Throughout Native American history Native Americans have considered themselves to be one with nature. They lived on the land, fed off the land, and died on the natural land of North America. Nature was the soul reason for the Native Americans long existence on earth so it is not unbelievable that they would turn to nature for help with various types of illnesses. The persons who have the ability to call up nature for help with a sickness are people who are called shamans. Shamans are “selected” people that have received the “calling” from nature to obtain certain special powers to cure the illnesses of the infected Native American people. A Shaman can be considered a master of the natural spirits through a collection of intricate equipment. (Jakobsen 1999: 5) They perform special rituals to cure the ill and help the community with things such as bad hunting seasons and et cetera.
Shamans can be easily described as persons whom cure the ill. They, unlike traditional Western medicine doctors can be either men or women. As tradition goes, some Native Americans believe that a woman was the first to be given the “calling” of the spirits and was the first shaman. She then passed her shamanic powers to her son (Stutley 2003: 8). In later years, it is believed that women became weaker in acquiring powers from the spirits and the men became more prominent in the position of shaman (Stutley 2003: 8). By the time the first missionaries came over to the new world, they were mainly men, as it is also seen today. As seen as competitors, these missionaries referred to them as assistants of the devil and banned them as non-healers (Gerber 1987: 138). Likewise, this is also why the Native Americans respect the shamans, rather because they fear them as workers of “black magic” (Gerber 1987: 139). Native Americans therefore give a type of special respect or a prestigious role, in each tribe, to shamans because of this fear of harm through the “black magic” that they possess. (Gerber 1987:138).
To become a shaman is not as easy as going to a medical hospital/school, although this can be tough also. The first step in becoming a shaman is to receive the “calling”. The ages of becoming a shaman is from six to fifty but usually it is common around the age of twenty years old (Stutley 2003: 6). This can be done by having hallucinations, visions, or frequent dreams that will contact the spirits of nature (Gerber 1987: 138). It can also be induced by fasting, isolation, depriving sleep, hearing repetitive music, or by narcotics such as tobacco, alcohol and so on (Stutley 2003: 8). These spirits may be nature’s creatures, birds, insects, constellations of stars, or such things as the wind and thunder. (Gerber 1987: 138) This may also be done by a current shaman passing down his powers to a relative such as a nephew or et cetera (Gerber 1987:138). In fact, it is not unseen to have relatives to fight over whom gets the powers once the family member shaman has died. (Gerber 1987:138) Once a shaman is able to communicate telepathically with these spirits, they are said to assist the shaman in finding illnesses or souls that may have been lost. (Stutley 2003: 21)
After a shaman has received the power to communicate the spirits, they must study under a shaman until his death which is often a very long wait. (Gerber 1987:138) During the new shamans’ lessons, the shaman will learn how to master and control his powers in this “black art”. (Gerber 1987: 138) He/She will learn how to control trances in the spirit world and master how to use powers of possessing someone’s soul and body. (Stutley 1987: 7) Then, in a public event after the teacher-shaman has died, the student shaman will take his place as the tribes’ shaman. (Gerber 1987: 138) Once he or she is initiated, the new shaman will go into a quiet place and go into a trance into the spiritual world to meet the deceased shaman to seek last minute help and guidance on how to change his soul into a “healer’s soul” which will give him his re-birth into the “bi-world”. (Stutley 2003: 7) He/she also seeks and composes healing songs that will help throughout their career. (Stutley 2003: 7) This can be compared to Christianity when a priest may see Jesus and receive guidance. (Stutley 2003: 8)
Along with having the power of the spirits and healing, shamans have tools that help him/her out with their job. The main tools are a drum, rattle or staff, mirror, “spiritual costume”, jewelry, baskets, whistles, feathers, and most important the “sacred pipe”. All of these tools are sacred and hold special powers that only the shaman himself/herself can access but can be dangerous to anyone else. (Stutley 2003: 46) The drum is beaten throughout ceremonies with keeps a beat for the shaman in which he/she can fall into a trance (and also keep the viewers entertained). (Stutley 2003: 39) Although its origin is unknown, ethnologists believe that this tradition first began somewhere in South Asian. (Stutley 2003: 39) It represents the universe and some other things important to the specific shaman using the drum. (Stutley 2003: 39) The drumming and rhythm produces a psychic state in which the shaman can talk to the spirit and the spirit can talk back to him/her. (Stutley 2003: 39) If there is an audience present, they may sing or hum along to keep the rhythm going while the shaman goes into the trance while talking with the spirits. (Stutley 2003: 39) His/Her rattle of staff may have animal heads, rings, or other such things attached that can help with dealing with getting rid of the evil spirits in someone’s body. (Stutley 2003: 47)
Usually, the shaman has either the rattle or staff in place of a drum. (Stutley 2003: 48) The mirror is important in startling demons away, change diseases, purify unclean water, and/or replace the soul of someone whom has lost their own. (Stutley 2003: 47) The mirror contains information about the sun, moon, and stars that will help the shaman in their quest for healing. (Stutley 2003: 47) The “spiritual costume” has special sacred presence and is a symbol of their shamanic view. (Stutley 2003: 71) Originally, this hand me down from previous shamans, is a symbol of the animal spirit ancestor of the shamans’ tribe or clan. (Stutley 2003: 71) Usually, it is along coat in which pieces of iron, different metal rings, rattles, and other mythical animals are hung. (Stutley 2003: 72) It may also have a mask, hat, embroidered stockings or decorative belt that accessorizes the long coat. (Stutley 2003: 72) Other accessories that are sacred to the shaman is jewelry: necklaces, beaded bands, (Siskin 1983: 36) Amulet bracelets (straps) were also worn and also given to other men in the tribe or clan to protect the sole from leaving the persons body. (Jakobsen 1999:75)
