ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog Arctic & Northern Books About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth



Did American Aborigines have Culture?

by Bill Jones


    First, I do not like the word Aborigine, because it implies ignorance and the opposite of culture. So, let us use Native American instead and make its meaning inclusive of all early people of North America. Then we can decide the matter of culture.

    Timelines, before the European influence in North America, are vague and controversial. They are also prejudicially biased with long held presumptions that only Europeans possessed culture, and all others were sub-humans, savages, pagans, without meaning or connection or importance to human evolution or history. This prejudice has been religion-based since the 15th century, when the Spanish Conquistadors ravaged the populations of Central America and parts of the present United States.

    The two main religious faiths of the world, Christianity and Islam, also bear a high measure of responsibility for present day ignorance of prehistoric peoples and their part in human evolution. Both Islam and Christianity have always been highly prejudiced against all spiritual beliefs other than their own. The written words of both the Bible and the Koran contain creeds and commandments that require the persecution and genocide against all people who have other spiritual beliefs. Both the Bible and the Koran encourage, even command, that all who worship other gods or idols be utterly destroyed, their symbols and idols broken, and the non-believers be persecuted with vengeance and driven from the lands.

    The answer to the leading question is Yes! Native Americans possessed a rich culture that was in some aspects more advanced than the conquering Europeans. For this treatise we will briefly view the culture of one Athabascan group, the Gwich'in people of Alaska and the Yukon.

    If we believe that all indigenous peoples of North and South America descended from ice age transients from Siberia, which I utterly reject, then surely the ancestors of most Native Americans were the Gwich'in. The Gwich'in occupied, and still do, a region within the Arctic Circle larger than the State of Pennsylvania. Their ice age range was a zone that extended from the Brooks Mountains on the north to the White Mountains south of the Yukon River in Alaska, a straight line distance of more than 250 miles. This large area has been named the Yukon Nenana Geology Region. The east-to-west range of the Gwich'in was from the juncture of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers eastward to the Five Lakes region and the Great Bear Lake in present day Canada, a distance of approximately five hundred miles. The Gwichin home lands included some 125,000 square miles and scores of rich river valleys and dense forests.

    Since the beginning of the ice age, the Gwich'in have lived in almost complete isolation from other cultures. Today, their territory is touched by only one road in Canada; the Dempster Highway at Fort McPherson just barely touches the Gwich'in home lands. In Alaska, the Gwich'in territory is without road access.

Language: The principal language of the Natives of North America was and is Athabascan. It is a foundation language, in that there are many regional dialects, all sharing a wide set of basic words and terms. Generally, words having spiritual connotations have had the same pronunciation. For example, the word Yataalii meant high spiritual leader amongst the Alaskan cultures as well as the cultural groups of the mid and southern parts of the continent. Yataali might be pronounced, Yakalii, or Yataalii, but is very close in both meaning and nuance between the Navaho of New Mexico, the Apache, and the Gwich'in.

    Few if any other peoples have occupied such a wide range of the earth's surface as have the Athabascans. Their language extends back beyond the time of the ice age and likely dates at least to the mid Pleistocene epoch, some 200,000 years ago. Athabascan is a polite and expressive language that uses many more adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns than English, Spanish. or French. There are more than a dozen adjectives used just to describe the characteristics of snow. Eight different adjectives denote the stages of development of a female person, from baby to grandmother, and an equal number for males. And it is a language that is a pleasure to hear spoken. While traveling Interstate 40 one can tune to the radio stations near the New Mexico Reservations and listen to Athabascan spoken by the Native American announcers. Those who do so should realize that what they hear is the most ancient language of the world, one that has been spoken for tens of thousands of years over a breadth of more than six thousand miles, from the Arctic to the Sun-belt.

Tool Making Skills is another ingredient of culture. Before the Europeans arrived in the New World, Native Americans had not yet learned to smelt iron from bearing rock. They did, to some degree, mine copper and pound it into useful vessels and small tools. Yet they had been adept for many centuries in making tools that were needed for such tasks as trapping, hunting, and making garments. In many areas they produced fine pottery, and the clothing that they made was as fine as any in the world.

