Sunday, December 30, 2012

Eskimo Legends

Book Review: Eskimo Legends by Lela Kiana Oman (Alaskan Methodist University Press 1975, 1st published in 1959) – illustrated by Minnie Kiana Keezer

This is a neat collection of stories mainly from the author’s family heritage and the region of Northwest Alaska. Some are stories told about times in the 1800’s while others are old lore and legends. One gets a certain feel for the needs, dangers, and special features of life on the tundra. One gets a hint of the difficulties of a life of subsistence hunting in cold and barren winterscapes. This 2nd edition is nicely illustrated. Many of these tales take place near Nome, Alaska and along the Selawik and Kobuk rivers which are north of the Yukon River.

In the introduction she mentions the possibility that large animals from pre-historic times have influenced subsequent tales of large and sometimes magical animals. There are tales of children and people taken by giant eagles and sea serpents. She mentions the big dipper as a time indicator – called the Tutugruk (Big Caribou) – when it kicked up its legs in winter (~ 9 o’clock) it was time for bed. In summer it was Siqupsiqot (Seven Sisters –presumably Pleiades) that indicated bedtime. Christian missionaries came to the these Eskimos late -  in the 1880’s – so it was then that their old beliefs began to be called evil. The author was born in 1915 and so had some childhood taste of the old ways. She mentions Quakers and Baptists in this area. She also mentions light-skinned natives – descendents of Norwegian sailors that were shipwrecked and settled here 600 yrs ago – presumably in the 1300’s.

The author talks a bit about her own childhood peppered throughout the tales and her relationship with her grandmothers, parents, and siblings. She mentions the many stories that were told, especially on cold winter nights. The tales were told in her native language though she says now (1959-1975) this is not done anymore and since the stories are rarely even told she wanted to preserve them. Indeed – many stories lost in time were probably at the clan level.   

The first story is an account of a narrative of Lela’s aunt – named Nathlook/Susie. This story painted an interesting picture in my mind. She tells of her long ago existence in a celestial realm and of re-incarnating with her siblings, first as spirits, then in the form of wolves but also successive incarnations as sea worms, and as fish. She mentions being noticed by scary human-like spirits with legs and a head with no torso. I remember such spirits being mentioned in Iroquoian lore as well.  She mentions trying to find a human mother but that the human and dog mothers had similar brightnesses and it was hard to tell. When she was a puppy her mother wolf was approached by a human woman who asked for one of her puppies to make a baby for her in-law. Nathlook/Susie was chosen.
Before she entered her human mother she noticed that the annatquk, the shaman – a feature of many of the stories here – noticed her presence and her nature as a wolf pup. The woman who brought her actually wanted to make trouble for her in law – make her have a stillborn or damaged child, but the shaman saw this and helped her to be born naturally as a human. The shaman who saved her and her mother was Kagrak, or Doctor Charlie, a feature of several of these stories. The child was born with teeth. She was visited by her wolf-mother and wolf siblings while her mother was asleep and given caribou fat to eat. After this she got sick. Her mother saw but thought she was dreaming. The shaman asked if she had seen anything and the mother told him her dream. She told her to tell the child not to take anything and that she would understand. She was named for a long dead relative but she mentions that she kept finding her bones when looking for her parka on the bank of a certain slough. She goes on to tell of growing up, marrying, and having a store and shipping business – but also of sisters losing babies, sickness, and the premature death of her husband while traveling. Indeed many of these stories reveal the hardships and danger of life in the cold north.

Next is the story of Utauyuk, Bear Woman, who said she was a bear in the other life. She had several encounters with bear, was unafraid of them, and could even scare them off. When attacked by a bear she killed it with a sapling cane thrust down his throat. She was known to travel magically fast. Once on a cold night she was woken by an intruder who stole a coal from the fire – she spoke as if she knew him. He replied but gave away an Indian dialect and she knew he was with a raiding party. She then went about waking others in the other sod houses and they were able to subdue and route the invaders.

Another fascinating story is called – The Spirit of Slumber. Kitkone had been at sea in his kayak for 3 days hunting seals. He was bringing the seals back. He paddled hard with the heavy weight on rough seas but he was very sleepy. He kept nodding off and bumping his head on the ridge of the kayak. He fell asleep and dreamed he was at the bottom of the sea but then woke again banging his head on the kayak. Knowing that each person has a spirit of slumber that doles out sleep to him as it is needed – he began to shout down this spirit and decided he would kill the spirit of slumber. He took out his knife and cut at the air and shouted his intent. Blood came from his head where he had hit it on the kayak several times. He then knew he had killed his spirit of slumber. After this he could no longer sleep. He faked it for many years until his sons grew up but one day he told his wife and children. After this he fell asleep and as the story says: “He had killed his spirit of slumber and in turn the spirit of slumber had killed him.

