Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir,
Dispatches of a Missionary by Father
Adrien Gabriel Morice
Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan
Creation Stories of the Déné
None of the Déné tribes of the West observed any religious ceremony. They had no sacrifice, they rendered homage to no divinity, they practised no cult, unless we wish to include the shamanism of the Northern Asiatic races which used to prevail among our Aboriginals.
It is true that they believed vaguely in the existence in an impersonal and undefined divinity; not really a pantheism, still less was it a personal theism. Their god was part of or was, the natural focus of the universe. He was the cause of rain, of snow and other celestial phenomena.
“Vultoere nyuzilloai.” “Vultoere hears you,” they used to say to their too frivolous children to recall them to their duty. This Vultoere, ” he who is on high”, was their godhead.
This godhead was not not held in honour, rather it was feared; the people tried to appease it and the spirits at its service by the incantations of the ‘nilquoen’. The ‘nilquoen’ or sorcerer was believed to have the power of knowing the arrival or departure of bad spirits. He was able, they said, to kill by a single act anyone who may have offended him. They invoked his help in times of calamity, to prevent tempests, to obtain a favourable wind, to hasten the arrival of the salmon and make them come in quantity, but above all to heal sicknesses which they believed to be actual beings, rather like microbes of the modern pharmacy and which they always attributed to the presence of the malice of spirits.
In brief the ‘nilquoen’ was a kind of universal healer doubling as a priest of the devil. We shall see further that he did not let go his hold until all or nearly all the Natives had abandoned him.
Our Aboriginals had some thoughts about the soul which were peculiar to them. They believed that soul gave life to the body; but this soul was for them only the natural body warmth (nezoel), and as such died with the body. Besides that, they attributed to each human being a second “me” which was an invisible shadow (netsen) in times of good health, but was seen roaming here and there in one form or the other when sickness of death was imminent.
To prevent either (sickness or imminent death) all efforts are then made to entice the wandering shadow. To do that, wait until evening then hang up the patient’s moccasins already garlanded with down feathers. The next morning if warmth is felt beneath the feathers, one must assume that the shadow is back inside the moccasins, and the moccasins are used to warm the invalid.
When the patient was unconscious, it was sure that the shadow was gone far away into the land of shadows or the land of spirits. It was also like this after the person died, but then the ‘netsen’ had a different name and became ‘netzul’. This was the transfigured form of what was previously the shadow.
These people acknowledged the immortality of the soul, even though the manner in which they conceived of it was not precise. This believing in a second ‘me’, in a man’s shadow, is still alive among many of our primitive people.
What was this region where the spirits congregate after death? On that point the notions of our Dene were vague and contradictory. All however, seemed to agree in saying that the condition of these shades was really miserable because they had to keep alive on dried toads, animals which are regarded by our Natives as the most unclean of all created things. Apart from this peculiarity they do not seem to have a notion of a clear picture in their minds of these lands beyond the tomb. The following myth will perhaps explain a little of the belief of the Carrier on this subject.
A long time ago two young men were lost in the woods and were wandering helter-skelter. They came upon the hollowed out trunk of an old tree laying on the ground. A little wild and curious to see where the other end of the hollow trunk would lead, they slithered into the trunk.
On hands and knees they crawled for some time along an underground passage. It was dark, the going was hard. They came at length to a place full of snakes, toads and lizards. They almost died of fright. They wanted to go back; it was impossible. Then reviving their courage they began to run and run. Then the way widened and the darkness was gone.
They found themselves at the top of a hill above a river. On the other bank of the river was a village composed of many lodges walled with planks. Some of the lodges were black, some were red.
It is there where the shades dwell. They were, at that moment, playing on the green. Impossible to count them; they were making a deafening noise caused by the interest which they seemed to be taking in their games.
Seeing them, one of the young men fled towards a bush and hid himself there. His cousin,for there were cousins, seeing some black canoes and some red canoes on the other bank, began to call aloud for someone to come and take them over. But the tumult was so great that he was not heard. Tired after repeated but vain efforts, the young man finally yawned, although he did not intend it. A shadow, catching the movement of his mouth (1) told her sisters of it, then they came to get him.
The young man was about to get into the black boat but his foot had barely touched the craft when it gave under his weight, as if it was elastic. Seeing this the shadows came nearer to sniff at him.
“He has no smell of smoke,” said one to the other.
So they knew that he had not been cremated. Then seizing the unlucky lad feverishly in their skinny arms, the angry shades threw him in the air, threw him again as one would throw a ball. There was nothing left any more of his old ‘me’ but the skin which they threw in the river. A big fish ate it (the skin).
His cousin who had remained carefully hidden, then made his way to the land of the living. This time he was not afraid of snakes, toads or lizards, for his sojourn among the shades had made him a different man.
When he got back to the hollow tree, a voice that filled him with sudden awe resounded in his ears: Grandson! Grandson! said the voice.
And at the end of the passage underground, the young man came upon a giant who adopted him as grandson.
After a long series of adventures with his new grandfather, he finally was lifted up into the heavens and it is he that we see now, upright in the moon when the sky is clear.
(Yawning) To understand this point in the legend it is necessary to know that yawning was regarded among the Carrier as attracting to earth the ghosts of the dead.
Such is the Carrier myth, or rather a part of the myth for it would be too long to tell it all. The reader will not fail to notice the belief in this river, like the river of hell which plays such an important role in the mythology of ancient Rome and Athens and which they call ‘Acheron’. The adventures of our two young Aboriginals in the region of the shades also recall, though somewhat remotely, those of Theseus, Hercules Orpheus and Aeneas.
The Carrier used to believe in the transmigration of souls, which for them consisted in a second birth, earned by a virtuous life. Their ideas about the soul would not admit of any transformations into beings of an lower order.
As in all pagan antiquity, the Dene, the Carrier and the Babine, the Chilcotin and the Sekani too, attach much importance to dreams. It was in dreaming that the sorcerers obtained their marvellous power over nature; it was in dreaming that the individual received the guardianship of his own genius, an animal genius. I would not swear that these are not still powerful over the spirit of our Aboriginals, but in a milder form no doubt.