Art is often cited as an important aspect of culture. Athabascans decorated themselves and their clothing with artful designs. At one time dentalia (pretty tubular shells) served as a medium of exchange because of its decorative value. The Tlingit and Haida people of the Western Coast derived riches by gathering dentalia shells and trading it to inland tribes. And, most have seen the artful drawings on rock facings throughout North and South America. Native American pottery is noted as being very artful.

Societal Organization, certainly an attribute of culture, was well developed by the Athabascans as early as the mid ice age. Along the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers of Alaska there were structured hub villages having fairly dense populations. A typical model of the society would have up to 3000 or more people living a semi-urban life style, with leadership in the form of chiefs and councils. Each hub village would have as many as six or more outlying support camps or sub-villages at strategic hunting and fishing places. These sub-villages would be populated during the productive seasons by family members from the population center to fish and hunt, cut and dry fish, tan the furs, pack meat and other products back to the hub villages, where they would be stored and processed for use by the entire population.

    Specialization and division of work existed. Some were boat builders, others built lodges, wove nets, fashioned weapons, chipped stone for implements, sewed the furs into garments, rendered fat to use for cooking and tanning.

    Likely one of the most populous and well organized societies was the Gwich'in culture. Their present hub villages are Fort Yukon and Old Crow. Fort Yukon, named by the Hudson Bay Company in 1847, had for scores of centuries before that been known as Gwicyaa Zhee. The Gwich'in culture spread from the juncture of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers eastward and through the Porcupine River valley, across the Continental Divide to the Mackenzie River, and thence to Great Bear Lake and the Five Lakes region of the Yukon Territory. During the era of Hudson Bay fur trade there were four or more HBC trading posts within the Gwich'in's range.

    Government organization consisted of an acclaimed chief, a council of elders, a women's council, and an independent spiritual organization. Ordinarily this was the structure of government at each large hub village. Anecdotal information gained from elders during the mid 20th Century suggested that this type of leadership was common and that women leaders were integrated into the decision process. Actually what has just been described comes close to that of today's elected municipal mayor and city council. From all historical accounts it seems that the leadership was selected by popular acclaim, and the organization was fairly standard throughout most Athabascan cultures.

    The foundation of the culture was not however based in rulership, but rather the family and clan tradition of matriarchy. Children belonged to the mother and bore her name. The male children, after they came into their mid teen years, were gradually pushed from the family. It was considered not proper for a mature male child to remain with the family. On the other hand, female children were bound to the family unit forever. When a young woman (often as young as fourteen) took a mate, the bridegroom came to live within the matriarchy and contributed his work to the family unit. Great care was exercised to select suitable young men for mates of the young women, to insure that they were not blood related. Then there would be a trial period when the young man would come and live in the family to prove his worth before being accepted.

    Clans developed as the extended family grew in numbers. The clan leader was always female, usually the eldest of the family groups. As she grew older and became less capable, she remained the honorary head woman, and a younger woman would be selected to carry on the clan's matriarchy leadership. It was not uncommon for a clan to number over sixty persons. Although the clan and family were oriented as matriarchy units, the men of the family, of which none were related to each other except as in-laws, had their own sub-leadership, which was mostly based upon the division of work responsibility by natural selection. From the clan level the men were selected by popularity and their superior abilities to become village managers, council members, or a chief.

The Spiritual Leaders were extremely important persons within the villages and the cultures. The highest was the Yataalii (man) and the Ahtnii (female). Both were believed to be Dreamers, having the spiritual powers to dream and bring to earth spirit helpers to perform cures of body and spirit and settle disharmony. There were other levels of spiritual and medicine crafts. Some, in descending order by name are, Yindee Ahtnii, Shahnyaa, and Dazhan. The spiritual leaders exercised substantial influence. The Yataalii had great and mystic powers and was the diplomat between other sub-cultures and tribes. They traveled widely and harmonized relations. They also trained minor spiritual leaders and medicine practitioners. These spiritual leaders healed the sick and conducted traditional ceremonies and rituals of which there were many.

