Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Traditional Unangan (Aleut) Beliefs

Jeff Dickrell who teaches history at Unalaska High School in the Aleutians has been working on a history of the region.  The following material is an excerpt (with permission from Jeff) from his as yet unpublished book on the topic of traditional Unangan (Aleut) beliefs.
This carving was collected by archaeologist William Laughlin, probably near Umnak Island. .  It is possible that the groove was used to attach hair to the head of the figure.
As I read the list of beliefs, it occurred to me that beliefs and ritual or religious practices and charms and amulets were as much a part of paddling a small kayak on a large ocean as the more mundane kayaks and paddles themselves.  Obviously,  the paddler's craft and personal skill and strength did much to keep him alive on the ocean, but in spite of this, people still drowned or were blown into oblivion and so, the prudent paddler sought out help from the supernatural realm to augment what help there was from the natural realm.
So, without further ado, here is the excerpt from Jeff's book.  The excerpts are followed by a set of notes on the origins of various quotes which are followed by a bibliography.

Aleut Traditional Beliefs
(Jeff Dickrell, Author)
The superstitions of the Aleuts were innumerable. Every activity or undertaking and almost every step required its own and often elaborate signs and talismans[1].

Mixing Different Elements
Like all other cultures on earth, the Aleut people had an elaborate array of spiritual guidelines to assist them in thriving in a harsh environment. This, of course, extended to kayaks and their owners. There were things to do to assure success in hunting, things not to do to stay on the good side of nature, things to carry to bring luck but probably the most important guideline was to keep pure by never mixing different elements together.

Separating Environment and Gender
 There were two main elements that required separation, environment and gender.
This meant could not be mixed, nor could things from the sea and things from the land. For example, stones which came from the land and were placed in the kayak for ballast, had to be returned to the beach.

Never Throw Ballast Stones into the Sea
It is regarded as a sin to throw the ballast into the sea. The stones must be brought to land from where they were taken, otherwise the boatman, it is believed, will be drowned. Even when the load of the skin-boat becomes too heavy from the returns of fishing or hunting, the stones have to be brought to the shore.[2]

Clean Feet Before Entering Kayak
This meant that when a kayaker was leaving the beach he had to make sure he wasn’t inadvertently bringing grass, sticks or any vestige of the islands.  Often washing the bottoms of the feet was part of the preparation ritual. In 1909, Arseniy Kryukov of Umnak, told Jochelson that sea otters would not be afraid of a hunter who, in the early morning before he went hunting, rubbed himself with seaweed or shellfish, or at least walked the shore.[3] This would allow the hunter to blur the line between the sea and land.

Keep Anything Female Away from Hunter and Kayak
Just as important as keeping the land and sea separate, was keeping anything remotely female away from the hunter and his boat. This means physical things, like hair, which, if sewn into the seams (sometimes intentionally) of a boat’s skin or his kamleika, would cause him to have bad luck in hunting. It was said that if a bit of woman’s juju remained on a hunter, a sea lion would bite out the offending piece, and perhaps a chunk of the paddler as well.[4] Merck noted the same was true if a man’s hunting gear was in the vicinity of a childbirth.[5]

Men Sew the Last Seam of the Kayak
One counter to this, since women sewed the skin of the kayak, was for the man to sew the last seam after the skin was pulled on the frame. This seam, just behind the cockpit, is very noticeable when looking at museum specimens. All the other seams are beautifully done, flawless in their lines, tufts of wool or feathers sewn into them and then ‘man’s’ seam, sloppy, wandering and obvious.

Women Are Very Powerful
  A woman’s sexual organs were so powerful that it was forbidden for females to even step over a kayak, exposing the boat to the negative powers. A woman who experienced her first menstruation was so powerful that she was quarantined so that she would not inadvertently contaminate anything. Interestingly, such an isolated girl could relieve seasickness by warming the patient’s food in her hands.[6] Subsequent to the first menstruation, women were considered unclean during their periods, and were to be avoided, especially sexually.

