North Alaskan Eskimos - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The traditional religion was animistic. Everything was believed to be imbued with a spirit. There was, in addition, an array of spirits that were not associated with any specific material form. Some of these spirits looked kindly on humans, but most of them had to be placated in order for human activities to proceed without difficulty. Harmony with the spirit world was maintained through the wearing of amulets, the observance of a vast number of taboos, and participation in a number of ceremonies relating primarily to the hunt, food, birth, death, the life cycle, and the seasonal round. In the 1890s a few natives from Southwest Alaska who had been converted by Swedish missionaries began evangelical work in the Kotzebue Sound area. About the same time, Episcopal and Presbyterian missionaries from the continental United States began work in Point Hope and Barrow, followed by members of the California Annual Meeting of Friends in the Kotzebue Sound area. After some difficulties, the Friends were successful in converting a large number of people, and these converts laid the foundation for widespread conversions to Christianity throughout North Alaska. Today, practically every Christian denomination and faith is represented in the region.
Religious Practitioners. In traditional times, shamans interceded between the human and spirit worlds. They divined the concerns of the spirits and advised their fellow humans of the modes of behavior required to placate them. They also healed the sick, foretold the future results of a particular course of action, made spirit flights to the sun and the moon, and attempted to intercede with the spirits when ordinary means proved ineffective. Around 1900, the shamans were replaced by American missionaries. Most of them, in turn, have been replaced by natives ordained as ministers or priests in the Christian faiths to which they adhere.
Ceremonies. The traditional ceremonial cycle consisted of a series of rituals and festivals related primarily to ensuring success in the hunt. Such events were most numerous and most elaborate in the societies in which whaling was of major importance, but they occurred to some degree throughout the region. Intersocietal trading festivals were also important. The traditional cycle has been replaced by the contemporary American sequence of political and Christian holidays.
Arts. Traditional arts consisted primarily of the following: (1) making essentially utilitarian objects (such as tools, weapons, and clothes) in a particularly elegant fashion; (2) storytelling; and (3) song and dance. Since the advent of store-bought products and television, all the traditional art forms have declined considerably.
Medicine. There were two forms of traditional medicine. One, which involved divination and intercession with the spirits, was conducted by shamans. The second involved the massage and/or manipulation of various body parts, particularly the internal organs. The former has given way to Western clinical medicine. The latter, after several decades of being practiced in secret, has recently experienced a revival. Death and Afterlife. Life and death were believed to be a perpetual cycle through which a given individual passed. When a person died, his or her personal possessions were placed on the grave for use in the afterlife, although it was understood that, in due course, the soul of everyone who died would be reanimated in the form of a newborn infant. The traditional beliefs about death and the afterworld have been replaced by an array of Christian beliefs. Whereas funerals were not well defined or important rituals in traditional times—the observance of special taboos was much more important—they have in recent decades become elaborate events in which hundreds of people from several villages often participate, particularly when the death of an elder is involved.