    Two semi-annual ceremonies still widely practiced today are, the Stick Ceremony and the Changing Woman Ceremony.

    The Stick is held each June 22nd and December 22nd, which coincides with the summer and winter solstices, when the earth reaches its maximum tilt and the season begins to change. This ceremony's principal purpose is to honor the good spirits of the ancestors which continue to hover over the home lands and the family. The Yataalii leads the ceremony with ritualistic chants and dances. After the serious spiritual rituals, the entire village feasts, dances, play games, socializes, and exchange gifts. The Stick Ceremony may last for several days.

    The Changing Woman is held usually on the second day of the Stick. This is a beautiful tradition of honoring young women who, during the past season, have begun their cycle of fertility and have been endowed by the Creator with great and cherished powers to create life. The Child is transformed into a powerful and respected Woman.

    For months before, mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, prepare the girl for her changing woman ceremony. In many cultures the girl is isolated from the first indication of her change until the ceremony itself. She goes behind the curtain, a curtain to separate her within the lodge. Men are not permitted to be near her. She is counseled and trained during her shunning period into womanhood. While sounding to be an arduous punishment, it is instead a period of honor and loving attention. She is placed upon a pedestal, so to speak, glorified, and honored, during her shunning. The women sew and make beautiful garments for the young woman's ceremony. Then the long awaited Changing Woman Ceremony begins. She appears, gloriously dressed and scented. Relatives and friends from afar have traveled to attend and she is honored by the entire village. The spiritual leader performs a lengthy ceremony. People cheer her and she is adorned with gifts. Everyone touches her and she is honored. From that time on she is eligible for marriage and her family elders begin to search for a suitable husband for her, usually from other villages. All grandmothers remember and cherish their changing woman ceremony as the most important event of their lives.

The Powers of the Yataalii - real or imagined? One very old Gwich'in lady told of being cured of an ailment by a Yataalii when she was a young woman. Her name was Belle Herbert. The time was 1980, when she told her life story for a biography, Shandaa, in my Life Time. Belle was believed to be 137 years of age. Belle told of a white doctor saying that her womb was attached to her intestines, and she was in constant pain. Belle had been converted to Christianity by a missionary preacher at Fort Yukon, whose name was Robert McDonald. Since she was a Christian convert, and she knew that the preacher disapproved of the practices of native spiritual leaders, Belle was reluctant to go to the Yataalii. But Roderick, the Yataalii, was also a convert to Christianity, which accounts for his and Belle's English names. Even so, Roderick was still a Yataalii.

    In her words, Belle describes how she was cured:

    My grandmother said to me. "Grandchild, your mother's brother is going to treat you." (She was speaking of Roderick, the Yataalii.)
    Well, I did not like the idea. I didn't like it but I went with them.
    "Go to them ," they told me, and so I did.
    And then he did not even talk.
    Then, "My uncle, you are Christian, and I am the same." "Yes," he said.
    "If you are really and truly going to cure me, let it be so," I said to him. "Yes," he said.
    I just thought he would sing and do something to me. But he said to me, "I have a dream, but I do no wrong with it."
    "Only my father, I did wrong with him." he said. "Now the ones who have a very good dream are strong in it, that is so." He spoke as if he were like that.
    Then I went back down to my own house and after staying awake a little while, I fell asleep. The child had gone to sleep already.
    Meanwhile, I heard the sound of a big bumblebee. I heard it buzzing around.
    A great vision appeared to me. Right outside I saw a big man with the appearance of a bumblebee, his outside was like that, he was just like that all over him. Ahh! He held something at his side, and thereupon he went outside. And then I slept.
    He (Roderick) had told me to come back quickly the next morning.
    Even though I was sick, I went back to him fast, and my grandmother and older sister were sitting there.
    "So then, did you find out anything?" he just said to me.
    "I was just going to bed when there was a noise of a big bumblebee. Then it became a big man right outside there and what he had on made him look like a bumblebee; he was holding on to something, I don't know what, and then he went outside," I said to him.
    "Ha!" You must be a Shahnyaa woman," he said told me.
    "With that thing I have cured a lot of big Shahnyaa men but they haven't found out about it, and you have found out about it." That's what he said to me.
    I was really suffering a lot. When I was in labor, my intestine and my womb were connected, so that the child tore me badly, that's what the doctor said, and so I was in severe pain.
    But since he treated me, nothing has ever bothered me. My uncle was very poor, but the power was on him; when a man walked up to him, he just looked him up and down, smiling. And when he did that, they say, he would faint.

