Medicine-Men on the North Pacific Coast


pp. 39, 41-42, 44-45, 47-48 "experiences of a swanassu or swanasku" -- the career of a medicine-man (Gitenmaks tribe of the Gitksan)


autobiographical account


"On my way, the trees seemed to shake and to lean over me; tall trees were crawling after me, as if they had been snakes. I could see them. ... There I fell into a trance. ... I looked down, and instead of being on firm ground, I felt that I was drifting in a huge whirlpool. ...


A trance came over me once more ... . ... Then ... I began to tremble ... . My body was quivering. While I remained in this state, I began to sing. A chant was coming out of me without my being able to do anything to stop it. Many things appeared to me presently : huge birds and other animals. They were calling me. I saw a meskyawawderh (a kind of bird). and a mesqagweeuk (bullhead fish). These were visible only to me, not to others in my house. Such visions happen when a man is about to become a halaait; they occur of their own accord. The songs force themselves out complete without any attempt to compose them. But I learned and memorized those songs by repeating them.

During the following year I composed more songs ..., without doing any other work. ... Four people looked after me all the time in order to hear me sing my new songs, and they were not satisfied until they had learned them too. ...


That was the period when I became a swanassu (medicine man). ... I had to have dreams before being able to act. ...


The halaait doctors were still training me, teaching me. For this reason I was invited to attend all the swanassu activities. As soon as I was able to go out by myself, I began to diagnose the cases by dreaming (... ksewawq : dreaming), with the help of my instructors. I acquired charms, that is, things of would dream of :

Hoqwest (snare for the bear),

Hlorhs (the Moon), and

Angohawtu (Sweat-house).

I had also dreamed of charms {spirit-helpers} :

the Mink (nes>in),

the Otter (watserh), and

Canoe (>mal). [fn. 1 : "like the Canoe-People of the Haida."] ...

I used a charm (aatirh) and placed {visualized} it over me first, then over the body of the patient from whom I was to extract the disease or illness. It was never an actual object, but only one that had appeared in a dream.

In a dream I once had over the hills, I saw a canoe (>mal). Many times it appeared to me in my dreams.


The canoe sometimes was floating on the water, sometimes on the clouds. Whenever any trouble occurred anywhere, I was able to see my canoe in visions. ... My canoe came to me in a dream, and there were many people sitting in it. The canoe itself was the Otter (watserh). ...


I ... while trying to draw the canoe out of her ... grasped it, drew it out, and put it in my own bosom."


"The fees for doctoring might be ten blankets, prepaid ..., or it might be as little as one blanket. But if the doctored person died afterwards, the blankets were returned. ...

Should a halaait or swanassu refuse to doctor a patient, he might be suspected ... . ... But the doctors were not known to decline any invitation to serve the people in need."


pp. 48, 50-53 "Swanassu Songs" (same, Gitenmaks tribe of the Gitksan) [s(ong), v(erse) : ordinal #]




lyrics of song


dream (explication of song)




"the chief Salmon (mianhl hawn) in the canyon ... under me".


"The huge Salmon appeared ..., although he was way down deep in the canyon.




"Woman Robin (ksemgyilarhgyaw) has flown away with me".


The She-Robin came to me, and she lifted me out of my sickness."




"Will round walk ... the Grizzly (legyai>ns) a long way ... behind the sky". ["the actual words were not uttered, only ... the burthen."]


"While they [dead uncles] were singing, the Grizzly ran through the door, and went right around. Then he rose into the air behind the clouds, describing a circle, and came back to the house. ...




"fire ... underneath the house".


I beheld many fire burning under the house."




"In held fast ... feet ... large spring".


"I dreamt of ... a large pool, and put my feet into it. ... I was unable to get out."




"It is shellfish like a knife (>nihlhagyeesta) doing it to me."


"It is the mussle-shell that is holding my feet."




"The spirit (dinarhnawraw) of the bee-hives ... is shooting ... my body".


"I saw huge bee-hives, out of which the bees darted and stung me all over my body."




"grandmother ... in the head".


"as if she were looking after a small boy."




"Where together talking ... the mountain (skanis) where I walk about".


"These peaks made a noise like bells, and I knew that they were speaking to each other."




"Where a loud noise ... the canyon (tsalaasu) where into I went".


"A great noise was rising out of the canyon. I fell ..., but I landed in the canoe that was there. I drifted with it further".




"Where the steep incline ... my trail".


"Now I found myself on a steep incline ... . I made a trail down for myself to the bottom."




"Whose canoe ... where it stands ... I do not know."


"Whose canoe is it where I stands with a stranger?"




"About floating ... where floods ... in water (>aks)."


"It floats about among the whirlpools."

pp. 53-4 curing by retrieval of patient’s soul

p. 53

"Then I put on my bear robe, I use a bear-claw head-dress, and I pass a snare (hogwest) round my neck. ... I would be tied by the collar, and the cord would be held in hands by the people present. ... The chief halaait would take water and throw it over my head. Then the four of us would stand over the pool of water and hold a consultation among ourselves; this is called silin. ... After we have stepped over the pool of water, we cover ourselves up with a mat.

