The Power of Stories and Symbols of Alaska
I originally published this post in 2010 after a cruise gig in Alaska. I was so touched by the native Eskimo ways. I was saddened by the pain they have suffered as they attempt to remain true to themselves while also trying to look like they comfortably fit into shoes that are two sizes too small. In many ways, I understood their pain because I married into a family that felt my simple spirituality needed to be converted to a solid religion.
At the time that I originally wrote this post, I was breaking out of that marriage and religious box that felt like prison. Now 18 months later, I can see more clearly. So I’ve updated this article with my added clarity and hindsight. I share this perspective as a stand-in for all native people. Perhaps my point of view can help others to respect them and honor their traditions and ideals.
Alaska’s Secret Symbols and Stories
Beautiful Alaska provides a rich platform for the study of the power of stories and symbols. Its history also explains why symbolism is a foreign language for most people today. The native people, who were only modernized in relatively recent times, offer us a glimpse into our own indigenous selves. Many of us have been detached from the indigenous part of us for generations, but we all have it deep down inside of us.
The land of Alaska remains largely untouched. The native people also remained relatively untouched until the missionaries arrived. The arrival of missionaries in every culture is a huge shock to native people. Missionaries think they are helping the natives much like one upgrades their computer to a newer version with more bells and whistles. But the natives never see it that way.
The Illusion of the Good Missionary
Imagine that you were born into a Christian family, and you are happy. You feel comfort and safety in the Christian religion. Then one day Muslims arrive at your door. They take your Bible and give you a Koran. They tell you that you must get rid of all of your Christian symbols and stories; and now you must follow Muhammed. I don’t know one person that would not be angry or even afraid in such a situation. And yet, many religions, especially Christian ones, still use missionaries to convert others.
Now some will argue that people resist change, and you have to sometimes force change. But I’ve not found forced change to be beneficial. If a person doesn’t want to change, forcing them to do so just causes them to create a superficial persona, an appearance of change. They appear like ducks who glide smoothly over the surface of the water while their feet paddle like crazy beneath the surface.
You’ve probably had a few missionary types show up at your door. You feel this strange need to be nice because you know they mean well, and yet you’d really like to tell them to get lost.
The Christian missionaries are funny because their very own savior on the cross said “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” And that is how I feel when I look at their glassy eyes. They don’t realize how disrespectful it is to impose your beliefs on another person who didn’t ask for the imposition. Jesus never converted anyone; he never forced religion on any other. He invited people to follow him. He shared his ideas; he helped those who asked, and he honored people from all walks of life. These missionaries are not following their own God. They are all so rigid in their point of view; like robots, they truly are on a mission. They can’t imagine that people don’t want to jump on their bandwagon because they have no empathy or compassion. They just want members. And there is a good reason for that. In the false world, the power is in numbers.
So imagine how this transition felt for the native Alaskans? They didn’t just have one missionary standing at their door. They had many demanding that they accept their beliefs, burning their symbols and art, and forcing them to perform rituals that made no sense. The missionaries made it difficult to pass down the native customs and art. They forbade them to have their ceremonies.
To me this is cruelty masked as goodness, and yet it has been done in the name of religion over and over again for thousands of years. The Eskimo elders managed to keep the traditions and legends alive by sharing them in secret. This has happened to native people all over the world; and it is why we modern folks are so out of touch with our native selves.
Now let me be clear. I’m not talking about having a microwave or car versus cooking over a fire and walking. I’m not talking about technology or modern inventions. I’m talking about spirituality. We can have technology and new ways of doing things and still come from a spiritual perspective. That would be the best of both worlds.
We All Share the Power of This Story
We hear the Eskimo’s story, and we think it is their story. But it is all of our stories. Regardless of our religion today, at one point our ancestors were spritually-inclined native people; and they were labeled pagan and made to convert to whatever the latest religion happened to be. Sometimes they were killed for trying to continue their spiritual beliefs. Others simply lived a life that felt like a prison sentence.
