Smithsonian - National Museum of Natural Historyheader spaceAinu

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

A Life Guided By Kamuy
Room 3 Overview

Slideshow narration:

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).

Opening Credits:

Inaw for the Great Owl
Hakodate Municipal Library

Kamuy-nomi: Praying to the Gods
Museum der Kulturen, Basel; courtesy of Edmund Carpenter

Ainu Design
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Japanese Clogs
Shin Mouri Collection
Soshichiro Mouri, col. 1909-29, Hokkaido

Man's Knife
Milwaukee Public Museum N17340A

Man Reciting Yukar
Ainu-e
"Ancient Manners and Customs from Ezo" by Hokuyo Nishikawa Hakodate Municipal Library

Uimam Ceremony
The Historical Museum of Hokkaido

Makiri with Bead and Bear
Milwaukee Public Museum

Semicircular Plate
H. Capron, col. 1875, Hokkaido
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 19415

(1) Room QTVR
Add QTVR instructions:
Viewing the 360 (degree) image

(4) Object stills w/ captions

1. Semicircular Plate
Ainu express their unique cultural lineage in their distinctive implements, clothing, and art. The language of Ainu design is understood as "Ainu" because its motifs follow an Ainu design grammar. Similarities in the design system are seen in this carved wooden platter, collected by General Horace Capron in 1875 while on a U.S. development mission in Hokkaido.

H. Capron, col. 1875, Hokkaido
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 19415

2. Poison Grinding Bowl
Extract from the monkshood plant (Aconitum spp.) was used widely as a hunting poison in the northeastern Asia and Alaska. Bowls of this type were used for grinding dried roots and leaves and mixing the extract with deer fat or some other binder to produce an alkaloid poison that attacks the nervous system. The poison was applied to bamboo arrowpoints. When this substance entered the bloodstream, death was nearly instantaneous.

Shin Mouri Collection

3. Men's Knives
Men's carving knives (makiri), worn suspended prominently from the belt, were highly visible statements of one's carving prowess. This group displays some of the variety and elegance of this important implement. In addition to a blade and sheath, the knives usually had a netsuke-like toggle and a glass bead attached to the thong that fastened the knife to the belt. These toggles offered a unique format for such miniature sculptures as a knife, an animal jaw with incisors, and an awl.

Milwaukee Public Museum N17340A; The Ainu Museum at Shiraoi 62228;
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural. 325243

4. Saranip Basket
Ainu used the bark of the Japanese elm to make a strong fiber (ohyo) that was woven into baskets or, with the aid of a backstrap loom, a durable cloth (attush) that was the basis for Hokkaido Ainu clothing. Both types of Ainu baskets woven baskets (saranip) and coiled baskets (tenki, present only in the Kuriles) are similar to Alaskan Eskimo and Aleut basketry forms.

Norbeck, col. 1951, Penkatori, Hokkaido
American Museum of Natural History 70.2.932

(4) Videos

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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