Maniilaq: Preparing for Change
Western cultures had a huge impact on traditional Alaska Native cultures. For some the changes were positive and predictable. Americans in the nineteenth century, had few doubts about their cultural and military superiority. They also thought it was their mission to Christianize and civilize uncivilized Natives. But what about the Alaska Natives? How did they view contact with Western society? What were their predictions about the future? What was their response as Western diseases killed many people and whalers and hunters invaded their water and lands?
Pieces of a story of one important man who lived during this time still survive. This man was named Maniilaq and he is a key figure in the history of Northwest Alaska. His story has been passed down through the oral stories of elders. Traditionally, Native societies valued the history of the group; they developed a system to preserve that history. For example, in some Native cultures, if a young person was told a story, he could not just go out and tell that story to someone else. First the story had to be heard over and over again. Then, the story had to be told by the 'learner' to the original 'teller.' In other words, the right to 'keep' (tell) stories was granted by the elders. In this way oral traditions were handed down in a structured way.
Maniilaq was born in the early 1800s in Northwest Alaska, in the Kobuk River basin. An elders conference about Maniilaq was held in the NANA region in the 1970s, and a book about his life was published after the conference. People describe Maniilaq differently, but he is always an important figure. Maniilaq has been called a prophet, like in the Bible. He has also been called a person with remarkable insight.
Maniilaq was a visionary, but even more importantly, he was a figure during a transitional time in Alaska Native cultural history. He was trying to prepare his people to meet a changing new world on their terms. He predicted certain scientific developments as well as the arrival of newcomers. He saw that one day huge boats with white tops, larger than anything that had ever been seen, would come up the river. He saw that skin boats would one day fly - like umiaks with wings. He said that black whales would go up the Kobuk River and that there would be a time when there were two winters, but no summer. In many ways Maniilaq saw enormous changes about to happen.
To help prepare his people for these changes Maniilaq warned that the social order of Native societies would soon be different. Specifically, he said that the power of the shaman was going to be overturned. Maniilaq argued that it would no longer be just the shaman who would hear and talk to people from great distances. He predicted that every one would soon be able to communicate over distance without the shamen. Maniilaq challenged the shamen. He called for a day of rest. His influence was great - in many areas he overturned traditional practices. He tried to focus Native communities and groups on the traditional values of sharing and balance. Some say that he was trying to restore the harmony of societies that had been thrown into confusion.
Manillaq could have been the Inupiat version of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christian missionaries, or he could have been insane. He could have been a brilliant man, a genuine prophet whose knowledge went beyond the boundaries of science and ordinary perception. It is known that Maniilaq traveled a great deal. He went as far as Unalakleet at a time when there was a Russian trading post to the south called Golovin. He may have visited that post and perhaps seen sailing vessels. When he returned to his region in the 1830s, the first wave of small pox had passed through and completely killed some communities and ruining others.
The smallpox epidemic also reduced the power of the shamen. A key role for shamen was to be a healer and the shamens' healing power was useless against smallpox. The first wave of smallpox on Alaska Natives began in the Aleutians during the mid-1700s.
In Alaska the small pox epidemics shook cultures. Shamen were undermined. A Russian clergy, Bishop Innocent, introduced the vaccination for smallpox. While the church offered the vaccine to anyone, those within the church were easier to find and more likely to get access to the vaccine. The Orthodox church grew during this period because they demonstrated the power to ward off the disease.
Maniilaq prepared people for the arrival of the missionaries. The missionaries wrote in their journals of their surprise that some of the Native people not only expected them, but knew that they came from a new religion. No matter the explanation for Maniilaq's vision and power - he was an extraordinary person with an extraordinary impact.
In the typical textbook history of this time in Alaska the Europeans and the Americans are usually the actors, or the doers. The Russians save Native lives with vaccine and recruit more Natives into the Orthodox church. The Americans sail up the coast, develop trade and introduce new technology. In contrast Alaska Natives are described as passive societies. Their role as victims of terrible disease is the most powerful image of them.
Maniilaqk's life demonstrates that at least some Alaska Native societies during this period were not passive. People were aware that change was coming no matter what and they were actively preparing for change. Some traditions were questioned and sometimes overthrown. The all important traditional values of harmony, balance and sharing continued though as people prepared for contact with 'outsiders.'