For many people today, this native spirituality is trying to come out of hiding. We feel urges to connect with indigenous people, to understand them, and to honor them.
The Eskimo people did not have religion, they had spirituality. They did not have science or books, they had elders. They did not have grocery stores, they had a land abundant with wildlife. In order to make sense of their world, they existed in a state of oneness with everything around them. Respect was their ordinary state of mind. If you respected the whale, he would give himself to you for food when you needed it. If you respected your family and friends, they would share their food with you. Sharing was their way of life; it was not just a nice thing to do.
Their stories explained life in a way that offered meaning to their existence. They also provided answers to problems and challenges. Their shared perspective united them without denying the power of the individual.
The missionaries didn’t have respect for nature. They also didn’t respect the individual perspective. They only had respect for a false, sky God that made no sense to the native. The Eskimos were told that they had to trade a loving God that provided and cared for them for a punishing, vengeful God that wanted submission to a set of rules that were not heart felt and were harmful to mother earth.
One of most enduring symbols of Alaska is the potlatch ceremony. The potlatch ceremony was basically their form of government. At the potlatch, they witnessed births, deaths, marriages, divorces, loans and repayments, and acts of justice. Nothing was written; their language was only spoken. This reliance on the spoken word implies a level of trust that we have lost. Now we record everything to protect ourselves.
Masks and totem poles are powerful symbols of Alaska. They add beauty, meaning, and story to each ceremony. They told the stories of the people and families. They symbolized their status in the community. Gifts were given in exchange for acting as a witness to the transactions at the potlatch. There is a beautiful simplicity to all of their customs and ways. It is easy to forget that I’m not talking about thousands of years ago.
The Symbols of Alaska are Strange to Others
Often we look at other people’s symbols and think they are strange or primitive because we don’t understand them. We forget that others find our symbols just as strange. Many people from other countries look at the back of our US dollar bill and wonder why there is a pyramid on it when we have no pyramids in this country. We call their rituals weird, and yet many of us even as adults avoid stepping on a crack so we don’t break our mother’s back. Many professional athletes carry a lucky charm. We do it because it feels right. And I say it feels right because some part of us connects with that symbol and its ancient meaning. It is a connection to our ancient past when people were real, authentic, and spiritually centered.
Symbols are powerful. They are also largely unconscious. They speak without words. The great symbologist, Manly P. Hall, said “Symbols have the power to reveal and conceal at the same time.” To those who know the meaning, a symbol has power and conveys universal wisdom. But to those who do not understand the symbol, the message becomes hidden or esoteric wisdom.
On a simple level, we obey a stop sign without even reading the word stop because symbols communicate quickly and effortlessly with our unconscious mind. They are also eternal. We may not consciously remember their ancient meaning, but we unconsciously remember it.
The Raven, The Great Supernatural Creator
The most common symbol of Alaska and the Eskimo legends is the raven. The raven symbolizes the great supernatural, creator bird. Raven could travel between worlds. He is the mythological creator that brought the sun, stars, and the moon to the earth. He brought light to the people; and his stories convey his escapades in an entertaining manner.
Raven gave life and love, but he also tricked the natives. He tricked them to get them to think or create. He tricked them to make life interesting. He tricked them to solve their problems. He tricked them to push them to fulfill their potential.
The Alaskan natives understood that Raven is not just a character but a part of their mind. We all project Raven out into the world to create our path or destiny in the physical plane of life. He represents the part of us that lives in the world but also has a spirit that lives beyond the limitations of this world. You could say Raven has the big picture. Raven is quiet when we are on our path; but if we get off track, Raven creates some commotion to get our attention, force us to let go, or push us to change courses.
Their shamans traveled between worlds like the Raven. And they shared the big picture with their people. They were the human embodiment of Raven. In fact, one elder, upon hearing about the first lunar landing, commented that it took us a long time to get to the moon, the Shaman have always traveled there.