There is a story of the Creek of Whale Oil – about a giant eagle that would catch small black whales – easy to catch as they moved into shallow water to mate. The eagle would bring them up onto the mountain and eat a very small part of them that he liked and leave the rest to die, making the creek oily with whale oil. His voracious appetite was making fewer whales available for the people in a year of low food supply. The people held a meeting to decide what to do and a young man named Tinuk volunteered to slay the eagle. This story reminded me a bit of a dragon slayer myth. In any case, he succeeds and that is that.  

There is a story about Annatkuq (shaman) and his four wives who every autumn dug a large whole in the ice wherein would walk much game and be trapped. For this they had abundant food to eat and to trade for other goods. They also traded furs for Siberian blue and white beads that were used like money. Here they would have multi-tribal gatherings where trading was a big part. Each tribe would be expected to give a dance and a feast. Annatkuq was often the home host of these gatherings. One day a cry was heard from the hole and a frightened woman, Ayai-ya, was found trapped there. Annatkuq was sad for the woman and vowed that the trap would never “fly” again. He ritually undid the trap and they filled the hole with dirt – the shaman preferred peace of mind to a life of prosperity.

Next is a story told to the author and her sibs as children about the severe winter of 1880. The shaman now was Qaagrak (Doctor Charlie) and he had two wives that did not like one another and were in competition. There was a lack of food and they were wandering in search of game worried about starvation. They suspected there was a herd of caribou to the north under the aurora borealis. Doctor Charlie took out his drum one night in the tent and began to drum and chant. “iiyaaya” was one chant mentioned. A rope was wrapped around his neck and pulled in opposite directions by his wives and others and others while he smoked his pipe. Eventually this made him pass out (and broke his neck according to the story). This caused him to go into spirit form and ascend through the smoke hole of the tent. This reminds me a bit of a shamanism where one hangs like Odin. While he was away his long dead aunt who was also his guardian as a child as well as his shaman teacher came in spirit form to guard his limp body. She was kept with offerings of food and water. He mentions in the story that in those days the dead were not buried since it was believed that burial would prevent the soul from escaping the body. Doctor Charlie returned to his body and said he had killed many Caribou spirits but since they were far away they would not come for two days. When they did come they were abundant and had to be cut up and gathered. After this they made clothes and food for Doctor Charlie – not as a reward for him – but to dress him in honor of the ancestors which is the custom to honor them.

Next is another story about a giant eagle that carried off a human, an Eskimo in a canoe. The eagle had the lad by his parka and lifted him into the air. He escaped from his parka and climbed onto the eagle’s back, took out his knife, and cut off one feather at a time until the eagle had to land so then he was able to kill the eagle. He was naked and it was mosquito season which is intense in the Arctic. The eagle was cooked for food and distributed as was the custom of a man’s first kill.

Next is the story of Aye-mee and the Mermaid. Aye-mee, a woman who cast a fishing net during a time of famine, had caught a mermaid in her net. The fierce and dangerous mermaid was caught in the net. Aye-Mee set out to the task of freeing her which she was able to do. Aye-Mee slowly untangled the mermaid’s strands of dark hair from the net while she talked to cover up her fear. She told of their struggle to find food and store it for the winter ahead. She asked the mermaid for help as she was freed. The next day Aye-Mee found her willow-bark net full of white fish and for days after the people caught white fish and put much food up for winter.

Next is the story of a large fearsome sea serpent that was making its presence known. The shaman was able to approach it fearlessly and bid it to have mercy on them and after this it was not seen again. This makes me wonder if it is perhaps a tale of a tsunami or a series of them – since disturbed water and waves were mentioned.

The last story is called the Enchanted Sky and is about three men on the sea in kayaks when the sky became mysterious and seemed odd and unnatural. One of the men stood up in his kayak and saw through a crack in the sky to another world. The others stayed low in their kayaks and bid him to get down too but he described a fantastic world in the sky full of blooming flowers and enchanting lands. Then the crack closed up and the remaining two paddled homeward. The boy is said to live in the sky.

I think this is a powerful selection of a clan-level folk story tradition of a unique people with unique needs due to geography and climate. One can clearly see the shamanic past and the fragility of having to rely on subsistence hunting.

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