Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Tlicho Spirits

I have to define them as "spirits," because the Tlicho didn't have "ghosts" as the dominant cultures imagines them until after they made contact with Europeans. Digression: during the last 300 years, though, they've taken on some new religious beliefs, in their case, Roman Catholicism. Along with that, I think, came the sort of 'ghosts' that I've read reported in books written by recent researchers into the culture. Those modern spirits are just like ours: the restless and sometimes violent echoes of the bad, the mad, or the murdered. 

Before the Europeans brought their sometimes sad, sometimes scary spooks, the Tlicho could hardly be called "spirit-poor." An almost endless number of supernatural beings inhabited their everyday world, but in ways it took me a while to get the hang of. Mostly these beings are not angry or bent on vengeance. They are simply part of the fabric of the world the Tlicho observed. Staying right relationship with nature, staying in balance, was a central thought in this world view. This careful observation of the world around them, led them to see their position in relation to their environment as a thread woven into a greater fabric, part of which was a vast host of unseen--but--undeniably present beings.

Pre-contact, they were nomadic hunters whose survival depended upon the weather and the movements of animals, so they paid close attention to every detail of their surroundings as they moved about the dè--modern Canada's NWT.

Yearly, they traveled across an immense territory following the annual migrations of birds, fish, and caribou. Their prey, however, was not a simple commodity. The animals collectively and individually had spirit, just as the men who hunted them did. If a hunter disrespected the caribou, they might walk another path the following year and not come the expected way.

It was believed that the caribou willingly gave their bodies to the hunters. As one should when given a gift, the giver should be gratefully and politely thanked. This was done with certain prescribed rituals (which the Tlicho saw simply as "rules of behavior") for the sacrifice of their living bodies. Those gigantic herds were not just food animals, but fellow beings, in relationship with their Tlicho hunters, emanations of the "Great Spirit," all beings going about their business as instructed by the first great Tlicho magician, Yamǫǫ̀zha.*1

Over centuries, The People walked the same trails and canoed the intricate network of waterways. The landscape itself, from forest to tundra, was filled with a species of entity which I first learned about in long ago Latin classes, supernatural beings which the Romans referred to as "Numen." These spirits of place might occupy rocks, trees, camping spots, waterfalls and lakes, all of which frequently had a "power" or "powers" associated with them. 

Small tokens of respect are still left after camping near one of these places, or after fishing, or even simply as one travels past a sacred rock or waterfall. This is called "paying the land." According too Allice Legat: "People leave on site something they value and use, such as coinage, spruce boughs, or rosaries. A student gave a pencil because it was important to her success in school." Further, "...if human beings ignore rules and do not show respect, they will probably have a difficult time because these entities may withdraw their assistance."* (from Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire.)  (*1)

Spirits could sometimes be malevolent. One kind called "weyèedii or 'animal-beings' were "regarded as dangerous, and consequently, always avoided. Through dreaming and the acquisition of ı̨k’ǫǫ̀ or “medicine”, sometimes “power,” “knowledge,” or “luck”, a person could prepare to deal with the world," and the varied powers which inhabit it.(*2)

Spirits of earth and rock were not invulnerable. In order to explain the "continuing death and decay" in the toxic areas which continue to exist around the polluting Rayrock Uranium mine, Elder Romie Wetrade told a story.* Rayrock, he said, used to be called "The Happy Place," because hunters who traveled through the area felt liking singing. When the mine opened, however, in the 1950's, the happy spirits were driven away by blasting and other human activities. The closing down of the mine has not brought them back, either. Displaced by the tearing up of the earth and breaking of rock, these once joyous spirits are now presumed to be fading, homeless wanderers. The very character of these spirits requires a "home place." 

Spirits could be wind or water as well as rock. One modern story I read concerned a wind coming up so heavily that a gathering of elders and teenagers was trapped beside a lake when their float plane could not take off. While the campers waited it out, an elder told them stories about the wind, "in the boreal forests and on the tundra and on large lakes." When the stories had been told, another elder "built a raft, placed burning spruce boughs on it," and pushed it out onto the lake.  As he did so, he asked for "calm winds and a safe journey. It only took two hours for the wind to die down..." so that their journey could safely continue.  (*2)

Where I stand is holy

Holy is the ground 
Forest, mountain river
Listen to the sound 

Great Spirit circles all around me.


~Juliet Waldron

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This Tlicho story reminds me of the "The Crab Who Played with Sea" in the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling. Here, all the animals "played the play the great magician taught them at the very beginning." Kipling probably borrowed this notion from the indigenous people of India where he did military service. 

~In Europe, all through the 19th century and into the 20th, many historians, artists  and literary figures avidly collected, studied, and wrote and made collections of "world-wide" folkloric traditions. To me, all these tales of every nation appear so intertwined--culturally altered echoes of common themes-- that they must be part of our common "out of Africa" psychic past.

~In Miyasaki's Spirited Away, there is a character who befriends the heroine that is a wandering spirit. In this case, it is that of a river which was relegated to underground channels when a city built over it. This seems to be a Japanese version of the Rayrock story of the way things sometimes happen with displaced spirits. This particular spirit has managed to stay positive about humans, which is not always the case.

Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire, Knowledge and Stewardship Among the Tlicho Dene 
by Allice Legat


From The Tlicho Nation homesite:

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