North Pacific, Sub- and Neo-Arctic Shamanism

Peoples of Alaska

Aleut Hunter
These cultures are represented by four groups: the Aleut, the most maritime-adapted of all North Pacific peoples; Eskimos, whose earliest culture in this region dates from 8,000 years ago; Athapaskans, a forest-dwelling culture of hunters and trappers; and Northwest Coast Indians, represented by the Tlingit.

Aleut men honored the sea mammal spirits by wearing highly decorated hunting costumes. This hunter is dressed in a gut-skin kamleika ornamented with yarn, applique designs, and hair embroidery. Sea lion whiskers on the hat indicate the hunting ability of its owner. Large glass beads, most of Chinese origin, attest to his wealth. In his hands are a sea otter dart and throwing board.

The Aleut, or Unangan, as they call themselves, inhabit the Aleutian archipelago, a 1,300-mile-long volcanic island arc extending from the Alaska Peninsula west nearly to Kamchatka.
Aleut settlements were, as a rule, located on bays where there was a good gravel beach for landing skin-covered watercraft. Village locations on necks between two bays were preferred, as such locations provided at least one protected landing for any given wind direction and served as an escape route in the event of enemy attack. A good supply of fresh water nearby was a necessity, as a good salmon stream was indispensable; other considerations were availability of driftwood and access to stone materials suitable for tool- and weapon-making and mineral paints, sea mammal hauling grounds, and an elevated lookout post from which one could watch for enemies and whales.

Aleut society was ranked, with hereditary classes of high nobles, commoners, and slaves. The leaders were recruited from the high nobles or the chiefly elite. This ranking was reflected in allocation of living space within the longhouse and in burials. The "east" and the "above" were the sacred dimensions associated with the creator - Agugux. At dawn Aleut men emerged on the rooftops of their houses and faced the east to greet the day and "swallow light."

At sea, Aleut men wore wooden hunting hats. The shape of the headgear indicated a man's rank; a short visor was worn by the young and inexperienced hunters, an elongated visor by the rank-and-file, and open-crown long-visored hats by important mature men.

- Lydia T. Black and R. G. Liapunova

The Eskimo People

Eskimo Dancer
Unlike her more simply dressed Chukchi counterpart, a Bering Sea Eskimo woman took advantage of Alaska's rich supply of furbearers to make this fancy festival parka of squirrel, wolf, wolverine, and mink. Imported white Siberian reindeer fur was used for accent. Fur pants, tasseled boots, earrings, and finger masks complete her costume.
Alaskan Eskimos are the most numerous and most diverse of all Eskimo populations. Occupying the entire coast of Alaska with the exception of the Aleutian Islands and Southeast Alaska, Eskimos inhabit a wide variety of environments ranging from the North Slope arctic tundras and coasts to the Bering Sea lowlands and the mountainous, forested coasts of South Alaska. Eskimos are known today under a variety of names, "Eskimo" or "Inuit" in Alaska, "Inuit" in Canada, and "Kalaadlit" in Greenland. The geographic extent of their Alaskan territory covers thousands of miles of coastline. To the east, peoples closely related to Alaskan Eskimos occupy the vast expanse of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and to the west, across Bering Strait, they inhabited coastal regions of Chukotka. This distribution, more than 6,000 miles (as the raven flies) across the top of the North American continent, made Eskimos the most widespread aboriginal population in the New World.
Throughout this huge region the unity of Eskimo culture is enhanced by their possession of similar languages, similar physical and genetic characteristics, and to a lesser extent, possession of a common cultural base, the core of which is adaptation to arctic and subarctic maritime environments. Technological, social, and ritual practices surrounding the hunting of arctic marine animals are the foundation on which most Eskimo cultures rest. For those reasons Eskimo peoples on opposite sides of the North American arctic find more in common with each other than they do with immediately adjacent Indian groups who are their closest inland neighbors.

- William W. Fitzhugh

The Athapaskan People

Athapaskan Hunter

The Athapaskans, nomadic hunters and fishermen, did not have an extensive inventory of material culture. Great artistic effort was invested, however, in clothing, jewelry, and weapons. This hunter's tunic and leggings are of caribou skin ornamented with fringes, beads and dentalium shells. Shell earrings, nose pin, and tattoos augment the majesty of his appearance.

The area occupied by northern Athapaskan Indians lies directly south of the true arctic regions in a belt of coniferous forests broken in places by high mountains and stretches of treeless tundra. Except in the far western portion where the Rocky Mountains occur, much of this area is of relatively slight elevation, and there are numerous low, rolling glaciated hills. The climate of the region is is characterized by long, cold winters and short, warm summers. Snowfall is heavier than along the arctic coast, and in general the climate is quite different from the desert-like coastal areas inhabited by Eskimos.

If one were to select the single most consistent feature of aboriginal Athapaskan magico-religious belief systems, it would be the significant reciprocal relationship between men and the animals on which they were dependent for their livelihood. Superior-subordinate aspects were largely absent from this relationship, possibly because of a widespread belief in reincarnation in animal form. This belief tended to blur the distinction between animals and men, and to emphasize the fact that the spirits of animals had to be placated if men were to continue their exploitative relationship to the environment.

An important feature of social organization among many Athapaskans was the potlatch, a ceremony in honor of the dead that is best known as it occurs among Indians of the Northwest Coast. Among Athapaskans, the potlatch was most fully developed among western tribes, a fact that has led to the general belief that the trait diffused from the Northwest Coast into the Athapaskan area. The potlatch was the chief means by which an individual achieved prestige in his own or neighboring bands. If a man aspired to be a leader, he had to give a potlatch whenever possible, and the death of even a distant relative provided an excuse to celebrate and distribute gifts.

- James W. VanStone

The Tlingit People

Tlingit Chief

Nobility and rank are prominently displayed in the clothing and accoutrements of this Tlingit chief, seen with his ceremonial staff as he might look presiding at a potlatch. His robe, a prestigious Chilkat blanket, is woven from cedar bark and mountain goat wool. His apron and leggings are of similar make. His spruce root hat is ornamented with animal totems. Outside contacts and trade are indicated by his abalone shell nose ring.

The Tlingit are the northenmost of the Northwest Coast peoples (which also includes, among others, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Salishan, Chemakum, Chinook, and Makah) who lived traditionally by fishing and hunting marine animals and built large plank houses, totem poles, and ocean-going dugout canoes. They were skillful traders and utilized their excess wealth on luxuries given away at splendid feasts (potlatches) which served to honor the dead and to maintain or elevate the rank of aristocrats. The Tlingit comprised four groups or tribes: Southern, Northern, Gulf Coast, and Inland Tlingit.

Tlingit history has been one of movement and mixing of peoples. Archeological evidence indicates an occupation of the islands and mainland of southeastern Alaska for many centuries, even millenia. According to linguists, the Tlingit language may have split from common roots with Athapaskan about 5,000 years ago. Tlingit traditions tell of small family groups venturing in boats or rafts down the rivers under the glaciers that once arched over the waters, suggesting how early migration might have come from the interior, to mix with resident coastal populations.

Native history indicates changes in coastal populations as far back as 300 years, when Haida from the Queen Charlotte Islands moved north, displacing Tongas Tlingit, and when Northern Tlingit expanded north across the Gulf of Alaska, intermarrying with Athapaskans and exerting strong Tlingit influence on the Eyak.

- Frederica de Laguna




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