Athapaskan Religious Traditions: Athapaskan Concepts of Wind and Power

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The views of the Athapaskan-speaking Native American peoples of North America about the source of the powers of life, movement, thought, and the supernatural abilities of human beings, animals, and other elements of the natural world have been a matter of debate among cultural anthropologists. This article will provide a brief review of the diverse interpretations, and it will seek to show that the different views can be partially reconciled based upon relatively new understandings of Athapaskan conceptions of the nature and sources of power.

In Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, James Kale McNeley presents evidence that in the Navajo view the atmosphere or air itself is endowed with the powers of life, movement, thought, and communication, and provides such powers to all living things. The atmosphere so conceived, with powers that are not acknowledged in Western culture, is hereafter referred to as Wind, a gloss of the Navajo term níłch'i.

The Navajo, along with the Apachean peoples of New Mexico and Arizona, make up the Southern Athapaskan segment of the speakers of Athapaskan languages, while the Northern Athapaskans consist of two groups, the Athapaskans of western Canada and interior Alaska, and Athapaskans of the Pacific Northwest. Richard Perry found clusters of culture traits that are widely shared among Northern and Southern Athapaskan groups, including the view that all objects in nature are alive and sapient and the belief that personal power can be acquired through dreams. It therefore seems likely that conceptions of the ontological source of such life and power are also shared among these groups.

McNeley observes that the Navajo term níłch'i diyinii (holy wind) refers to the natural air or wind, albeit endowed with life-giving powers. This all-pervasive Wind is conceived by the Navajo to enter into and give life and other powers to all aspects of the natural world, including such elements as the earth, sky, sun, moon, and things on the earth's surface. Such natural phenomena, having been endowed with Winds by which they live and think, are equipped to provide guidance and instruction to the Navajo by means of Little Winds that are sent by these holy ones to influence human thought and conduct. From another perspective, each living being may be said to participate in the powers of an all-encompassing and unitary Wind.

Conceptions of the role of Wind that are similar to Navajo beliefs are found in accounts of Apachean culture. Morris Opler cites the belief that, just as a human being is created from natural elements, the supernatural powers send Wind into the bodies of human beings to render them animate. Natural phenomena are also regarded as being animate, and they communicate with humans by means of Wind that carries messages to them. The whirlwind as a messenger for the supernaturals is a recurring theme in the religious traditions of the Jicarilla Apache.

In earlier descriptions of Northern Athapaskan cultures, the view is commonly expressed that each animal or natural object is individually animated by a spirit or soul that dwells within it. Cornelius Osgood described this belief among the Ingalik. John Honigman sometimes alternatively referred to such an animating force as "soul" or "wind," reporting that the power to perform a shamanistic vision quest represented a portion of the animal's "wind (or soul)" passing into the dreamer to enhance the latter's natural ability (Honigman, 1954, p. 105), while the Kaska view is that a shaman effected cures "with the aid of the power that resided in his soul or wind" (p. 111). Honigman's account left unresolved the critical ontological question of whether the Athapaskan concept should be interpreted as reference to a strictly spiritual phenomenon or as a reference to a natural element that has some special qualities.

However, as David M. Smith notes, there is some evidence that the use of the word soul may be traced to the influence of missionaries, and diverse ethnographers (including Honigman himself) have elsewhere favored the term wind in interpreting the indigenous concept in stating that a sorcerer might try to steal his victim's "wind." According to J. Alden Mason, "the Yellowknife shamans drum and sing for wind when such is needed for their journeys" (Mason, 1946, p. 39). There are also references to wind as a force pervading the natural world comparable to the Navajo concept: Mason cites an old Slave Indian who referred to "the wind which is the spirit of all and pervades everything" (p. 38). This is similar to other ethnographic accounts that present Athapaskan conceptions of an all-pervading life force.

Some accounts of Athapaskan culture cite a belief in magical or mysterious power without identifying that power. June Helm writes that Franz Boas characterized the fundamental concept in the religions of North America as the belief in magic powers, "the wonderful qualities which are believed to exist in objects, animals, men, spirits, or deities, and which are superior to the natural qualities of man" (Helm, 2000, p. 272). A Northern Athapaskan term for such power, inkonze, also connotes a powerful form of knowledge that encompasses both practical knowledge and what Smith calls "supraempirical" knowledge acquired through dreams and visions of animals. The superior power and knowledge attributed to animals has given rise to efforts to acquire that power, including beliefs in the possibility of transformation between human and animals forms.

Smith suggests that dualistic assumptions underlying Western thought confounded earlier attempts to understand Athapaskan religious concepts, and he advocates instead the monistic view that one's relationship with a helping animal is with the entire animal, body and spirit. Similarly, McNeley asserts that the Navajo conceive of supernatural power as being a characteristic of natural elements, including Wind. What is common to both conceptions is that elements of the natural world have powers that we in the Western world do not acknowledge but which Athapaskans do, and which they seek to access for their own benefit.

Smith compares inkonze with the Omaha concept wakonda. Based on James R. Walker's data, McNeley has suggested that, for the Dakota, wakonda refers to an unseen power in which the Dakota participate by means of Skan (Great Spirit), just as the Navajo term diyinii (holy ones), refers to unseen powers in which the Navajo participate through the agency of Wind. The combined evidence suggests that, for Athapaskans, Wind is conceived of as a natural element that is empowered to give life, thought, and movement and to establish and sustain human contact with other natural elements that have powers of their own.

See Also

Navajo Religious Traditions; North American Indians, article on Indians of the Southwest.


Helm, June. The People of Denendah. Iowa City, Iowa, 2000.

Honigman, John J. The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic Reconstruction. New Haven, Conn., 1954.

Mason, J. Alden. Notes on the Indians of the Great Slave Lake Area. New Haven, Conn., 1946.

McNeley, James Kale. The Navajo Theory of Life and Behavior. Ph.D. diss., University of Hawaii, 1975.

McNeley, James Kale. Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy. Tucson, 1981.

Opler, Morris Edward. Myths and Tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians. New York, 1938.

Osgood, Cornelius. Ingalik Social Culture. New Haven, Conn., 1958.

Perry, Richard J. Western Apache Heritage. Austin, Tex., 1991.

Smith, David M. "An Athapaskan Way of Knowing: Chipewyan Ontology." American Ethnologist 25, no. 3 (1998): 412432.

Walker, James R. The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of the Teton Dakota. New York, 1917.

James Kale McNeley (2005)