Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Religion: Northwest Coast

 Hair of the Dog

This first article is about the use of dog hair by the Salish peoples in creating blankets that were purely ceremonial in purpose. The author suggests that the blankets were created for potlatches and were not used in other capacities.
The Salish bred a specific type of dog for the creation of these blankets, a dog that is referred to in the paper as a "wool-dog". There is much archaeological evidence for the existence of these dogs, but until recently there was only anecdotal evidence of them being used for blankets.
One of the interesting things about the wool-dogs was that they were all white. White fur is a recessive gene, which demonstrates that the dogs were specifically bred to be that color. The author believes this was in order to make a ritual link between the wool-dogs and mountain goats, who's wool was incredibly ritually important to the Salish and was also used in making potlatch blankets.
This article was an interesting mix of traditional and oral archaeological methods. Until recently, no dog-hair blankets had been found, suggesting that they did not really exist. However, there was a significant amount of oral history about the blankets, both from the Salish themselves and from Europeans who had come in contact with them. The article included an illustration of a wool-dog by a European explorer. When blankets that were thought to be dog-hair were examined, it was found that they were often instead made of goat wool. This article examined a true dog-hair blanket that had been found and explained that goat wool and wool-dog hair both had ritual meaning and were used for the same purpose within the potlatch system.
According to the author, one of the reasons archaeologists have not found more dog hair blankets is that the Salish used "dog hair blanket" to describe blankets that had been made only partially out of dog hair.

Schulting, Rick

Atna and Tlingit Shamanism

This article discusses magic and shamanism along the Northwest coast, with a focus on the Atna and Tlingit. It is a cross-cultural look at magic between various societies. The Tlingit shamans did not cause illnesses, and had very little influence in curing them. Atna shamans both caused and cured illness.
Much of the article is devoted to the modern day Atna and Tlingit, but the discussions of witchcraft and shamanism are historical and archaeological in nature. (Though the article does discuss some recent fears about witchcraft among the modern-day Atna).
The Atna shaman was known as a "sleeper" or "dream doctor". Women shamans were rare, but thought to be more powerful than their male counterparts. The power was thought to be acquired late in life and to grow in strength with age. Their powers came through dreams, generally dreams that were either repeated or terrifying in nature. Dreaming of an object or a person gave the shaman that object or person's power, while dreaming of a location allowed the shaman to visit that location and learn more about it. Shamans that turned themselves into bears were "bad doctors".
The Tlingit had shamans as well. Every Tlingit shaman had a "Land Otter" spirit helper and had major medical and surgical knowledge. Tlingit shamans could only use their powers to harm other shamans, or to harm enemies of their people. They were not allowed to cure members of their own family. Shamans had particular garb they had to wear, and wore their hair in a specific way to symbolize their role.
The article then goes on to discuss whether or not the shamans existed pre-contact, and ends up deciding that they must have. It is an interesting question, and not one I have seen asked in other articles I have read on the subject of religion.

de Laguna, Frederica
1987 Atna and Tlingit Shamanism: Witchcraft on the Northwest Coast. Arctic Anthropology. 24: 84-100


  1. I read the shamanism article as well and found it quite interesting. Granted I was focused on the conflict between the Tlingit Shamans. I personally found it quite interesting that the Tlingit shamans could only seem to use their powers to harm others as opposed to other types of shamans or witch-doctors in various cultures that have both harming and healing abilities.

  2. The article about the dog hair blankets is very interesting. I had always thought that dogs were used for hunting and protection, so it is cool to hear about a different use for them. I also like that the discovery of these blankets was a result of a combination of oral histories and archaeological data; it just goes to show what can be accomplished when all sources of information are considered. In one of the articles I read about faunal remains on the coast of British Columbia, the authors reported a common occurrence of dog remains (Stewart and Stewart 1996). They said that the dogs were not food sources. Instead, they found seven dog skeletons buried with humans, suggesting that they had some kind of importance. In addition, they found some cut marks on a few of the dog faces, suggesting skinning or some other preparation of the carcasses. Although I do not know whether these dogs were "wool-dogs," it seems plausible that they were used in a similar way.

    Stewart, Frances and Kathlyn Stewart.
    1996 The Boardwalk and Grassy Bay Sites: Patterns of Seasonality and Subsistence on the Northern Northwest Coast, B.C. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 20: 39-60.

  3. The article pertaining to the dog hair blankets was quite intriguing. It is very interesting to hear of selective breeding for white dogs. I wonder, perhaps, how these animals were actually treated in life. Perhaps they were given special attention, as suggested by Britta. I would think that the dogs you talk about were kept alive and perhaps just shaved? Although, I suppose they could have been skinned, but that seems to be a waste of a perfectly reusable (once the hair grows back) resource. It's also interesting to learn that there was no real evidence of these blankets previous to this article.