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Includes a discussion of Angela Sidney, a Tagish elder who was very active in the Bahá'í Faith, and who believed that there is not necessary any conflict between Anglicanism, Bahá'í, and indigenous shamanism.
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Claiming legitimacy:
Prophecy narratives from northern aboriginal women

by Julie Cruikshank

published in The American Indian Quarterly
University of Nebraska Press, 1994-03-22
The prophecy narratives told by Native American women in the Yukon River region of Canada legitimize the experiences of contemporary life through a traditional form that allows for the incorporation of new ideas. As such, scholarly studies of prophecy narratives are too limiting in their almost exclusive focus on causality and adaptive strategies. These tales, especially those told by women, in reality serve to legitimize experience and being, regardless of their historical context.

During 1992, compelling questions were raised--in the mass media, in museum exhibits, and in popular and academic writings--about the construction of history. The Columbus Quincentenary framed these issues on an international level. In Canada, debates were phrased with reference to local anniversaries. In British Columbia, for example, we heard a great deal about the bicentenary of Captain George Vancouver's visit to the West Coast of North America. In the Yukon Territory, where the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Highway construction was celebrated, some Aboriginal people questioned the appropriateness of eulogizing an event which had such far-reaching implications for their lives. The year 1992 has become a metaphor for transition from a neo-colonial world to a post-colonial world (Hill 1992).

All of these anniversaries have highlighted concerns about voice in human history--whose voices are included and whose voices left out. Contesting the legitimacy of the dominant discourse is not new, of course. Certainly, a concern that many voices are systematically erased from written history has been recognized for a long time in northern Aboriginal communities. It is fundamental to the collaborative work which has engaged me in the Yukon where I lived for many years and where I continue to work. As feminists have pointed out, enlarging discourse involves much more than adding and stirring additional voices; there are fundamental methodological problems involved in rethinking familiar genres of historical narrative.

This paper examines prophecy narratives told by Aboriginal women from the Yukon Territory in the course of recording their life stories. When I first heard these narratives, I set them aside because I didn't understand how they fit into the larger autobiographical project. Yet the persistence with which prophecy narratives are told is compelling, and they provide an opportunity to frame some questions about how people use oral tradition to make connections between past and present.

One of the reasons I set these narratives aside is because of the scholarly literature about prophecy--in ethnohistory, in anthropology, in sociology--and, following academic convention, I wanted to spend some time reading that literature to locate narratives I was hearing in terms of a larger debate. The convention is not frivolous: we consult what has already been written to avoid the conceit that our interpretations are somehow original. Reading that literature, though, I was struck by how clearly our academic narratives can be seen as only one set among many. When we listen to contemporary Aboriginal people draw on oral narratives to explain the ways past connects with present, we encounter other narratives that compete with academic narratives for legitimacy.

The ongoing academic debate about prophecy seems to focus on the behavior, activities and predictions of particular prophets and to turn on two axes. In North American ethnohistory by historians and anthropologists, the central question seems to be whether prophetic movements were indigenous, or a response to European contact (Spier 1935, Wallace 1956, Suttles 1957, Aberle 1959, Walker 1969, Ridington 1978, Miller 1985, Abel 1986, Peterson 1988). In the more generalized sociological literature, shaped by Max Weber, the discourse concerns the success or failure of specific prophets, judged in terms of their ability to transform the social and political order.

I propose to shift the emphasis to analysis of narrative discourse (which I will argue is deeply embedded in social organization), from the activities of individual prophets to oral traditions--the narratives about prophets--that continue in contemporary communities, specifically in the western Subarctic near the upper Yukon River. While much of the scholarly literature treats prophecy as exceptional behavior needing analysis and interpretation, indigenous traditions in the southern Yukon Territory discuss prophecy as consistent with the routine behavior of shamans, well within the bounds of what these specialists were expected to do. It is the retrospective discussion of prophecy stories as routine explanations for contemporary events that is of particular interest. My broader question would be this: If these narratives are still told and understood in the 1990s as common sense explanations, what can this contribute to our understanding of indigenous discourse about connections between past and present, particularly when local explanation heads in a direction very different from the western scholarly debate?

The narratives I will discuss are all told by elderly Yukon Athapaskan women who are or were involved in long term work with the Yukon Native Language Centre.(1) The context in which they were told to me may be relevant and later we will turn to the more interesting question of how they are invoked in everyday conversation. Individuals who told these narratives were all selecting accounts they considered important to record and pass on to younger people. Some of the accounts they chose to tell concern late nineteenth century and early twentieth century prophecies, and it was clear from narrators' performances that they continue to take these narratives very seriously. The recurring theme is that particular shamans predicted social transformations that would accompany the arrival of Europeans, in some cases before they met the first whites. The inevitable point of these stories is that events that have subsequently come to pass were foretold long ago.

Two striking features about the process of narration are:

--That prophecy accounts are singled out from a much larger body of narratives as important stories to pass on to younger listeners, and

--That they are told as though they provide a kind of self-evident explanation, one that tellers consider routinely accessible to any listener.

It is precisely at the level of explanation that the accounts clash with scholarly discourse, where their meaning is taken to be far from self-evident. I would suggest that this makes them an ideal focus for ethnohistorical analysis by raising the question: What are the contexts in which these narratives continue to have meaning?


The theoretical framework surrounding interpretation of prophecy has remained grounded in Max Weber's analysis of Old Testament prophets. Sociological explanation stems from Weber's classic definition which portrays prophets as emerging outside routine institutional order to contest the social and political authority of established leaders. The implication is that prophets are outsiders: charismatic but marginal individuals who challenge authority yet fail to transform the political and social order. Transferred to a Native American setting, such explanations may privilege an interpretation emphasizing early Euroamerican contact history, or resistance to external events such as disease, population decimation or natural disaster (e.g., Walker 1969).

