Tanaina - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The concept of a remote supreme deity living in the North Star may have preceded Russian contact. The world was filled with spirit powers. There was a close relationship between humans, animals, and the spirit realm; everyone had a familiar in which his or her soul could travel. A special alliance existed between humans and the highly Respected bear; wolf was a brother who would come to the aid of a person who was lost and hungry. The world was peopled with spirits and quasi-spirits. The trickster, Raven, was the mythological creator. Harmful spirits in the woods hurt or kidnapped people and stole fish and other goods. Other woods and mountain spirits were benign in their relation to humans. Another category of quasi-spirits have reportedly been sighted by Eskimo, Tanaina, and European-Americans in recent years. One, called the "Hairy Man," is equivalent to the Sasquatch. Finally, the belief in luck and hunting magic persists in attenuated form. Offerings may be made at special locales for good luck, and magical songs sung to assist in hunting. Omens are believed to foretell the future, especially potentially bad events. Russian Orthodox priests came into the Kenai area in 1794, but it was another thirty years before active missionization began in any locale. By the end of the nineteenth century priests had become accepted and actively attempted to wipe out shamanism. Some former shamans incorporated themselves into the church hierarchy as deacons. Most Tanaina today are nominally Russian Orthodox. Active missionization by more fundamentalist Protestant groups began after the turn of the twentieth century, and some have become aligned with that faction.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans were the primary Religious and medical practitioners. They often were wealthy, holding authority similar to richmen. They could be of either sex and received their calling in dreams. Although normally "good," assisting their people, they occasionally turned evil.

Ceremonies. A first salmon ceremony was held at the Beginning of fishing season. Girls at menarche were confined from forty days to a year during which time they were taught sewing and other women's skills and proper behavior. Potlatches were originally held following a death, but later were held by richmen at trading and other times as a display of wealth to garner prestige.

Arts. Singing and dancing at potlatches and the singing of magical songs in hunting were common. Clothing was Elaborately decorated with porcupine quill embroidery, sometimes incorporating valuable dentalium shells. After contact, glass beads were worked into long belts of dentalium shells for use at potlatches. Animal and human figures were painted on such items as skin quivers. Some rock paintings may be attributed to Tanaina.

Medicine. The shaman, wearing a mask, used the spirit in a powerful doll to discern and remove the cause of illness. His long staff was also used to assist in driving out illness. Illness might be caused by soul loss or magical intrusion of objects. Helper spirits located lost souls; intrusive objects were sucked out. In addition, herbal medicines, potions, teas, and plant compresses were used by both shamans and lay people to effect cures. Today, Western medicine is the primary recourse in illness. Trained nurses' aides and midwives are found in some villages, but serious illness requires travel to cities with hospitals.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the "breath-soul" flew away, but the "shadow-soul" might remain to be near friends or to take revenge. Eventually they journeyed to the lower world where they lived in a way similar to that on earth. Before Christians introduced burial, the deceased was cremated and ashes were buried. At least by early contact times, over the grave a small house might be erected in which the deceased's personal goods were placed. Subsequently, food offerings were left. Members of the opposite (father's or spouse's) clan of the deceased took care of the funeral arrangements. Between forty days and a year following the death, a potlatch involving feasting and distribution of valued goods was given by the deceased's clan for the opposite clan in appreciation for assistance. At times, the deceased's spirit would return to relatives and disturb them, especially if he or she thought the potlatch inadequate. Although not yet documented specifically for the Tanaina, there is some indication of a belief in reincarnation.

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