For eleven years my wife and I taught school in the remote interior villages. Before I can discuss the way death is dealt with in these cultures I first have to give a little background on the cultures themselves.
All native cultures are not the same. They have different languages, different traditions and different spiritual beliefs – and they do not like each other. The Athabascan (sometimes spelled Athapascan) Indians of the Interior were never subjugated by the “white man.” In the traditional villages they are a proud and somewhat defiant people who do not take well to outsiders. A village is a third world country that operates within its own set of cultural norms. There is a high incident of drug and alcoholism - child and spousal abuse. When my wife and I went into our first village, where we taught for seven years, we were made to feel as outsiders. The villagers spoke of “white man” as the cause of all their problems and the root of all the shortcomings of the village.
It took about three years for the village to get comfortable with our presence and accept us as “their teachers,” though we were never fully accepted.
|The Stick Dance to placate or communicate with the dead.|
In Alaskan Native history we find a perfect example of the evils of a consolidation of Church and State. At the turn of the century, Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister cum missionary working in Alaska, was placed in charge of Alaska Native education by the Federal Government. Jackson’s idea was to assimilate the Native cultures by creating white Christian clones of the Natives. He divided up Alaska into school districts and assigned a district to each of the Protestant faiths requiring they set up missionary schools that would discourage Native traditions and teach white Christian values. Later Jackson established a series of boarding schools and forced many Native children to leave the village and attend his schools. At the schools, children from different villages and different Native cultures were mixed together, and speaking their Native languages was forbidden and resulted in corporal punishment.
Over the succeeding decades many Native students lost their language and cultural identity. This condition continued until 1972 when Molly Hootch vs. the State of Alaska and the results of the 1976 Tobeluk Consent Decree declared Native children had the same right as white children to have public education available in their home villages. Many parents and grandparents, who had children in school, were the product of these boarding school educations and harbored great resentment.
Though there are churches in all the villages, the people still cling to many traditional beliefs, and these beliefs can very greatly from village to village. In our village children were told if they became lost Raven would guide them back to safety. Men believed animals could understand human language; if a man showed up at his uncles house with a gun it was understood he wants to hunt: If he asks his uncle to go hunting the animals would hear and hide. Girls were told to bare their breast if they encounter a bear while berry picking and when the bear recognized they were female it would not feel threatened. The potlatch was the center of traditional cultural participation.
|Children learning Native Dance from their elders in preparation for Potlatch.|
A potlatch is a ceremonial feed, complete with singing and dancing, that involves the whole village. The potlatch is modified for different occasions including honoring a distinguished visitor, marriage, celebrating a particular village member or event, communicating with the dead and for, of course, funerals.
In my next post I will describe the death traditions in the interior Athabascan villages