Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alsea Ethnography And Beaver Creek Marsh

The Alsea people lived near Beaver Creek marsh before homesteading and farming began in the area after 1850.  Two important sources for ethnographic information about the Alsea people are articles by Frachtenberg (1920) and Drucker (1939).  
Frachtenberg collected Alsea texts and myths, which give a picture of characters and cosmology that are important to the Alsea people.  He made extensive comparisons between Alsea myths and those of other tribes in surrounding regions.  He concluded that the Alsea did not have unique mythical traditions, instead sharing myths with other tribes and acting as a transition region between southwestern and northwestern tribes by combining collections of myths from both regions.  The Alsea did not have creation myths, but instead accepted that the world was always created.  They told tales about the characters inhabiting the world.  
A prominent feature of Alsea myths is the prevalence of the explanatory element and its importance.  Many examples are recorded by Frachtenberg and these reflect the detailed knowledge about the natural world that the Alsea lived in.  Why Robin is timid.  Wren’s small size.  Why Crane spears fish at low tide.  Why Snipes cry during a fog.  Why Black Bear likes to dig up graves.  Beaver’s superiority over Black Bear.  Why Whale never comes to the mouth of a river.  Why Whale is washed ashore only near the village of a chief.  Why people fish with poles.  Why Snakes shed their skin.  Why Hawk bites off heads of other birds.  Why Woodpecker’s head is red.  Why Woodpecker’s head is white.  Why Flies crawl even after they are cut in two.  The existence of a legendary mountain that reaches to the sky.  Why Wolves like to kill Elk.  The origin of Salmon in the several rivers.  Names of certain places.  Origin of camas.  Rocks instead of a waterfall in a certain locality.  The differentiation of the People into various tribes.  Why Fur-Seal seeks refuge on land during a storm.  The existence of Fleas.  Why People boil and smoke Salmon.  Why Thunder lives in the sky.  The knots on a thimble berry stalk.  Why it is a bad omen to hear the cry of Kingfisher, especially as he flies over a smoking chimney.  Why Hawk has a twisted neck.  Why Black Bear acts occasionally like a human being.  The origin of Elk’s name (“Food”).  
There is an Alsea myth called “The Lost Seal Hunters” which is about people who lived at Seal Rock.  The story probably refers to the midden site at Seal Rock that has been studied with archaeological methods.  The story tells that there were two houses and two canoes at Seal Rock.  The people made all sorts of things for fishing, including ropes out of seal sinew and spears.  The story tells about hunting a seal and the things that needed to be done to capture and kill the seal.  One day, the hunters spear a seal which takes them far out into the ocean and south and they travel for several days until finally killing the seal.  They cut the seal loose and land where they do not recognize the people.  They beg some food, leave their canoe with the strange people, and walk north for several days along the shore until coming home to Seal Rock again.
Drucker collected information on Alsea ethnography including subsistence, houses, canoes, technology and weapons, dress, utensils, textiles, fire, tobacco and smoking, musical instruments, dogs, games, calender, eclipse, wealth, social life, individual life, first-salmon rites, and shamanism.  
The Alsea were fisher folk, with salmon being the most important species captured.  Traps and spears were considered the most effective means for fish capture, while nets and hooks were used less frequently.  Land animals were hunted with traps, snares, and bow and arrow.  Sea mammals were captured with harpoons and spears. Women prepared and preserved food that had been captured by fishing and hunting and contributed food that was gathered in carrying baskets.  With curved digging sticks, they dug camas and fern and skunk cabbage roots.  They also collected clams, mussels, berries, and greens. 
Winter houses were constructed as long houses in pits lined with cedar planks and roofed with gabled cedar planks.  Houses could hold from one to four families.  Tule mats were used as bedding, to sit on, and as floor coverings.  Other furniture included baskets, utensils, and household implements.  Temporary rectangular structures were constructed of reeds and light poles for seasonal fishing camps.  The Alsea had three types of canoes.  The larger Nootka canoe was purchased from northern traders and used for ocean fishing.  Smaller canoes were constructed by the Alsea from a single piece of wood, with similar bow and stern.  Canoes had paddles, poles, a bailer, and a painter, as well as fishing gear.  Wood working was proficient but did not include ornamentation.  For wood working, stone tools were little used, while shell, horn, and bone were widely used.
