Athapaskan Religious Traditions: An Overview

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The Athapaskan-speaking (alternative spellings include Athabascan, Athabaskan, and Athapascan) nations of Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and the American Southwest can be sorted into three broad cultural areas: the Northern Athapaskans, the Southern Athapaskans of the American Southwest, and the Athapaskans of the Pacific Northwest. Religious traditions in each of these areas vary markedly from each other. In general, the Northern Athapaskan religious traditions follow culturally scripted theories of ever-watchful spirit forces whose primary relationship with human beings centers on hunting and other subsistence issues. By contrast, the Southern Athapaskan religious traditions of the American Southwest focus on patterns reinforcing social harmony. The Athapaskan religious traditions of the Pacific Northwest fall into two general categories: subsistence-based traditions poised in complex social structures, and millenarian traditions that followed the arrival of European immigrants. Sacred stories, concepts of the numinous, and cultural practices, ritual activities, and concepts of leadership align themselves within these cultural areas.

Northern Athapaskan Religious Traditions

Northern Athapaskan nations are divided by the CanadianUnited States border. Eleven of the twenty-nine Northern Athapaskan nations extend across the interior rivers of Alaska, while the rest occupy much of Canada's subarctic interior and western regions. Numerous sacred stories fall into cultural patterns in roughly three large geographic zones: (1) those nearest the northwest-coast cultural region, who include the Dena'ina, Ahtna, Tahltan, and Tagish; (2) those of the interior Alaskan Tanana and Yukon riverways (Gwich'in, Han, Koyukon, Holikachuk, Deg Hit'an, Tanana, Tanacross, and Upper Tanana); and (3) northern Canadian Athapaskan nations, including the Dogrib, Hare, Sekani, and Kaska.

The Athapaskans nearest the northwest-coast cultural region tell stories closely reflecting their historical links with the coastal Tlingit and Haida, nations with whom they have long established family and trading connections. Raven is a key element in these stories, always serving in its capacity as trickster and harbinger of change. Many of the key animal species depicted in stories of this region, such as Wolf, Whale, Seagull, and Eagle, reflect kinship group names or euphemisms for trading partners from the northwest coast. The development of shamanic power serves as a key component of oral narratives, underlying all Northern Athapaskan religious traditions.

Among the interior Athapaskans, the most important of these stories includes a pantheon of narratives about a mythical traveler, sometimes accompanied by his younger brother. Through feats of unexplained powers or humorous accidents the traveler populates the world with animals and plants. Significant species, such as ducks, mink, foxes, and wolves, are featured in their own narratives, while less important species take supportive roles. Here, too, Raven serves as the catalytic trickster figure whose actions often reverse or galvanize new lifeways among the creatures introduced by the traveler. Another important narrative from the Alaskan interior is commonly called "The Blind Man and the Loon," a sacred story with links to Inupiat stories in the north and Algonkian stories in the south. These myths, always an expression of the tellers' subsistence needs and the precarious impact of weather and environmental catastrophes, enclose humanity in a framework of spirits ever weighing human judgment, moral behavior, and mental attitudes.

Canadian Athapaskan sacred stories also feature a mythological heroic man, but rather than moving from area to area in a methodical way to populate the natural environment, the Canadian Dené hero interacts with his wife in constant tension with enemies from other areas. Translated into English as "The Man without Fire," stories about the northern Canadian Athapaskan hero narrate exploits about saving his wife from kidnapping and avenging his brother's murder.

Northern Athapaskans situate their concepts of the supernatural, humanity, and related worldviews in sacred stories. Where human populations are small and widely separated, the spiritual world dominates all activity, and ethical decisions emerge from good rapport with the natural world rather than human relations. Scarcity of food predicates the importance of sharing everything. Throughout the Alaskan Athapaskan community, clan-based feasts (usually called potlatches) serve as the primary institution for marking life-cycle events and redistribution of goods. The needs of the group submerge individual aspirations in an ethos of survival. Likewise, Northern Athapaskan individuals who manage to display appropriate self-sacrifice, personal strength, and devotion to the group emerge as great leaders. While a few women have filled such roles, Northern Athapaskan cultures generally allow primacy to men in leadership and authority.

