by Nahaan, Dakl’aweidí, Kéet Gooshi Hít
In order to address the issue of how western religion was and is used to eradicate the traditional spirituality of indigenous peoples in Alaska and surrounding landmasses we must examine the colonial perspective by which these western religions were used by the colonizers in domination pursuit. Also, in contrast to the implementation and practices of western religion such as Christianity, I will share some of the Tlingit worldviews and spiritual practices of pre-contact culture and tradition.
The occupation of what has been named by the colonizers as “north America” was at its earliest points, the pursuit of god, glory, and gold. As noted in Christopher Columbus journal writings on the second day of occupation in the Caribbean of 1492 was, “…With 50 men one could subjugate them all and make them do as one pleased“. Indeed, this worldview of assumed superiority and genocidal authority was shared by those who first arrived in the Caribbean and believed in the Christian religion as noted in Vine Deloria’s GOD IS RED.
In 1493 after the accidental arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean, Pope Alexander VI issued his inter Caetera bull, which laid down the basic Christian attitude toward the New World. “Amung other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times, especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This bill put clearly the worldview shared by the Christian newcomers and was used to justify the death and destruction over peoples previously not thought to exist.
The treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 divided the entire continent of what is now called south America into allotments between the powers of Portugal and Spain exercising a predetermined disposition towards native lands and the people who have anciently resided in these places. Even though neither spain nor Portugal had even explored the continent themselves, the pope had given his blessings to the conquistitors to rape and pillage south America.
Given the support and guidance of the western worlds highest religious leaders and kings from their respective countries, these new explorers had the green light to exercise their greed and treat the indigenous people as they pleased along the way to paving their new world. As the Europeans moved from the east to the west they used force and torture to overtake the lands and resources from the tribes. Armoured attack dogs trained to eat human flesh were sent to greet new tribes, then an onslaught of brutal torture and mutilation commenced on the native tribes.
The Destruction of the Indies, by Bartolome de las Casas has first had accounts by a priest directly stating what he saw taking place by the European conquerors. “They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rocks; others they cast into Rivers scoffing and jeering them, and call’d upon their Bodies when falling with derision, the true testimony of their Cruelty, to come to them, and inhumanely exposing others to their Merciless Swords, together with the Mothers that gave them Life.
They erected certain Gibbets, large, but low made, so that their feet almost reacht the ground, every one of which was so order’d as to bear Thirteen Persons in Honour and Reverence (as they said blasphemously) of our Redeemer and his Twelve Apostles, under which they made a Fire to burn them to Ashes whilst hanging on them.”
This worldview has been carried out through out all of the interactions between the European pilgrims as seen in the extensive collections of information such as “Red & White” by Annette Rosensstiel which gives a timeline of events from 1492 to 1982. There are drawings and pictures provided throughout this book which come from the corresponding timeframe of the writings in the pages and help connect the stories to the present.
The onslaught of small pox, the flu, venereal diseases, alcoholism and tuberculosis were among the many ways the western world inflicted death upon native people. The “explorers” and “traders” would exchange or offer blankets and supplies that were infested with these diseases. Perfecting the attack of germ warfare, the Europeans brought the total population down to 2% of the original population of indigenous peoples of North America according to the film “Canary Effect”.
“In 1882, Sheldon Jackson convened a meeting of Christian missionaries from various sects interested in proselytizing in Alaska and through mutual agreement, different sects were assigned to different areas of Alaska.” The severity of treatment was dependent on the leader of the particular area, and in some places in southeast Alaska such as Annette Island where Father Duncan sexually, mentally and physically abused the attendees of his church services.
Another result from the western forms of religion was in the decimation and reidenification of the Unangan people who were “violently subjugated and decimated by disease; survivors of the onslaught synthesized a new identity called “Aleut” by combining Russian and Unangan components” as Steve J. Langdon put it.
In 1992 in Kake, Alaska, my brother Justin McDonald recalls when a service at the Evangelical church told Tlingit people to bring their regalia and precious objects to church. The church told the Tlingit people that their traditional ways of living and cultural ceremonies were barbaric and against what a good Christian stood for. Leading the community members to believe the new religion was more important than their own ancestral practices, these people unknowingly let their spirits be broken. This made it much easier for the colonizer to impose
new ideas from the western world view onto the Tlingit people as they willingly put their sacred objects up to be burned in a public fire.
As we can see by the history provided in these written texts, film, oral histories, and personal statements from individuals, Christianity and the western way of life proved to be a disastrous encounter for all who were not already of the faith and bearing European ancestry.
We can also say that the western colonialism is a self perpetuating disease that still greatly affects native people today. Though many of these traumas are historical, there are many present traumas facing the native communites of today. The new elements of technology, the introduction of boarding school and western education, the continued governmental exploitation of resources, and un-acknowledgement of this history are also factors of how the treatment of 1492 continues on into today.
The idea was and is that Indians are less than human and were divinely put in this world to be used at the disposal of the European male along and anything else that was less than human (animals, plants, women, water, mountains, air, and life included). An interesting fact is that the prison population in Juneau Alaska is over 85% native, while the white population of Juneau as a whole is much greater than the native population. Could it be that native Alaskans are just worse people in general? I think not.
