Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People
A Life Guided By Kamuy
Ainu culture has a rich oral tradition, complex religious views, beautiful art, and rituals intimately related to nature and the natural resources that sustained them. To the Ainu, everything in the natural world represents a god or spirit that leaves the land of gods and takes on a physical form to visit the land of the Ainu. Fire, mountains, valleys, the ocean, animals, plants, even tools and clothing the Ainu make and use, all are kamuy (gods).
Inaw for the Great Owl
Kamuy-nomi: Praying to the Gods
Man Reciting Yukar
Makiri with Bead and Bear
(1) Room QTVR
(4) Object stills w/ captions
1. Semicircular Plate
H. Capron, col. 1875, Hokkaido
2. Poison Grinding Bowl
Shin Mouri Collection
3. Men's Knives
Milwaukee Public Museum N17340A; The Ainu Museum at Shiraoi 62228;
4. Saranip Basket
Norbeck, col. 1951, Penkatori, Hokkaido
1. Commentary on Knives by Curator William Fitzhugh
"Ainu men made the most beautiful knives carved out of wood, sometimes with antler and ivory attachments and decorations. These advertised their availability to women. They showed the quality of their workmanship, which was really important because all of these things in Asian culture, as in Eskimo and some other native cultures, were very important in judging one's suitability for, not only a good husband or family person, but also somebody who the gods looked favorably upon, because if you made these tools beautiful, it showed your respect for the animals and for the materials. Every living thing had its own god and when you carved a knife, or you used a knife to carve something else, you actually were having a kind of a seminar, a discussion with the creatures, the animals, the spirits, the wood, that make up the earth."
2. Commentary on Baskets by Curator William Fitzhugh
" Basketry is one of the items of Ainu culture which is very interesting because there are similarities with Eskimo basketry of southwest Alaska, particularly the Yupik basketry. This style here is seen almost in every detail among the Eskimo peoples of Bethel and that area in Alaska. There's also a coiled basketry tradition which occurs in Alaska as well as in the Ainu. And so the experts working in these areas are really curious. How did these two sets of baskets so similar come to pass? Were they spread from the Ainu or Ainu predecessors to Alaska or did they start in Alaska and spread to the Ainu? These (questions) have not been answered yet but just the fact that it did happen is very interesting because it suggests contacts between these areas."
3. Commentary on Poison Bowl by Curator Chisato Dubreuil
"This is a poison bowl and traditionally Ainu men were hunters who hunted deer and bears. We used aconite roots to make poisons. We crushed aconite roots in the bowl, and then added a liquid to make a paste and then put this onto an arrowhead to shoot animals."
4. Commentary on Hunting by Curator William Fitzhugh
"The Ainu used a wide variety of materials for their technology. Things that caught fish or captured animals with and so on. We see in this section of the exhibit diverse use of things like fish skin, bear hide, cherry bark, different kinds of wood, even poisoned arrows, and plant poisons which they used for hunting and trapping. They were masters with their environment and they were very closely tuned to the spirits of the animals and materials which lived in their environment."
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