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Chapter Twelve— The Arctic and Western North America
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Priestly Shamans: The Northwest Coast

Despite the close affinities between the peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast and the shamanistic cultures of the Eskimo and Siberia, which led Benedict to categorize the Kwakiutl as "Dionysian" in their excess, the communal ceremonies of these settled salmon fishers reflect their stratified social structure and in this regard more nearly resemble the "Apollonian" rites of agriculturalists like the Zuñi. This striking manifestation


of conflicting tendencies latent in every culture is one reason for the fascination their seemingly bizarre traditions exert.

Only rarely, as among the Nootka of Vancouver Island, do a few myths—"imports from other peoples," in Drucker's view (1951, 151)—tell of heroes who climbed to the sky or descended to the underworld; in general the cosmology of these peoples seems less developed than in shamanistic cultures of Eurasia. But nowhere were myths and rites affirming the intimate relation of human and animal more prominent than in this land of totem pole and mask. The most widely diffused rite was the First Salmon ceremony, in which this seasonal visitor was ritually propitiated before being cooked and eaten. Thus the creative power of animals was shared by all, even if it could be fully acquired by the shaman alone.

Among some tribes like the Wishram of the Columbia River, religion centered almost wholly in shamanism and there were no ceremonials unconnected with it (Spier and Sapir, 236). But even to the north, where formal rituals were highly developed, shamans were the essential intermediaries between human and natural forces. Shamanism was frequently "the surest route to prestige for one who found himself doomed to low status in a rigid social system" (Drucker 1965, 92). Women could become shamans, and in most Northwest Coast tribes there seem to have been more female than male shamans, even though the most powerful were generally men (Drucker 1951, 183). Male or female, noble or commoner, however, the shaman was the central religious figure, preeminently able (as among the Kwakiutl) to "cross what should be an absolute divide and return safely": the indispensable "marginal person who straddles the boundaries between his own kind and the universe of spirits" (Goldman 1975, 100), fostering reciprocal communication between these continually interacting realms.

The shaman's initial call was widely considered involuntary, even violent. Among the Kwakiutl, the shaman may acquire powers by killing a supernatural being or by being taken to a lonely spot where a supernatural helper injects him with shamanistic power in the form of a quartz crystal (Boas 1966b, 135), as among the Aranda and other Australian tribes half a world away. But among some peoples the shaman-to-be is the spirits' unwilling prey, vainly fleeing a summons he cannot refuse. Thus Isaac Tens, shaman of the Gitskan of northern British Columbia, told Barbeau (39–41) how he strove to escape from a large owl that tried to carry him away and tall trees that crawled after him like snakes, and how he resisted the visionary shamans who bade him join them, until finally "I began to sing. A chant was coming out of me without my being able to do anything to stop it."

A strong tendency toward automatic inheritance of shamanic powers


existed among several peoples like the Haida (Swanton 1905, 38; Curtis, 11:136), especially in the north. Even here, however, at least a pro forma quest was required, and for most Northwest Coast shamans neither inheritance nor involuntary seizure was sufficient preparation unless followed by a prolonged solitary quest culminating in personal encounter with the empowering spirits. Thus among the Coast Salish of British Columbia, ritual transfer of shamanic power from father to son was preliminary to the boy's personal spirit encounter (Barnett, 149–50).

For these peoples, and many others of the Americas, the ritualized quest for supernatural powers was not limited—as it generally was, outside myth and legend, in Eurasia and the American Arctic—to potential shamans but was open to virtually all. Even among the northern Tlingit and Haida, who tended toward routine inheritance of spirit helpers by the population at large, a residual quest for a spirit belonging to one's lineage remained indispensable, and among many tribes from southern British Columbia to northern Oregon, notably the Coast Salish, the quest was the central spiritual experience of each individual's life, corresponding to tribal initiations of other peoples.

Its object was acquisition of a personal guardian spirit, usually in animal form. In some Salishan tribes, like the Twana and Upper Skagit of northwestern Washington, shamanic spirits were sharply differentiated from those of laymen, but a quest was essential to the acquisition of both. It was fundamental to this as to every quest that each person, as Collins writes of the Skagit (4), "obtained his own spirit through his own efforts," and that the vision, as Amoss (13) affirms of the Nooksack, "was his own and not given to him by anyone."

Among the Twana and other Coast Salish tribes, systematic training might begin at age five or six, to be followed in adolescence by solitary fasts in quest of a guardian spirit (Elmendorf, 491–94). After this the seeker was "expected to 'forget' the vision encounter until the occasion of his first repossession by the spirit at a winter spirit dance," which might take place as long as twenty years after the first vision (495). This dance displayed the quester's spirit power, now revealed as under his or her control; it culminated in possession by the spirit, which sang its song while the quester ritually danced. Cleanliness was essential to the guardian spirit quest, of which bathing rituals were frequently part. A Nootka went out secretly at night to a bathing place in stream, lake, or ocean, where he sang a prayer while mortifying his flesh, then "entered the water, in which he remained as long as he could stand the cold. Some men would be almost unable to walk by the time they emerged," Drucker writes (1951, 167), and others "have been found dead at their bathing places." So fundamental was the spirit quest to the Coast Salish tribes of


the Puget Sound region that children who refused to go were whipped and deprived of food; many seekers went out in stormy weather and plunged into deep water, weighted down by large stones.

