05.05.08–Athabascan Animal Spirits and Hunting Practices


Animals lacked souls (nukk`ubedze) like those of men, having apparently lost them along with their ability to assume human form, according to Koyukon belief. They had only their yega, but these spirits served as their protectors and enforced the taboos and rituals which should be observed when the animals were killed. Jette` (1911) discussed whether there were both individual yega for each individual animal, and/or a yega for the whole species or class like fish. This second kind of yega would be like the Bosses or Masters of Game of other tribes. Failure to treat the slain animal with proper respect might mean that the hunger could never kill another of its kind, for the creatures would hold aloof from him. In other cases, the offender, or some member of his family, would suffer fits or seizures. Killing for no reason, wasting any part of the animal, or laughing at it, are punished. The Dena did not like to talk about these matters, Jette` reported, for fear that the yega might hear and be displeased.

Men out hunting sing their hunting songs, different ones for different kinds of animals, which they believe please the yega of the animal. One old Nulato man in 1936—1937 gave Sullivan a caribou song. Since the Canada jay or camp robber was always around when they killed a caribou, the native sang the jay song to elicit the help of its yega in hunting. Later they would reward the bird with scraps.

The Ingalik also hand animal songs, short magical spells that would lure the animals to the hunters. These songs were supposed to be the ones sung by the animals themselves in their own kashims, and were learned by humans before animals and men became separate beings. In theory, a song could now be acquired only to purchase (plus instructions) from a person, usually a relative too old to use or need it. The Ingalik had such songs, usually spoken spells, for almost everything, from eclipses to luck in general, or to kill. A song was represented by or associated with an amulet. The Animals’ Ceremony, the longest and most liked ceremony of the Ingalik, was intended to lure animals, birds, and fish to the village by performing the same ceremonies that these animals or their spirits performed in their own kashims under the mountains.

The most important animals, demanded special treatment by the Koyukon, are the four predators: the bear (black and cinnamon alike), wolf, wolverine, and lynx, and their yegas are to be dreaded. A. M. Clark (1970) reported that the Koyukuk Indians believed that these four animals had souls like those of human beings. Jette` mentioned important furbearers that are likewise treated with special care after death. In general, the proper names of these animals must not be used, but they may be referred to by circumlocutions. Their flesh and bones must not be given to dogs, and the bones or other discarded parts must be disposed of in special ways: burned in the cases of most land animals, or put back in the water for fish and beaver. Animal remains must never be left where people might walk over them, or dogs gnaw them, so the important parts of some species are cached in trees.

When a bear is killed, its eyeballs are slit and its paws cut off, so that its spirit cannot see or run away. Then men eat the head and paws at a special feast, which the women do not attend. The flesh of bears is forbidden to women, except that old women are now permitted to eat the hindquarters of the black bear. No use at all is made of a bear skin by the Upper Koyukuk River people. It is hung up near where it had been killed for the chickadees to peck at. The Yukon Dena men can use it, but the women are forbidden to wear or sleep on bear fur, and women must never mention the bear’s true name. For this reason, the men never sing the bear song where the women can hear it. They keep even the existence of the song a secret from them. Bears, however, understand human speech and, inconsequence, an Indian planning to hunt one must never voice his intentions. (Although our sources are silent on this point, I had wondered whether Dena (Koyukon and Ingalik) women, like women in other tribes, can also talk to a bear if they encounter one, and successfully plead not to be harmed, the belief and practice now confirmed by Miranda Wright.)

The Koyukon say a woman must be chaste and busily employed while her husband is hunting beaver, and when he brings home his catch no one in the house may sleep until it is skinned. When a wolverine is killed, the animal is reverently carried back to camp with the cries, “The great one is coming! The Chief has arrived~” The carcass is laid on a blanket in the hunter’s house, and the finest food is offered to it by each family in camp; there are songs and stories about it, and the people feast on the offerings—as at a potlatch for a dead person. The Upper Dena, who no longer carried out these observances in Jette’s time, would simply burn the whole carcass after taking the pelt. The same was done for the wolf, although a fish was always put in the animal’s mouth, as was done for all carnivores. Places where these animals were cremated were taboo, especially to women, and one who had walked near such a spot became lame.

The larger meat animals, caribou and moose, and fish also, must be treated with respect. The first king salmon caught by the Koyukon was laid out on some fresh clean willow leaves; everyone in camp sprinkled it with fresh water from a willow branch, saying “Draw up your canoe here! To attract more fish. Everyone ate a piece of the salmon, and the women wore cords of twisted willow bark about the neck and wrists.

The Ingalik observed a similar feast for the first salmon, and for the wolverine, and a ceremonial skinning of the wolf when these animals were killed, but curiously enough they lacked a bear ceremony, although this is all but universal among circumpolar peoples of the northern forests in Eurasia and North America (Hallowell, 1926).

In general, the Indians were careful not to leave any bits of animal flesh, skins, bones tufts of hair, or even blood around camp where someone might step on them. In our excavations we found very few animal or bird bones that had not been made into tools, or were not partially shaped with that intention. People were also careful to bundle up their own hair combings, nail parings, the afterbirth, and even old clothes and they cached these in trees outside the village to avoid contamination. Especially dangerous to the hunting success of a man was contact with a menstruant or pubescent girl, and for this reason the latter was secluded in a corner of the house for a full year, (shortened if necessary), while the menstruating woman, like the new mother, also avoided contact with a man and his possessions.

Eventually, as the rules for honoring the dead game were relaxed, the Koyukon limited their precautions to freshly killed games, about which presumably the yega still lingered, while the flesh and bones of animals or fish a few days old could safely be given to dogs. Women, who formerly were excluded from eating certain parts, were now free to do so, although in 1935 many of the older rules were still being observed.

Cited From: Tales from the Dena, Indian Stories from the Tanana, Koyukuk, and Yukon Rivers, Edited by Frederica de Laguna, and Illustrated by Dale DeArmond, published by the University of Washington Press, ©1995.

Tales From the Dena Book


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