This definition of prophecy as a response to external events transfers easily enough from sociological analysis to narrative analysis. Percy Cohen, for example, in an article reviewing theories of myth, proposed that prophecy is a kind of inversion of myth that develops when social organization breaks down and is no longer capable of explaining events, causing people to turn away from the past and toward the future (Cohen 1969:351-52).(2) Given the pervasiveness of this sociological framework, the "failure" of nineteenth century prophets seems inevitable.

Such explanations contrast sharply with those of Subarctic Aboriginal narrators who regard stories about prophecy as evidence not of failure but of successful engagement with change and detailed foreknowledge of events. These explanations speak directly to the issue of how one claims a legitimate voice in contemporary discussions about historical reconstruction (Kan 1991; Friedman 1992). Despite growing scholarly interest in indigenous ethnohistory, Native Americans' views of their own history remain rare in scholarly literature. As Sergei Kan has pointed out, those that do enter this literature demonstrate that (a) the past is regularly used to make sense of the present and to explain the current predicament of indigenous peoples in North America, and that (b) this discourse does not develop hermetically but in a dialogue with other ideologies. Subarctic prophecy narratives, for example, include elements of both the distant Plateau Prophet Dance(3) and Christianity. Elements of such different ideologies are carefully synthesized and incorporated into an existing narrative framework by indigenous peoples in their attempts to defend their past against Western-imposed discourses, incorporating new ideas rather than being colonized by them (see Kan for a detailed discussion of this).

In her thoughtful discussion of narratives told by Yukon elders about the coming of the first whites to Northwestern North America, Catharine McClellan has reminded us that aboriginal oral traditions are not simply one more set of data to be sifted for historical veracity, and that they "can be fully understood only in relation to the total bodies of literature in which they appear." (1970:128). For that reason, I attempt to discuss the broader indigenous narrative traditions within which prophecy stories fit on the upper Yukon River.

I would like to investigate the hypothesis that if prophecy narratives provide a conventional way of making sense of dislocating change, then the relevant framework for interpreting them may be with reference to prophecy's long-term cultural consequences rather than (as Weber would direct us) its short-term political effects (see Long 1986). This approach builds on the work of anthropologists who suggest that:

--Prophecy may have been more widespread in early times than Spier recognized (McClellan 1956, 1975:577, Suttles 1957, Ridington 1978);

--In the western Subarctic it has long provided a routine, conventional kind of explanation that makes sense of complex changes in familiar ways (McClellan 1963; Moore and Wheelock 1990:59-60);

--Indigenous narrative frameworks continue to have a capacity to make sense of anomalous events (McClellan 1970; Cruikshank 1990, 1992); and

--Prophecy narratives provide a striking example of how southern Yukon women, at least, draw on traditional narrative as an authoritative explanation of contemporary events, an explanation which competes with western discourse for legitimacy.


From the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s I lived in the southern Yukon Territory documenting oral traditions, life stories, traditional narratives, place names, and songs. Initially I focused on a seemingly straightforward project of trying to help balance a documentary record about Yukon Aboriginal history which relies disproportionately on the writings of traders, missionaries and government agents who were often lamentably uninformed about what they were describing. The ethnographic record was growing by the mid 1970s, with works by Catharine McClellan, Richard Slobodin, John Honigmann, and Asen Balikci. McClellan's two-volume ethnography (1975) had just appeared and fieldwork by Roger McDonnell (1975), Robin Ridington (1978), and Dominque Legros (1985) was only recently under way. Much of my work was done with elderly Athapaskan men and women with support from the Council for Yukon Indians, which provided honoraria for elders willing to record such accounts.

Frequently, elders chose to respond to questions about the past with a complex story, and only gradually did I come to recognize that many of these narratives shared a common scaffolding. My initial failure to recognize the patterns undoubtedly came from the scaffolding I brought to the project--a sense that these accounts could be viewed as archival documents rather than as fully developed narrative constructions of the past. What I am suggesting here is that a similar problem--an interpretive framework which predisposes us to interpret unfamiliar narratives in terms of familiar theoretical frameworks--may color our attempts to understand prophecy narratives as serious representations of the world.

The narrative structures shaping academic discourse about prophecy should also be kept in mind. Anthropologists writing about prophecy pay particular attention to the form and process of religious revitalization (Wallace 1956, Aberle 1972); historians show a preference for a discussion of the specific circumstances in which prophets arise (Miler 1985). Ethnohistorians, drawing on both frameworks, have described their project as incorporating Native American perspectives (Axtell 1981; Jennings 1982; Trigger 1982). Such a partnership surely should turn critical attention to the symbolic and structural nature of scholarly accounts as well as indigenous accounts and to closer investigation of social processes in which all our narrative accounts are embedded.

The documentary record from northwestern North America provides us with ample evidence of early missionaries' narratives about prophecy. Most missionaries described prophets as self-interested charlatans whose primary motive was to dupe unwitting members of their own community. For instance, one of the first Anglican missionaries in the northern Yukon in the 1860s, the Rev. Robert McDonald, included in his diaries regular reports of "pretensions to prophecy" with accounts of his injunctions advising Native people to stop "conjuring."(4) On June 23, 1863, McDonald reported: [S]ome (Indians) at Peel River have pretended to divine communications in which, among other things, they say they were told it is wrong to kill foxes and martens. But I need not specify more of their delusions. Writing from down the Yukon River at Fort Yukon a few months later on September 9, 1863, he reported: An Indian who makes pretensions to prophetic authority was present. His pretensions are as follows: that he has supernatural communication with heaven, has received a command to teach his fellow man, that those who do not receive his instructions will be punished by God, that the end of the world will be ten years hence ... (He) also recommended that people not set fire to the woods because visiting angels do not like the smell of smoke (McDonald 1985).

