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VII Northwest Coast Religion

On the Northwest Coast, nature in all its moods conspired to impress early man with his utter helplessness in the hands of God. Wild and stormy seas threatened him on the one hand, dark, impenetrable forests, lofty, forbidding mountains and chill, impassable glaciers on the other. Ferocious wolves and man-killing bears shared the forest with a host of still more dreaded creatures of his imagination. Weird, croaking ravens and sinister owls staring at him from dripping trees contributed to the awfulness of the land.

Lacking a knowledge of science, these early men sought to explain things they did not understand by accounting for them as "supernatural." They came to believe that all things about them were possessed of spirits having the power to help or harm them either here or hereafter. To propitiate these powerful unseen beings and otherwise secure their good will was the basis of their religion and the acts of propitiation were directed towards the spirit believed capable of doing the most harm. This has led some early writers to classify the natives of the totempolar region as devil-worshippers. This, obviously was untrue, for these simple folk did not worship evil beings—they simply attempted to safeguard their families by a policy of appeasement.

As a matter of fact, none of these tribes worshipped anything, nor did they offer any sacrifices. They lacked an organized priesthood, had no houses of worship, no idols and no congregational worship. Yet, in spite of all these omissions they were intensely religious.

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Top picture shows grave of Kow-ish-te (Shakes V). During his chieftainship, Southeastern Alaska was leased by the Russians to the British, so Redoubt St. Dionysius became Fort Stikine. Finally, the United States having bought Alaska, the Stikine port became Fort Wrangell. Grave displays Killerwhale symbol won in battle by his ancestor, Gush-klin, from Niska chief, We-shakes. The name Shakes, a corruption of We-shakes, was won in the same battle. Lower picture shows Kwakiutl grave totem, no longer standing, at Alert Bay, B.C. [Photos by Author]

Religious acts consisted largely in the observance of numerous taboos. Origin of the individual taboos or "thou shalt nots" can be traced to myths that have been handed down by word of mouth for time immemorable. Since these myths will be treated in another chapter they will not be discussed here. Suffice that it was through the myths that they learned that animals were really people in disguise, some purposely taking the form of food animals that man might be fed. Taboos concerning these beings were directed against improper handling, waste and hoarding. Salmon, for instance, could not be kept two years, not because it might mold, but because the salmon was being deprived of its normal life. Its spirit could not be released to come to life in its own "country" until it had been eaten and the remains burned or thrown into the water. Disregard of the taboo meant starvation, for the salmon chief was sure to punish the tribe by refusing to send them salmon the following season.

Prayer To The Salmon Chief

Since salmon was the staple food throughout the entire region, considerable effort was made to insure its continued supply. Supplications were addressed to the salmon chief in the form of petroglyphs or symbols graven on the rocks at the mouths of salmon streams. These were carved by slaves and consisted of various symbols and figures representing, first the group in possession of the stream, and second, beings known or believed to be in special favor with the salmon people. Myths, that later were carved on totempoles, were graven much earlier on the beach boulders and hundreds of them may still be found intact throughout the entire region. (See picture on page 82.)

Other myths continually reminded the people of the dire consequences of disrespectful acts, words or even thoughts directed against living beings or the dead. A woman who made a remark which insulted the bears in general was courted and married by a bear that had taken human form to deceive and punish her. Others had been punished similarly by the snails, devilfish and frogs. On the other had they were aided and rewarded by certain spirits and ambitious men observed elaborate rites to secure these favors. Bathing, fasting, purging and continence were the means of achieving spiritual favor, for the spirits were believed to have an exceptionally keen sense of smell. A boy who had fasted until he was transparent was especially rewarded.

Ancestors were not worshipped but the dead were highly respected. This was because they believed that in the life which followed death their relatives were largely dependent on acts of the living for their comfort and well-being. Hence, the Tlingits burned the dead so that they would be warm in the next world. They sang songs that their way would be lighted and they put food and clothing into the fire at periodic "feasts of the dead" in the belief that a little food offered thus would provide a great deal for the deceased relative to whom it was directed. In some instances slaves were killed, not as sacrifices, but to accompany their masters to the next world to serve them there, also. Grave houses are still to be seen furnished with "killed property" for the use of the dead in the spirit world.

The Tlingit’s ideas about the next world were reputedly derived from people who had returned from the dead. All people did not go to the same place as there seem to have been unseen worlds, none of them comparable to Heaven, on three different planes. One was similar to and on a level with this world, another was above and a third beneath. Those who died natural deaths went to a land similar to the one from which they had departed and there followed cheerless, uneventful lives. They plied their old tasks and the rich on earth were still the ruling class.

