Dialogues and Meditations on Tsims^ian Narratives, III


III. (pp. 157-228) "Reflections in a Shaman’s Mirror".

pp. 159-64 great shaman’s combat against the ghost-folk

p. 159

M69a Battle with the Ghost People "The young man from the very start ... had strange powers. Very often he would make motions of throwing something at walking people and these would stagger and sometimes fall, not knowing what had caused them to stumble or fall. ... Even birds were known to fall dead by the motions of his hands. ...

p. 160

At times he went into deep sleeps and acted in many strange ways. ... He now wore a bear’s claw headdress and an apron from which were hung moose and deer hooves. He also had an eagle head which he suspended from his neck, and a great round rattle. ...

One day, a beautiful niece of his father died ... . ... "I can restore my beautiful cousin to life again. When I was taken by the ghost people I got much power from the. They have taken her soul, but I can get that and restore her to life again". ... The young man went to where the woman lay and there he ... went into a trance. While he was there in a trance his aide the eagle came down and he sent the aide to the ghost people’s country. It searched until it found the young woman’s soul and then returned with it to the young Prince who was still in a trance. All the while his companions who were helping him were singing and using their clapper sticks on clapper boards. When the man’s aide came with the woman’s soul, the young man took it and went to where the woman’s body was, and then put the soul into the body of the dead woman. He began to dance and sang his power song ... and circled the body many times. Soon ...

p. 161

young woman ... opened her eyes ... as if awakening from a sleep. ...

The ghost chief said, "I will pretend to be ill, ... and ... invite the young shaman to come ... . ..." All of this was known to the Prince’s supernatural aides ... . ... Not long after a canoe came ... .

p. 162

... The Prince ... went down to the waiting canoe. And soon they came near ... the house of the ghost chief ... . The Prince’s aides were already flying around unseen by anyone. The Prince went beside where the ghost chief lay and blew a cloud of mist upon him. ... The Prince then called his companions around where the ghost chief lay and at the same time they all stamped their feet around where the ghost chief lay. At once a great hole opened and the ghost chief disappeared into this hole. The ghost people ran up to help their chief but the continual stamping of the shaman, aides, and companions made the ground open up and swallow down the ghost people ... . [cf. p. 173 : "The staff bearers stamped on the ground mightily".] The young shaman now took the charms and aides which belonged to the ghost chief ... . ...

p. 163

Just as he was going to die, he called ... : "... you will come out and take me from the burial box ... when the salmon berries ripen ... ." ... Then the great shaman died and was buried ... . ... First there seemed to be a flight of fire from the box in which the remains had been placed. Then there was also a constant drumming noise coming from the box ... . ...

p. 164

Every day these companions guarded the box very closely and one day without warning a huge owl began to crawl from the box. ... They knew now that at last the ghost people had taken the young shaman."

{"it is ... a big owl, who kills a group of ... cannibals" ("ASN", p. 42a).}

p. 200 "It could be read that the shaman actually became an owl after being placed in the burial box, or that he was taken away by one."

p. 173 supernatural lake

"the bushy-haired sorcerer of Segukla ... intoned ..., "And the Rainbow shall lift me from the lake on the path of the White Star aloft ... ." (Barbeau 1928:19)"

"a shamanic belief in a supernatural lake where most practitioners go, through visions, to acquire powers."

Barbeau 1928 = Marius Barbeau : The Downfall of Temlahan. Toronto : McMillan.

p. 181 praegnant woman’s dream of a dead shaman

"if a woman dreams of a dead shaman prior to giving birth, the child will become a shaman."

p. 181 a candidate for shamanhood is urged by ghosts to become a shaman

Gitksan shamaness : "During an illness, she had a vision in which a number of different shamans came, "... urging me to acquire my inherited power, which if I did not use, it would destroy me" ... .

Another said dead shaman ancestors had caused her illness because of her refusal to become one ... .

