Northwest Coast: Religion and Beliefs
Since the Northwest is so expansive and extends through many different area up and down and coast, there are many different tribes and languages that are spoken (like I mentioned in the first post about the region). Just like the languages, there were many different religious practices as well. Most believed in common themes but the ceremonies and rituals were different. For example, in the north, ceremonies were more power and prestige driven than religious. Religion itself was thought to be a very informal and private. On the other side of the spectrum was the south where they had very structured and formal ceremonies that were based heavily on religion (Rochete 2010).
However, common themes ran through all of the tribes and regions of this area. The main beliefs centered on “primordial beings” that were certain animals that had very human characteristics and personalities. Some believed that these beings would sometimes take off their animals masks and became human, integrating into society while other beings remained in their animal form (Rochete 2010).
The most important, all up and down the coast, of these beings was the trickster effigy of the Raven (pictured above). Many stories are told of his acts; the most popular when he stole the sun and brought it to earth. The Raven is also a major fixture in most creation myths, especially the one of the Haida people. The way the myth goes is the Raven came upon a barren beach where he found a half opened clamshell. He looked inside the shell to find tiny people peaking out of it and bade them to come out. Those tiny people then became the first of the Haida (Rochete 2010).
The Northwest Coast Indians had similar ideas to the southwestern wakan when it came to nature. They believed that everything in nature was filled with spirit power that could be either good or bad for the people. Most tribes prayed daily to the different aspects of nature such as whales, fish, cold waters, Raven, wind, sun, vegetation, stones, etc. All these different spirits were invoked based on what the desired result was for the day. Anytime any exchange was to occur between humans and animals, they would pray for it. It was thought that if they received prayers, the animals would voluntarily give themselves to men (Rochete 2010).
Another prominent belief was in reincarnation. The reincarnation of the salmon was a big part of the cultures and they spent a great deal of time to ensure that the fish were properly reincarnated. When captured, the salmon were spoke to as if they were a guest of a high rank, and were given welcome speeches before they were killed and cleaned. Everyone then partook in eating the fish and the salmon bones were returned to the river so that the fish would return the following year. Many different animals went through this same ritual process before, during, and after being eaten (Rochete 2010).
Since this area both believed that everything had souls and that animals also had human characteristics, this lead to the belief that human souls were associated with owls. It was thought (heavily among the Tlingit) that while a person was sleeping, their soul inhabited an owl that was soaring around the forest. They believed that if the body was without a soul for too long that the person would die. In fact soul loss was thought to be among the most frequent causes of serious ailments (Rochete 2010).
If someone ended up dying from soul loss (or the other popular cause which was a foreign object placed in the body by an evil spirit) there were certain procedures that had to be done to ensure safe travel to the spirit world. First, once enough time had passed the body would be cremated (this was believed to keep the person warm) and then the left over bones and ashes were place into a wooden box. Afterwords, the deceased’s spirit was called back to the village through several rituals including a holy man putting on a mask said to represent the deceased and visiting every house in the village dancing in silence. Since they believed in reincarnation, they believed that the dead were reborn as their descendants. When babies were born and looked like their dead relatives they were said to be the actual reincarnation of that relative (Rochete 2010).
Just like the people of the Southwest, the Northwest Coast also used masks for their rituals, especially their dances. When the dancers and shamans wore the masks they were embodying the creatures, deities, and forces that were evoked during rituals. Among the Kwakiutl, masks were very important during storytelling. The masks that they used for storytelling were unique and passed down the generations. The person that wore the mask then could represent their own interpretation of both the story and the mask (Rochete 2010).
Another large aspect of the Northwest Coast beliefs was the use of healers or shamans. Shamans could perform an array of healing rituals and ceremonies such as bringing souls back or removing contaminations from those inflicted by evil spirits. Unlike other cultures, both men and women could be shamans as long as they had overcome a major sickness. It was said that when someone got sick that it was the spirit world calling them. During the sickness they would be taught by the spirits how to become shaman along with receiving sacred songs that could cure their own sickness. If someone then survived their sickness they were thought to have gotten the proper training and healed themselves so therefore they could heal others as well (Rochete 2010).
There were a lot of items that the shamans needed to perform these ritual healings including masks, bones, rattles, stones, and parts of animals. Many shamans gained great wealth from healing and charging fees for their services. This did not mean that they had a high status associated with the shamanic powers (Rochete 2010).
2010. Anth 146 Lecture for November 8, 2010.
The Pennsylvania State University.
Photo courtesy of shortstreet.net