My search for spirit tales among the Yupik Eskimo culture revealed another gem which I would like to share with you. The following essay was written by a Yupik woman, Juanita Treat, who has worked at the hospital for over twenty years as an interpreter. Joan found it among the material she dug up for me from her course on Yupik culture back in the early 1990s; Juanita had written it for one of the students in the class. I showed it to Juanita and she was amazed to see it. She remembered writing it those many years ago, but did not have a copy herself. She was happy to allow me to reprint it on Tundra Medicine Dreams.
By Juanita Treat
Folklore, mystery and magic surround the spirituality of the Native people of this land. Folklore because not much is written on this section of our culture. Mystery because this is not something we usually discuss. Magic, I’ll leave that to your imagination.
When the long, dark winter nights settled in and the cold winds whispered and whined through the cracks and eves of the house, families would light the coal oil lanterns and shadows began their slow magical dances on the walls, the fire crackling in the wood stove, whispering of stories yet untold. These were times when the elders passed down age-old stories to the younger generation so they would not be forgotten.
This was also a time to teach the unwritten laws of the land, sea, sky, and the ruler over all these things. Not only were the young taught to respect their elders, but also to respect the land, sea, sky and all living things that resided within. We believed that by doing this, the land, sea and sky in turn would also respect us and provide for us our daily needs. Last but not least, was that the greatest respect was shown to the Power that made all these things possible.
When these stories were done, the room would grow quiet and the elders would begin to tell stories of forces that resided among us; and these were also respected and feared. So intense were these stories that no one moved a muscle or dared to ask questions. We heard, during those times, that these forces could foresee the future, cast out demons, and could maim or destroy you during your sleep. We were warned, after this, to always respect these forces that were identified, and not to talk about this to anyone, or they could cast a spell on us. Spirits were also talked about, and the close encounters people had with them.
One of those evenings, they began to whisper of a lady who had been visited. She was all alone at home with only her two young children. The children were playing on the floor not too far from where she stood cleaning the table after their meal. All of a sudden the dogs started making weird whining noises deep in their throats, and the children stopped playing and the house became very still and quiet. They heard footsteps crunch on the snow outside their door and come to a dead stop; again everything grew very quiet and dead still. All of a sudden the door flew open and a gust of cold, damp, musty air blew in; but no one was there. The dogs again began whining deep in their throats, and the lady, fearing for her children, walked slowly out the door. But she found no footprints in the snow. Shaking in her shoes, but determined to get rid of the ghosts, she completely encircled her house and then slowly made her way back in again and shut the door. The dogs stopped whining and settled back down and the children began to play and all was quiet for the rest of the night.
We are told that if we ever see a spirit that we will become deathly ill and sometimes we could die from this. When my grandmother was young, before they went to bed they would always put a pail of water and a dipper by the door so when the spirits came by at night they could have a drink of water and leave you alone. A young girl laughed at her parents’ warning and didn’t do as she was told. The next morning she woke up very thirsty and no matter how much water she drank, couldn’t quench her thirst. Three days later she was dead.
Grandma Petka was a respected elder of our community and when someone became sick she was often asked to go to that person’s house to pray for them. One such evening, we heard that the old Moravian minister had taken ill and hadn’t been able to eat or get out of bed for three days. His wife, fearing for his life, sent word to my grandmother to please come up and pray for her husband. Grandma was embarrassed, but out of respect for the old minister and his wife, she went to their home to pray for him. I know that when someone got sick, Grandma always did a water/spirit ceremony that called upon all the good spirits to come and take away all the bad spirits; I can only assume that this is what she did before she prayed for him. After this, the old minister fell asleep and when he awoke, he asked for something to eat and was able to move around again. Throughout my life, I remember people coming to ask Grandma to pray for them and to perform the water/spirit ceremony for them. I can only liken this to your baptism ceremony.
We also respect the dead, and when someone leaves us, we bathe them, put on their finest clothes, and for three days we join the family of the departed by eating with them, singing, mourning our loss and sharing stories, because we believe that the soul of the departed is earth bound for three days and is amongst us for those days. We never used to bury our dead, but would place them above ground surrounded by their worldly possessions. Out of respect for the dead, these articles were never touched unless we exchanged something we valued for the things we took.
One time an elder, who was known throughout the community to be very stingy with her belongings, passed away. Her daughter, forgetting this, gave away her mother’s scarves to some women of the village. That night, for some reason, seemed to be an especially dark night; during the course of the night, the dogs, only in front of the women’s houses with the scarves, began to howl and growled from deep within their throats. The next day the women talked about it, but brushed it off as coincidence and let it pass. That night the wind blew and houses creaked and again the dogs began to howl and make the same slow, long, deep-throated growls they had the night before. The women didn’t sleep a wink that night and the very next day they took all the scarves and burned them so that the lady who had passed on could have them back. That night, the dogs never made a sound and all slept peacefully through the night.
After a death, the next child born into a community is named after the departed. If a man passed away and the next one born is a girl, she will receive his name; and if he was married, the wife calls the little girl her husband. When a visitor comes to our home we are taught to welcome them in and feed them and give them something to drink because they may be a family member who has passed on, and by treating them with kindness we are giving to our loved ones. The passage from the Bible comes to mind, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
All the years that I spent with my grandmother she would also teach me bits and pieces, especially early in the morning. She said these things that she taught me would stay with me better because my mind was fresh and not cluttered in the mornings. I remember her talking to me about the things we would see in the years to come, when the earth’s crust would become thin. We would see sons and daughters killing their families and diseases with no cures. I didn’t know what she was talking about at that time, but now when I think back, I marvel at the knowledge she had back then, and she was considered illiterate, even though she could read the Bible in Eskimo. How did this lady know what was to come to pass?
Winter is coming and once again the shadow dancers will appear. I feel that our Native medicine men are still at work, guiding all people to help us in our mission as protectors of the land, sea and sky.
Labels: Tundra Life