Ethnomusicologists and anthropologists associate the Bladder Ceremony with the Central Alaskan Yup'ik region of Western Alaska. Related groups may have exhibited analogous, although less elaborate, practices. Although scholars know little of the aboriginal Aleut religion, an 18th-century illustration depicts a "bladder dance," with a female dancer holding an inflated bladder. Aleut ceremonies held through the winter for the return of more whales, and the little-known Pacific Eskimo "animal increase ceremony" may have shared with the Bladder Ceremony the ritual purpose of returning game from one season to the next.
The Bladder Ceremony was based on the importance of honoring animals by taking special care of their remains or symbolic parts of their remains (e.g., skull, head, or bones) in order to entreat and ensure the animals' return. In the case of this ceremony, the Yupiit treated and returned the bladders of sea mammals to the water. The central act of the Bladder Ceremony was to release the "persons" of the seals back into the water so that they would return to their "fellows" with reports of good treatment among humans. If well treated, seals would be inclined to return to the same hunters in the future.
A myth told in conjunction with this ceremony— "The Boy Who Went to Live with the Seals"—comprised one of numerous Yup'ik stories of a widespread Inuit type that involves a human's stay in the world of animals. In this case the boy saw the human world from the seal's viewpoint, and he returned with instructions on how to behave in ways that honored and respected the seal. In this story, the boy is sent along with the bladders during the ceremony, and returns during the following year's ceremony to the ice hole through which the bladders are placed.
The Bladder Ceremony took place around the winter solstice, but included preparatory ceremonies during the fall that opened paths to the spirit world and publicly identified each participant by name. This set up the conditions for the seals' spirits (or "persons") to return to the sea with a knowledge of those who had caught them, so that they could come again to those hunters who had treated them with proper care. The crux of the ceremony centered on the ritual treatment and entertainment of the "persons" of the seals that had been caught during the previous year. The seal's "person" was believed to retreat into the bladder at death. For this reason, bladders were dried and deflated for storage and kept for the ceremony. Then Yupiit inflated the bladders, painted them with identifying marks, and placed them in the ceremonial center or men's house (qasgiq). Participants in the ceremony purified the bladders with smoke from wild celery, offered them food and water, entertained them with games, drumming and song, and generally treated the sacred bladders with great care. For example, Yupiit believed that the bladders must be kept company and not frightened by sudden movements and noises. A distribution of goods followed. At the climax of the ceremony, the bladders and wild celery were taken out through the smoke hole, then deflated and submerged through a square hole in the ice of a specified body of fresh water, from which their contained "persons" returned to the sea.
While the Bladder Ceremony occurred at a prescribed season, ritual treatment of seals at other times was fundamentally linked to the concern that these animals be treated with respect throughout their stay in the human world. When hunters caught the seals, they offered the animals a drink of fresh water. The Yupiit protected the seals from offensive influences, such as menstruating women, and their heads and bones were also ritually treated.
Although the elaborate Bladder Ceremony focused on seals, the prized resource on the west-central coast of Alaska, hunters in some areas saved and their wives dried the bladders of other sea mammals, such as polar bears in St Michael. Small birds, representing the first catches of little boys, and the bladders of land animals were occasionally retained and dried for return at the ceremony. Bladder ceremonies also prominently featured bird imagery and the imitation of inherited helping spirits, most often birds. Ann Fienup-Riordan (1988, 1994) suggested that the association of birds and bladders relates to a more widespread connection between hunter and hunted.
Ethnographic descriptions of the Bladder Ceremony and/or its antecedents, based on contemporary first-person accounts, memory, or oral tradition, are found in Edmonds (Ray, 1966), Nelson (1899), Lantis (1947), Morrow (1984), Mather (1985), Fienup-Riordan (1988), and Orr et al. (1997). Anthropologists (Lantis, Oswalt, Fienup-Riordan, and Morrow) agree on the central purpose of the Bladder Ceremony and its main features, although there is local variation in specific traditions and insufficient information to determine the reasons for some practices. Margaret Lantis classed the Bladder Ceremony as a hunting ritual, based on the concept of honoring animals as instructed in mythic encounters, and characterized by certain ritual actions, including mimicry of animal behavior and hunting scenes.
Fienup-Riordan situated the ceremony within a larger complex of Yup'ik ritual actions, all of which circumscribe and control the flow of activity in an otherwise undifferentiated universe. Ritual, she argued, creates passages between worlds as cultural rules set the boundaries among them. Her symbolic interpretation also stressed the Yupiit pairing of opposites— water and land, salt and fresh water, hunter and hunted, women and men—in this and other rituals concerning the return of seals.
See also Animals in the Worldviews of Indigenous Peoples; Music (Traditional Indigenous); Yupiit
Fienup-Riordan, Ann (editor), The Yup'ik Eskimos as Described in the Travel Journals and Ethnographic Accounts of John and Edith Kilbuck, 1885-1900, Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1988
-, Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik
Eskimo Oral Tradition, Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994 Lantis, Margaret, Alaskan Eskimo Ceremonialism, Seattle: University of Washington Press, and New York: Augustin, 1947; reprinted Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966 Mather, Elsie P., Cauyarnariuq, Bethel, Alaska: Lower
Kuskokwim School District, 1985 Morrow, Phyllis, "It is time for drumming: a summary of recent research on Yup'ik ceremonialism." Etudes/Inuit/Studies, 8 (supplementary issue), 1984 Nelson, Edward W., The Eskimo About Bering Strait, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1899: reprinted 1983 Orr, Eliza Cingarkaq, Ben Orr, Victor Kanrilak Jr. & Andy Charlie Jr., Ellangellemni.../When I Became Aware, Fairbanks, Alaska: Lower Kuskokwim School District and Alaska Native Language Center, 1997 Oswalt, Wendell H., Alaskan Eskimos, San Francisco,
California: Chandler Publishing Company, 1967 Ray, Dorothy Jean (editor), "The Eskimo of St. Michael and Vicinity as Related by H.M.W. Edmonds." Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, 13(2) (1966)
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