Thus the dangers of the quest were intensely real, and success by no means guaranteed. One Puget Sound boy was sent out thrice on solitary quests, fasting and bathing for ten, fourteen, and fifteen days before attaining a vision (Haeberlin and Gunther, 68–69), which to some never came. When it did appear, a vision might be so terrifying, as among the Quinault of the Washington coast, that "the faint-hearted usually ran away" (Olson, 136). Clearly, mastery of such powerful spirits presupposed the difficult mastery of self, a principal goal of the arduous quest which nearly everyone, among Coast Salish and some other tribes, undertook: for the guardian spirit was an alter ego resulting from purposeful self-transformation, an expanded self acquiring transcendent power through communion with a larger than human world, and therefore a self not given but created and found.

The shaman's quest resembled that of others, though directed to the acquisition of far greater powers, including power to harm (even kill) and to cure. According to Bella Coola belief, men used to be "so much more powerful than at present, and so close to the supernatural, that all were virtually shamans" (McIlwraith, 1:539), but nowadays only shamans could attain—through a quest that might require thirty years or more (548)—what was once the birthright of all. Even a hereditary shaman, as among the Yakutat Tlingit of Alaska, had to go into the woods to encounter a spirit (usually in the form of an animal or bird whose tongue he cut out), and thereafter strengthened his power by repeated quests for new spirits (F. de Laguna, part 2, 676–77).

Nootka Shamans underwent years of ritual bathing before confronting a spirit. Some fainted, Drucker reports (1951, 184–87),

with blood still trickling from mouth, nose, and ears, and even from the temples and hollows over the collar bones, so potent was the spirit power. . . . No seeker after power dared to forget, if he wished to avoid misfortune, that the encounter with a spirit was tremendously charged with danger. . . . He might drop dead on the spot, or he might last to make his way home, to collapse in front of his house, with rigid limbs and horribly contorted face.

The newly found spirit taught the future shaman songs of curing, and instructed him night after night. Further encounters were repeatedly sought, for this, like all true quests, was unending.

Despite his involuntary initial call, the Northwest Coast shaman's profession frequently required not only a quest but an active struggle to master, even "kill," the spirit whose power the shaman sought to ac-


quire—a struggle reminiscent of the conflicts of myth. For these Northwest Coast Indians saw no essential hiatus between the heroes of myth and the living man or woman of spiritual powers, depleted though these may have become since the time when all were heroes and shamans in one.

A Kwakiutl or Tsimshian shaman might be designated against his will by spirits who made him sick or pursued him through the shadowy forest, but in myth the human being often triumphed over the spirits. Typical Kwakiutl stories, recounted by Boas (1966b, 309), tell of those who succeed, by guile or force, in wresting power from the supernaturals, even at the price of death and rebirth. And a Tsimshian myth of the Gyilodzau tribe relates the triumphant descent of the would-be shaman Only-One into a dark pit where he learns to restore the dead to life (Barbeau, 76–77). In myth as in life extraordinary powers were bestowed as the fruit of courageously pursued efforts of indeterminate outcome.

Here as elsewhere disease might be caused either by intrusion or soul loss (Drucker 1965, 87). The former was treated by extraction, especially sucking, but a shaman most fully demonstrated his powers by recovery of a lost soul, typically in a public performance. Some techniques, indeed, were more magical than ecstatic; thus among the Kwakiutl, a shaman passed his purifying ring of hemlock branches over a patient until the soul re-entered his body. Even this highly ritualized ceremony frequently involved, however, at least a rudimentary quest, as the shaman ran about looking for the patient's soul (Boas 1966, 137–39).

To travel to the spirit world was among the greatest accomplishments celebrated in the myths of Northwest Coast peoples. Thus a Bella Coola shaman descended into the ocean by a rope lowered from his canoe "until he found himself in a land where everything was much the same as on this earth"; he rescued his wife and later revived the son who had rotted away to a skeleton during his father's absence of nearly a year (McIlwraith, 1:544–46). Such feats were thought to have been performed by living shamans into recent times. Curtis (11:49) describes how a Nootka shaman's spirit apparently left his body to search for a sick man's soul, "visiting house after house in the land of the dead, until it found the object of its search" in the form of a small image which "he pretended to replace in the patient's head."