Jesus was Just Another Shaman
It sounds strange to many Christians, but to the natives Jesus was just another shaman. They had shamans who traveled to other worlds, healed the sick, and manifested the things they needed. This created confusion because they loved their shamans, so they knew they would love the Christian shaman, Jesus, too.
But the Christians saw Jesus as someone who does it for them. They saw Jesus as superhuman. They didn’t try to be like Jesus or think like Jesus. They used Jesus as a whip to persecute and convert others. They wanted the natives to worship Jesus as God. This thinking was very confusing to the natives. It seemed that Jesus made these people do crazy, heartless acts.
When I hear about the Raven of the Eskimos or the Coyote of the southwestern natives, I wonder if the mean, old punishing God of the Old Testament used to be a trickster God. The old, man God is supposedly located in the sky; so it appears that he was once a sky God. All around the world, native people had sky Gods. As humans moved toward the idea of patriarchal leadership, it seems that the role of the sky God changed from trickster to punisher.
You see, the Raven’s job was to prod us along and enrich our life. But that information was lost, and Moses presented the sky God as a punisher. Raven was never seen as punishing to native Eskimos. Likewise, it makes no sense that a God would ever punish. Gods are made of love; they guide, support, and teach.
The missionaries’ way of converting people to the Christian religion is not much different than Moses’ way of converting the Israelites. He banned their Holy Cow and gave them punishments and curses for disobedience. Nearly 4000 years later, nothing much has changed because we still honor the patriarchal point of view.
The natives had it right. As I spend my days letting go of the beliefs I picked up along my life journey, I see that every challenge, fear, or pain pushes me to let go even further. If I let go of my beliefs, labels, and lies, I become one with others, more universal. The trickster is my best friend if I see him as encouraging, challenging, or even tricking me a little to move me to oneness.
But here is the key. The trickster and punisher look like two different beings. But they are not. They are two different perspectives of the same being. That is a lot to think about. But it is the very core of the perspective shift that brings heaven back down to earth.
You see there is a world of difference between punishing someone because they are bad and pushing them along because they have greater potential. The missionaries gave what they had; and what they had to give was the punishing sky God. It must have felt like a horrible tradeoff from fun-loving Raven. So who is more primitive? Who is really lost? Who is contributing to mother earth and who is harming? It all depends on the shoes you are standing in.
But my way of determining right and wrong or good and evil is to look at whose point of view is most inclusive? Whose point of view is most expansive? Whose point of view does not harm others? This one is just so easy to call. The wrong and evil in this situation is clearly the missionaries. And where pain exists, in my experience, it always comes from believing the wrong people.
To some that might sound heretical, but perhaps it is profound wisdom. In our fast-paced world, most of us have lost our connection with mother earth. We don’t connect with any God except through religious clergy and institutions. We feel a bit safer, knowing that we don’t have to hunt and gather our food; and at the same time, we find ourselves at the mercy of big business. And most important, the average human being is increasingly more separate and lonely. They say that stupidity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results. I say that stupidity is following the same beliefs and traditions when they have never worked.
Modern People are Noisy
The Eskimo people say that modern people are noisy. They’ve adopted our ways and some even hunt with rifles and jet skis. They demonstrate that people are adaptable. But I sometimes wonder if that is a good thing. Perhaps that is what keeps people thinking that others should adapt to fit their desires and needs. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to adapt without discriminating first.
The natives of Alaska say the land used to be open and free to everyone, now it has boundaries. They say the children used to listen to the elders, now they listen to iPods. They say that their people used to have a spiritual connection with everything, now they have religion.
Some feel they have lost; others say, it is just change. And change requires adjustment, a letting go of the old and an accepting of the new. But there is a big difference between the Raven’s change for better good and the fear of punishment sold to the natives by the missionaries. All over the world, people are waking up and realizing that not all change is good. Sometimes the old ways are best, especially if they come from the heart.