Abstinence Before Major Undertaking
Having sex with a woman was considered taboo before a major undertaking, “otherwise frightful misfortunes and a cruel death befell the transgressor.”[7] That is, unless you were going sea otter hunting,

Only the sea-otter hunter was not subject to such penalties, but he had no luck in the event. Even when surrounded by sea otters he could not kill a single one. The sea otters, as it were, mocked him. Cavorting around his baidarka, they would tease him and splash him with water but they would not let him hit them with a [cast]. The sea otters do exactly the same to him whose wife, during his absence, does not remain faithful or whose sister, before her marriage, does not preserve her virginity.[8]

Share with Your Kayak
If a man did have sex the night before he was to paddle, there was a very important ritual that had to be performed the next morning.  An important obligation of the hunter was sharing his sexual life with his kayak. After having slept with his wife or other female the male hunter was obliged to "rub" his kayak the next day. Failure to share the experience resulted in damage to the kayak and failure of the man to return to shore.[9]

The Little Thing She Gave Me
There was a way to have your cake and eat it too, that is have sex the night before a sea otter hunt and still be successful. In 1909, Isidor Solovyov told Jochelson about a hunting trip, the night before which he had had a woman, “as his wife”. But the next day, while hunting, he killed six otters. The difference, “the little thing she gave me”, was an amulet of some kind.[10]

Powerful Amulet
Amulets or talismans were carried or worn by the individual. They could be crafted, or something rare from nature, a stone or piece of animal or the most powerful, something from an esteemed elder or better yet, a deceased strongman. They could be something made, given or found, something shown or something hidden. Many of the things had ying and yang characteristics, if great powers were derived from the amulet, it may reduce one’s lifespan.

Mysterious Belt Knot
According to Veniaminov, the most common was “a belt, plaited of sinew or grass, spoken over [with an incantation] and with mysterious knots”.[11] According to Laughlin, one of the most powerful was, “was the caul in which a person had been born: this was carefully dried and, important, kept dry”.[12] Khlebnikov stated in 1823 that, “Pieces of hematite were used as amulets under the name of a’xsix’. They were worn by every hunter, and are said to have the power of attracting sea-mammals particularly whales and sea-otters”.[13]

Khlebnikov compiled quite a list of cagax’ used by the Aleuts. Some of these were put on fishing nets, carried while fox hunting or tied to a fishing pole. Herbs were tied to fishing hooks, and incantations spoken over them. [14]

Bird Feathers
Feathers or wings of birds such as the Albatross, Rosy Finch or the beaks of a raven were carried or attached to spear points.

Falcon Feathers
They believe the feathers of falcons have special attraction for the otters. Whoever has these feathers attached to the outside of his boat is unusually fortunate on the sea otter hunt. But it happens very seldom that anyone has these feathers, because they fear killing the falcon, because of their taboos. Not only are the otters supposed to be without fear of boats, which are adorned with such feathers, but they are actually supposed to be attracted to that boat.[15]
The power of the falcon’s feathers was evident when Vitus Bering first encountered Aleut’s in kayak off the Shumagin Islands. They were approached by two men in single boats, one of whom raised a staff with two falcon’s wings tied on the end. With a laugh he threw the staff into the water towards the Russian ship.

A stone found on the beach called, chimkiix, was “exceedingly rare and therefore very highly prized”.[16] It was shaped like a turnip or sea urchin, and was hollow and smooth on the outside. There were two color patterns, white with yellow stripes (considered the male) and red with white stripes (female). Stones found inside sea lion stomachs were kept as used as talismans.[17]

Amber, which is naturally found on just a few islands, was highly prized. On Umnak Island, it was collected in a unique way.  The method of procuring it was as follows: on massed baidarkas, they approached the very wall of the cliff, and by use of long poles dislodged the amber from above, letting it fall onto sea otter skins, spread over the baidarkas, fur-side up.[18]
This source of amber was highly desired and was fiercely guarded by the local Aleuts and trespassers were killed.[19]

Sea Otter Rituals
As sea otter hunting became the most important economic activity, it developed many rituals. Because sea otters were considered transformed humans, they were attracted to things humans liked so, “they made every effort to decorate their baidarkas, their kamleikas, and spears as finely as possible, supposing the sea otter, loving women’s handiwork, would come of his own accord to the hunter who is a dandy”.[20]

Sea Otter Amulets
In addition to looking good, sea otter hunters must be pure, disciplined and shun women. One of the most common elements of the sea otter hunt was a small, four-inch or so, carved figure of a sea otter on its back, hands to its face. These carvings of bone or ivory are placed inside kayaks, on the deck or carried by the hunter himself. There are many samples in museums around the world.