In contrast to all of these historical truths and stories, the Tlingit and many other tribes have persevered, and still continue to practice many of their ceremonial and spiritual ways of life. Among these ways are the khoo.Eex’ or commonly mis-termed “potlatch” which was frowned upon by both state and church and in Canada was outlawed.
Within the khoo.Eex’ are several sacred ceremony’s that take place which show the great amount of respect for each other, our resources and our ancestors. Among many of these ceremonial happenings is a time when a plate of food gets names of ancestors to whom receive a portion of the food when it is put through the fire. It is said that if the fire quickly burns the offered food up, that the ancestors received it quickly. This shows not only respect, honor and love for the ones whom the plate is sent to and burned for but also to the relatives still alive.
Yeikootee al’eixhi or spirit imitation songs and dances often resemble the sounds and energy of the spirit portrayed by the song. For instance, keitl kuyeik or spirit of the dog is considered a healing song as a dog would lick a person’s wounds to help heal them. As the song is sung the dancer is to embody the spirit of the dog and dance as a dog would and at times barking like a dog as well. This song helps show not only appreciation for the presence a dog has in our particular clan, but also acknowledges this animal as someone we can learn something from.
Organized with a complex system of clan structure and a moiety based culture where balance and reciprocity are at the very root of social and ceremonial interaction, the Tlingit ways of being emphasize the care for one another. If a house was needed to be built, or if a song is to be presented ceremonially, it is commissioned from the opposite moiety ensuring that the circulation of wealth and credit be shared. Through practices such as these it is much more difficult for anyone in the community to go hungry, or go without someone to care for them. This life practice also ensures that no one gets too wealthy at the cost of many.
Throughout the northwest and surrounding land masses, the indigenous worldview is shared in relation to each other, the land, the ocean and water ways, natural resources and animals are all seen with great respect. A larger circle of interdependence between an individual’s life and their natural surroundings is honored, as a connection is found with each component of it.
A raven story told to me by Gene Tagaban tells of how hawk worked with raven to retrieve fire from an island that was the only known fire source of the time. After hawk brought back the fire to raven, raven took the fire and put it in the rocks, the trees, the 2 legged, the finned, the 4 legged, the winged, raven put fire within all things. It was said that prior to these events, the world had not yet known fire, that the people were just people and the trees were just trees, this fire was the spirit. The spirit that raven put in all things provided us with a connection and a base to relate and communicate with each other.
This world view that we as 2 legged are equal to the 4 legged, the winged, the finned, the trees also teaches to work within balance and respect and a certain amount of love. Carrying on with the knowledge that we must invest in these relationships with a heightened awareness toward everything that we use and depend on for our survival, we maintained a life without pollution. This story of raven helps us to acknowledge that each and every one of us human or not have the same things within us.
The Tlingit ixt or commonly mislabeled as shaman was the spiritual leader of the time. The ixt was said to have been trained from birth and in some cases trained after a vision quest by a young boy from the respective village. The interaction would be 1 on 1 and the child would be kept away from the rest of the village and taught on an island. According to Gilbert Fred, after the ixt was 45 winters old or so, the new ixt would come into the community and help their people. The ixt was said to have supernatural abilities, among them, sight into the future, weather control, and healing.
Throughout Tlingit warfare there also was a balance. An eye for an eye was the general rule by which clans warred with each other. If a person of high status was killed, then it was only right that a person of similar status would be killed in order to discontinue further warring. Often times a ghuwakhan or deer peacemaker would provide peace between the warring clans, and afterward, wars would generally cease between the communities.
Through these examples we can see that the humble and balanced way of life with tribes such as the Tlingit were impacted by the oppressive approaches of western religion. The traditional Tlingit spirituality was greatly impacted by the attempted eradication by western religions. The affects of colonialism and the onslaught of disease, mistreatment, and reidentification lessened the population of indigenous peoples of North America down to a mere 2% of its original status.
Every aspect of the Tlingit way of life has been tested and altered, named illegal and forbidden, and re educated with torture through the boarding schools around the country. Many laws still prevent Tlingit people from being who they have been for thousands of years. Laws involving subsistence and land rights lawfully limit the potential of practicing many ways of life that 4 generations ago were considered everyday practice.
Through all of these challenges, many Tlingits and natives 2 continents wide are still surviving and reviving the ways of life that are so dear to all of us. Were it not for the strength of our ancestors and their efforts, as well as our present day strengths and efforts, we would have nothing to connect us to this land of abundance, to each other, to the knowledge that we will remain, rebuild, and remember once again.
Deloria Jr., Vine “God is Red, A Native View of Religion.” 2nd Edition. Fulcrum Publishing (1994) 255-256. Print.
Fred, Gilbert “Tlingit spirituality, Focus on the Powers of the Ixt.” culture specialist (2011) phone interview.
Davey, Robin; Thunder Woman, Yellow “Canary Effect” (2006) dvd documentary. Print.
Tabagan, Gene “Raven Brings Fire to the World” Tlingit storyteller. (2008) audio cd/ live story telling. Print.
Langdon, Steve “The Native People of Alaska, Traditional Living in a Northern Land.” Greatland Graphics (2002) 111-115. Print.
Rosenstiel, Annette ”Red & White, Indian Views of the White Man 1492-1982.” Universe Books (1983) Print
De Las Casas,Bartolome “A Brief Account of the Destruction of theIndies” (published in Seville in 1552)The Project Gutenberg EBook http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20321/20321-8.txt