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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The origins of the Tsetseqa in the Baxus : a study of Kwakiutl prayers, myths and ritual Reid, Katerina Susanne


Purpose of Investigation: In using the terms baxus and tsetseqa Kwakiutl make an explicit nature/culture distinction. The winter season, tsetseqa, is dedicated to communal ritual. In the Summer--baxus--Kwakiutl disperse to gather food. The thesis is an investigation into the conceptual significance Kwakiutl give to the distinction. Its purpose is to elucidate how the baxus is related to the tsetseqa; how great social rituals like the winter dance originate in a conception of man's relation to the natural world. Data and Method: To this end three kinds of texts have been examined: prayers to animals and plants used for food, myths about man's relation to animals, and rituals welcoming animals. Most of the texts are George Hunt's, Boas' Kwakiutl helper. Their analysis is not primarily a formal undertaking, but an attempt at the translation of culture. Kwakiutl conceptions are examined both as part of the expressive system that contains them and for their accessibility and validity in a universal rational framework. The method of analysis is adapted in every case to the type of text. Each type is analysed as a genre in itself and for its relation to the thought of the tsetseqa. The investigation is therefore also a contribution to the question of genre-classification. Analysis is carried out on the lexical and structural levels, focussing on the differentials in the distribution of semantic load and the principles by which textual units are combined. Findings: The nature/culture dichotomy, expressed as baxus and tsetseqa raises for Kwakiutl the issue of determinism. Baxus life confronts them with an ethical problem they cannot solve: they find themselves destroying beings they reverence in order to sustain their lives, and so contract a debt to the animals under the laws of necessity. The texts attempt to define the nature of human boundness and find ways of transcending it. Two ways of resolving the dilemma stand out: a symbolic situation consisting of a scheme of guilt and amendment, and a psychological solution consisting of an affective inversion. The two are connected in the sense that the former furnishes a language for the latter. All three kinds of text speak of human accountability through killing and eating. The myths are made up of two opposing syntagms, one of the contract allowing men to live on animals, the other of the inevitability of the animals' retribution. The prayers and rituals speak of men's divided will: their desire to live in peace with the animals and their simultaneous intention to kill them. Hence the texts present the human condition as a dilemma. All three kinds of text indicate however, a resolution through a transposition to the intra- and interpersonal plane of culture. The animals, who give themselves voluntarily to men in the Summer, turn hunters in the Winter with men as their game. The cannibalistic spirits of the tsetseqa represent the obverse of the game animals of the baxus. If men give themselves voluntarily to these animal-spirits of the Winter to be killed and eaten, they can repay the debt of the Summer. The symbolic reversal of roles expresses a realistic solution on the psychological level. Baxus and tsetseqa are connected through an inversion of fear. That which is feared in the baxus life is voluntarily sought and faced in the tsetseqa. In forestalling death by facing it, the Kwakiutl initiate overcomes necessity on the cultural level and becomes free. The texts connect the animals with the tsetseqa spirits, baxus man as hunter and eater with the initiate who is hunted and eaten, and the animals' gift of life to men with the initiate's gift of life to the community As the animal's gift is the basis of men's physical life, so the initiate's gift of freedom to the community is the basis of the truly human society.

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