All sources agree that the most powerful talismans that could be used were pieces of the asxinan, the departed ones, sometimes called ‘the dried ones’ or as we know them, mummies. Entombed in caves and secreted away in nooks and rock overhangs or buried under house floors, the mummified bodies of deceased Aleuts were full of immense power.

It is from these corpses that the hunters sought especially to cut off a portion of the body, preferably a joint of a hand, or the small finger, or at least a fragment of clothing. The person who possessed this item was, indeed more fortunate in the hunt, but he almost always died prematurely and a horrible death, his body beginning to putrify while he was yet in his best years.[21]

After a prominent person had died, they would have been eviscerated, placed in the fetal position and wrapped in skins and placed in a protected place, sometimes even within the house. A bentwood bowl was placed underneath to collect the dripping. This too was used as a talisman.
The fluid obtained from the tissues of a dead body was regarded as a most powerful charm. A man whose hands were anointed with such a fluid was able to fight everything and everyone, but this charm was harmful to its owner -his life was short.[22]

Part of the ritual process of gaining power from the supernatural was to have a secret spot to store the amulets away from contamination by women (especially menstruating women) or moisture.[23] These places must be accessed only stealthily, so that no one sees the hunter accessing it.

Audagadax (Sacred Sites)
          In addition to the hiding places, each village had its audagadax, or sacred sites which were, …some mound or an off-shore rock or some outstanding feature, on a cliff, which were strictly prohibited to all women and young men. Particularly prohibited was taking even a blade of grass or taking a pebble from there. If any young man, either out of audacity or curiosity, violated this restriction, such a person did not escape punishment.[24]

According to Veniaminov, these sites were used on occasion for the giving of offerings. Individuals (mature men only) would usually leave skins to receive luck in war or hunting. Other offerings were the feathers of rare birds for more general blessings of safe journeys or the calming of the wind.

The rite itself consisted in the following: the [person who] made the offering, having taken the indicated feathers, dipped each one in a pigment, mostly green or red, and threw them toward all four quarters. Each time when he threw a feather, just then he made his request to the invisible spirits, that is, asked for success either in war or in the hunt or for calming the wind, etc. Then he tossed a feather into the air, exclaiming, “nung aqasaxtxin”, that is, “Bring me or Give me”.[25]

Weather Ritual
In 1791, G. Sarychev took a kayak trip around Unalaska. When he got to the small village of Kashega, the weather turned bad. The storm lasted several days and the villagers took action.
The Aleutians becoming at length quite tired of bad weather, they one day collected themselves together, men women and children, and repaired to an open field, where having lighted a fire, and turned themselves towards the wind, they clapped their hands and screamed with all their might, quietly returning in the full expectation of a favorable change.[26]

Shaman Weather Ritual
Just to be sure, later in the evening a shaman and the toions beat a drum and danced in the barabara to change the weather. Merck observed a similar ritual. [27]

Russian Orthodox View of Aleut Shamans
The role of the Shaman in the Aleutian kayak culture is unclear. They existed, to be sure, but did they, “enjoy great respect,” as Netsvetov, the priest at Atka in the 1830’s recorded, or were they, “not held in great respect,” as Veniaminov, the priest in Unalaska at the same time”?[28] However, Veniaminov admitted that, “[Shamans] were asked for good luck in hunting, longevity, miraculous rescue from dangers at sea, the calming of storms and winds, etc”.[29] As the resident priest, it was in Veniaminov’s best interest to diminish the importance of the shamans.

