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The Chipewyan Nation – Spiritual Life

Chipewyan spirituality centred on an ancient form of magical knowledge called inkonze. Inkonze was a complex belief system that stemmed from the dynamic and unpredictable relationship between the Chipewyan and the vast boreal forest that they called home. All things in Chipewyan belief possessed a soul or spirit, and all things were connected by the divine. Inkonze was the mystical knowledge that arose from that connectedness, and the knowledge was most potent in the realm of dreams. Those who frequently dreamt of their guardian spirits — spirits which usually took the form of a bird or animal — were said to be strong in inkonze, and were usually chosen as medicine people for their band. The dreams and visions of medicine people acted as a spiritual compass for the band, with animal spirits appearing to medicine people to tell them about herbs, or other knowledge of the forest that would enhance the people’s understanding of their world, and hence, their survival in that world.

Young men in Chipewyan society were also expected, upon reaching adolescence, to seek out their guardian spirit in a vision quest. Vision quests were performed under the guidance of a medicine person, and were meant to help the young man determine his direction and purpose in life. Such quests involved periods of self-sacrifice, prayers, and fasting during periods of isolation in the wilderness until the young man’s spirit guide appeared to him to mark his life path. A successful vision quest would leave a young man with the spiritual strength to become a good hunter, warrior, and valued member of his band.

Nature involved a delicate balance, according to Chipewyan spiritual belief. Every curse in nature was balanced by a cure. Every poison had a serum. Every ailment had a remedy. Inkonze demanded that one always be mindful of the balance, and strive to maintain it in everything one did. Balance was the source of life and wellness.

Strong knowledge of inkonze was said to allow the user to be powerful in acts of sorcery. Later Christian influence on the Chipewyan after the arrival of European missionaries into their territories demonized this form of belief as a form of black magic. In Chipewyan tradition, however, inkonze was a form of knowledge that was morally neutral. Only the intent of the person using inkonze would determine the goodness or badness of it. This knowledge had powerful effects on neighbouring enemy peoples of the Chipewyan, like the Cree and the Inuit, who came to fear the powerful magic demonstrated by the Chipewyan.

Coutu, Philip R. and Lorraine Hoffman-Mercredi. Inkonze: the Stones of Traditional Knowledge. Edmonton: Thunderwoman Ethnographics, 2002.

Malinowski, Sharon and Anna Sheets (eds.) Chipewyan from The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes, Volume III. Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1998.

Smith, James G.E., “Chipewyan” from Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 6. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 2001.

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