A few days later, he claims to have encountered this same prophet, whom he identifies as Shahoo and reported he "had a talk with him about making pretensions to prophecy." He notes that he was "[g]lad to find him acknowledge that he felt he was in error, and he said he would endeavour to follow what he learnt out of the Bible." From then on, McDonald refers regularly to prophecy as "conjuring" (e.g., October 18, 1863, June 6, 1866).(5)

While Shahoo may have responded politely to accommodate the missionary, he must surely have found the injunction odd. The ethnographic record suggests that shamans in northwestern North America were routinely expected to locate and control game, to cure the sick, to ensure success in disputes with neighboring peoples, to foretell the future, to provide dietary rules and amulets to protect their clients--all duties enmeshed in behaviors that missionaries associated with what they called prophecy. Undoubtedly, some shamans in contact with missionaries also responded by incorporating Christian concepts and making them part of their own indigenous narratives as a way of strengthening their own influence (McClellan 1956:136-7). From the earliest stages of contact, then, discourse surrounding prophecy was contested.

Before introducing Aboriginal narratives, it is important to locate them--as McClellan (1970) advises--within the total body of literature in which they appear. Recent discussions about the nature of discourse in Subarctic hunting societies center on ways in which knowledge is accumulated, maintained and passed on, but also on ways in which legitimacy is claimed for particular kinds of explanations in opposition to other kinds of explanation (see especially Rushforth 1992, 1994). Attention has also turned to narrative frameworks shared by a narrator and his or her listeners and the ways in which shared metaphors are mutually understood and reproduced through oral tradition (Ridington 1990). Even when prophecy does not lead to short-term political and social transformations, it nevertheless may reproduce shared cultural meanings and underscore the importance of using familiar narrative frameworks to explain the present, particularly as it now is invoked by indigenous people to claim authoritative interpretations of their past.(6)

Prophecy narratives in the southern Yukon seem to fit within a constellation of narratives that address a longstanding intellectual concern for northern hunters; that is, how humans and animals with their overlapping and often conflicting powers and needs can share the world (discussed in detail by McClellan 1975, McDonnell 1975). A recurring metaphor presents the world as incorporating two parallel realities--one, the dimension which underlies the secular, material, temporal world of everyday life; the other, a domain which could more aptly be called superhuman and timeless. At the beginning of time, the narratives state and restate, a physical boundary, the horizon, separated these dimensions. On one side of the horizon was a snow-covered winter world where everything was white.(7) On the other side, was the summer world full of color and warmth. Eventually, the animals trapped on the winter side conspired to puncture the boundary so that the world could be brought into balance through its alternating seasons. In narrative, however, these dimensions remain distinct and must be negotiated by all thinking beings, particularly the shamans who are more likely to travel between dimensions. Everyone has access to such journeys, the difference between the powers of a layman and a shaman are one of degree rather than kind (McClellan 1956).

In such narratives, a protagonist meets a superhuman being who takes him or her on a journey from the secular, material temporal world of everyday life to a supernatural, timeless domain. The two domains are marked off in some physical way. The protagonist may pass under a log, into a cave, or beyond the horizon to enter a world whose characteristics are usually the reverse of those found in the familiar world. One of the usual characteristics of this world, for example, is that everything, including humans and animals, is white, In such a world, the protagonist acquies new knowledge about proper behavior and, with great difficulty, brings that knowledge to the human world where it can benefit the community. Usually this knowledge includes instructions about how people should behave to ensure proper relations with game and with other humans, as well as the injunction that if certain guidelines are followed the world will be a better place. As a consequence of this experience, the protagonist usually returns as a shaman, often with a special song learned on the journey.(8) One of the points of such narratives is to dramatize the role of powerful beings in ushering in world transformations, specifically concerning relations between the human and natural worlds.

Southern Yukon elders tell a range of narratives in which prophets figure significantly and these stories seem to circle around related themes. Most of the prophecy narratives I have heard take the juxtaposition of these parallel worlds as a central metaphor and follow one of four distinct patterns. First, there are narratives which involve a protagonist's journey to a world where whiteness is a significant feature and s/he is able to return with predictions about the coming of white people. Second, there are narratives predicting world transformation in which the other dimension often described in terms of its whiteness becomes the world of ordinary experience. Third, are narrative journeys where the protagonist travels to heaven and returns as a shaman. Fourth, are the stories commemorating shamans who foresaw and incorporated symbols and ideas from other religious cosmologies. As the twentieth century draws to a close, these narratives are retrospectively presented as ushering in the transformations which have become part of the routine experience of contemporary Aboriginal peoples. Each of these four kinds of prophecy narrative is summarized below with examples of how and where they are used in public discussion.


The first kind of prophecy narrative involves a protagonist's journey to a world where "whiteness" is a significant feature and where he or she acquires foreknowledge of the impending arrival of strangers.

