The Athabascan people of Alaska call themselves Den’a (“the people”). They speak eleven different languages, and the lands they call home range north to the Brooks Range, east to the Canadian border, south to Cook Inlet, and west as far as the Nulato Hills. This expanse of territory is covered with low hills and flat lands, broken by the Alaska Range and shaped by extensive waterways including the Tanana, Kuskokwim, and Yukon rivers.
Prior to contact, the land provided what the Den’a needed. Each regional band had its own territory, which was divided among several local bands consisting mainly of extended families. These bands followed established trails on their seasonal quest for food. Periodically they would “gather up” or assemble as a group for ceremonies throughout the year.
As dictated by past generations, the life cycle of contemporary Athabascans continues to flow with the seasons. Fall means intensive work during the moose or caribou hunt. As the days shorten and become colder, sewing and trapping occupy the hours as people prepare for a “give-away” ceremony. A renewal of energy is associated with spring, a time for goose and duck hunts, beaver trapping, and village carnivals highlighted by dog-sled races. Fishing, berry picking, construction, and picnics are activities associated with summer.
The worldview of the Den’a consists of a naturalistic explanation that links nature and life as one, a system that maintains unity in the human, natural, and spiritual worlds. In both the seen and unseen worlds all things have spirits and everything is connected. This holistic world view is implicitly expressed in Den’a ceremonies. It is explicitly expressed in the sharing of water and food, and often in the use of fire.
The Petruska family dry salmon at Nikolai, 2002.
Photo courtesy of Chelsie Kochanowski.
Anthropologists have classified many Den’a ceremonies, feasts, and healing rituals as “potlatches,” “feasts for the dead,” “mortuary feasts,” and “memorial potlatches.” While a potlatch is formally defined as the distribution of material wealth as a means to increase social recognition, this is only a superficial description, overlooking the scope, intention, and deeper meaning of many Den’a ceremonies.
A brief examination of Athabascan ceremonies will reveal their deeper meaning. Water, food, fire, song, and dance are important elements in many of these rituals. As the body is nourished by food and water, so is the soul fed through music and dance. Fire provides an avenue to the spiritual world. The organizational structure required to conduct these ceremonies, whose great antiquity dictates protocol and procedure, makes each community event appear haphazard to the untrained observer. However, upon closer scrutiny, the protocol established in the distant past becomes evident.
In the Athabascan culture, when a person dies, the whole village comes together to grieve with family and friends of the deceased. After the person is laid to rest, a strong spiritual connection is maintained through water, food, song, and dance as the Den’a prepare to free the yega or spirit for its next journey in the life cycle.
Women share memories of the deceased as they gather to bead and sew garments for the “give-away.” Men share memories while on their hunting or fishing excursions. These are occasions for expressing grief as members tell stories, laugh, cry, and express anger, guilt, sorrow, or love.
Grief and/or guilt are also expressed through songs compose for the deceased. These eulogies immortalize the talents and works of the deceased and are an important part of community cohesiveness. In earlier times, our people took note when someone excelled in a particular area; however, this did not make him or her better than the rest, for everyone had a place in the community. A death in the community creates a void—for example, the loss of a good hunter, an understanding friend, a fast runner, an industrious worker, a loving member of the family, or a community leader. The process of composing these songs provides an avenue for healing as the absence of this family member is directly addressed. In learning to sing these songs, community members go through the same healing process as the composer.
By giving gifts to those who came together to grieve with the family and friends, the family pays the earthly debts of the deceased. Once these ties to mother earth are severed, the yeege’ (spirit or outer soul) of the deceased is free to continue in its life cycle in the next dimension. The deceased is also honored as gifts of traditional food are placed in a fire to nourish the yeege’ as he or she adjusts to life in a different world. This adjustment period applies to the mourners as well. Active participation in a healing ceremony provides an avenue to deal with grief or guilt while adjusting to the void created in the community through the loss of a member. These rituals restore social balance and order to the family and to the community.
Reaffirming the community as a living entity while also maintaining the health of the individual are important feature of Den’a healing ceremonies. At a recent “memorial potlatch” in Minto, a Den’a Elder thanked those in attendance for taking the time to join in their ceremony, saying “You help lift us up. We support one another. We come together to honor special people but in the process we also honor one another and ourselves.”
Transition from oral to written communication has brought vast changes in the way Den’a stories and histories are told. By itself, the literature offers a limited scope, perception, and understanding of Den’a belief. Repeated visits, stories, and inclusion in celebrations and healing are needed to open the soul to a real view of the Athabascan world. It is through participation that the significance of a “give-away” ceremony is appreciated. In his study of “potlatches” among the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, I. Goldman notes that “Gifts, such as animal skins, become symbolic of the interconnection between all spheres of life... Exchange brings into connection the contemporary and natural world and the mythic world of the ancestors.” This statement demonstrates that, much like the Den’a, the worlds of other Native People also have seen and unseen realms where all things are connected. This connection supports the life cycle of the Den’a, who have in place an indigenous method to maintain the social order and to return the individual to normal growth, development, and function.
This article was adapted from Crossroads Alaska: Native Cultures of Alaska and Siberia, edited by Valérie Chaussonnet (Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution), published in 1995.