They were dependent, as stated above, on the acts of their relatives and suffered greatly if forgotten or otherwise neglected. Warriors and people meeting violent death went to a special place in the sky where they were received with much rejoicing but life there was much the same as it was on earth. Thieves and witches were sent below to a place resembling Hades. They believed in transmigration of souls, for in some cases spirits, weary of life in spirit-land, returned to earth as newborn babes. Birthmarks and other signs were taken as indication of such occupancy and the child thus marked was named for the one whose spirit it was believed to possess.

Land Of Souls

The Haidas believed that in death the "soul flies away" whereupon the dead man finds himself on a trail which he follows to a shore of a bay, across which lies the "Land of Souls." A person carrying a red walking stick crosses the bay on a self-propelled raft and ferries the man across. Once in the Land of Souls the man starts a search for his wife but has a hard time finding her since there are many villages. There is only one wife there, she being the first in the event that he has had several. After a time he "dies again" or goes by canoe to another land called Xada. Three more deaths follow in time and eventually he returns to earth in the form of a blue fly.

Not all who die go to the Land of Souls. Those drowned go to the Killerwhale People under the sea. Those dying a violent death go to Taxet’s House in the sky. Those who starve go to Greatest-Stingy-One’s House. Those who fall to their deaths go to the House-Hanging-from-the-Shining-Heavens.

If the mother of the dead put a little food in the fire and pour a little water around the fire a great quantity of each will go to her child in the Land of Souls. If she fails to do this the child will suffer from hunger and thirst.

The Haidas conceived the earth to be flat, with rounded contour, over which hung a solid firmament like an inverted bowl. From this firmament were suspended the sun, moon and stars, free to move about. These were inanimate although the sun and moon were inhabited by supernatural beings. The sun bulks far less in importance in the native mythology than the moon. Above the firmament was the abode of some of the supernatural beings.

Beneath the heavens were two islands: Haida land and the mainland. The latter is known to be the larger although the sea was believed to slope away from Haida-land. This island rests on a great supernatural being called "Sacred-One-Standing-and-Moving." He, in turn, rests upon his back on a copper box. It is his movements that cause earthquakes.

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Petroglyphs on beach at Wrangell. Hundreds of these battered and pecked rock pictures constitute the earliest form of art in the Totempolar region. [Photo by Author]

Supernatural beings were grouped in three general categories: Beings of the Upper World, Beings of the Sea, and Beings of the Land. Of the first group, somewhat apart from the rest, is Sins-aga-nag-wai who is the Haida equivalent of a "Supreme Deity." According to some informants all spiritual beings receive their power from him. Man feels too humble to deal directly with this "God" but appeals to him indirectly through secondary deities.

The Thunderbird, a mythical creature, was believed to produce thunder by rustling its feathers and lightning by blinking its eyes. It is not so important as a deity with the Haidas since in their country it seldom thunders. However, it enjoys a prominent place among the clan symbols, being depicted generally in the form of a hawk.

Also in the heavens are the abodes of several other supernatural beings whither go certain of the dead. The winds, particularly the prevailing Southeaster and the Northwest winds, were personified.

Since the Haidas are primarily a maritime people, the Beings of the Sea were of great importance to them. Besides the ordinary creatures such as the killerwhales, salmon, herring, seals, etc., there were many mythical beings, as well. The greatest of all the "Ocean People" were the Killerwhale People. Like their neighbors, the Tlingits, the Haidas believed every animal was or might be the embodiment of a being who, at his own pleasure, could appear in human form. They were looked at from two distinct points of view: first, as animals that could be killed and eaten; second, as supernatural beings in disguise when they would be spoken of as the Salmon People, Herring People, Forest People, etc. As such they might entertain men in their town, inter-marry with them, help or harm or punish them.

The Ocean People were believed to be divided into phratries and clans and to live like people in community houses and villages under the sea.

Of the Land Beings, there were those who dwelt in the earth, others in swamps, forests and lakes. But the most important were the "Creek Women" who line at the head of each stream. They own the fish and it is in hopes of seeing her that the salmon periodically run up the streams. All die in the attempt save the steelheads and the trout.

Other land beings are the Wood Creatures or "Forest People." Every quadruped, bird or insect seems to have had a human form and power to help or harm people. The taboo system was arranged by the Haidas to promote social harmony between men and the "other people" used for food.

Besides these three main categories of supernatural beings there is a host of Patron Deities such as a mythical bird called "Skil" to hear the call of which was to become wealthy. Another was "Property-Woman" who, if seen would bestow wealth to the one seeing her or who heard her child cry. Some are good, others portend disaster or pestilence. Most of the supernatural beings are the property of the Raven phratry.

