Traditional Culture

Traditional Athapaskan culture revolved around the hunting of land mammals such as moose, caribou and bear, and fishing for salmon and northern pike. Social organisation was based on small, mobile kinship groups, and communities generally consisted of several nuclear families, often connected through various relationships and alliances. Regional kinship ties could make up a group or band of several hundred people. Two Old Women and Athapaskan culture has an immensely rich spiritual and cultural heri-

BirdGirl&theMan Who tage. Oral history and mythology describe how landscape features and Followed the Sun, by the moon, sun, wind and stars were originally human beings, whose Velma Waiiis, retell the spirits are now embodied in aspects of the natural world. To this day a legends, life stories and fundamental theme in the Athapaskan world view is respect for nature tales of survival of the and animals. Traditionally, humans and animals were not clearly distin-Gwich'in people, one of guished, and stories tell how they often lived in the same communities, 11 Athapaskan groups. even sharing households.

Accounts of Distant Time, a remote and ancient time, describe the origins of the world, the elements and the animals. The Raven is a central figure in these stories; it was he who created the world by banishing the darkness, revealing the daylight and creating the first people. From the Distant Time stories people learn the proper rules and behaviour for interacting with animals and the natural world. If animals are not respected and treated properly, vindictive natural spirits can endanger the whole community. Like other indigenous peoples, the Athapaskans had shamans who called to game in times of starvation, cured the sick, and appeased malevolent spirits.

The Athapaskan respect for animals is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the fact that animals such as bears and wolverines are given funeral rituals after they are killed. Traditionally, after a moose is killed, the hunter punches out the eyeballs so that the moose's spirit can escape and the animal cannot see what is then done to its body.

One of the most famous Athapaskan traditions is the potlatch, a ceremony that honours the dead and the connection between ancestors and the living. The potlatch is also the elaborate, highly ritualised exchange and distribution of gifts, and was often the primary way by which an individual achieved prestige in and beyond their community.

Traditional arts revolve largely around local natural materials. Decorated birch bark containers, porcupine-quill work, moosehair tufting, and beading are the most popular crafts. Intricate beading patterns adorn everything from hair clips to moccasins, jackets, mitts and bags. Contemporary Athapaskan music focuses on the fiddle, and the lively tunes that are now considered traditional resemble a cross between Cajun and Scottish styles.

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