Among the Coast Salish the shaman's ritualized journey to other worlds was highly developed. In British Columbia, a Coast Salish shaman searched for a lost soul with outstretched arms and closed eyes; finally he received the soul, cold and nearly dead, blew gently on it, and restored it to its owner (Barnett, 215). The Upper Skagit shaman, too, went to the land of the dead to retrieve a lost soul, describing the events


as he went (Collins, 201). But the dangers were great, and success uncertain. Among the Quinault a guardian spirit from the "twice dead" dared accompany the shaman only to where he had stayed while dead: "If he ventured farther both he and the shaman died" (Olson, 160). If a soul had gone too far, the shaman reported failure, for not even the boldest spiritual quest could now restore it.

Among the most elaborate Northwest Coast ceremonies was the sbetetdaq or "spirit canoe" rite performed by the Coast Salish of Puget Sound and some neighboring tribes. The ceremony, as Haeberlin describes it (252–57) from informants' memories of a ritual already defunct in the early twentieth century, took place in midwinter at night, since in the other world it would then be a bright summer day. The shamans stood in two parallel rows, facing westward as they poled their imaginary canoe toward the land of the dead, and eastward for the return journey. In the village of the dead a fight broke out (dramatized by boys shooting burning splints) between the shamans and ghosts who held a patient's spirit captive; this continued as the ghosts pursued the canoe back to the land of the living.

In crucial respects, then, including the journey to another world in search of a lost soul, the shamanistic quest of Pacific Northwest America paralleled that of Eurasia and the American Arctic. In others, however, the practices of these hierarchical salmon-fishers more nearly resembled the communal rituals characteristic of sedentary agriculturalists like the Zuñi, to whom Benedict so categorically opposed the "Dionysian" Kwakiutl.

Such rituals are prominent among both northern peoples like the Kwakiutl and peripheral California tribes to the south. The elaborate Kwakiutl organization of the people, during the winter season, into groups distinguished by degrees of spiritual power (an organization paralleled among the Nootka and others) carried collectivization to a point seemingly unknown among the migratory and egalitarian peoples of Central Asia and Siberia. Unlike the individual quest, which allowed for uncertainty and variation, the winter ceremonials performed by these groups were dramatizations of ancestral supernatural experiences transmitted, through shamanistic societies, from the legendary past.

Initiation of a shaman is "analogous in all details to that of participants in the winter ceremonial" (Boas 1966, 135); and both the Kwakiutl "Cannibal Dance" and the Nootka "Wolf Dance," like the societies that performed them, were known in their very different languages as "The Shamans," though most participants did not actually practice shamanism. "The Ceremonial shaman is the curing shaman translated," Goldman writes of the Kwakiutl (1975, 99), "to the more general and hence


higher level of ritual performance." To this extent, the "shamanism" of the tribal ceremonials is a collective repetition of ancestral tradition rather than a perilous search for never fully attainable knowledge. Ceremonial shamanism in these rigidly structured cultures thus partially forfeited its questing dimension, which was nevertheless implicit in its communal endeavor to transcend nature through the sanctions of a precariously maintained social order.

Far from fomenting ecstasy, the Kwakiutl ritual transformed the "Cannibal's" hunger "from a destructive act to an affirmation of self-control" (Walens, 162), since the Kwakiutl, more Apollonian than Dionysian, "seek not excess but order" (41), which can only be won by overcoming its opposite. In consequence their shaman was almost priestly in the insistent ritual correctness of his actions, able to summon the spirits "only because he observes the correct ritual taboos and performs the correct prayers" (25).

The Northwest Coast shaman not only resembled a priest in reliance on ritual coercion, he also frequently shared his power (unlike his Siberian or Eskimo counterparts) with still more formalistic priests or ritualists. On the southern fringes of the Northwest Coast culture, among the Yurok, Karok, Hupa, and other small tribes of the Klamath River region of northern California, only vestiges remained of the quest for transcendent knowledge and power that had been among the hallmarks of Eurasian-American shamanism from Lapland to Puget Sound and beyond. In northwestern California, the almost universal American Indian association between the shaman and personal guardian spirits "is very weakly and indirectly developed," Kroeber writes (1925, 3). Shamans, almost all women, diagnosed disease not by communicating with spirits but through a clairvoyance attained by dancing and smoking, and cured a patient not by journeying forth in quest of his soul but by sucking out the intrusive "pain" within him. Magical techniques and concepts were "as abundantly developed among the Yurok and their neighbors as shamanism is narrowed" (Kroeber 1925, 4), and the formulaic character of their recitations suggest that the Yurok, unlike the intrepid nomads who once brought a primeval shamanism to American shores, "did not venture into the unknown and had no desire to" (13).

If this passive shamanism was restricted mainly to women, male priests conducted ceremonies intended (like the First Salmon Rites of more northerly tribes) "to renew or maintain the established world" (Kroeber 1925, 53), and in them the uncertain quest for knowledge of an indeterminate future gave way to ritually guaranteed prolongation of a sacrosanct past. These peoples, Kroeber concludes on the evidence of their own statements (Kroeber and Gifford, 5), "wanted their world


small, compact, closed, stable, permanent, and fixed." Their quest was not to transcend the world as it is but forevermore to repeat it as it was from the first and must always (until it vanished completely) remain.

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