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The supernatural beliefs of the Indians are discussed by Ingstad. Interestingly enough, the carnivorous animals in the area are not killed for any reason as they may be reincarnated souls.

January 6, 1929

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The Land of Feast and Famine - The Barren Ground Indians

Helge Ingstad

Man The Fat Hunter
Pre-civilization races
Religion
Carnivore Diet

The Indians' world of ideas is extremely limited and is confined, as it is reasonable to expect, to hunting and wilderness life. They know little about anything that lies outside their immediate sphere of existence, and they have not the slightest interest in improving their knowledge. It has therefore been extremely difficult for the spiritual impulses of the white race to make any impression upon these people. 


The ancient heathenish conceptions are combined to form an implicit faith in spirits resident in the various beasts of the forest, in the sun, wind, stars, et cetera. In many instances the exact influence of a particular spirit is somewhat vague. When a person falls ill, it is a sign that a spirit has got into him. The spirit must therefore be expelled by means of divers rites. In other cases it is important that one should avoid doing anything which might invoke the displeasure of a certain spirit, lest its vengeance be visited upon the entire tribe. Ideas of punishment and reward beyond the grave have no place in the belief of these Indians. The origin of man is interpreted, in terms of legends dealing with animals and spirits. There are further indications of a myth concerning a deluge which, at the dawn of time, inundated all the land. 


The Indians of today are moved by teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, whose rituals find great response in their souls. How deeply rooted their faith has become is another matter entirely. It is possible that the Indians, even with the advent of the new teaching, remain faithful to their old superstition; the following will possibly throw some light on this subject. 


Presumably the old rites are continued in secret. I do not make this statement from personal experience, but from the observations of white men who, for certain specific purposes, stand in direct contact with the natives. 


The old belief in souls incarnated in the bodies of animals may still be traced. The Indians thus believe that misfortune will result from the killing of such creatures as the raven, the wolf, the wolverine, and the dog, and they avoid such killings whenever possible. It would be a simple matter for them to harvest wolf pelts in the same quantity as do the white trappers, but they refuse to slay a wolf, although a bounty of thirty dollars per head is offered for these creatures. There are Indians farther west who will even go so far as to throw away their rifles in the event of killing a wolf. This same superstition is probably responsible for the ancient custom of abandoning the old and infirm in the wilderness as sacrifices to the beasts of prey. 


The common rule is that the bear, too, must be preserved. But here another thought appears to be involved, a thought based upon the conception of guardian animals, in whose bodies reside spirits responsible for man's well-being. No guardian animal must ever be slain, and no use whatever may be made of its pelts, above all by women, if misfortune is to be avoided. It is a known fact that the bear is not preyed upon east of Slave Lake. It is slain only when there is a definite food shortage or in self-defense. 


In this connection, I once heard a story of a white man married to an Indian woman. The wife had been poorly for some weeks and was showing no signs of improvement. She could not understand what ailed her, until one day the thought came to her that perhaps her husband had a bearskin somewhere in the cabin. She set about to look for it. Sure enough, up under the rafters she found the pelt of a bear cub. The manner in which these married people reached a final agreement, we may just as well skip over, but the result was that the bearskin went out the door, and the wife recovered the very next day from her illness. 


Amongst the tribes living along the Mackenzie River guardian animals are determined in a particular manner. When a young boy or a young girl attain a certain age, they betake themselves unaccompanied into the forest. There they build a fire and lie down beside it. Without taking any nourishment whatever, they sit there keeping themselves awake for two or three days, until at length, from sheer exhaustion, they fall into a deep slumber. The first animal they see in their dreams becomes their guardian beast throughout their lives. 


In connection with their belief in spirits incarnate in animals and in the elements, the Indians also have their legends. These are handed down from one generation to the next whenever the Indians are gathered together for some special occasion. The legends often have to do with the characteristics of the various animals and are fantastic explanations of how these characteristics came into being — how the beaver came to have a flat tail, how the lynx came to have a spotted coat, et cetera. As an example, I shall repeat the story of the man who snared the sun: 


One winter a hunter and his squaw were roaming about after the caribou. They had packed everything they had to their name in a deerskin which the squaw was dragging along behind her. Farther and farther north they proceeded, but the caribou were nowhere to be seen. At last they found themselves in the Land without Trees. Here it was bitterly cold and this cold increased as the sun sank lower and lower until at length it had almost reached the edge of the world. " Now we are losing the sun, and that means we shall freeze to death," they said to each other. In one way or another they must prevent the sun from disappearing altogether. So the squaw took the deerskin she was dragging along, cut it up into long strips, and made an enormous lasso. The man then cast the noose about the sun, drew it tight, and fastened the nether end to a huge stone. The sun was ensnared. That was the end of the cold, but in his haste the hunter had drawn too hard upon the lasso, so that now the sun was right over their heads like a glowing ball of flame. They had been on the point of freezing to death before, but now they were in danger of burning up. Their experience was so limited that they didn't know how to cut the rope, for the rock to which they had fastened it was directly under the sun, and it was so scorching hot there that no living thing could get near it. 


At this point a shrewmouse came up to them and asked why they were wailing so. They explained to the shrew their difficulty. " Could be worse," said the shrew, which then left them and dug a deep tunnel through the earth right up to the rock. There he poked no more than the tip of his nose up through the ground and gnawed the lasso in two. With that, the sun sailed off into the blue. But the shrew's front teeth were badly scorched and have been brown ever since that day. . . .