the shaman was sought. There were also helping spirits who aided the shaman, which could be in the form of animals, insects, objects and humans. These helpers were a source of power for the shaman, and it was through them that the shaman communicated with the forces that the Inuit believed ruled the universe. Shamans could be male and female, animal and human, all at the same time as is evidenced in carvings. (Slide # 5). One of the shaman’s special abilities was to see himself as a skeleton, and apparently under special circumstances others could see the shaman’s skeleton. It is not surprising therefore to see skeletal markings on objects made by the Inuit. 6 (Slide # 6).
Amulets had special powers to ward off evil forces or to endow the wearer with capabilities they ordinarily lacked. Any small object could function as an amulet the physical entity of the amulet merely symbolized the power of the spirit it represented. (Slides #7-9). Whaling charms were kept on the boats of Alaskan hunters in order to bring them success in their whaling expedition. (Slide # 10). Personal charms were usually worn on a specific part of the body to be effective. They could be made of any material and were not always made by the shaman however, only certain individuals with particular abilities could instill power in the amulet, and that person was most often the shaman.
Amulets were of invaluable assistance to the Inuit in virtually every activity. Children as well as adults used these charms, as it was felt children were especially vulnerable to the forces of the universe. 7
Activity No. 3
Objective To create charms or amulets representing powers, abilities, or characteristics one would like to have.
1. Having discussed the background information and viewed the slides of Inuit amulets, students will create their own charms, keeping in mind that the objects should be representative of a “specific” characteristic they desire.
2. Further Activity: ____ ____ Boxes can also be made out of simple pine wood to create a box like the Inuit whalers made to hold their amulets. Since pine is such a soft wood students can engrave further markings on the surface of the box with a soft leaded pencil.
a. The charms can be carved from soap with a dull knife the point of wooden dowel sharpened with sandpaper can be used for delicate lines. b. If you have a ceramics program, you can break up air-hardened water base clay and give each student a small block to carve and sand into a form for their amulet. These can be bisque fired and glazed. Manganese dioxide is a black pigment which can be painted in the crevices and then sponged off the overall piece to create greater attention to surface engraving. These can then be glaze fired and strung on a key chain or neck chain which today for many students is a collection of charms.
Objective No. 3
Background From explorer’s records and the Inuit’s own traditions, one can begin to see that all their objects had definite purpose. Religious, spiritual or practical ideas took on visual form. As stated earlier in this paper, all things animate and inanimate in the world of the Inuit possessed a spirit consequently a vast range of subject matter was possible.
Inuit masks were used principally in ceremonies that honored and propitiated the spirits of game animals to assure hunting success. Each mask was the embodiment of a shaman’s vision from village to village these reflected an infinite variety of visions. A mask would often depict the shaman’s trip to the spirit world. In a public dance the shaman would reenact his experiences to honor the spirits which were carved symbolically into the mask. Separate objects attached to or painted on the mask were representative of spirits of his dogs, kayak, hunting implements or anything that had been taken on the shaman’s journey. (Slides #11-15).
When looking at the masks we can admire their fierce beauty however it is important to remember that for the Inuit carver or performer there was a total preoccupation with making the mask acceptable to the specific spirits it represented. “The purpose of the masks was either apotropaic-to exorcise evil spirits and ward off misfortune of any kind that threatened the community—or to honor and appease the soul of game animals that had been killed, thus insuring a plentiful supply of food in the future.”8
Activity No. 4
Objective To study an Inuit mask visually and apply a method of object analysis to understand better the Inuit culture.
(Note: This method is that exercised in the seminar “Art, Artifacts, and Material Culture” conducted by Dr. Jules David Prown at Yale University, see Bibliography: Prown, Jules David.)
Procedures I have elected to use this method on the mask shown in Slide #16 however I would suggest that you try the same method on any of the slides of masks accompanying this unit.
Activity No. 5
Objective To create a mask that the student can wear as an extension of his/her self.
How to Practice Shamanism
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Shamanism is a term used to describe the rituals of many cultures around the world. In the Western world, the term is often used to describe more recent traditions that borrow from many cultures or invent their own practices. Many people have found fulfillment, knowledge, or the ability to help others through all types of shamanism, but be aware that traditional and non-traditional shamans do not always see eye to eye.