This may have been why he also stated, “They have no temples or idols.”[30] In the same volume, he notes several examples of destructive idols which shamans placed in caves in central Aleutians.[31] Shelikoff noted that while the Aleuts had no concept of an Omnipotent God, they had belief in a spiritual world.

They have no conception of Divinity, although they say that there are two beings in the world or two Spirits, the one good the other evil. However they have no images of them, nor do they worship them, in other words they have no idols. All they say to describe the two spirits is to say that the good one taught them how to make baidaras and the evil one how to damage and break them.[32]

Kaathaagaathagh (Deity Figure)
The idea Aleuts didn’t have some sort of idols was dispelled by archaeologist William Laughlin working on Umnak island from the 1930’s-1970’s. There he found a carved ivory figure about six inches tall called a, kaathaagaathagh, which was identified by Afenogin Ermeloff in 1948[33].
According to Ermeloff, these were deity figures which were suspended from the ceiling of a house and that, “the hunter spoke to the image before venturing out on the ocean and the image spoke back with useful information about weather and the hunt”. The oldest of these figures is 4000 years old. More were found dating up to the Russian period.

Sin of Pagan Ancestors ~ Visiting the Dry One
Another Russian priest, Laverenty Salamatov who was in Atka  in the 1860’s, had trouble with the old ways.[34] In the summer of 1862 thirteen men from neighboring Amlia were drowned while hunting around Tanaga Island. They requested a requiem mass form the priest.  With my sexton, Aksenov, I went to Amlia……I was met by  weeping and wailing inhabitants who were mourning the loss of their brothers, children, husbands and other relatives. What was I to do? All came to me for consolation and I wept with them and consoled them with the words of the Holy Scripture and examples from the lives of certain saints…

But there was a problem. The priest found out that the men, who had been fox trapping on Kanaga Island, visited a renowned mummy cave there, and “were guilty of pagan superstition. I am recording this case as it was reported to me.”  Always being afraid of some kind of misfortune befalling them on their enterprises, some of those Aleuts (who were drowned in the sea) committed a sin of their pagan ancestors, namely, they went to visit the Dry One.

The pagan Aleuts paid the same homage to these mummies as to their idols and brought sacrifices to them. When anybody wished to learn about the success of a hunting expedition, he prepared himself with strict fasting, even keeping away from his wife for a definite time; then washed in the river and dressed in his best clothing, he went to the Dry One.

Approaching the cave of the mummy, he cried loudly, “I am coming to you to find out about so and so.” Show me what is to be” He proceeded fearfully to the cave, carrying with him a gift to the Dry One. (Sparkling black paint or ochre and a wing or a feather of a hawk was usually brought as a present) Devotedly he put the gift before the Dry One and left the cave for a while.
The Dry One was supposed to display objects, which, upon his return to the cave, the man observed as signs indicating his future.

Salamatov took the opportunity to preach sermons against paganism and false idol worship.
Finding seal’s hair in the mummy cave the Aleuts concluded that they would have a successful seal hunt before returning home to Atka. Consequently, from Tanaga Island they went to Ulak Island. The forecast of the Dry One did not materialize and they all became victims of the sea. Thus God punishes for the disobedience of his Commandment!

Another parishioner confessed to having consulted the Dried One, “out of curiosity and to find out whether the ancient pagan tradition was correct”. It was, and the priest, “laid a penitence on him and I told him not to believe, not even to listen to, the superstitions and to keep others from doing so.” This penitence lasted nine months.