Since the arrival of Euro-Americans, Christianity has replaced most Athapaskan religious traditions with the exception of the potlatch. Some features of the potlatch have been enhanced by American and Canadian trade goods, such as woolen blankets, rifles, and bolts of cotton cloth, each of which play an important role in the festivities, particularly as gifts. While the Anglican and Catholic faiths now predominate in Canada, Alaska's Christian sects follow the pattern established in 1885 by Sheldon Jackson, who asked twelve denominations to preside over loosely defined geographic areas in Alaska as missionaries, and also to provide education, medical aid, and orphanages.

Southern Athapaskans of the American Southwest

Two Athapaskan peoples, the Diné and the Apache, prevail in the American Southwest in terms of population and land holdings. They are unique among Athapaskans because of their agricultural subsistence base (primarily corn) and herding. The Diné, or Navajo, with the largest Native American population in the United States (298,197 in the 2001 census) and one of the largest North American territories (over 27,000 square miles in the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico) also predominate in terms of the amount of scholarly research into their religious traditions.

Navajo traditions

Diné bahane,' popularly known as the Navajo creation story, forms the paradigmatic core of all Diné religious, philosophical, medical, and artistic traditions. Diné bahane' narrates four emergences of human beings into new worlds, each replete with its own benefits and sources of trouble. The fourth and present world, like the three previous worlds, revolves around dualistic relations between male and female, harmony and chaos, and sky and earth. Changing Woman, the most important of the Diné pantheon of deities, represents the renewal of life as the core of the earth and its seasons. Other Diné deities include First Man, First Woman, and Monster Slayer, all of whom are described and explained in Diné bahane'.

Gender relations dominate the narrative themes in Diné bahane', along with discussion of linguistic styles, artistic styles, and daily work activities, all emphasizing the importance of social roles in Diné society, in contrast to the dominance of subsistence values in the Northern Athapaskan regions. Diné environmental conditions, while harsh, nonetheless have provided reliable food and shelter over the centuries, allowing the Diné to focus on their relations to each other as well as to the land. Diné bahane' provides a metaphoric explanation for the importance of the four mountains held sacred by the Diné: Blanca Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, and Hesperus Peak in Colorado. According to sacred narrative, the Diné are never to leave the precincts of these four sacred mountains.

The hogan, or dwelling, reveals the cosmological significance of the four sacred mountains by its configuration and spatial orientation. Each part of the hogan represents structures of the universe, with the floor corresponding to the earth as well as to female power, and the round roof reflecting the sky and male power. Many religious ceremonies take place in the hogan.

The Diné make use of many ritual ceremonies, of which the blessingway is the most important and performed most frequently. A two-day ceremony, the blessingway brings peace, beauty, and protection so one may achieve a long and harmonious life. During a blessingway, Diné bahane' is recited in its entirety.

Although balanced gender relations form a core religious and social value in Diné life, from the smallest elements of daily hegemony to the largest, men dominate in the household, as ritual leaders, and in their communities, as well as in national affairs.

Apache traditions

Apachean religious traditions are in some ways similar to those of the Diné, particularly in terms of the central deity, White Clay Woman, also known as Changing Woman, or sánáklésh in the Mescalero language. Like the Diné's Changing Woman, sánáklésh is considered to be the earth and all of its seasons and changes, as well as representing female power. Her counterpart, Usen, also called Life Giver, represents male power and appropriate leadership. The Apachean peoples of the American Southwest include the Jicarilla, Chiricahua, White Mountain, San Carlos, Mescalero, and Kiowa-Apache, many still living on reservations across the Southwest.