Household items were simple and effective.  Two kinds of receptacles were used.  Cooking vessels and bowls were carved from maple or alder.  Cooking vessels were large and trough shaped, while bowls were smaller and round.  Other containers were basketry.  Split spruce roots were twined to make deep, round water buckets and berry baskets.  Other baskets were flexible bags, woven out of tule and tough beach grass, in the shape of a blunt wedge, wider at the top than at the bottom.  Smaller baskets of the same shape were often made of finer work and decorations.  Cordage was made with beach grass, the inner bark of willow, or tule.  Rope was made by braiding cordage together.  Tule mats were made by sewing with a long, curved wooden needle.  Musical instruments included bone whistles, wooden flutes, roof boards hit with poles for drums, and a buzzer, constructed of a wooden disk, spun with two twisted cords, that produced a buzzing sound.  Fire was kindled with a simple drill of hardwood and a willow hearth.  Heating and cooking fires were built of sticks laid against a backlog.  The fireplace in the house was not a pit, but on the level of the rest of the floor.  
When a person became ill, a shaman was sent for.  The shaman used amulets according to instructions from her helper spirits, as seen in dreams and visions during initial training.  Shamans would have amulets of animal fur or feathers, face paint, and a wide belt of elk hide.  They would also bring a set of carved sticks from thumping against the roof boards.  At the patient’s side the shaman sang, accompanied by spectators.  Then the shaman began to dance and display tricks taught by the helper spirits.  As the dance progressed, the shaman moved into a trance state and diagnosed the patient’s malady.  Sickness could be caused by a disease object in the patient’s body, which was then removed.  To extract a disease object, the shaman either sucked it out or drew it out with her hands.  When the shaman had the object firmly, two assistants grasped the shaman by the wide leather belt and drew back.  If the shaman sucked the object out, it was placed in the shaman’s hands and plunged into a basket of water to weaken it.  Then the shaman showed the small whitish thing to onlookers.  If the shaman could not cure the patient, she was free to say so or suggest another shaman that may effect a cure.  
If the patient’s soul had been displaced by the disease object, the shaman sang, sending the helper spirit to retrieve the soul.  When a person died, their soul traveled swiftly northward to the place where it crossed in a canoe to the Land of the Dead and did not return.  In soul-loss sickness, the soul seems to have loitered along the way, so that the shaman’s helper spirit could overtake and return it to the patient’s body. 
Shamans also were called upon for other tasks associated with magic.  These included curing a failure of the salmon run, or other food shortage.  These events were caused by disease objects being placed in the rivers or places for food.  The shaman sang and danced to see and remove the object with the assistance of her helper spirits. Shamans bathed mourners after burial of kin and after a prescribed period to remove taboos placed on them.  Shamans sang and danced to predict the future, especially with regards to food abundance or famine.  A shaman’s life required much training and preparation and could be rewarding with wealth and prestige.  However, if the shaman was ever accused of witchcraft or black magic, she was fearful, with her life in danger from ambush by angry patients and their relatives. 

The Alsea calender was based on moon cycles.  The name of each month was determined by the particular berries picked or games played at that period only.  Examples: February month for spear throwing game, March month for top spinning, April month for rolling hoops, May month for picking salmon berries, July month for picking salal berries, August month when salmon arrive, October month when they cease drying salmon, and December month for telling myths. Eclipse of the moon was caused by great flocks of birds, chiefly birds of prey- eagles, hawks, and ravens who flew up to fight the moon. When an eclipse happened, the People turned dishes and even canoes upside down, so as not to catch some of the moon's blood. 

Posted by michael

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