Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part H

Finally, they came back up and the man saw an igloo along the edge of the ice pack. Then went inside and the man saw another bear with a spear in his haunch. The first bear said, "If you can take that spear out of the bear and make him well, you will become a good hunter." The man broke off the shaft, eased the spear point out of the bear's haunch, and the wound began to heal. Then the first bear took off his bearskin "parka" and became a man. After the wound was healed completely, the bear-man put back on his bearskin "parka," told the poor hunter to climb on his back and close his eyes, and together they went back into the sea. When the bear finally stopped, he asked the man to open his eyes. Looking around, the man realized he had been returned to the spot from which he began his journey. He thought he had only been gone a day, but on arriving home, he found that he had been away a month. From then on, the man was always a good hunter.

In this, as in many other myths, spirits of animals represented the controlling powers. Essentially, the Inupiat perception of the universe was one in which the various supernatural forces were largely hostile toward human beings. By means of ritual and magic, however, the Inupiat could influence the supernatural forces toward a desired end - be it influencing the weather and food supply, ensuring protection against illness, or curing illness when it struck. The power to influence these events came from the use of charms, amnulets, and magical formulas, observance of taboos, and the practice of sorcery.

Although all individuals had access to supernatural power, some were considered to be especially endowed. With proper training, these individuals could become a practicing shaman, or angatqaq. The Inupiat angatqaq was a dominant personality and powerful leader. Due to their great intimacy with the world of the supernatural they were considered particularly well qualified to cure the sick, control the forces of nature, and predict future events. At the same time, they were also believed to have the power to bring illness, either to avenge some actual or imagined wrong, or to profit materially from its subsequent cure.

The Inupiat of this region traditionally saw illness as resulting from one or two major causes: the loss of one's soul or the intrusion of a foreign object. A person's soul could wander away during one's sleep, be taken away by a malevolent shaman, or leave because the individual failed to follow certain restrictions placed on her or him by a shaman or the culture in general. Illness caused by intrusion was usually the work of a hostile shaman, but in either case, an effective cure for a serious illness could only be achieved through the services of a competent Native curer.

Although shamans had extensive powers, lay Inupiat were not without their own sources of supernatural influence. By means of various songs, charms, magical incantations, and even names, individuals could ensure the desired end. The acquisition of these instruments of supernatural power came through inheritance, purchase, or trade, with charms and songs changing hands most easily and often. The major difference between the shaman and the lay Inupiat was the greater degree of supernatural power assumed to be held by the former. The shaman did have one particular advantage, however - access to a tuungaq - or "helping spirit." Similar to the concept of guardian spirit found throughout many Native American groups, the tuungaq was commonly an animal spirit, often a land mammal that could be called upon at any time to assist the shaman. When it was to the shaman's advantage, it was believed that he might turn himself into the animal represented by the spirit.

The influence of the shaman began to decline following the arrival of White whalers who, without regard for the numerous taboos rigidly enforced by the Inupiat shamans, consistently killed large numbers of whales. Native converts to Christianity, holding the bible aloft, also flaunted traditional taboos without suffering, By the early 1960s, shamanism was rarely if ever practiced in northern Alaska. This does not mean, however, that individuals once known to be shamans, or capable of becoming shamans, were ignored. On the contrary, the Inupiat felt quite uneasy about such people.

At this time, the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches on the North Slope had been joined by several new denominations including the Assembly of God in Barrow and Kaktovik and, to a lesser extent, the Evangelical Friends in the area of Point Hope. All of these church groups stressed the efficacy of prayer - that is, the immediate intervention of God in daily affairs. This intervention was usually asked in two major areas: hunting and health. The churches preached that God could heal directly, although the evangelical churches put forward this doctrine more forcefully. Presbyterians, for example, used prayer as a supplement to medicine whereas the Assembly of God members frequently reversed the emphasis. In the Presbyterian church, the minister or congregation as a whole might be asked to pray for an ill member. In the Assembly of God church, any small group of members regardless of status were commonly called upon to help "lay on [healing] hands" when someone was sick.

Prior to the arrival of the evangelical missionaries, each village had one established church. There is little question that the homogeneity of religious belief arising from this arrangement encouraged a sense of identity within the village as well as with the Judeo-Christian world. Regular services brought together most village residents in a common ritual. The establishment of local church offices provided a structure for the emergence of new leaders. And a common doctrine set a standard by which Inupiat could measure their own religious and moral behavior. So too, resentment against others within our outside the community found expression in the act of refusing to attend church - an action that was quite effective since attendance at that time was one of the few activities expected of all village residents. Only salaried employees could be considered exempt, and even then, the more religious felt considerable qualms about working on the Sabbath.

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