The women's puberty rite continues to be the most important Apache religious ceremony. Since precolonial times Apache people have celebrated a woman's first menses through what is now a four-day event in which the young woman is sponsored by a prominent religious leader (usually female) and an equally prestigious male singer, who are expected to instruct her in the sacred arts of becoming an adult Apache woman. The ceremonial activities include long hours of dancing, running at dawn toward sánáklésh, and finally a blessing by all of her family and kin with the use of sacred cattail pollen.

Colonial history has left the Apaches with little reservation land, but fierce reputations as warriors. Geronimo and Lozen stand out in Apache history as paradigms of the sacred power of Usen. Lozen, a late-nineteenth-century Apache woman who fought with her brother and his warriors against the U.S. government, earned a reputation for having the power to locate the enemy and possessed the male powers of Usen rather than the female powers of sánáklésh. Unlike most Apache women, Lozen took a prominent position in Apache leadership because of her legendary visionary and prophetic abilities. After Geronimo's defeat and the Apaches' internment on reservations, Apache religious and leadership styles changed to suit American demands for conversion to Christianity (although some follow Apache religious traditions even today) and secular elections.

Athapaskans of the Pacific Northwest

The Athapaskans of the Pacific Northwest area, unlike other Athapaskan peoples, live near rugged coastal areas in Oregon and northern California. These Athapaskan nations include the Tolowa, Hupa, Mattole, Nongatl, Sinkyone, Lassik, Wailaki, and Kato. These Athapaskan nations competed for territory with Algonkian and Hokan peoples in precolonial times. Of these, the Hupa are the largest group, numbering around two thousand in the twentieth century. Their traditional subsistence resources have been salmon, acorns, and trade. Like most of the nations of this area, Athapaskan and otherwise, the aboriginal societies were hierarchical and wealthy enough to have community leaders whose primary occupations entailed conducting ritual procedures and redistributing goods.

Sacred stories and songs, although spoken in their own languages, blended thematically with those of neighboring nations. In addition to ceremonies related directly to subsistence efforts, such as the Acorn Feast and the ceremonies to honor the first salmon of the spring salmon run, some of the Pacific Northwest Athapaskan ceremonials, such as the Jump Dance, initiate young men into what Alfred Kroeber (1907) referred to as secret societies, groups which inaugurated them into the socioeconomic and political system. (Some of the nations are now bringing back female initiation ceremonies as well.) Other ceremonials centered on protection from earthquakes and mud slides, common environmental disasters in this area.

Postcolonial religious traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include the Shaker religion, originated in 1882 by Joe Slocum and his wife, Mary, of Puget Sound after Mr. Slocum recovered from a near-death experience. The Shaker religion came to northern California in 1926. Termed a revitalization movement or millenarian religion, the Slocums' revelations encouraged Native peoples throughout the northwest Pacific coast to rediscover the individual rapport with spirit forces found in earlier traditions, in a mode much like the Prophet Dance of Washington and the Plateau area.

The Shaker religion incorporates a mixture of precolonial Native American shamanic traditions with Christian practices. By contrast, another revitalization tradition in the Pacific Northwest area, labeled the World Renewal System by Kroeber (1949), emphasizes a return to the environmental rites of northern California's precolonial era. The Hupa version includes six traditional rites: the Acorn Feast, First Salmon Ceremony, Fish Dam Ceremony, First Eel Ceremony, the Jump Dance, and the Deerskin Dance.

Early studies on Athapaskan religious traditions began in the American Southwest in the late nineteenth century, and have continued to the present era with increasing involvement by Athapaskan scholars. Most significant among these are Gladys Reichard's work on Navajo religion, Inés Talamantez's research on Apache female initiations and religious traditions, Émile Petitot's transcriptions and translations of Canadian Dené oral narratives, Cornelius Osgood's contributions on Ingalik (now referred to as Deg Hit'an) cosmology, Jules Jetté's transcriptions of Koyukon religious traditions, Kroeber's enthographies of the California Indians, and Richard Keeling's ethnomusicological work with the Hupa.


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Athapaskan Religious Traditions: An Overview

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