Ingalik - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Ingalik shared the Northern Athapaskan worldview of a universe in which all objects had a spirit or soul, yeg. In the beginning, men, animals, and inanimate objects lived together and shared many traits. They later separated and lost the ability to communicate. People were dependent on animals for food and thus had to remain on good terms with them. This they did by observing taboos and treating animals with respect so they would continue to be available for food. Increase ceremonies were performed to attract game and ensure a steady supply. The Ingalik also used a variety of "songs" or magical chants to maintain the balance between the human and spiritual worlds. These songs could be purchased, and both sexes had them. Songs were used to gain good hunting and fishing luck, enhance skills, cure illness and communicate with the spirits. Through possession of songs, nearly everyone had a little shamanistic power. Amulets, often bits of animal skin, bone, or feathers, were worn by all and were often associated with animal songs. Amulets brought specific kinds of luck or conferred special abilities. There were numerous taboos and prohibitions, many of which related to animals. The Ingalik had a rich mythology in which animals and the ritual number 4 were prominent.

Russian Orthodox priests arrived among the Ingalik in 1845 and baptized 437 Indians in two years, though understanding of Christianity remained superficial. By 1887-1888, Episcopal and Roman Catholic missionaries had appeared on the lower Yukon, mission schools had been established, and the Orthodox faith largely replaced. Today, the Ingalik are nominal Christians, with the last mission school closing in 1957. The Ingalik world was created by Denato, an otiose Father figure. Many spirits and beings inhabited the Ingalik world, the most dangerous being Giyeg, the spirit of death. Helpers of the Giyeg included the Nakani, a malevolent Forest spirit common among Northern Athapaskans. Particularly important were the various animal and salmon people.

Religious Practitioners. AU Ingalik, through ceremonies and ownership of songs and amulets, participated to some degree in the supernatural world. Shamans were the primary practitioners, and they sometimes became powerful and wealthy individuals with many followers. Shamans derived their power from dreams, often of animals, and had animal spirit helpers. Shamans were of either sex and owned particularly powerful songs. Shamanistic power could be used for either good or evil, to kill people or to cure illness, to attract fish and game, and ensure success in warfare. Russian and American priests viewed shamanism as pagan and worked to eradicate it. By the 1930s, it was no longer a significant feature in Ingalik culture.

Ceremonies. The Ingalik ceremonial cycle consisted of seven major observances, the majority concerned with ensuring a plentiful food supply. In the fall, a shaman conducted a brief Doll ceremony, using dolls to predict the game supply. A Bladder ceremony was performed at any time during the Winter, offering animal bladders food to increase game. The peak of the ceremonial calendar came at midwinter, with the Potlatch for the Dead. This festival honored a deceased relative of the giver through a four-night ceremony of gifts of food and clothing to guests. Often preceding or following the Potlatch for the Dead was the Animal's ceremony. Given by one village and attended by others, this was a series of symbolic and imitative dances and singing intended to enhance the game supply. The Hot Dance was an evening of dancing and sexual license often occurring on the fourth night of the Potlatch for the Dead. In spring, the Mask Dance was given for guests from another village, with feasting and giving of gifts. The Partner's Potlatch could be given at any time of year to bring prestige to a village. These were reciprocal with nearby villages and involved the exchange of food and gifts between "partners" from the two communities. Several lesser rituals were given to please important spirits, and there were a variety of "putting down" ceremonies involving presentation of food or gifts to mark rites of passage. Neither the Doll ceremony nor the Bladder ceremony has been performed since the late 1800s. Others survive only in simplified form or have merged with Christian observances.

Arts. Working primarily in spruce wood, the Ingalik produced a variety of masks, bowls, and ceremonial objects. Clothing was decorated with strips of fur and caribou skin. Porcupine quills, feathers, and dentalium shells were also used for ornamentation. Wooden objects often had painted designs in red or black, and skins were sometimes dyed. Pottery was incised with lines and dots. Ingalik women were traditionally tattooed with short, straight lines on their chins or hands, and the men wore carved labrets or lip plugs. Dancing and singing to the accompaniment of tambourine drums and wooden clapper sticks was characteristic of most ceremonies.

Medicine. The Ingalik believed people became ill and died because the Giyeg and his helpers trapped them. Minor afflictions were treated with a variety of herbal and animal Remedies, but the more serious soul-loss caused by the Giyeg required shamanistic therapy. A shaman would use his spirit helpers, songs, sucking, and blowing to recover the soul and effect a cure.

Death and Afterlife. The Ingalik believed all deaths ultimately resulted from the loss of the spirit, or yeg. In aboriginal times warfare, periodic famine, accidents and suicide were more proximate causes. Following death, the body was placed in a sitting position in the kashim. After four days of symbolic feeding, singing, and dancing, the deceased was traditionally given a coffin burial. Cremation and exposure were also practiced. At death, a person's spirit traveled to the underworld, a journey of four days. There, the deceased joined other spirits who lived in villages. A person's property was disposed of by burning, inhumation, giving it away, or inheritance. Close relatives observed a period of mourning and observance of taboos. Together with the increase ceremonies, death and its commemoration was a principal feature of the Ingalik Ceremonial round.


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