05.08.08–Spirits in the Land of the Dead and the Potlatch Ceremony

Spirits and Human Souls

“In the beginning all animals were man,” the Indian will say, for in the stories of Distant Time the characters combined both human and animal features, sometimes shifting from one to the other. Characteristics that appeared to be human usually became animals or birds at the conclusion of the story. Of greater importance was the belief that animals in Distant Time could speak. There are still animals that can understand Athabaskan (Athabascan)—that is why one avoids the use of their name in connection with hunting—but they have lost the power of changing their shapes, and of speaking. An exception to the last is the horned owl, whose hooting predicts the weather, and who speaks in excellent Athabaskan (Athabascan) to warm the shamans, (medicine men and women) of impending catastrophe, which the latter then use their powers to avert.

The world of the Dena and other Alaskan Athabaskans (Athabascans) tribes is an animate one. In an animate universe, there is really nothing like blind chance or impersonal forces; events occur because some Being has acted. As might be expected, the world is full of such beings—they are the spirits, and because they are ‘fierce and cruel’, men have to propitiate them, and bargain for their help. In Koyukon thought, among the most powerful beings are the Spirits of Cold, of Heat, and of the Wind, and these are responsible, of course, for the seasonal weather which so controls Dena lie as well as death. The most dreaded of the major spirits is the Ten`a-ranide (denaagheneede, Denaranida), the ‘Thing for Man”, that is ‘the thing that kills people.’ It is also known under other names, as the “Spreader of Disease” or the “Evil Spirit.”

Among the lesser spirits are those associated with living beings. It was the general belief among the Koyukon that humans have two kinds of ‘spirits’ or ‘souls.’ The primary soul, which animates and remains in the human body until death, is the nokabbedza or nokobedza or nukk`ubedze (noq`obidza). The outer or secondary spirit is the yega, ‘picture’ or ‘shadow.’ Man has a yega, but so do animals, plants and even some (all) inanimate objects; but only man has the nukkubedze. The Disease—Spreader, “Ten`a-ranide (Dena-ranida) kills by sending ‘earth sickness’ in the form of a phantom that prowls the settlement at night. It is assisted by innumerable less malignant spirits nekedzaltara, nek`etsaaldaaghe, visible only to shamans as monstrous animal forms that are also abroad in the dark. That is why people are loath to venture outdoors at night. Almost all the performances of the shamans are directed against the Disease-Spreader or one of the lesser assistant demons, for these spirits cause death by eating human souls. The human shadow sour or spirit (yega) can be eaten, or lost through fright, and the person does not die immediately, but when the soul (nukk`ubeze) is devoured, the person dies. Such a death comes to every person. All are victims of the monstrous appetites of evil spirits.

The Ingalik Athabascans give the name yega to souls and spirits, also to the shadow. The Giyeg is the evil spirits that kills men by separating the victims the victim’s yega from his body and then eats his corpse. All human beings are so eaten. The Giyeg sends disease simply by thinking about his intended victims. This is just as if he were setting traps to catch them, and they will die in a day or two, to be cooked and eaten, unless the Giyeg can be distracted. Other spirits help Giyeg to trap human beings. While the person is alive, his yeg or shadow is called his denayeg (person’s spirit); the yeg of a living animal, like bear, would be called its ‘bear-yeg.’ The Giyeg is both singular and plural: It (They) send(s) disease, and is (are) attracted by noise; therefore, people try to be quiet, especially at night. The Giyeg send(s) dreams, and that is when the denayeg leaves the human body to wander during sleep. The cannibal women in the myths are said to be manifestations of Giyeg, and bad medicine men are his assistants, killing people they dislike for Giyeg to eat. The medicine man dies only when another practitioner with a stronger denayeg overcomes his and gives it to the Giyeg. The word for spirit is clearly the same in these related Alaskan languages:

. The word for spirit is clearly the same in these related Alaskan Athabascan languages:

Yega (Koyukon)

Yeg (Ingalik)

Yegi (Ahtna)

Yeik, Yeigi (Tlingit).

