Journeys to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, the Sky Worlds

Author: Debra G. Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

One question I hear as an archaeologist working in the Aleutian Islands is “what was their religion like?” or “What did they believe”?  Everyone familiar with ancient Aleutian people quickly moves past the obvious fact they were hunters and fishermen to deeper questions about what gave their lives meaning.  Archaeology is a poor tool for this deeper understanding, so I began researching traditional religion (Marsh 1954).

It seems to me that the basic structure of the Aleut belief system is similar to those of the Yupik, Inuit, and Inupiaq people of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  In my readings, it became obvious that spiritual beliefs permeate traditional folktales. Folktales from the Aleutians can help to explain what gave peoples’ lives meaning.

There is too much to cover here, but one tiny element of Aleut spirituality involved travels to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, a paradise-like sky world, warm, with light, food and lots of leisure time. The souls of the dead have a path to the Hakaadan Kuyuudax^ where they become birds and await their rebirth. Living humans can enter the sky world through a hole reached by climbing a bridge, or mountain or some other path.  Two Aleut stories explicitly describe a visit to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^.

Moon Man and his sister, Sun, share a house in Hakaadan Kuyuudax^{.  In The Moon’s Sister (story 15 in Bergsland and Dirks) Sun, has a human son who wants to visit his Uncle Moon.  She tells him to walk until he finds “daylight coming from above”.  Days later he finds the light, grabs it tightly, stops breathing (dying), and is pulled to the sky.  In the Sky, he encounters several Star Beings before arriving at his Uncle’s House.  He finds a rough grass mat and unrolls it releasing heat, the Sun, which burns his face. Moon arrives home in evening and the nephew becomes the Moon in his place.

Aleutian sunset

And he followed a path of light to the west.

A shaman’s journey is told in Tanang Awaa Alix^ Anĝaĝitaĝin (story 3, Bergsland and Dirks).  A boy wants to find a wife in a land from which no one returns.  His parents give him magic protectors.  He travels, ascending to the sky on a pathway of light: “up there he is walking along the daylight that is going west”. In Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, which is called Unimga or Unimax in this story, he faces a series of challenges. The first is a village of his dead relatives who help his quest.  Passing them he enters another house and fights a series of monsters, using his magic protectors and cunning.  He alone, of all those who had traveled to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, manages to return. This story matches more closely Shaman journeys in Eskimo tales.

Other stories provide more clues about Hakaadan Kuyuudax^.  The sky world has multiple levels, at least two, probably three or more.  The first is occupied by the Moon, Sun, and constellations.  This level also has at least one village occupied by the souls of dead humans.  The second level is occupied by several species of monster, including Giants, “demons”, people of incredible appearance, frightful animals, and small girls and boys.  If there is a 3rd level it too is occupied by giants.

sky from Mound 14

View of the sky from KIS-051 Mound site, Kiska Island: Google Earth. Accessed 7/19/2016.

As the Tiglax steams through the Aleutian waters, the researchers and crew on board sail through ancient land- and seascape imbued with sentient entities. When the rare sunset shines in the summer evenings, it is easy to imagine taking a journey upward and westward…


Further Reading

Jochelson, Waldemar. 1990. Unangan Ungiikangin Kayuk Tunusangin: Unangam Uniikangis Ama Tunuzangis:Aleut Tales and Narratives. Collected 1909-1910 by Waldemar Jochelson: Alaska Native Language Center.

Marsh, Gordon H. 1954. A Comparative Survey of Eskimo-Aleut Religion. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 3(1):21-36.


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