A protagonist travels to a world where s/he learns about the eventual coming of white people and returns with talismans as proof, both of the journey taken and of the knowledge acquired. Kitty Smith, a Southern Tutchone woman in her nineties, tells a story which she calls "The First Time People Knew K'och'en." The term K'och'en is the word in Tutchone and Southern Tutchone for "white people," K'o comes from the Tutchone word for "cloud," and ch'en from the word for "people," their fair skins implying they came from the "white" world removed from ordinary reality. In Mrs. Smith's narrative (Cruikshank et al., 1990:254-58) a young boy undertakes a journey with an invisible helper who guides him. He enters the unfamiliar dimension by walking under a rainbow, and receives instruction about what to eat, a bag of special (whiteman's) food, and a special song, all of which he is able to bring back with him. He returns to teach people about the habits of these strangers before white people arrive. He predicts that eventually "everyone will become whitemen."

A similar narrative is told by Rachel Dawson, a Tutchone-speaking woman who grew up at Fort Selkirk on the upper Yukon River. A protagonist whose journey takes him to the dimension inhabited by white animals and people returns as a shaman with a special song no one had ever heard. He uses his new powers to escort people to see these strangers, though he is the only one who can communicate with them. When his companions arrive, they see domestic (white) sheep wearing bells and pale people wearing "Japanese scarfs." He instructs his followers that if they try to communicate with the strangers, they will be responsible for his (the shaman's) death. Each of the white strangers ties a scarf around the neck of a Native man or woman and then the strangers disappear. One sheep is left as evidence of the meeting and the people return home with it, wearing their new item of clothing as further proof of the encounter. From that time on, the shaman or "doctor" is able to see and communicate with white people whenever he chooses. Part of the power he acquires includes (white) swan power, conventionally a symbol of a particularly powerful transformation (Dawson 1975; see also Ridington 1978, on the special characteristics of swan power among Dunne-Za).

A second kind of narrative is centered around a shaman's prediction of world transformation in which, with the coming of Europeans, the "other" unfamiliar world will engulf the world of ordinary reality.

Angela Sidney, a woman of Tagish and Inland Tlingit ancestry, tells a story about a shaman named Matal, who told people in 1912, "This ground is going to burn all over." She reported seventy years later about a time when she was ten years old: I saw this old man, too: he was Indian doctor. One night he was singing: he made Indian doctor. In the morning, he told people: "This place is on fire all over." And people thought it was the flu. That flu was going to come in 1918, or whenever, when lots of people died. That's the one he talked about. That's just like fire, all. "Lots of people are going to die. But if you pray to God all the time, you are going to pass through this fire." In 1918, -19, -20, there was flu. Lots of people died." (ibid.:155). She goes on to describe the impact that epidemic had on her own family. She lost her father, her aunt, and several cousins. She, her mother, and her own children became ill. Everyone was relocated to the missionary's house where they could be fed and looked after. She continues with her account, and the entire point of her story is to indicate the clarity of Matal's vision: That was the old man who said, "This world is on fire." That's the sickness. He sees it like fire. And when he died, before he died, he says he is going to come back again. "Tie your dogs a long way from the camp" he tells people. But you know nowadays people don't listen to each other--he was sick, badly sick, and they thought he was crazy, I guess. "In four days I'm going to come back," he said. Here on the fourth day, those dogs started to bark all over. They heard just like somebody's singing or something. That's what the dogs were barking at--the dogs chased that spirit away again. That's what they say. That's what I heard about him, that old man. Matal, they call him (ibid.: 156).

Elders are not the only members of the community who take prophecy seriously. At public hearings in 1975 on a proposed pipeline across the Yukon Territory, Joe Jack, a young Southern Tutchone man, spoke publicly about a Pelly River shaman(9) who had foreseen the coming of tremendous changes: [H]e said that he saw many white people coming to this land and that they will build trails to travel on. He said they will block off waterways and they will tear up the land to take out rocks... lastly he said they will build an iron road that will not be driven on. And, he said, when this will be the end of the Indian people.(10)

Mr. Jack's point in invoking this prophecy at a public hearing underscored the vision embodied in the prediction, a vision whose meaning is understood to be ambiguous until after the event occurs. The fact that he chose to make that part of his formal testimony suggests that he considers it an example which speaks for itself--one which legitimizes local knowledge in the face of the scientific and bureaucratic discourse dominating these hearings.

Similarly, a younger Tutchone woman told me about a story passed on to her by her grandmother, reporting how an early prophet predicted that strangers from the "white snow-bound world" would bring white material culture which would do grave danger to indigenous people: she interprets that as foreknowledge of flour, salt, and sugar, all sources of health problems, all white. Her comments reformulate the claims made by health-care professionals about the dangers of excessive carbohydrates, salt, and starch but they do so in a locally meaningful idiom.

The contested nature of explanation is very much at issue here. Each of these accounts is told as a way of making intellectually consistent sense of disruptive changes--some past, some contemporary, some anticipated--with reference to an authoritative narrative framework.(11) Each is offered as evidence for the legitimacy of local knowledge and discourse.

A third kind of narrative involves a journey to heaven with the protagonist returning as a prophet or shaman.

Even before direct contact with Europeans, shamans visited heaven and returned with instructions about behavioral codes. In these stories, heaven often assumes the same dimensions as the "winter world" being bright, or white, and providing the protagonist with a new way of seeing.

A recurring theme in accounts of Yukon shamanism dramatizes how a particular shman "died," visited an upper world and returned with new songs, new amulets and new guidelines. Such visits, McClellan suggests, were part of an old well-established pattern of shamanism (1975:556. See also Brown 1982, 1988 for parallel experiences in the eastern Subarctic).