The Fate of the Human Soul

Yet the human soul (nukk`ubedze) is immortal, according to the Koyukon. It lingers by the body and the grave, then journeys up the Yukon or Kuskokwim River to the afterworld, where it waits to be reincarnated in a human child. Such a soul is called Na-redenilna, (naaghedeneelne, naredenilna)—“those who are becoming again,’ and the afterworld where they wait is exactly where the town of Dawson was built! The souls of shamans also go up the Yukon or Kuskokwim when they die, but they travel in a tunnel under the river and go to a separate place to wait. A few may be reincarnated in the form of the animal which they assume when making their shamanic journeys, but most return as human babies. Jette` wrote that this human ‘inner soul’ so longed for reincarnation that it might enter the body of its clan animal (caribou, bear, or fish), while waiting for a human baby to become available, and then it might have to battle other souls, also wanting to be reincarnated.

In these afterworlds, the souls continue the kind of occupations they would pursue if alive. They hunt, but the animals they kill are of species unknown to us, as can be seen from the bones which the ghosts neglected to burn. These are the fossil Pleistocene remains, “Bones of the Underground Game,” that we find in the frozen silts. Thus, on the south bank of the Yukon, about thirty miles below Tanana, near the boneyards or Palisades, Jette` noted a great collection of mammoth tusks and other fossil bones, which the Indians called “the cutbank of the Na-radenilna”—‘souls awaiting reincarnation.’ The bank there has since caved away.

The human soul is not only immortal but sexless, according to the Koyukon, so that the soul of a man may return in the body of a girl. People may recognize the returned soul by birthmarks or character traits retained from its former incarnation. Reincarnation may or may not be connected with giving the name of a long—dead relative to the new baby.

The Ingalik believe that a person has three parts: a body, a soul (or shadow denayeg), and breath or speech, the last becoming a kind of ghost that inhabits the graveyard after death. The soul might go to one of four afterworlds, depending on the manner of death, but it is uncertain whether the denayeg was ever reincarnated, for each baby was said to receive its own new soul.

Death and Funeral Ceremonies

Death, and the ceremonies associated with it, forms the central social and religious events in the lives of the natives.

All the Dena believed that the soul (ghost) of the recently deceased is dangerous to those who have been close to it in life, for it may try to take a relative or friend with it on the journey to the Land of the Dead. For this reason, the Koyukon used to carry a dying person outdoors, and, after the death, would build a fire in front of the door, or would ring the dwelling with a line of charcoal, barriers which the ghost could not cross. Next morning, while the women and children in the settlement stayed indoors, the men would try to ‘run the ghost out of town’ and start it on its way upriver. While the close relatives and members of the deceased’s clan mourned, members of another clan took charge of the body, washing and dressing it in the clothing saved for that purpose. Grease was put on the hands of the corpse before they were encased in mitten to prevent the ghost from seizing another soul. It is reported that the Dena individual who was dying would claim that he or she had been warned by an omen, and accepting the inevitable, would even cheerfully anticipate lying in a fine coffin and wearing new clothing, articles which caring relatives would place where the invalid could see them.

The Koyukon formerly bundled up the body and put it up in a tree or on an elevated platform. Sometimes it was placed, erect, inside a number of poles stacked up to form a tipi—like or cask—like receptacle. Only where no trees were available would the body have been left on the ground. For ten days or so, food would be given to the death by burning it in a fire at the grave, until the deceased was judged to have become accustomed to the food of the ghosts.

The Ingalik of Anvik and the people of Holikachaket put food and water beside the body while it was still in the house. They did not take the body out until the shaman had given the signal, for they wanted the ghost trapped inside, not free to roam. A four—day funeral was held in the kashim (community hall), where the corpse was propped up to witness the dancing and singing in its honor. Food and water were placed beside the dead, and renewed frequently, but it was some old person who consumed them. These down—river Indians put the bodies in wooden coffins, and further offerings of food were made while the coffin was still on the rack awaiting burial. In former days a slow fire was kept smoldering below the rack to dry the corpse. Later, the coffin, sometimes double—planked and, for an important man, painted with images of thee animals he had hunted, was place in a grave house or on an elevated stage. The poor, lacking coffins, were simply interred, wrapped in bed skins or matting. Those who died violent deaths (by suicide or war) were cremated.