    Belle's story reveals the beliefs of the Gwich'in in their spiritual leaders and those of the medicine crafts. The Yataalii and, to a lessor degree, the Ahtnii, and Shahnyaa, were believed to possess the powers to dream and bring spiritual helpers to affect cures or to perform miracles. They were believed to have such powers of the eyes to hypnotize and affect cures of one's spirit. The Yataalii and Ahtnii were in contact with the great spirit of the universe and given the powers to dream. They really were experts in herbal and mineral medicines and very effective in treating common illnesses.

    Another insight into their spiritual beliefs, is Roderick's statement to Belle.."You must be a Shahnyaa woman. I have cured a lot of big Shahnyaa men but they haven't found out about it, and you have found out about it." The belief was that spiritual helpers could only he seen by other spiritual practitioners, and not by ordinary people.

    Belle Herbert's remarkable age of 137 in 1980 is confirmed by her recollection of events that occurred at known times. She was a young girl when Fort Yukon (Gwichyaa Zhee) was struck with the first of many epidemics of smallpox in 1850.

    The Hudson Bay Company explored down the Mackenzie River during the early 18th Century. Then, around 1837, at Fort Mackenzie, a Hudson Bay principal, Alexander Murray, learned that the main population of the Gwich'in was westward over the mountains that form the Continental Divide. Murray secured the assistance of the Gwich'in people there and crossed the mountains. Once across, they first traveled down the Eagle River, then down the Porcupine River to Old Crow. On the way a trading post was established at a hub village on the Eagle River. The trading post was named Fort Lapierre. The village there still exists and is now known as Lapierre House.

    Another trading post was established at Old Crow. Murray then continued further down the Porcupine River, finding many other villages spaced about twenty to thirty miles apart on along the Porcupine. Other trading posts were established along the way.

    Finally, that year (1847), Murray reached the juncture of the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers at the ancient village of Gwichyaa Zhee. He found this to be the population center, or capitol, of the Gwich'in people, and made it his headquarters, naming it Fort Yukon.

    There were two Gwich'in hub villages further down the Yukon River, Venete, Beaver and Kadhizhii, but a few miles down river from Fort Yukon the Chandalar River joins the Yukon. The Chandalar is a major tributary that flows south from the Brooks Range and has three main forks, each having wide, rich valleys that were densely populated. In all, there were more than sixty large Gwich'in villages, and the total population was likely about 80,000 or perhaps twice that.

    Four years later, in 1851, tragedy struck. Alexander Murray returned to Fort Yukon with a group bringing more trade goods. As they paddled down the river toward the island where the trading post stood, they could see no activity along the shores of the normally bustling village. All was deathly quiet as they pulled the laden canoes up to the beach at the trading post. They went inside and were overcome by the powerful stench of dead bodies in the trading post.

    Murray knew the signs of smallpox, but the Gwich'in members of his party did not. They paddled across to the village. Dead bodies were everywhere, most inside the lodges, but a number were around the fringes of the town where they had fallen and died while trying to bring firewood from the forest. Not a single person was alive in either the trading post or the village. During the three weeks of their re-supply trip, a thousand people had died at Gwichyaa Zhee.

    Within the few months following, the epidemic spread rapidly through all other villages and more than half of the entire Gwich'in population died. The fortunate survivors were those who were at the outlying spokes of the hubs, the fishing and hunting camps where the people were not exposed to the highly contagious disease.