If the patient is very weak, the chief doctor captures his spirit with his hands and blows quietly on it to give it more breath. If weaker still, the halaait takes a hot stone from the fire-place and holds the

p. 54

spirit over it. Perhaps a little fat is put on the hot stone to melt. The hands turn from one side to the other, thus feeding the sick spirit. After this is done, the halaait sits the spirit, then places it on the patient’s head."

p. 54 curing a sick halaait

"When a halaait is himself the patient, the treatment is called "Returning-the-catch" ... . A cedar collar (luirh) is placed around the neck of the sick medicine-man."


pp. 64-66 shamanism and witchcraft [extracts from :- Jesup North Pacific Expedition. 1905-1909. MEMOIR OF THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, NY. Vol. V:I – John R. Swanton : "Contributions to the Ethnography of the Haida". pp. 38-43.]




[p. 40] "the shaman must dress as the spirit directed and must speak in the spirit’s own language when the spirit was present. Thus, if the supernatural being were from the Tlingit country, as was often the case, the shaman would speak Tlingit, although in his uninspired moments he might be totally ignorant of the language. ...

Before he died he revealed his spirit to his successor, who might start with a comparatively feeble spirit and acquire stronger and stronger ones. The principal classes of supernatural beings who spoke through shamans were

the Canoe-People,

the Ocean-People,

the Forest-People, and

the Above-People.

Spirits would come down from the Tlingit country and look around the village to find "one who was clean," through whom they would act. ... A Tlingit spirit once came down, and, looking through the smoke-hole of a house, found a youth ...; but he was so "clean" that he looked transparent, "like glass." So the spirit entered him."


When __ spake through a spirit-medium,

they spake in the __ language.


the Above-People



the Moon






"shamans were never inspired by Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens.

Supernatural-One-upon-whom-it-thunders ... persuaded the shaman that he was receiving power from some other source."


[p. 41] "The dress of a shaman differed somewhat in accordance with the kind of spirit speaking through him. Usually he ... carried an oval rattle, and had a number of bone "head-scratchers" hung around his neck. His hair was allowed to grow long ... . ... He always wore a long bone through the septum of his nose. Sometimes, when he got his power from one of the Ocean-People, the shaman put two flicker-feathers into his head-dress. He carried a short piece of board upon which he beat time with a short baton and had a carved hollow bone through which he carried on his spiritual combats and blew away disease. The latter was also the method of treatment of Tlingit shamans."


"Some people ... went through some remarkable mental experience ... .{remarkable dream} A man who had passed through one of these experiences said that ... he saw a number of shamans standing in the sea around a big crab which they were trying to throw upon him. If they succeeded, he would have become a shaman".


[p. 43] "One who foretold events, ... was called ania."


pp. 67-68, 71-74 the making of a shaman (Gisparhlots tribe of the Tsimsyan)




"halaeit (power) ... of a medicine-man who went about curing people was the most important. ... This power came unexpectedly. Whomever this power struck ... would go into many trances and would have visions in which the different [spirit] aides appeared that the new medicine-man would have. His songs and amulets would be shown to him in a vision. These he would use henceforth as his own.


There was a young prince at Metlakatla who ... was ... in a trance; he spoke in a strange language, as if to some invisible person whom they could not see. After the second day the Prince ... said to his companions, "I am now very different. In my visions I learned I would be a shaman [halaeit] and that I would be helped by a supernatural crane. ..." ... They went to the spot where the crane had stood. There they found a shiny crystal. "This," said the Prince, picking up the crystal, "Was the crane I saw in my visions. The crane told me that it would give me a crystal for an amulet." ...


The crystal darted from his hand and struck down the goose in its flight. ...


The young man took his apron which he now had made of moose hide and frilled with deer hoofs and puffin bills. He put on a crown of bear claws and his rattle shaped as a crane. ...


He took the crystal and rubbed the Princess’s injured leg ... . She was cured ... . ... The young Prince now took the Princess as his wife ... . ...


The crystal flew out of the Prince’s hand, and the seal lay on his back dead ... . Soon they saw another sea and killed it in the same manner. This they did all day ... . ... Next day they went out and, as they had done with the seals, they soon filled the canoe with sea lions. ... At once the crystal flew out of the young man’s hand and struck the whale and killed it. ... .


[The Prince cured the]


chief of the Baegwes; these were supernatural people, but they were very dangerous. They went about influencing people, and they became crazy and then died. In order to overcome their supernatural power, the young halaeit and his companions used to bathe themselves every morning with urine ... . [The canoe provided by the chief of the Baegwes to transport the Prince-halaeit and his companions on their return-voyage] was a huge whale. {cf. Maori myth of return-voyage atop a pet whale.} [Having returned,] Things seemed different, and while he had counted that they were away only six days, they had been away six years. {cf. similar phainomenon in Irish accounts of mythic voyages.}

The young Prince now gave a great >iyaeok. At this feast he assumed his name Sqe>nu".

