Ceremonial Paddles from the Eyak Indians, Alaska

By: F. de L.

Originally Published in 1934

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THE Joint Expedition to Alaska of the University Museum and the Danish National Museum was fortunate in securing two specimens of unique character. These are the two dancing ‘paddles’ or ceremonial wands, illustrated in Plate X, from the Eyak Indians of the Copper River delta, southwestern Alaska. This little tribe, probably never numbering more than two hundred persons even in the days of its strength, is now fast nearing extinction and can boast of less than thirty members, even including the half-breed children who are growing up ignorant of the old traditions. Of the numerous masks, drums, rattles and other ceremonial paraphernalia which the Eyak Indians used in their potlatches only these two paddles have survived. They had been saved by a woman in memory of her father to whom they originally belonged.

Back and front of two carved and painted paddles
Plate X — Two Ceremonial Paddles from the Eyak Indians, Alaska

The Eyak Indians have hitherto been something of a mystery to the ethnologist. Though they have been known for some time and have received mention in the reports of early explorers and Russian government officials, very little was actually learned about them until this last summer. Some ethnologists had classified them as the southernmost tribe of the Alaskan Eskimo, others as the northwesternmost branch of the Tlingit Indians, and still others considered them to be Athabaskan Indians. We can now say that as far as their language is concerned they do speak Athabaskan, but theirs is a very divergent dialect. Most of their hunting methods, also, are like those of the Athabaskan Indians of the interior. Their style of dress and many of their religious notions are typically Eskimo. In their houses, boats, and in their social and ceremonial life, on the other hand, they resemble the Tlingit. We believe, therefore, that they were originally an inland Athabaskan tribe, who migrated down the Copper River to its mouth, where they came in contact with the Eskimo of Prince William Sound. Later the warlike Tlingit pushed up from the southeast, and from them the Eyak learned many things. The Eyak potlatches in which these paddles were used were copied directly from those of the Tlingit. That the division of the tribe into two moieties, Raven and Eagle, and that the custom of giving potlatches to each other are comparatively recent innovations in Eyak life we surmise because there is no mention of them in their folk-tales.

These potlatches were given as remembrance feasts for someone who had died and as a payment for the services which members of the opposite moiety had rendered in burying the dead. Thus, if the deceased belonged to the Raven moiety, the potlatch would be held in the Raven potlatch house by the Raven moiety, as soon as the dead man’s relatives were able to accumulate sufficient wealth. The guests were always members of the opposite moiety, and the best presents were given to those who had dressed the dead man and attended to his burial. Both hosts and guests wore special costumes, often appearing in animal masquerade. There were songs and dances. The dead man’s relatives began, and the guests continued the singing while the relatives wept. There were also contests to determine who was the best dancer. Food and property were put into the fire for the dead man, and the guests were fed in order of their rank. As the food was passed to the guest, he was addressed by his ‘potlatch name,’ that is, not by his own name, but by the name of some dead relative of the giver who had not yet been reborn in a namesake. The guest, as he accepted the food, would say: ‘This food is not for me; it is for my dead relative,’ and he would name some member of his own family who had not yet been reincarnated. The name of a dead person was never mentioned except on these occasions.

The two crude paddles which we have illustrated were patterned after the more elaborate Tlingit ceremonial wands, like those which flank the entrance into the Eskimo Hall in the Museum. The first paddle, with the Raven’s head, was carried into the potlatch house to announce that the Ravens were coming. The painted decorations on the blade represent salmon and faces of an unknown being. The second paddle was carried in after it to announce that the Ravens were happy to come to the potlatch. The pictures represent a salmon, a face, and two bugs (?) with heads separated from their bodies. For some unknown reason a piece of a hacksaw blade is nailed to the lower end of the paddle. Feasts and potlatches are now things of the past, and paddles like these will never be made again by the Eyak.

F. de L.

Cite This Article

L., F. de. "Ceremonial Paddles from the Eyak Indians, Alaska." Museum Bulletin V, no. 2 (March, 1934): 57-59. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1396/


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