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Native Shamanism

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.

Mostly, the 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.




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