{Tsimsyan Princess = Inuit (Eskimo) goddess Sedna, whose finger-joints became seals, sealions, and whales.}


p. 75 "Medicine-Woman [Goddess] of Sickness" [/ksem/ ‘woman’ + haesipk ‘sickness’] (Kispayak tribe of the Gitksan, on the upper Skeena river)

Having returned from dreaming, the swansk halaeit said, "When I was taken in the skies, I beheld the sickness canoe in which were several spirits, each with a harpoon. As they saw a person walking about, they threw their harpoon at the victim, who at once became ill. So now the Woman of Sickness shall be my aide. The people will drink oolachen oil and devil’s club juice".


pp. 76-79, 81 "The Making of Only One" (Gyilodzau tribe of the Tsimsyan, on the middle Skeena river)




"many visions come to initiate the new halaeit, and to give instructions as well.

... the initiate must go to the chief of all halaeits of Wudstae [among the Bella Bella, to the South]. Then he is recognized".


"The two men fastened the end of the rope around his body and lowered him down into the pit. ... They pulled him up, and they saw his body all red from the bites of the insects. He was almost unconscious. ... . ... the last of the three men ... was lowered in the same way ... . When he landed at the bottom of the deep pit, ... a door opened from which a very bright man stepped and ... said, "Come with me, I will take you to my father. ..." The Gyilodzau followed this shining man, who led him into a large house ..., and at the rear was


a great chief, with many rattles which looked as if they were alive. ... The chief wore a crown of grizzly-bear claws, and in each hand he held a rattle which appeared to be alive. They rattled of their own accord. ... . ... one more door opened, and boards came out as if alive and spread out in front of the fire. Then live clubs appeared. They went to the boards and began to beat time on the boards. ... A live drum then ran out and began to beat itself with one of the beaters. ...


About a year later, the man who had been taken down into the pit ... spoke, "I was called back to the house where I went to last year ... . Now I have received powers which enable me to restore to live those who are dead. I have been given a halaeit name : Qamkawl – Only One. ..." ... Many times he restored life to those who were dead, and he foretold great events. ...


One night ..., he said ..., "To-night the chief Bagwes [fn. 1 : "Bagwes, in Tsimsyan, means "mischievous." ... It is a supernatural being who can assume any human form. As soon as one touches it, he (or she) becomes insane."] will come here to ask me to help him, as his son has been ailing ... . .." Sure enough, when all were asleep in the house, Only-One heard a canoe land ... . ... Before he went up from the canoe Only-One took his urine vessel and sprayed himself with urine. This was done to prevent the Bagwes people ... .


[At Gitrhahla, Only-One evaded successively being trapped in "a huge net" and in an "invisible pit".]


One day, ... Only-One ... now aged ... told his companions, "I am going to give you powers that I now possess. ... I am going on a long journey ... ." Then he went down to his canoe and without any effort the canoe drove away up to the pit ... . ... He never returned ... . He had gone to the abode of the great halaeit".


pp. 91, 94-95 shamanism and incantations in northeastern Siberia [extracts from :- The Jesup North Pacific Expedition. MEMOIR OF THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, NY. Vol VI – Waldemar Jochelson : "The Koryak". 1908. pp. 47-59.]




[p. 47] Koryak : ‘The professional shaman is called egnegnalan (that is, a man inspired by spirits), from aagneng ("shaman’s spirit"). Every shaman has his own guardian spirit that helps him in his struggle with the disease-inflicting kalau ... . ... The most common guardian spirits are the wolf, the bear, the raven, the sea-gull, and the eagle.

Nobody can become a shaman of his own free will. The spirits enter into any person they may choose and force him to become their servant. ... I was told that people about to become shamans ... retire to the wilderness ... in order to prepare themselves for their calling. There the spirits appear to them in visible form, endow them with power, and instruct them."


[p. 48] "The Koryak shamans have no drums of their own : they use the drums belonging to the family in whose house the shamanistic performance takes place."


[p. 51] Tungus shaman : "His spirits, being of Koryak origin, spoke out of him in the Koryak language.


[p. 52] I asked him several times ... what his spirits were saying, and he would invariably reply that he did not remember, that he forgot everything after the seance was over, and that, besides, he did not understand the language of his spirits. ... he really did not understand any Koryak."


[p. 59] "for "drum" ... the Yukaghir word (yalril) means "lake," that is, the lake into which the shaman dives in order to descend into the kingdom of shades."


NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CANADA BULLETIN, No. 152 (ANTHROPOLOGICAL SERIES, No. 42) = Marius Barbeau : Medicine-Men on the North Pacific Coast. Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1958.