The Tanana, like the Ahtna and the Tanaina, cremated the dead, and later disposed of the bones and ashes in trees, or in the ground.

Among all the tribes, people who had been in close association or physical contact with the deceased had to observe rites of purification before they could resume normal life. These were often more stringent for the widow than for the widower. Mourning might last a full year before she remarried.

After contact with whites, all these people began to inter their dead in cemeteries. The missionaries, of course, encouraged inhumation. Usually a little house would later be built over the grave, and sometimes the individual grave plot was enclosed by a fence. Articles used in transporting the body or in digging the grave, and objects that the deceased had used or treasured were often left at the grave. In the 1890s at Anvik, grave goods were ‘killed’ (broken, pierced by a stake), so the deceased could use them.

The best possession of the deceased, along with many additional gifts, would be distributed, months later, by the relatives or clanmates at the potlatch to those who had worked on the body or the grave. This is the Feast for the Dead, given by the community every year or two to memorialize those who have died since the last celebration. Formerly held in midwinter, it is still observed in March or April in Nulato and Kaltag as a truly religious ceremony. It is certainly the most important one for the Dena, for through it the Native cultural identity and values are reaffirmed, and the bonds of society are strengthened. While it may have been something of an interclan ceremony in the past, it now has become clearly an intervillage one.

Since many guests come from other settlements, and this ceremony cannot be held until the hosts have accumulated sufficient wealth and food, it may not take place till more than a year after the funeral. For example, in 1907 at Kokrines on the Yukon above Ruby, one man alone is estimated to have given away goods worth $1,600, and at Kaltag one man gave complete sets of fur clothing to seventeen persons at one feast. Therefore, two settlements, like Anvik and Shageluk, or Nulato and Kaltag, or even Nulato and the Eskimo of Unalakleet, might host a ceremony in alternative years. The host village, and especially the person who ‘dress’ the special guests gain prestige through their generosity.

The function of the Feast for the Dead is to memorialize the recently deceased and to supply the spirits of the dead with food, clothing, and trade goods. These they receive when the living, who have worked on their graves and who now represent them, enjoy the actual gifts and food given to them as payment for their services. Always one or more of the relatives of the deceased will ‘dress’ in a complete suit of winter clothing those who have been most helpful at the time of the death or funeral. These are the special guests, who in their own personal become symbolically the dead being memorialized. The rites also allow the grieving relatives to express fully their sorrow during the week—long singing of special eulogies composed for the dead, and of similar songs from previous occasions. Each relative of those memorialized is supposed to compose his or her own eulogy for the whole group to sing, but those unskilled may have another ‘out the song in his or her mouth’; as many as thirty songs have been composed for one celebration. To these mourning songs, sung by a chorus of men, the women dance in place, their movements symbolizing the catching of tears in the kerchiefs they hold in both hands. It is said that this dancing and singing make the dead ‘walk again on the earth’ thereby hastening their reincarnation. The ceremony finally enables the mourners to put their grief behind them in the last joyous night of feasting, dancing, and gift giving.

This final part of the ceremony is called the “Stick Dance” (heeyo, hi`o), being named for the decorated pole or stick that is carried through the village and set up in the center of a large house or in the kashim. While the pole is being danced though the village, those in the hall sing the twelve sacred “Stick Dance Songs.” These must be rendered in the correct order and are forbidden on any other occasion. When the pole is installed, the entire assembly begins to dance around it clockwise, to the rhythmic repetition of the syllables “hee-yo,” with musical variations. Such dancing continues in festive mood throughout the night and well into the next day, when the pole is taken outside and broken. At one point, the gifts to be distributed, including bolts of cloth, are brought in, all tied together to form a long garland, and all dance this around the pole. Finally, the exhausted dancers reach a trance—like inner peace. The last evening, after an elaborate and bountiful feast, called a potlatch by the Koyukon, with plenty of leftovers to be taken home, the surrogates for the deceased put on the beautiful new furs with which they have been dressed from head to toe. They are careful to pull the hoods of their parkas over their faces, so that they will not look at anyone and thereby take that person’s soul into the next world. Others who helped with the funeral, or have come from a distance, receive special gifts, but everyone attending gets a small present, like a handkerchief, as a souvenir of the Stick Dance, or as a blessing. The new winter furs and the other gifts are left in the porch of the kashim overnight so that the spirits of the dead may take possession of them. The next morning before the visitors leave, the new dressed persons walk about introducing themselves by the names of those whom they have represented, shaking hands with their relatives and friends, symbolizing the last good—byes of the dead.

