Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Worl says shamanism still influential in Tlingit culture today

By Casey Kelly
Posted on November 18, 2013 at 5:54 pm
Category: Alaska Native CultureCommunityFeatured News,Spirit
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 12 seconds
The Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska no longer practice shamanism, but elements of it still exist in their culture today.
That’s according to Anthropologist
and Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl, who spoke Monday as part of SHI’s Native American History Month Lecture Series.
Worl says shamanism used to be a major component of Tlingit life. She says every clan had a shaman before Russian and American colonization largely forced the Tlingit people to abandon their traditional religion.
“Shamanism is generally associated with hunting, fishing and gathering societies that often migrate with seasons to follow their food sources,” says Worl. “To bring food, health and protection from evil, shaman seek connections with animal powers through their rituals.”
Worl says the shaman’s responsibilities included maintaining the well-being of the clan; acting as a military advisor; assuring hunting and fishing success; predicting future events; and curing illnesses. To do that they performed rituals designed to ward off hostile and dangerous spirits, and call upon good spirits to support the clans’ welfare.
Worl says Tlingits believed that great shaman traveled in both the physical and spiritual world, and that spirits chose certain people to be shaman.
“The majority of spirits with which the shaman makes his alliances are animals, animal spirits,” she says. “This reflects a widespread belief by cultures that practice shamanism that animals inhabited the world long before human beings and are essential to people because of the unique knowledge that animals possess.”
She says Tlingit clans last practiced traditional shamanism in the 1950s, but she argues it still pervades the rituals and beliefs of Southeast Alaska Natives today. For instance, Worl says Tlingits – including the late-Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff – still believe that all objects possess some sort of spiritual essence.
“I’ve had meetings here in this room, where people like our spiritual leader, Dr. Soboleff, has pounded on the table and says, ‘Everything has a spirit! Even this table has a spirit!’” Worl says, pounding her own fist on the podium.
About 15 years ago at a clan conference organized by the heritage institute, Worl says several elders attributed modern social problems, such as alcoholism and suicide, to Tlingit societies being out of balance.
“In our society we have a number of practices to ensure both social and spiritual balance, and they were holding that we were out of spiritual and social balance, and this was the cause of the social illnesses that affect our society,” Worl says.
She says that discussion led to some of SHI’s most successful cultural programs.
Worl says the influence of shamanism on modern Tlingit life is perhaps most evident in the use of sacred objects and regalia in ceremonial acts, including memorial celebrations.
“When our ceremonial and sacred objects are brought out and the spirits are addressed or called upon in the same way as they were in earlier times,” she says.
Worl says many Tlingit elders are reluctant to discuss shamanism, perhaps due to the punishment Native people endured at the hands of colonizers for practicing their religion.
She says its unlikely traditional shamanism will ever be completely revitalized, but some Tlingits are looking at ways to incorporate more of the old practices in modern ceremonies.
The next talk in SHI’s Native American History Month Lecture Series happens Tuesday at noon. Professor Alan Boras of Kenai Peninsula College gives a lecture on “Salmon and Indigenized Orthodoxy on the Nushagak River.” The theme of this year’s series is Native spirituality.

View the full lecture online by clicking here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Throwback Thursday - Historical Photo and Inland Tlingit

For this week's Throwback Thursday; our inland Tlingit friends. 

Photo taken at Carcross, Yukon Territory, circa 1900, showing Native individuals in regalia.

Educator makes case for Native spirituality

By Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News
Posted on November 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm
Category: Alaska Native CultureEducationFeatured News,Syndicated
Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 15 seconds
Most Northern Native people have had their traditional spirituality squeezed out of them.
That’s according to Jana Harcharek, director of the North Slope Borough School District’s Iñupiaq Education Department.
She spoke Nov. 12 as part of the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Native spirituality lecture series.
Harcharek told her audience that her culture, including its spirituality, was almost destroyed by churches and schools.
“As has been the case with many indigenous peoples across the world, the attempt through education was to assimilate the Iñupiaq into mainstream society. And a variety of methods were used, including the oppression of language, the oppression of spiritual beliefs, the oppression of song and dance, which resulted in varying degrees of success on their part,” she said.
That led to pressure on the school system to teach what many had lost.
“It’s their birthright to know their history. And as a school district, we had been depriving them of their history. And through the loss of our storytelling, we had been deprived them of our creation and origin stories,” she said.
Harcharek said about six years ago, educators decided to reach out. They traveled to North Slope communities to confer with elders. (Link to the North Slope Iñupiaq Education Department.)
“We were able to go back where we had been, before schools were ever established, before missions ever came to the arctic, and confer with our elders about how it is and what it is that we did to instill beliefs, to instill the sense of being a contributing member of society, before schools ever came,” she said.
An Iñupiaq education initiative was formed. It included a cross-generational panel that came up with what a young adult should know about their people’s spirituality, culture and history.
It also included contemporary Native history and roles in a modern world.
New curriculums were developed, and continue to be added to students’ class work.
Harcharek said that includes training for new teachers without an understanding of the culture.
The program has not been without controversy, since some see it as going against Christian values. She said that’s not the case.
“We’re not preaching – or teaching – kids how to be shamans. In the same way that in school we don’t teach children how to be a Catholic or a Muslim or a Hindu,” she said.
Harcharek said the program teaches students about traditional spirituality and they make their own choices.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Oct. 29, 2013 (Flyer)

November series will focus on spirituality

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) will sponsor a noon lecture series to celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November.

