Tanana - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginally and in early historic times the shaman was the central figure of religious life. Magicoreligious practices included omens, charms, amulets, songs, taboos, and beliefs about the supernatural. Beliefs and practices were associated with certain animals, and many centered around hunting. Animal spirits appear to have predominated in Tanana spiritual life, although an evil spirit was manifested in a half-man, half-animal being. Spirits were influential in the activities of the living and in guiding the dead to their final resting place. As in other aspects of society, religious beliefs and practices were highly individualized and were a Personal matter. Christian missionaries of the Episcopal church established churches and missions in the area beginning in the early 1900s. Several members of Tanana society, including one woman, have become ordained ministers of the Episcopal church. Many traditional beliefs persist, however, and are particularly evident in ritual behavior surrounding death.

Religious Practitioners. Medicine making was carried out by shamans, both male and female, especially in the cure of the sick. They were integral in the society at least until the 1930s and probably much later. Both ordained and lay ministers are central in religious practices today.

Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremonies have been and continue to be potlatches, particularly the Funeral and memorial types. Both the ceremony following the death of an individual and the potlatch held one or several years later as a memorial are central to religious, social, and economic life in Tanana society.

Arts. Songs have been associated with supernatural power particularly surrounding hunting activities. Individuals often had their own songs to empower them in dealing with the natural world and its creatures. Songs continue to be composed in the native language and English to mark key events, as storytelling and as mourning songs sung at funeral and memorial potlatches commemorating deceased individuals.

Medicine. Sickness was rare prior to the coming of European-Americans. Both physical medical cures and shamanism were used to treat various ailments and diseases. Some herbal and traditional medicines continue to be used, and a village health aide staffs a medical clinic.

Death and Afterlife. The native attitude toward death is fatalistic, and death is faced with composure. Although there is no belief in an afterlife, appropriate ritualistic behavior by the survivors ensures that the soul of the deceased will be guided to the narrow trail that leads to the afterworld. The activities and behavior surrounding the death of an individual and the funeral potlatch are especially important in this regard.

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