Building a Context for Stories and Traditions
The human history of Alaska begins many thousands of years ago. The oral traditions, legends, and stories about the early era of human existence in Alaska are rich, varied and sometimes surprising.
Books written by researchers, texts written by visitors, and photographs describe the dress, food, crafts and tools used in the lives of the many original peoples of Alaska. But this essay is a description of a few of the underlying beliefs of many Native peoples. It can provide a context, to better understand traditional times.
Alaska Native societies had much in common, even though they differed in languages, clothing, dance, social organization, political structures, and foods.
The physical nature of Alaska required a community approach to creating a life and society on this land. Extended families and hunting partners were vital to survival. Extended communities were made up of several families.
Legends, oral traditions and stories give us a glimpse into how important it was in traditional Alaska Native societies to learn to share with others, to work hard, and to value wisdom. In the old times many Alaska Native cultures say that humans were closer to animals, and better able to understand their animal wisdom, humor, and sometimes dangerous personalities. From these creatures humans could learned about how animal and human natures shared.
Some creatures have not been described by modern science, such as, huge eagles and ten legged polar bears. But some Alaska Native groups connect mammoth tusks and other remains of prehistoric creatures to the past, and their understanding of the natural world. It is easy upon first hearing or reading these stories, legends and oral traditions to dismiss them as superstition. Much is also lost when a story is translated from its original language.
It is a very different experience when stories and legends are encountered closer to their original context. The home place for a story might be a room with several elders after they have been served first in a community meal of local foods. Some of the foods may be from large animals and common plants. Other foods are less common and are served not only for calories of energy but for the vitamins and minerals they provide. They too were part of the traditional Native diet long before they were described by modern science. Some foods are simply eaten as rare treats. Mountain goat, Dall sheep, certain bird and fish eggs, the roots of certain plants, the smaller parts of certain sea mammals, the taste of plants as flavoring in hot drinks or the marrow from the bone of creatures are served at certain times and in certain places.
Sometimes the elders are wearing clothes or holding ceremonial objects that represent the unique wealth of the waters and lands around the communities. They might have rare items brought in by trade with neighboring tribes. Clothes might include the tails of weasels or the fur of certain mountain rodents, sheep or goats. These pieces were not easy to gather nor to create, as part of elaborately designed and sewn pieces.
In many places and among many Alaska Native people the time of stories might have included several traditional social and specific story dances. These dances were, and still are a part of the inheritance of families, houses or clans, communities or as part of the legacy of a region. The instruments used, tone and form of singing, and structures and themes varied by peoples and cultures. The roles of children, women, men, the time of year, and the event shaped why a certain dance was performed and by whom.
Imaging such gatherings will help you better understand the stories, legends, oral traditions, and life styles of Alaska Native people. The stories are not only about something out there and separate from you, but can be about something that is a part of you too.