The Medicine Men

As in the case of the Tlingit, there was no priesthood among the Haidas distinct from the Shamans or "Medicine Men." Shamans got their power from supernatural beings who "possessed" them. In other words, it was believed that the "being" uses the Shaman as a medium through which it communicates with the world of men. This calling was hereditary from maternal uncle to nephew. The nephew frequently acted as "understudy" and assistant to the Shaman who passed his "Spirits" and outfit on when he felt death nearing. The young Shaman later acquired other spirits thereby gaining in power. The Haida Shaman dressed and wore a mask to correspond to the spirit he believed to be "possessing" him. If it happened to be a "Tlingit" spirit, he spoke in that tongue although he may have had no previous knowledge of that language. The principal supernatural beings who spoke through Shamans were the Canoe People, Ocean People, Forest People and the Above People. Either men or women served as Shamans.

Shamanism came to the Alaskan Indians as well as Eskimos from Asia where it had its origin among the Ural-Altaic peoples of Europe and Northern Siberia. In this faith an unseen world is conceived, in which there are gods, demons and ancestral spirits responsive mainly to Shamans, the priests or conjurers of Shamanism. The word "shaman" comes to us from the Tungusic "saman" which itself is derived from the Sanskrit.

Shamanism is probably the first logical step towards an organized religion from the earlier form of worship practiced on the Northwest Coast known as "animism." An "animist" believes all things to possess a soul or spirit which may help or aid one, on this earth or in the land of souls. The Indians of Southeastern Alaska and Coastal British Columbia were true animists in this respect, shamanism differing only in that it went further, in providing a priesthood.

As stated earlier, the profession passed from maternal uncle to nephew, but this was not always the case. Anyone, including women, having an unusual experience with supernatural forces might take up the profession with common consent. Or persons afflicted with epilepsy, crossed eyes, red hair, or born with any other physical or mental divergence from the normal might be selected and trained from infancy for the profession. This training included long periods of self-denial, torture, bathing, fasting, retching and purging with native drugs, and nights spent in burial places. For the philosophy of Shamanism held that the Shaman was merely a mouthpiece of the spirits, and to become acceptable, he must first attain purity and cleanliness, physical and spiritual, internal and external.

The work of a Shaman was varied and important, and he was well paid and respected, often ranking next to the ruling chief in importance. Sickness was believed to be caused by witchcraft or by losing the soul. In the first instance the Shaman was called upon to remove the offending object which had been placed in the victim by witchcraft, and then to ascertain and punish the witch. In the second case, his mission was to find the lost soul and restore it to its owner. He also accompanied all war parties, for although the warriors could kill the "bodies" of their enemies, a successful venture was doubly assured if the Shaman first killed their "souls," for the latter were believed to be of greater potential danger than the bodies.

The Haidas believed witches and wizards became such by being inhabited by mice, sometimes as many as ten. Friends of the accused helped them expel the mice, thus effecting a cure. Invariably the last mouse expelled was white. The Tlingits apparently never attempted to cure a "witch" but tortured them—generally unto death—to exact a confession and to regain the charms by which the victim had been "witched."

Raven or "Yethl" is the most important figure in the mythology of the three Northern tribes and carries the role of "trickster deity." While he is credited with having been the creator of the physical world, the Haidas credited Sins-aga-nag-wai with having created life itself. Raven was a mixture of good and bad characteristics, gluttonous, thieving, immoral and unfaithful in dealing with his bird and animal associates, yet a great benefactor of man.

As can be inferred from the above, totempoles had less religious significance than social. They had nothing in common with idols and were never worshipped nor used in religious ceremonials. Mortuary poles concerned religious concepts of death and life after death and many totempole stories figured in the religion of the country but except for these two relatively unimportant relations they had no religious significance.

However, shortly after the purchase of Alaska, over-zealous and under-informed missionaries, believing totempoles to be pagan idols, sought to abolish new carving and to destroy poles already standing. In Kake village all totempoles were chopped down and burned on the pretense that they were a health menace. Many of them did contain charred bones of the dead but the real motive behind their destruction was to remove an important symbol of an allegedly unholy past.

Reverend William Duncan, the founder of Metlakatla, was just as successful in destroying this art and custom but more subtle in his methods. Among the fifteen pledges the members of his colony were required to observe were: to give up their Indian deviltry; to cease calling in conjurers (Shamans) when sick; to cease giving away their property for display (potlatching); to attend religious instruction; to build neat homes.

These pledges spelled doom for the totempole in general, for Christian burial ended the need for the mortuary column; modern houses required no house posts nor pillars and the ban on potlatching meant none of these imposing monuments would ever again be erected by Metlakatlans. New occupations replaced native crafts entirely. It was not long before all other native communities in the region abandoned the old religious as well as social customs completely.

All Indians of the Totempolar region now profess Christianity, and many have become successful ministers of the Gospel, yet a few Shamans still practice their occult art and a belief in witchcraft is still quite general in the native villages.

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