Narratives about journeys to heaven follow this familiar framework. Southern Yukon elders, for example, report that they first learned about Christianity from a coastal shaman named Nasq'a who travelled to heaven. An old blind man, mistreated by his young wife, wandered off by himself in great distress. He was summoned by a stranger who restored his sight and led him on a journey from the world of ordinary reality (which is portrayed as appearing "blue") up a long ladder to a bright and shining place, heaven: Half of the Earth was dark, and Heaven was shining everywhere. There was no dark anywhere there. All the time there was sunshine and there were green leaves (McClellan 1975:554). There, he met Jesus, learned powerful songs, mastered new behavioral codes and brought back physical evidence of his journey--a magical gunnysack. From then on, according to John Joe, an elderly Southern Tutchone man who told me this story in the mid-1970s, he was able to tell his story by preaching like Christian missionaries.

A more detailed account of such a journey comes from Annie Ned, a Southern Tutchone woman who is now almost 100 years old. We are able to compare the narrative structure of her version with a brief account left by a missionary and echoing the conviction expressed by the Rev. McDonald fifty years earlier, that prophecy must be eradicated. Mrs. Ned's husband, Johnny, is remembered by many elders as a powerful shaman who was widely known as a prophet. Reportedly, he made a journey to heaven where he met with God and returned with the ability to speak and preach in English, and with a song sounding very much like a Christian hymn: I can't talk about Johnny: it might be we'd make a mistake. I can't speak for other people. I can't show my husband's song.(12) I can tell you what happened, though. To start with, he got [an] Indian song. That man doesn't know anything, doesn't talk [English]. How come he talked [English] that time? He started to talk. I thought he's gone crazy! So I got Mr. Young [the missionary], and he said, "Don't bother Annie. I think he's going to go somewhere [to heaven?]. He's believing [i.e., he's experiencing conversion]." My husband took control all over: Carmacks, Dawson, all over. He took it around, that control ... After he got power, he can heal people. (Cruikshank et al., 1991:326).

In fact, the missionary, possibly the same "Mr. Young," left his own impressions about Johnny Ned's prophesies in an unsigned letter on file in the Anglican Church records, advising an incoming missionary about the delicacy of the situation. His frame of understanding is quite different from that provided by Mrs. Ned, and if he understood her interpretation of those events, that interpretation has certainly been marginalized in his competing narrative: There is a cult in existence in the Champagne district under the leadership of Johnny Ned. For the most part, his teaching is alright. However, he has some fantastic ideas and has mixed on [sic] some native superstition to Christianity. I think that it is better to recognize everything that is good in his teaching than to attempt to antagonize him. After a while, when you get to know him you may be able to steer him along the right lines. A great many Indians throughout the country have been more or less worked up over his teachings and some of them believe his story regarding visions that he has had. Mr. Swanson [another missionary] and I talked over the subject and agreed that it was better to approve of his teachings as far as they agreed with Christian and to emphasize the fact that what he is teaching is the religion of Christ as practised and taught for hundred of years.(13)

Mrs. Ned and I have discussed this letter and she explicitly rejects this interpretation of her husband's powers, situating him firmly in Aboriginal shamanic understanding: "It didn't come from God! He got it himself!" Her claim to authority comes from a framework she considers more encompassing than that provided by an Anglican missionary, whom she remembers as a short-term visitor at best. Once again, these accounts underscore the contested nature of prophecy narratives. On one hand, Johnny Ned seems to be incorporating Christian concepts to his own advantage. On the other, missionaries are adopting a kind of bureaucratic pragmatism in their attempts to incorporate and subsume local knowledge as a way of extending their influence.

A final set of prophecy narratives centers on the issue of how prophets incorporated unfamiliar religious symbols in ways subsequently interpreted as transformative. Shamanic prophets are now said to have foretold the coming of new religious ideas, specifically Christianity and Bahá'í.

Angela Sidney, a Tagish elder who passed away in 1991 at the age of eighty-nine, engaged in a continuing intellectual struggle to integrate traditional understandings with modern ideas. As a young woman, she became extremely involved with the Anglican Church, and during the final years of her life she became very active in the Bahá'í faith. She devoted a great deal of attention to reconciling her present beliefs with the shamanistic ideas she learned from her parents, uncles, and aunts, and provided a splendidly coherent account of the connections between past ideas and present understandings. She took the ability of prophets to communicate with a higher being as a given. In the course of recording her life history, she asked: What about Oral Roberts? He got messages from God. What about Father Divine? Well, that's why I think Indians are like that ... [able to communicate directly with superhuman beings]. But we call it Indian doctor" (Cruikshank et al. 1991:154).

In her narratives about the shaman Malal and the Pelly River shaman remembered as Major, she demonstrates that she, like the younger people cited above, continues to struggle with the issue of how traditional paradigms inform contemporary understanding. Her vehicle for linking these ideas centers on prophecy, as demonstrated in two stories she tells about the Pelly River shaman Major. One story links his predictions to Christianity; the other links them to Bahá'í. For some years, the question of conflicting loyalties to such different institutional religions troubled her, but near the end of her life she reconciled any conflict between these two religious frameworks by showing how Major demonstrated foreknowledge of both of them.

When Angela Sidney was nine years old, she says, she learned about Major from her mother. She claims her own authority to tell about this prophet with reference to her mother's words. Major reportedly named a particular day Linday or "Sunday" before anyone knew that days might have special names, and designated the day prior to Sunday as Linday K'esku or "little Sunday." They tell about that old man--his name was Major--there were no English people in this country, that time. My mother saw him when she went to Pelly, a long time ago. And she said nobody knows about Sunday, Saturday, or anything like that. But he used to call it Linday, that means "Sunday." Linday K'esku means "little Sunday." That means "Saturday." But I guess he can't say it very good and he said Sunday as "Linday," Linday Tlein, that means "Big Sunday." I guess that was a white man name, but he can't say it (Cruikshank et al., 1990:154). He encouraged his followers to make crosses out of Golden Eye Eagle feathers, and to wear them when they went hunting. Year 1910, I see everybody's got crosses made out of Golden Eye Eagle feathers. They made crosses, and everybody wore them if they were going out hunting, anything like that. And they say that's what Major told them to do. I was about nine years old and I asked my mother "What's that for?"