A Coastal Tshimshian shaman made much the same statement :

... I used to go into trances during which time various beings used to come to me and urge me to become a halait. I would be approached by ancestors who have been many generations dead and whom I had only heard of. ... They told me that I could become a very good healing shaman."

pp. 183-4 sacred sites for acquisition of shamanic powers

p. 183

"Culturally, certain spots are known as spahalait, where shamans can go to get shamanic powers."

p. 184

"in a second variant of M70, three men actively search for shamanic powers, though only one receives it from a supernatural source (Boas 1916:331-32). The pain of entering a supernatural place felt by the other two men kept them from gaining powers, but this pain was not incurred by the recipient-to-be."

Boas 1916 = Franz Boas : Tsimshian Mythology. Washington.

p. 185 nose-nipping shamaness

In M74, "the Chief of the Skies sends a slave with a glass nose to split open the bodies of women who offend him by being too loud. One of the women is menstruating, and her vagina beaks off the slave’s glass nose. ... "she now knew she had shaman’s powers, and brought back to life her companions"."

pp. 186-8 shamanhood acquired from animal




"In M75a Tsak, prior to a boy being given powers by a supernatural being, he is consumed y a grizzly, and then escapes".


"In M69b, upon his recovery a prince says, "I have had visions and I have been visited by


a frog

{Taliesin said, "I have fled with vigour, I have fled as a frog" (M, p. 475).}


and an owl; this was a large white owl and now I have the power to heal and to see events"".


A shaman "related to me what had happened to him. As he was walking along a trail he met.


a huge white bear and this bear immediately embraced him ... . Now he had met the supernatural being which was to control him.

{The Zun~i, Pawnee, and Cherokee likewise have a mythic white bear; besides the naturalistic Eskimo one.}


He felt that he was being engulfed in a huge river of foam and try as he might, he could not escape. It was then a white owl came ... and told me : "You shall become a halait ... .""

p. 190 shamanhood acquired under lake

In M77, "A boy who constantly plays at being a shaman meets a strange man, a naxnox, who takes him to a village under a lake. Here he is formally instructed".

pp. 191, 195 uttered burthen of shamanic song

p. 191

"shamans’ names which come respectively from, "... the burthen of his song", and, "... one of his dream songs"."

p. 195

As songs-of-powers, "the actual words were not uttered, only meaningless syllables of the burthen. But their meaning was kept in thoughts, although they were not considered secret".

pp. 198-9, 208 ghosts become salmon; shaman’s crossing into village of ghosts

p. 198

"M78 talks about the deaths of ghosts; if the ghosts fall into the Boiling-Oil River, they become salmon. ...

p. 199

The Boiling-Oil River in M78, which is the cause of second-death, has a bridge joining the villages of ghosts and humans; the shaman crosses one to enter the ghosts’ domain, and almost dies by falling into the same river (Boas 1916:325-26)."

p. 208

"A shaman’s song ... provides a different interpretation of the bridge between the world of ghosts and humans. It is said to cross a river full of menstrual blood."

{[According to the Edda,] Rivers of blood were crossed by Hermo`d on his journey to the land of souls of the dead, in order to visit Baldr.}

p. 199 nettle

"In M78, when ghosts enter the human realm, they use arrows made of dried nettles to shoot people.

In M23, humans learn from another species how to make the first salmon nets out of nettle fibres (Boas 1916:159)."

p. 202 partially petrified

"M80 [Great Shaman] also presents an elderly shaman who had been invited to a baegwas village and becomes trapped there because a part of his body turns to stone."

{A young man is immobilized : "lo! the lower half of him appeared stone down to his feet while from his navel to the hair of his head he was man." ("FJ")}

"FJ" = "THE FISHERMAN AND THE JINNI" (episode in the 1001 Nights, transl. by Sir Richard Burton. 1850.) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/burt1k1/tale02.htm

p. 210 contemporary costume (vestments) for performers in shamanic performance

"The men were naked to the waist ... . The women were entirely clothed in their dresses (in primitive days the men would have been naked and the women would have worn a skin skirt from the waist down to the feet). The ceremonial dress of both sexes was practically the same; consisting of

a small bear skin over the back, the tie strings secured under the chin;

an apron or waist robe ... ornamented with lynx teeth ..., and fringed along the bottom and hung with puffin beaks ...;

cedar bark rope hung with untanned mink, marten, weasel; ...

