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Native Legends of the Northern Lights

Alaska’s dark, winter sky, with its potential for a memorable northern lights showing, has long been a fascination. The northern lights are one of the attractions that bring visitors to the state. Even locals know that a promising forecast for an aurora borealis sighting can draw them from a warm bed in the middle of the night. Today, science provides an explanation to this intriguing light display but long before that, there were Alaska Native legends, lore and myths about the northern lights and Alaska’s night sky.

Our list of five legends is just a snapshot of the countless stories that have been told over centuries. Some indigenous cultures viewed the northern lights as a good sign while others saw it as a bad omen.

  1. A game of ball—The Inuit, indigenous people of the Arctic, believed the bright colors and dancing movements of the northern lights were the spirits of the dead playing “ball” with a walrus skull. The people of Nunivak Island had a reverse take on this myth, believing that the lights were walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
  2. Spirits seeking souls—One legend portrays the northern lights as torches held in the hands of spirits who are seeking souls of the dead to lead them across a narrow pathway to a better land, free of disease, pain and hunger.
  3. Animal spirits—Some Alaska Native cultures viewed the aurora borealis as the spirits of the animals they had hunted, specifically beluga whales, seals and salmon.
  4. Depiction of evil—Inuit culture of Alaska’s most northern village, Point Barrow, portrays the aurora as an evil being. The people of Point Barrow carried knives to protect themselves when the northern lights were on display.
  5. Nanuk the bear—While there are plenty of legends about the northern lights, the Inuit people also have myths about the stars in the sky and how they are living things, sent to roam the heavens forever. One legend details how Nanuk the bear was attacked by a pack of Eskimo hunting dogs. Nanuk ran from them but they continued to chase him for hours and they all eventually plunged over the edge of the world, straight into the sky, where they turned into stars.

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