    Alexander Murray's subsequent actions were not detailed, but it is known from anecdotal accounts of elders that all of the hub villages were struck with like disaster during 1851. The spiritual leaders who survived organized burn parties to go into the decimated villages and burn all lodges and the decaying bodies inside. They posted the trails with animal skulls to warn any who approached that the places were forbidden to enter. Survivors of families at the hunting and fishing camps were warned to disburse into the forests and live as small groups in order to avoid exposure. The once bustling hub villages were no more than ghost places. Upwards of fifty thousand Gwich'in people died that year, and the survivors were forced to take up a new lifestyle of roaming the wilderness in small bands in order to survive.

    Belle Herbert's mother and her child were the lone survivors of her clan. She took her baby into the wilderness and roamed alone for subsistence until Belle was about twelve Their five year ordeal must have been a terrible odyssey of courage and endurance, during long winters of temperatures that reached seventy degrees below zero and for weeks at at the time the temperature would remain at minus forty degrees.

    Belle, in her biography, relates stories of she and her mother often meeting others in the wilderness, and temporarily clinging together for survival, sharing and helping each other.

    She tells of 'my mother' becoming so blind that she had to be led about holding on to a stick, and then cutting her eyes. It is not clear whether this person was Belle's mother or someone else, as the Gwich'in language uses such terms as 'my mother' in respectful terms when talking of most anyone. Then she said that the woman could see well from then on after her eyes were cut. Could this have been a cataract operation performed in the wilderness? Her description is that of such an operation to remove the growth over the woman's eyes that had blinded her.

    Undoubtedly, the onslaught of smallpox and other highly contagious and killing diseases, forced a change of lifestyle of Alaska's Athabascan people. There was a complete absence of modern medical doctors at that time. It was not until 1942 that the Alaska Native Service began to train young Athabascan women as Nurses Aids. These young women were returned to their home villages and would become modern day medicine women to, alone, take care of all illnesses.

    Unchecked epidemics of smallpox, diphtheria, red measles, and influenza raged between 1851 and 1942 killing many people. Birth rates versus death rates were severely negative during that long period. The inevitable result was a decline of Athabascan population in Alaska of about 95 percent. There was never a so-called "Indian War" in Alaska. During the time when the US Army was driving the Native Americans into reservations in the West, the Alaska Natives were being decimated by new European disease epidemics.

    Most literature about Alaska Natives describe them as nomadic roving bands. Such notions were formed from their circumstances of utter poverty caused by their being decimated by long enduring epidemics. Instead, they were a highly cultured and skillful people, who had created a unique culture over eons. Their spiritual-based culture was ideally suited to the harsh environment of the sub-arctic region where they lived.

    Imbedded within their culture is a spiritual mandate of Shaakaahti, a foundation mandate of the culture, as strong as as the Christian mandate, Thou shalt not kill. Shaakahtii means "take care of", and literally means that every person has the spiritual mandate to take care of each other, to share with each other, and as a group. Their villages were models of such sharing. Meat and supplies were stored in common places called caches. Actually their culture resembled ideal communism, in that everyone contributed according to their abilities and received according to their needs. Individual ownership of property or goods was not practiced. When a person or family accumulated wealth, they gave it away to those who had need. The Athabascans have a ceremony for just that purpose, called the potlatch.

    The potlatch is a randomly held social event, usually sponsored by a large family or clan. It is pre-planned for months ahead. The sponsors invite everyone they know to attend. During the event they display practically everything they own to be taken freely by anyone in attendance. At the end, the sponsors themselves are paupers, having given away everything, as well as spending to provide food and refreshments. Sometimes the potlatch is given by a family following a regular scheduled ceremony, such as the Stick. And the potlatch may be given in honor of a revered person, alive or deceased. The potlatch typifies one important concept of the culture, that wealth is un-important.

    There is much more to the culture of the Athabascans. This treatise just touched upon the basics about... the Oldest surviving Culture of the World.



To the Indigenous Peoples of the North Index

To Features & Maps by Bill Jones

The opinions expressed are those of the author, Bill Jones. This article is copyright ©2000-2009 by Bill Jones.