And she said that's what Old Major told them to wear, to use when they go out hunting so they would get their game easily and things like that. Nothing would bother them. That's what she told me at that time. I just thought of that now! I guess it was a cross. I guess that's what it was. At that time I never thought of it, see?

... That's why I go to anybody that's praying. Don't care what kind of people they are. I was a good Anglican. I used to go to W.A.(14), go to Easter Sunday, go to World Day of Prayer (ibid.:158).

Catharine McClellan, who heard similar accounts from Mrs. Sidney's mother, Maria, and her contemporaries in the 1940s and 1950s wrote about the use of crosses by shamans but pointed out that this same shaman, Major, also urged people to put the sign of the cross in charcoal on their legs and arms. The symbol, she points out, may be borrowed but the emphasis on the four limbs and on the ceremonial use of charcoal are Aboriginal (1956:135). She also points out the utility of designating a special day when people would be called together for meetings. The missionaries' "Sunday" worked to the advantage of shamans whose efficacy was enhanced by the participation of an audience. The idea of Sunday was fortuitous because it brought people together for regular meetings. According to McClellan, these sessions were usually described as "prayer meetings" and attendance was heavy. The head shaman laid his hands on people's heads foretelling sickness or death, expelling menstruants from the group, singing songs which were then remembered as "hymns." She concludes that, "in brief, holding the seance on Sunday did little to change its essentially aboriginal nature" (1956:135). Shamans, then, were able to incorporate Christian symbolism and to use Christian narrative in ways that enhanced their own authority.

In the late 1980s, as her own ideas continued to change, Mrs. Sidney had given more thought to the role of Major's prophesies in foreshadowing new ideas. Rethinking them, she found his words prophetic with reference to the coming of Bahá'í to the Yukon. Major, she says, [T]ells about how it's going to be the last day, someday. So he said, "It's not going to happen right away. It's going to be long time yet,' he said. "And," he said, "that animal is going to have nine legs. A nine-legged animal is going to be our food," he said.

And that's the one us Indians think maybe that's Bahá'í. That Bahá'í assembly has nine points. That's what we think. That's what it is. And he said, "If the people believe and live my way, I'm going to be very, very old. But if people don't accept me, God will take me away ...

Well, nothing like that happened until Bahá'í people started coming here, telling about things like that. That's why we think--my family--we think that's what he meant. Because there's no animal got nine legs. And he said, "That's going to be your food, isn't it?" It's just like food. So there's lots of us joined in. I think I was the last one joined in because I'm Anglican. All of my kids joined the Bahá'í. That's why I joined in, me too" (ibid.:154-55).

By juxtaposing these two prophecy narratives, Mrs. Sidney establishes that intellectually there is no necessary conflict between Anglicanism, Bahá'í, and indigenous shamanism. She is able to use this framework to provide a satisfactory explanation of her ability to integrate ideas which others might find contradictory. Pleased with this reconciliation, she asked that the (much longer) recorded tape from our interview be duplicated as her "teaching tape." She then requested that her daughter take it to Bahá'í meetings to play for other members of the Bahá'í faith so they could understand the linkages between the activities of the Bahá'í prophet and indigenous prophets.

The prophecy narratives summarized above work within a familiar narrative framework where teller and listener share an understanding of the relationship between parallel dimensions of reality. Knowledge from one dimension can be brought to the other by a shaman, who can then draw on his/her experience to dispense prophetic advice. These prophesies are evaluated by contemporary narrators not in terms of whether they altered social circumstances. Rather, they are evaluated in terms of their ability to forge legitimate links between knowledge experienced by past prophets and events experienced by present tellers.

Underscoring all of the narrators' accounts is the view that this is a conventional, routine, self-evident way of explaining the linkages between past and present. As has been suggested for neighboring Dene Dhaa prophets, prophecy long has been a normal part of experience. "Stories provided the landscape in which visions could occur, and songs provided the trail through the landscape" (Moore and Wheelock 1990:59). Competing with this, we have the scholarly analysis of prophecy and prophetic movements which interprets such accounts as unusual, extraordinary, problematic, and in need of a different foundational explanation.


In conclusion, it is worth returning to questions raised at the outset of the paper. Elderly Athapaskan women tell prophecy narratives in the 1980s and 1990s as though these narratives speak for themselves--as though their message is a self-evident, common-sense explanation. What can this contribute to understandings about how connections between past and present are formulated and publicly presented? What do these narratives tell us about the construction, performance and communication of knowledge? Why do elders specifically select these narratives to pass on to younger people in the 1990s?

Much of the academic debate surrounding prophecy concerns the issue of historical reconstruction of past events. Historians may treat oral traditions as one of many kinds of sources and approach them as "evidence" of "what really happened." Tellings by contemporary Athapaskan elders raise different questions. Oral traditions are presented not as evidence but as fully developed narrative constructions. Their tellings may cause us to re-examine the scholarly debate about prophecy.

To review that debate briefly again: ethnohistorians pose the question of whether prophetic movements were indigenous, or a response to external crises. Certainly the archaeological and documentary record for the upper Yukon River shows no shortage of disruptive events.(15) Prophecy narratives, at least in the western Subarctic, may have provided a way to explain changing circumstances, by embedding unfamiliar events with reference to a familiar narrative framework. If this is the case, the relevance of "indigenous" vs. "contact" distinctions may blur, and prophecy narratives may direct us to the issue of legitimacy of explanation rather than causality.

