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Eyak Pitek, Emily

Description

This entry focuses on the Eyak living in the Copper River Delta, Alaska, around the time of 1890. The principal ethnographic source of information (Birket-Smith and De Laguna, 1938) reconstructs this focal time using informant testimony, written sources, and the account of American Colonel Abercrombie’s visit to the area in 1884. Reconstruction was necessary given that by the beginning of the 20th century, “…the 'civilizing' of the Eyak was practically complete, and they had almost ceased to exist as a separate tribal entity” (Birket-Smith and De Laguna, 1938:360-361). Consequently, limited information on the Eyak’s nonmaterial culture was available, making a description of Eyak religious beliefs and practices somewhat limited. However, enough information is available to gather a general picture these religious beliefs and practices. Overall, the Eyak beliefs are animistic in nature, as “all animate and inanimate things have souls or spirit ‘owners’” (Birket-Smith and De Laguna, 1938:230). The spirits of deceased human beings are present, but not described in detail. There is indication that the sun was important and worshipped in earlier times. Also present are a variety of supernatural beings (often associated with natural elements or meteorological phenomenon), such as the somewhat mythic Thunderbird, or the spirit in control of the Copper River. Magic plays an important role in daily life, including taboos and superstitions around subsistence activities. Fasting served as a means of invoking the supernatural, or (in addition to sexual abstinence) promoting ritual purity. Witches and shaman are both present, and could be either male or female. Witches are differentiated as they only use their powers for evil. Shamans, on the other hand, possess high esteem; they serve as ritual leaders, medical/supernatural healers, and can enter trance states to foresee future events. Informants believe their powers are possibly inherited somehow, and note that their spirit helper(s) manifest(s) in dreams. Shamans are not equivalent to chiefs, but chiefs can command the services of shaman. Because religion does not exist in a distinct realm, but is rather bound up with the functioning of society at large, this entry considers the religious group to be coterminous with the society itself.

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