For the Lower Koyukon, the decorated pole was the symbol of the Feast for the Dead. Farther up the Yukon, at Kokrines, for example, there was no pole and the ceremony would be held within a large area enclosed by a fence (nootseel, nutsil). The feast was not eaten there, but the food was distributed to each family to be eaten at home, after some bits had been put in the fire for the deceased. Singing, dancing, and distributions of gifts seemed to have been much like those at Nulato. In former times, among the Koyukon, young widows may make a brief appearance, stark naked, to indicate that they were ready to remarry. Also in the past, there used to be races, games, and wrestling matches out of the door, now the Upper Koyukon play cards indoors.

At Anvik, still farther down the Yukon, the dead were also remembered by the Ingalik at the Partner’s Potlatch, and especially at the Potlatch for the Dead. This ceremony, sponsored by a single rich man for a relative who had died, was given to honor guests, among whom the most important was a man selected from another village (treated symbolically as the Village of the Dead), who acted as a stand—in or representative of the deceased. Thus, the new garments given to him supposedly went to the dead person, and the food offered to the guests was ritually offered to the dead but was actually consumed by the guests and the old people. On the last night, the Hot Dance might be performed; this is the Ingalik equivalent of the Nulato Stick Dance (heeyo), but it also included the Eskimo game of “Putting out the Lights” permitting sexual play.

The souls of the deceased were now satisfied by these feasts, and would stay in the Land of the Dead until reincarnated. The ghosts of shamans, and of those for whom no heeyo had been held, might still linger about the village, to do good or harm as they chose.

Because the upriver direction is associated with death, cemeteries are usually located on the upstream side of the village, and no one willingly traveled upstream for several days after a death, for fear that his own soul would be taken away by that of the deceased. I believe that when a village was moved because of misfortunes it was usually relocated downstream from its earlier site, although still later the original village site might be reoccupied, or an upstream location settled.

The Shadow Soul or Spirit

The spirit, or yega (yeege`, yiga`), shadow soul, of each Koyukon and of each animal is a protector, in the sense that it would avenge the injury or death of its ward. The Dena, however, debated philosophically whether the white people possessed yegas, because if they did not, they could be killed with impunity, provided no one knew about it. Other Dena believed that the white people, especially Russians and Creoles, were the Indians’ actual ancestors returned from the Land of the Dead; therefore they were simply returned souls and had no yegas, all of which came to the same thing.

According to Jette` (1911), if a person with a yega were killed, the yega’s inevitable revenge could be avoided only by cutting open the victim’s body and eating a bit of his liver or fat. Jette’ goes on to explain that this was apparently what was done when the Koyukon Indians murdered the Russian, Ivan Belegin, on their way to attack their Native enemies at Nulato in 1851. Dall’s account of this act (1870), however, Jette` criticized as exaggerated, probably because the witness did not understand it. A similar belief and practice in the case of manslaughter were described to me by the Copper River Ahtna. It was not an instance of gustatory cannibalism, but a gruesome precaution. For many days after this terrible act, the Ahtna killer would have to live apart, observing stringent taboos and rituals. But he usually came to a bad end, anyway, going crazy before he died. The Peel River Kutchin also practiced such ceremonial cannibalism after slaying one’s first victim, and this was corroborated by the Crow River Kutchin, in both cases, as among the Dena and Ahtna, to prevent a serious illness, described as involving convulsions. This belief and practice may possibly have been more widespread among the ancient Alaskan Athabaskans (Athabascans) than has been recorded. An Ingalik warrior may eat the eye of an enemy he has killed, in order to obtain the latter’s power, but this is a different affair.

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 University of Washington Press, ©1995.

Tales From the Dena Book

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One response to “05.08.08–Spirits in the Land of the Dead and the Potlatch Ceremony

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