The sociological literature emphasizes the short-term success or failure of prophets in their attempts to transform social and political order. Yet the narrators seem to pay more attention to the explanatory powers of words than to when individual prophets arose or what they achieved. Shamans like Major, Malal or Johnny Ned can foretell Christianity, Bahá'í, or apocalypse and their prophecies are reinvoked years later not with reference to their short-term efficacy but to give meaning to events. In other words, following Renato Rosaldo's insight that narratives shape rather than reflect human conduct (1989:129), telling a prophetic narrative may give a storied form to proper relations. Such narratives may provide listeners with ways to think about how they should respond to external events.

Told now, prophecy narratives seem to establish meaning for events that have come to pass during narrators' own lifetimes--events as diverse as the arrival of newcomers, cataclysmic epidemics, the expanision of state control, and the introduction of religious orthodoxies. Meanings of oral narratives are not fixed: they have to be understood in terms of how they are used. By explaining events in ways intellectually consistent with the framework oral tradition has long provided, prophecy narratives establish a complex relationship between words and events. Words are not merely evidence for events (as they might be in a formulation where written documents are analysed): events legitimize the words. Words have power to foretell events, and in this way, as Southern Tutchone elder, Annie Ned, puts it: "Old time words are just like school." The words provide food for thought, but their meaning becomes clear only after the event has come to pass.

Scott Rushforth has recently written two thoughtful papers about knowledge, authority and legitimation of beliefs among Dene hunters at Bear Lake, Northwest Territories (Rushforth 1992, 1994). Based on lengthy conversations with Dene men in the Mackenzie valley, Rushforth discusses how, in Dene society, knowledge comes to be seen as legitimate when it is based on what he calls primary experience. He provides examples of Dene men who spoke to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry from their own experience about land-based activity and how they place far greater value on that knowledge than on that provided by "expert witnesses" several steps removed from direct experience. He proposes that for Dene hunters, primary experience is the epistemological foundation of knowledge and is given far greater weight than secondary experience. Using the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry as a case in point, he shows how expert systems invoked in hearings are resisted precisely because they threaten local authority. Indigenous people repeatedly assert the authority of their own local knowledge and reject the validity of those expert systems, which they see as derived from second-hand knowledge rather than from direct experience.

Accounts about prophecy told by Yukon women add an additional dimension to Rushforth's thesis, one which I suspect is related to gender. These narratives suggest that a woman's knowledge and her right to speak come not only from her own experience but also from experiences conveyed to her by her mother, grandmother, or other elders. Until recently, Aboriginal people in the Subarctic acquired knowledge in two ways: one of those ways was by direct experience and observation; the other was through oral tradition--the narratives and instruction passed from one generation to the next. A woman's own knowledge and her right to speak derives from her connection with those words and with the experience of hearing those words from grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, and aunts (see also Binney 1987 for parallel observations from New Zealand). The purpose of these narratives is evaluated not in terms of whether shamans effected changes, but in terms of how words give meaning to events and how events, in turn, legitimize the words.

Increasingly, we understand that histories are interpretations that change in relation to changing circumstances. However, this ideology coexists with a competing ideology of history as "just the facts" (see Gable, Handler and Lawson 1992). Ironically, historical relativism gets invoked more frequently for indigenous history than for mainstream history: in the Yukon Territory, for example, the goldrush and the Alaska Highway are taken for granted as reference points for local history and juxtaposed with Aboriginal narratives "about" the goldrush or the highway. Thus constituted, relativism reinforces the legitimacy of mainstream history by making it seem more "real" or more "truthful."

At an obvious level, indigenous prophecy narratives have always been contested by the dominant ideology. But the context is less about facts or causality than it is about legitimacy. If they are taken to be fully developed narratives, they can be understood not just as evidence, or as one interpretation among many, but as an explanation competing for legitimacy, performed in a way that invokes ethnographic authority.

The enduring tradition of storytelling in the southern Yukon Territory suggests that narratives continue to address important questions during periods of social upheaval. Rather than viewing them as evidence of failure to cope, or social breakdown, prophecy narratives may be viewed as successful engagement with changing ideas. Social sciences conventionally make a distinction between behaviors that might be characterized as "adaptive strategies" and those identified as "expressive forms." The former are usually located with reference to the business of making a living and the latter to literary and artistic activities. Such a distinction, I would suggest, is inappropriate in situations where people see storytelling as central to the ongoing reproduction of their culture. Yukon storytellers demonstrate the critical intelligence embedded in oral narrative by showing how contemporary events are discussed with reference to traditional narrative, how an understanding of the past informs our comprehension of the present. Prophecy narratives provide one more instance of the continuing use of tradition to frame explanations about the contemporary world. They offer a competing form of historical consciousness that deserves to be taken seriously.


I thank Scott Rushforth, Peter Stephenson, Elizabeth Vibert, Wendy Wickwire and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.

    (1.)I recorded these narratives between 1974 and 1984 as part of my work with the Yukon Native Language Centre, based in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

    (2.)Spier's monograph on the Plateau Prophet Dance originally posed the question of whether this was an Aboriginal or contact phenomenon. It is worth noting that subsequent analyses focusing on the Plateau seem to favor a contact thesis (Aberle 1959, Walker 1969, Miller 1985) while studies with a more northerly geographical focus favored Aboriginal origins (McClellan 1956, Suttles 1957, Ridington 1978, Moore and Wheelock 1990). It may also be significant that publications emphasizing Aboriginal origins seem to rely on indigenous concepts whereas those elaborating a contact hypothesis emphasize the broad historical and ecological context in which those ideas emerged.

