Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview
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were more likely to go back and forth between the different churches, a phenomenon that continues to this day.
The term old customs was introduced by the Protestants and was frequently used by Euro-Americans and Indians alike to describe the various indigenous practices and beliefs in a somewhat pejorative way. It is still used today by some of the older Tlingit.
For biographical information on modern day Tlingit elders who comfortably combine indigenous and Christian beliefs and practices, see Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer 1987:443-510; 1990:521-57.
Thus Governor John Brady, who started his career in Sitka as a Presbyterian missionary, tried once to dissuade some Sitka Indians from relying on a shaman during the 1898 epidemic of tuberculosis. He invited them to his office and displayed some physiological charts, explaining the cause of the disease and telling them that white people suffered from it as well. Having listened to the lecture, one Tlingit elder replied: "Well, that is what the white men say. We are Indians, and we know that there are witches" ( Hinckley 1982: 254).
Cf. McClellan 1975, 2: 529-63 on the Inland Tlingit, Tagish, and Tutchone shamans.
Cf. de Laguna 1972: 723 on Yakutat in the early 1900s.
Because shamanism remains a rather sensitive topic for many of the elders, I do not mention their names in this article.
Some informants said that when they, as young children, saw an íx + ̱t' perform, they still believed in his power; others claimed that they had already lost that belief. One elderly woman, who had been raised in a devout Christian family in Sitka, told of throwing sand at an Angoon íx + ̱t' and thus forcing him to stop a seance when, as a young girl, she saw him perform on her aunt.
Compare the Orthodox ritual of consecrating the water by immersing a cross in a full container, performed on the feast of Epiphany. The Tlingit called this ceremony "baptizing the cross."
Cf. McClellan 1975, 2: 553-63 on the Inland Tlingit and their Athapaskan neighbors.
While the precontact Tlingit religion might have included a vaguely defined concept of a supreme being or spirit, many of the modern-day elders firmly believe that such a notion existed and that their ancestors prayed to "Our Spirit Above," although only in times of great trouble rather than constantly, as Christians do (for more details see de Laguna 1972: 812-16 and Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer 1990: 126, 438).
A few references in de Laguna's study of Yakutat support my findings. Her elderly informants, interviewed in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, spoke about a female shaman who predicted the coming of the Russians ( de Laguna 1972: 713) and compared shamans' guardian spirits to angels or to the Holy Ghost (ibid.: 682).
One very promising project is being carried out by two linguist-folklorists and speakers of the Tlingit language (one of whom is a Tlingit herself), Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer, who since the late 1960s have been collecting, transcribing, translating, and analyzing Tlingit oral traditions. So far they have published two bilingual volumes ( Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer 1987, 1990) in a series that promises to include various other genres of Tlingit folklore.


Archival Source

Billman Collection. Archives, Stratton Memorial Library, Sheldon Jackson College, Sitka, AK.


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