This essay presents some thoughts
about a belief system that lasted thousands of years, spanned a
geographic scope of thousands of miles and encompassed hundreds of
languages. It is intended to describe and frame some aspects of
shamanism in a manner that explains why this view of the world made
sense to Alaska Natives and other world cultures. While shamanism is no
longer widely practiced in Alaska, it does continue to shape the world
view of some people and some cultural groups from around the world.
One of the most pervasive challenges
faced by Orthodox missionaries, in addition to the elements,
insufficient resources, and cultural barriers, was that of the
traditional Native practice of shamanism. The shaman, a term which
originated in Siberia and which means "he who knows," possessed
quasi-magical powers and was capable of protecting his followers from
the powerful, often destructive forces believed to permeate the
universe. Often serving as chief, priest, physician, and judge, the
shaman was perhaps the most influential of tribal members.
As the priests noted time and again in
their journals, Natives often slipped back into "paganism." Indeed,
tales are related of whole villages renouncing Christianity and
returning to shamanism -- a phenomenon abetted by the increasing
competition among various Christian sects that occurred after the sale
of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Despite the inherent antagonism
between priest and shaman, at least one story is told of a priest,
Father Belkov, who saved a shaman from the wrath of his followers.
Still, the bulk of the Natives who had
been converted were constantly tempted by the ever-present influence of
shamans seeking to return them to the "old ways." In addition, the
infrequent visits of parish priests, whose districts often spanned
hundreds of miles, and the need to hunt and fish for survival inevitably
weakened commitment to the Church. Nonetheless, the Russian priests
succeeded admirably in Christianizing the Natives, as is witnessed by
the deeply-rooted presence of Orthodoxy in Alaska.
shamans had "helping spirits" who were usually the benevolent ghosts of
dead relatives. Their helpful functions were mainly two, healing the
sick and encouraging the hunter in search of game. But there were
shamans who used their power to bring fear into the lives of the people.
The following description is related to
shamanism among the Inupiat from the Bering Straits area. There was a
sense that in ancient days, in the earliest days of Alaska, the world
was different - physically, spiritually and temporally. The boundaries
established by physical properties, time, and spirit were not sharply
distinct and strictly categorical, as people believe today. The world
was viewed as being more 'fluid' and within that world there was more
potential for movement across physical, spiritual and temporal
dimensions. A person, for example, could take on either human or animal
form. The ease with which these transformations could occur is related
to past times, i.e., in the time before the present time transformations
were easier. If a transformation did occur, then a person learned all
about that animal - the agility, the speed, the canniness, the habits.
Humans had enormous appreciation for what animals could do and they
understood the limitations of being human. Animals could also become
human, but there was not a sense that they aspired to do so. Not every
person could become every animal and some people were more adept at
these transformations of their physical nature than others. It is
somewhat akin to knowing more than one language. Some people have the
talent, the ear, the memory and they can become fluent in six languages.
Others never transcend the boundaries of their native language. These
transformations were physically significant, and also spiritually
significant. The way that the physical and the spiritual would are
separated today would not have been understood in those times. The door
was not that thick. It was not even a door.
The influence of
the shaman and Native paganism in general decreased with the coming of
the white whalers and then by the arrival of the missionary.