    (3.)Spier documented the spread of the Prophet Dance from the Columbia Plateau as far as southern Alaska and the Mackenzie River by the early 1800s. While certain diagnostic features of the Prophet Dance (world renewal, a speical dance, structured community ritual) were not incorporated into Yukon prophecy narratives, news of the Prophet Dance undoubtedly reached the Yukon River and contributed to the activities of early prophets in this region (McClellan 1956: 136).

    (4.)Born near the Red River to an Ojibwa mother and a Scottish trader, McDonald came to the northern Yukon in the early 1860s. While he shared the Church's enthusiasm for collecting converts, he was less zealous than his contemporaries in the Church Missionary Society about trying to modify the local indigenous cultures. Prophecy, though, seemed to trouble him, perhaps because he interpreted its manifestations as competing with Christian teachings.

    (5.)As an indication of how prevalent prophecy was on the upper Peel and upper Yukon Rivers at this time, the following notes can be gleaned from McDonald's diaries. On January 3, 1864, he refers to "an Indian pretending to prophesy at Peel River but Mr. A. Flett (the trader) has prevented him from going too far with it." More references appear in 1865: on January 11, he refers to a man who "pretends to receive divine revelations" and the next day (January 12) names "Tiujito, a Mackenzie River Tukudh who has been making extravagant pretensions to prophesy, and to being favoured with divine revelations." On February 5, he spoke with people on the Bonnet Plume River about their Peel River neighbors, noting that "there is still one among them pretending to divine authority to teach the Indians in religion, but he is not attended to." On May 25, he spoke against "delusions of the Indians led astray by those making pretensions to prophesy." On June 25, he spoke directly to one of the nuk-kut [sic] "who makes pretensions to prophesy." Several years later on July 27, 1874, he referred by name to the prophet Larion and his wife who told their followers that they would die if baptized. Larion's wife, especially, claimed direct communication with and advice from supreme beings. The general tone of McDonald's notes suggests that it was missionaries who saw themselves competing with shamans, rather than the reverse.

    (6.)There is, of course, a difference between explaining the local meaning of events and publicly legitimizing local discourse or knowledge. One dilemma faced by indigenous people trying to convince outsiders of the legitimacy of their perspective may be that within any one community, interpretations based on oral tradition are inevitably contested, debated, discussed in daily conversation. However in publicly presenting an authoritative stance to outsiders, in arguing for the legitimacy of oral tradition as a valid historical perspective, claimants sometimes feel compelled to present oral tradition as though it were uncontested "truth."

    (7.)Yukon narratives tell how, at the beginning of time, the Trickster Crow was white "like a seagull" before he was blackened trying to escape through a smokehole in one of his escapades (Cruikshank et al., 1990:274, 313). Ridington (1978) suggested that for Prophet River Dunne-za, prophets were specifically the people with swan power, swans belonging to that separate dimension of whiteness. Moore and Wheelock note that this separate dimension is the home for seagulls and snow geese, also white (1990:60).

    (8.)Classic examples include "Moldy Head," and "The Man Who Stayed with Groundhog Woman" (see Cruikshank et al. 1990, 75-78; 208-13).

    (9.)This Pelly River shaman was one of the most widely remembered in narrative (see also McClellan 1956, Cruikshank et al. 1990:154, 158).

    (10.)Alaska Highway Pipeline Inquiry, Carcross, J. Jack, vol. 44, p. 5,967.

    (11.)Similarly, the story of Skookum Jim or Keish the Tagish man associated with the discovery of Klondike gold that triggered the 1898 gold rush attributes his success and his foreknowledge of that success to his relationship with a Frog Helper who urged him to travel downriver where he would "find his fortune" (McClellan 1963; Cruikshank 1992).

    (12.)By saying this, she is indicating her understanding of the power of spoken words, that if used inappropriately they might bring harm to speaker and listener. An essential component of a shaman's power was his song, which came to him as a result of his contact with an animal spirit helper. Earlier, Mrs. Ned made a similar statement about her father's power. She has sung her husband's song for me several times, but it would be inappropriate to make a recording of it because once recorded, it could be used out of context.

    (13.)This letter is on file in the Anglican Church records, Yukon Territorial Archives, and is dated April 25, 1917.

    (14.)She refers here to the Women's Auxiliary of the Anglican Church.

    (15.)An enormous volcanic eruption on the Alaska-Yukon border more than 800 years ago undoubtedly displaced human populations on the upper Yukon. The so-called Little Ice Age between 1600-1800 had a dramatic effect on people living in the southern Yukon not only because of deteriorating climatic conditions but also because of the building and draining of glacier-dammed lakes and the shifting drainages cause by surging glaciers in southwest Yukon. The arrival of fur traders first from the Northwest Coast and then from the eastern Subarctic in the nineteenth century was closely followed by arrival of competing Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries. The Klondike goldrush at the beginning of the twentieth century brought some 40,000 would-be prospectors to the upper Yukon. The expansion of the Canadian state into northwestern north America imported governing and legal infrastructures with serious, long-term consequences for Aboriginal people. The imposition of residential schools, the growing pressures on wildlife, the economic dislocations after the introduction of gold, silver, lead, and zinc mines, the construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s, projected pipeline developments in the 1970s, the ongoing disruptions associated with the negotiation of a land claims agreement in the Yukon--certainly all these changes could support the hypothesis that prophets could have arisen in response to externally induced stresses.
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