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An Athapascan Pantheon

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Of all the great stocks of the Plains the Athapascan tribes (with the exception of the Navaho) show the least native advancement. The northern Athapascans, or Tinne tribes, in particular, while good hunters and traders, are far from war-like, even in self-defence, and their arts are inferior to the general level of the Plains peoples. The ideas of these tribes are correspondingly nebulous and confused. Father Jetté, who has made a study of the mind of the Yukon Indians, says of them that "whereas there is a certain uniformity in the practices" of these people, "there are very few points of belief common to several individuals, and these are of the vaguest kind." And he and other observers find a certain emptiness in the rites of the far north, as if the Indians themselves had forgotten their real significance.

Father Jetté gives a general analysis of the Yukon pantheon. The Tinne, he says, are incapable of conceiving really spiritual substances, but they think of a kind of aeriform fluid, capable of endless transformations, visible and invisible at will, penetrating all things and passing wherever they wish; and these are the embodiments of spiritual power. There is little that is personal and little that is friendly in these potencies; the religion of the Tinne is a religion of fear.

The four greater spirits among these powers are Man of Cold, Man of Heat, Man of Wind, and a Spirit of Plague (Tena-ranide), the evil that afflicts man's body, known by many names and appearing in many forms. Man of Cold "reigns during the winter months, causes the frost and the snow, kills people by freezing them to death, takes possession of the body at death, and faithfully covers the grave of the Tena with a shroud of snow." Man of Heat is the foe of Cold, whom he has conquered in the summer, as he succumbs in turn during the season of cold. He is more friendly to man than is Cold, but still must be kept in check, for he, too, stifles and suffocates when the chance is offered him. Wind brings death and destruction in storm; while Tena-ranide is Death itself stalking the earth, and ever in wait for man — literally, says Father Jetté, the name means "the thing for man," that is, "the thing that kills man."

It is obvious enough that here we have the world-scheme of a people for whom the shifts of nature are the all-important events of life. Changes of season and weather are great and sudden in the continental interior of North America, becoming more perilous and striking as the Arctic zone is approached; and so we find, as we might expect, that the peoples of the northern inland make Heat and Cold and Windy Storm fore-most of their gods, with the grisly form of ever-striking Death for their attendant. Below these greater spirits there is a multitude of confused and phantom powers. There are souls 2° of men and animals, the soul which is "next to" the body and makes it live; there are the similar souls of "those who are becoming again," or awaiting reincarnation; finally, there is a strange shadow-world of doubles, not only for men and animals, but for some inanimate objects. The Yega ("picture," "shadow"), as the double is called, is "a protecting spirit, jealous and revengeful, whose mission is not to avert harm from the person or thing which it protects but to punish the ones who harm or misuse it." When a man is to die, his Yega is first devoured by Tena-ranide or one of the malevolent Nekedzaltara, who are servants of the death-bringer. The familiars, or daemons, of the shamans, form another class of personal spirits, similar to the Tornait of the Eskimo Angakut, whose function is to give their masters knowledge of the hidden events and wisdom of the world, as well as power over disease and death.

The Nekedzaltara, "Things," form a class or classes of the hordes of nature-powers, visible and invisible, which people the world with terrors. Father Jetté gives a folk-tale description of one of these beings — one form out of a myriad. The story seems to be a version of the wide-spread North American tale of the hero who is swallowed by a water-dwelling monster, from whose body he cuts his way to freedom. The hero has just gotten into the Nekedzaltara's mouth:

"Then he stopped and looked around him. He was in a kettle-shaped cave, the bottom of which was covered with boiling water; from this large bubbles were constantly coming forth. Looking up he saw stretching above his head a huge jaw; and looking down he saw another enormous jaw beneath him. Then he realized that he had put himself into the very mouth of a devil: he had gone into it unawares. He was deep in it, close to the throat, where the boiling water was bubbling up. The long twisting ropes were appendages to the devil's jaw, and now they began to encircle him and closed fast upon him. But he drew his sword and cut them. Then he ran out of the dreadful cave. Before going, as he saw the big teeth on the monster's jaw, he pulled out one of them and took it with him. And he gave the devil's tooth to his master."

It is easy to see in this monster a whale, says the recorder; and certainly it is quite possible that this version of the story got its picturesque detail from the Arctic and the Eskimo, to whose beliefs those of the Tinne tribes show so many parallels. Of course, the story is known far to the South also,—in the episode of Hiawatha and the sturgeon, for example.



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