Charm Seeker
One of the stories recorded by Jochelson in 1909, told by Isidor Solovyov, was called, “The Charm Seeker”. In it, a man, a “weakling”, went on a quest to obtain some “charms”. To do so he paddled to a village, hid his kayak and pretended to be a dead body washed ashore. When the people there brought him into their house, he created a distraction, then leapt up and grabbed the charms from a ceiling beam. He quickly paddled home. From then on, he stayed away from the villagers from whom he stole the amulets. But relying on the charms, he became a successful hunter. “Being paid attention to as a provider, he enjoyed catching sea animals, and his wife was happy too, and his child was happy.”[35]

[1] Veniaminov p. 222
[2] Jochelson p 55
[3] Narratives p399
[4] Laughlin in Cont. p.200
[5] Merck p.175
[6] Laughlin p104
[7] Veniaminov p. 225
For instance, a whale-hunter who violated this rule, before the whale he had wounded died, was immediately afflicted by violent nosebleeds, then swellings over his entire body. Ultimately, he lost his mind and died.
[8] Veniaminov p.225
[9] Laughlin in Cont. p. 200, Narratives p. 225, Old Time Stories p. 209
[10] Narratives p. 81
[11] Veniaminov p222
[12] Laughlin in cont. p. 179
[13] Jochelson p.77
[14] Veniaminov p. 223
This is contradicted by Khlebnikov 1823 p.77
[15] Merck p.171
[16] Veniaminov p.223
[17] Litke p.114
[18] Veniaminov p.75
[19] Veniaminov p.204
“As not everyone could or wanted to buy or exchange these for something, many attempted to get them by stealth. Consequently, the owners of these localities, by right of possession, guarded them and killed the trespassers.”
[20] Veniaminov p 224
[21] Veniaminov p223
[22] Jochelson p 77
[23] Jochelson p77
    Veniaminov p218
[24] Veniaminov p. 218
The punishment was, “without fail, a terrible savage disease or speedy death befell him. At the very least, he lost his sanity”
[25] Veniaminov p218
[26] Sarychev p. 67
[27] Merck p169
Young men and women engage in a vigil after sundown. They steal away from the hut with some coal and a few handfuls of straw. A short distance from the hut toward the sea they light a small fire. Around the fire they hop and dance very fast. And as they do they clear their throats with loud shouting as if to frighten the strong storms, or to resist them. And the great calm after the howling of the wind is attributed by them to the great effect of their strenuous activity.
[28] Veniaminov p. 219 and p.367
[29] Veniaminov p. 219
[30] Veniaminov p. 219
[31] Veniaminov p. 366
[32] Shelikoff p. 56
[33] Laughlin in Cont. p174
The ending of this Aleut word, aathaagh, is a diminutive, which implies it is a smaller version of a larger deity.
[34] Documents Relative to the History of Alaska (Vol. II) manuscripts at UAF Polar Collection
[35] Narratives p. 89

Veniaminov: Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District
Jochelson: Archeology of the Aleutians (reprint) by Waldmar Jochelson
Narratives: Aleut Tales and Narratives by Bergsland and Dirks
Laughlin in Cont. : Bill Laughlin writing in “Contributions to kayak Studies”
Merck: Siberia and northwestern America, 1788-1792 : the journal of Carl Heinrich Merck
Laughlin: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge
Khlebnikov 1823 Notes on Russian America
Litke : A Voyage around the world, 1826-1829
Sarychev : Gavriil Sarychev Account of a voyage of discovery to the north-east of Siberia, the
frozen ocean, and the north-east sea
Shelikoff: A Voyage to America, 1783-1786
The priest who admonishes his flock is from:
Documents Relative to the History of Alaska (Vol. II) manuscripts at UAF Polar Collection


Lee said...

Really will be keeping an eye out for this book. Thanks for sharing and drop me a line when it comes out.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful collection. I look forward to reading the book when it does come out. I teach American Indian history in Nebraska and, because I had the joy of writing about Alaska in my book (http://sandramathews.wordpress.com/books/between-breaths/), I always make sure my students know about Alaska Native history and culture (as much as I can)

Greg said...

It seems interesting that the following is true. In the Russian Orthodox Church, no woman man enter the raised area of the church or go beyond the iconostasis. If one takes a journey he is to receive a ritual blessing, one who travels by sea receives special prayers from the elders. The relic of the saints are held a possessing healing and protective power. Those who carry them are granted some of the grace of the saint. Before going on any journey the ancient images are spoken to in formalized prayers. Much was the same, and found in the Orthodox Church before contact.