The brown-bag lunch series will focus on spirituality, said SHI President Rosita Worl. Native spirituality is a topic that has come up in issues dealing with repatriation and other areas. SHI’s Council of Traditional Scholars has wrestled with how to bring the knowledge of shamanism into the modern world and to correct the many misconceptions about shamanism. Also, an Alaska court recently heard testimony on Yup’ik fishing and spirituality, said Worl, adding the timing for this discussion seemed appropriate.

“As a society, we still have a lot to learn about Native religion, Native spirituality. We’re hopeful that our lecture series is going to offer an insight into Native spirituality and Native religion,” said Worl, who also will give one of the lectures.

The lectures are sponsored by ConocoPhillips Alaska and will be held from 12-1 pm in the 4th floor boardroom at Sealaska Plaza in Juneau. Attendees are invited to bring their own lunches. The talks also will be videotaped and posted online.

Sealaska Heritage Institute was founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

CONTACT: Rosita Worl, SHI President, 907.463.4844

12-1 pm, Sealaska Plaza, 4th Floor Boardroom (bring your own lunch)
Tuesday, Nov. 5
Spiritual Connections and Obligations: The Foundation of Tlingit Existence
Steve J. Langdon
Professor of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage

The Tlingit cosmos is filled with spiritual presence, essences and powers that exist both within and beyond direct experience.  Tlingit life is fundamentally relational in that interactions with others establish the basis for existence and welfare.   All spiritual forms are attentive, sentient, and volitional and positive relations with them are essential.  These necessary relations must be based on respect, and violation of the principle of respect can threaten existence at many levels.  It is through the continuous circulation of respect – in thought and deed – exhibited in connections and fulfillment of obligations in various socially and ritually prescribed ways that Tlingit pursue a morality that will insure the continuity of existence.  The Tlingit cosmos is founded on the principle of relational sustainability – through appropriate respectful relations, the continuity of existence is maintained.

Tuesday, Nov. 12
Reclaiming Traditional Spirituality
Jana Harcharek
Director, Iñupiaq Education Department at North Slope Borough School District

Nuances associated with traditional spirituality continue to be oppressed as a result of Christian influences. In this presentation, Pausauraq Jana Harcharek will speak about efforts to effect change to make the discussion of traditional "religion" acceptable for purposes of setting the stage for the reclamation of traditional spirituality more widespread in the Iñupiaq region.

Monday, Nov. 18
Tlingit Spirituality and Shamanism in the 21st Century
Dr. Rosita Worl
President, Sealaska Heritage Institute

Although the Tlingit no longer have shamans, their traditional spiritual ideologies remain vibrant.  This discussion will review the traditional practices of shamans and focus on Tlingit spirituality and its manifestation in cultural objects including shamanic paraphernalia.  It will also assess the exchanges between the natural and supernatural as they continue to occur in the round of ceremonies which are held primarily in the Fall season and in memorial rites held throughout the year. 

Tuesday, Nov. 19
The Great Blessing of the Water: Salmon and Indigenized Orthodoxy on the Nushagak River
Alan Boraas
Professor of Anthropology, Kenai Peninsula College

The Nushagak Yup’ik are among the last of the world’s salmon cultures and spirituality is fundamental to their being. One of the enduring ceremonies of the Yup’ik villages of the Nushagak River is the Great Blessing of the Water. I will describe my observations of this remarkable ceremony during my visit in 2011 and relate it to the people’s fight to maintain a modern subsistence lifestyle in the face of proposed industrial mining.

Tuesday, Nov. 26
The Essence of Tlingit Spirituality
David Katzeek
Tlingit, Shangukeidí Clan Leader

Ldakát át ayakghwahéiyagu khudzitee, the spirit in all things. Since time immemorial the Tlingit people have practiced their beliefs with one of the most powerful words in the Tlingit language “yáa át wooné”, respect! This leads us into the way people would live, what they would learn, how they would learn, and how they would apply what they learned. This covered a wide variety of topics, starting with learning to listen, pay attention, and be still, which is important in respecting oneself. It is important to accept one’s intelligence and become responsible for it. Learning how to learn and applying the knowledge gained is important. To respect is the primary cornerstone of the Tlingit house of education and knowledge. Without education and knowledge it is difficult to respect oneself, family, others, community, environment and all creatures great and small.  This includes the water, the rivers, the ponds, the lakes, the streams, the rivers, the ocean, the seas, the trees, the animals, the rocks, the mountains, hills, and the creatures on the earth, the heavens, the sun the moon and the list goes on. This session will describe this process with songs and stories, names, and place names.