Another important part of the shaman’s tools were little baskets that served different roles in the process of his/her job. They were especially made for the shaman and were used to hold things such as healing seeds that were sprinkled in offering during a ceremony to using it to pay the shaman. (Siskin 1983: 38) Another tool is a whistle. It is only used in long sessions, and is believed that the whistle is blown to scare away the sickness or soulthat has taken over someone’s body. (Siskine 1983: 39) Familiarly seen in western films, feathers are an important part to shamans, and not just part of the “head chief head-dress”. Rather, they hold a much deeper meaning; they have the capability of communicating with the shaman and can track down an illness. (Siskin 1983: 36) Finally, the most important tool to a shaman is his “sacred pipe”. It is used to smoke peyote or tobacco that will help in the process of going into a trance. (Siskin 1983: 58) Since these are very sacred items and can be very dangerous to a person who is unqualified, the shaman will guard them very closely for safely for everyone. (Siskin 1983: 35)
During a time of severe illness, starvation, during unsuccessful hunting seasons, or whenever there are harsh climate, a shaman is usually called upon to summon the spirits and “work there powers” to cure the ill person. (Gerber 1987: 138)(Stutley 2003: 6) The three main reasons in which a shaman will be called upon is for: a loss of soul, invasion of foreign objects, and/or a disease. (Gerber 1987:139) When someone is in need of a shaman they will call upon him. They may bring the sick person to the house of the shaman or the shaman (which is usually done) will travel many hours to the house of the sick. (Siskin 1983: 54) At the time of the calling of the shaman or the moment in which the shaman comes in contact with the sick person, he/she is paid by the relatives that called upon him/her. (Siskin 1983: 54-55) Originally the payment would be something such as buckskin however today the payment is usually down in money, however he/she may never be paid with food. (Siskin 1983: 55) Once the shaman is in front of the ill person, he will remove his shoes, place all of this tools in the places that he wants them(after ritually praying them), and will begin the process by smoking his sacred pipe. (Siskin 1983: 57)
Although every shaman is different in their ritual ceremonies, most shamans will begin shaking his rattle and/or playing his drum. (Siskin 1983: 58) After doing this, he/she will announce the problem that he/she has found in which is making the person ill. (Siskin 1983: 58) He/She then proceeds on healing the ill person. He/she will do this by using his/her many sacred tools to cure the problem. (Siskin 1983: 58) Some viewers will help in the process by eating hallucinogenic mushrooms, burn herbs to produce intoxicating smoke, or drink vodka. (Stutley 2003: 20) In addition to helping out in the ceremony (even if viewers or family members choose not to attend the ceremony) they must not eat meat, salt, and hot foods. (Siskin 1983: 54) Also, sexual intercourse is not allowed at all. (Siskin 1983: 54) Although this is very important to the curing of the ill, it can also be very strenuous on the people; some ceremonies will take from ten minutes to around four days long. (Siskin 1983: 54)
If not living a shamanistic life is not hard enough, he/she has to also deal with the outcome of the ceremonies. It is very important that the ill person lives, for it is per taint to the shaman’s social status and to the recognition that is given to the shaman. (Gerber 1987: 139) If the tragedy of the ceremony ends up not working in the right direction, the shaman can be subjected to some very devastating factors. First of all, he/she must reimburse the family for their losses and have to deal with their hostility towards him/her. (Gerber 1987: 139) Another factor is in the case of harmony not being met in the ceremony, the shaman may catch the illness himself/herself, which will lead to immediate death. (Stutley 2003: 9) If many patients of one shaman die, the tribe or clan members have the right to kill the ineffectual shaman. (Gerber1987: 139) Therefore, the success of the shaman is very important, not only for the ill to get cured, but also because his/her life depends it.
If compared to Western medical doctors, a shaman may seem as though it is a more or less way to cure by fate. However, this is much than the real case at matter. A shaman, like the western doctor must study many hours in trying to achieve the ability of learning to heal others. In comparison however, the shaman is a more spiritual healer on the grounds of religious beliefs. He/She must spend many hours trying to come in contact with the spirits in which he/she will get the help that is needed to heal the ill. For western doctors, the main way to heal is by also learning techniques but after a long hard day of trying to heal someone, the doctor will return to his religious gods or to fate itself. In fact, Western civilizations’ people of this century are returning to the old ways in New York and Vienna to the shamanistic ways. (Jakobsen 1999: 159) In both healers, their can be short days or long days, but in the end a person may live or die. So, who is to say which is the better way of healing, through the Shamanistic ways or through the western doctors’ techniques? In either way, there are both dangers and rewards and if people are being cured, both ways shall be used.
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Publications: New York, NY 1987
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Grim, John A. The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing.
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Siskin, Edgar E. Washo: Shamans and Peyotists: Religious Conflict in an
American Indian Tribe. University of Utah Press: Utah, USA 1983
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Mastery of Spirits and Healing. Berghahn Books: New York, NY 1999