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An Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes


Spirit Beings and Places of Power

How do traditional narratives about spirit beings and culture heroes shape Aboriginal views of landscape?

Traditional narratives connect specific places with the journeys of spirit beings who traversed between the 'Old World', where humans and animals moved interchangeably between human and animal forms, and the 'New World', where they no longer move from one form to another. The tales relate how events in their travels, such as struggles with others and good deeds, shaped geographical forms and features. Narratives associated directly to a specific people or shared among several peoples record the exploits of these spirit beings. Such stories often focus on the journeys of culture heroes, like Glooscap, the transformer of the Eastern Woodlands, who is credited with creation of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia(Carpenter, 1985), or Yamoria, the law giver of the Dene in the Northwest Territories(Blondin, 1997).

The stages of the journeys and exploits of Yamoria and his namesakes through the Mackenzie Basin can be related to specific features in that landscape.(Andrews, 1990) The narratives vary from group to group, but their climax occurs at the same geographical point, Bear Rock on the Mackenzie River. Many Dene regard Bear Rock as a sacred site, and its symbolic importance is reflected in its selection as the logo of the Dene Nation, which represents the relation between the Dene and their homeland, Deneneh.(Hanks, 1993)

Single stone in arch shape surrounded by vegetation.
Aerial view of stone arch, Bear Rock, Northwest Territories
© Parks Canada / Archaeological Services Branch / Ellen Lee / 1994

The Gwich'in cycle of stories of the trickster Raven records how the hollows in the landscape known today at Tsiigehtchic are his camp and bed.(Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, 1997: 800-07) In northern Quebec sites associated with the travels of the giant beaver still in transformation mode populate the demographically vacant map.(Craik and Namagoose, 1992) The main street pattern of Wendake, Quebec follows the mythological route of ancient serpents.

For the Stó:lo people of lower mainland British Columbia narratives tell how places contain the powers of transformers or spirit beings, such as the transformer Xa:ls, the son of the sun, at Th'exelis overlooking the Fraser River and at Xá:ytem National Historic Site.(Mohs, 1994: 189-195. Lee and Henderson, 1992; Smyth, 1997; HSMBC Minutes, November 1997)

Torrent of water through narrow canyon
Kitselas Canyon, British Columbia
© National Archives of Canada / C 46603, 1909.

What are places of power?

Sacred sites are experienced as places of power which intimately link the physical and spiritual worlds. Interfaces between land and water are often places where power lies, for example the whirlpools in Kitselas Canyon, British Columbia. Mnjikaning Fish Weirs at Atherley Narrows in Ontario, where two lakes converge, exemplifies such power. Fish arrive annually, and band councils bring together different peoples who are fed by the abundant resources.(Sheryl Smith, pers.comm.)

Places of power in the landscape consolidate spiritual energy. They can be places of strengthening as in vision quest sites, or places experienced as malevolent and threatening. Both are approached through rules of conduct, customs, rituals, ceremonies, and offerings. In the Dogrib vernacular, it is said that these places, and the entities inhabiting them, are being 'paid'.(Andrews and Zoe, 1997)

Some places of power are reserved for shamans. Over time, the power of transformation between human and animal came to belong only to selected people. These individuals were shamans who possessed medicine power. They were, however, proscribed from sharing their knowledge at the risk of losing their capacities. In Dene culture, the medicine power of shamans is a spirit, with a mind of its own, which attaches to them and gives them supernatural abilities.(Blondin, 1997: 51-53)

Diver viewing underwater fish weir stakes.
Fish weir stakes underwater at the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs, Atherley Narrows, Ontario
© Parks Canada / Archaeological Services Branch / 41m226t

Sites where people obtain materials used in ceremonial activities, such as mineral resources and native plants which are key elements of spiritual practices, are also places of power.

The spirits residing in places of power guide the daily activities of people in their lives on the land. They also provide guidance for the placement of camps, the timing of crossing water, crossing points on rivers, and successful approaches to the hunt.


Last Updated: 2008-10-17 To the top
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