Religion

Traditional religions throughout Athapaskan territory are shamanistic. However, they present differences from one population to another. In certain societies, most members have a variety of powers, whereas elsewhere shamanic powers are held only by a specific category of individuals, such as healers. Intimately linked to shamanism, dreams occupy a significant place within the different northern Athapaskan societies. Because their content is of prime importance for their interpretation (something that may vary from one individual to another), a number of techniques are still used to influence dream content. Through dreams, we communicate with spirits, with the dead as well as with the living. Dreams transform human beings into spirits capable of communicating with all that is living in the spiritual sense of the term (Irimoto and Yamada, 1994: 86). Individuals who master their dreams the best, those whose spirit is strong, are therefore identified as "dreamers," "prophets," or more simply shamans. Again, although the practices of influence, the methods of interpretation, and the uses of dreams are generalized for the entire Athapaskan territory, the modes and degrees of importance vary from one population to the next.

Much like dreams, visions play a fundamental role. Quite often, an individual's spirit helper or patron animal is revealed after a vision quest in the forest. With this knowledge of the patron animal, a song and a power are granted, and certain ritual instructions are ascribed (such as prohibitions regarding food). Among some Athapaskans, every individual is endowed with such an animal helper, provided the quest is carried out. It is not only through visions but also through dreams that certain people's reincarnation (either voluntary or involuntary) in the body of children already born or yet to be born can be identified or foreseen. Following such an identification, the most appropriate term of kinship is used to refer to the reincarnated individual. Therefore, if one's brother is reincarnated in one's granddaughter, one calls the latter "my brother."

All these societies were at one point subjected to Christianization (whether Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox), but the various Christian elements have not always been simply adopted or transposed directly; they have also been modified and adapted. Hence, "Dene prophets" have reinterpreted Biblical stories in order to integrate them to Dene thought and more specifically to mythical accounts. By the same token, this process allows for a certain cultural dynamism to express and manifest itself by the possibility of maintaining cultural beliefs without having to give way to a status quo that would ultimately prove destructive.

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