carved ivory {animal-teeth} ... charms suspended around the neck;

on the head a crown of grizzly bear claw secured by a leather band, or a headdress of ... ermine skins and the hair well covered with eagle down."

p. 212 a shamanic curing performance

Shamans’ songs were "accompanied in time by the beating on the beards with the small hand sticks, the drums and the rattles of all the shamans, and each song was ended by a single loud beat of sticks and drum. ... The songs consisted of but a few words repeated and long drawn out, invoking the aid of his spirit ... . The dancing commenced very deliberately and the movement was jerky in almost standing in place and raising the heel. But as it progressed it became more rapid and the beating, rattling, and song became faster util it ended in one wild whirl about the fire and in front of the sick but never completely around her. ...

One of the shamans, ... evidently the most noted of those present, ... went to the side of the sick; and kneeling beside her making strange noises, bent over her passing his arms and hands in a quivering movement over her, dropping his hand on her chest and then raising them. Then he put a neck girdle of cedar bark and bird skins over her head and under her chin. Then he rose and danced slowly with much movement of the body and hands around the fire and close to her, holding in his left hand a globular wooden rattle and a miniature canoe filled with eagle down and singing about a great lake that he saw with a canoe upon it and the girl’s spirit in the canoe".


pp. 213-4 canoes in shamanic dreaming & visualizing

p. 213

[autobiographical statement by a shaman] "I began to diagnose the cases by dreaming (wawq, sleeping, or ksewaawq, dreaming), with the help of my instructors. I acquired charms, that is, things I would dream of ... Canoe (>mal). ... I used a charm (aatix) and placed it over me first, then over the body of the person from whom I was to extract the disease or illness. ... 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 in the clouds. When any trouble occurred anywhere, I was able to see my canoe in my visions. My canoe came to me in a dream, and there were many people sitting in it. The canoe itself was the Otter (watsex). The woman who[m] I was doctoring sat with the others inside the Otter canoe. ...

[1st verse] "Whose canoe is it where I stand with a stranger?"

[2nd verse] "It floats about among the whirlpools".

p. 214

In my vision, I was taken in my canoe to many places ... . My canoe kept floating about, on land or in the water."


"One other instance of the shamanic use of canoes in diagnosis :

This woman was called upon to see what was causing this severe sickness. So she went into a trance and she visualized a large canoe travelling into the skies and there two men were in the bow of this sky canoe each with a harpoon and spearing the people as they went by. She saw that there was only one way it could be stopped".

p. 215 shamanic curing with animal-spirits as helpers

M79a "he went into a trance holding his quartz frog in his hand. When he was in a trance his white owl aide came to him informing him".

M79b "one of the supernatural aides of the young halait was a white land otter, and he called on this aide to know what ailed the chief. He went into a dream and soon the white otter came".

p. 215 practitioner’s dream forecasting non-recovery (death) of patient

"I would see them [supernatural aides?} going up into the mountains [in a dream?]. If they failed to return then there was no hope for recovery.

Also I had ... two person who came to me in my sleep and instructed me as to whether a person would recover, and the cause of sickness."

"the shamans were render insensible in order that their spirit might go forth and find the lost soul of the sick ... . ... One, a woman practitioner, said that her spirit had seen that of the sick in company with that of a dead brother. She had almost caught it, when both disappeared in a cleft in the rock, which immediately closed after them, which gave them no hope and the sick immediately died."

pp. 216-7 diagnostic spirits

p. 216

"I conjured my mind ... as I wanted to know for certain the cause of the death in the family. After I had done this for a year these two small beings children like very white appeared from the sky to me. It was at night, and I addressed them and asked them what I wanted. And they told me."

p. 217

"a charm which, when put in contact with a patient, allows its spirit to enter and see what is wrong with the sock person’s spirit. If the charm later becomes "transparently bright" a cure con be achieved. If not, then death is inevitable."

p. 218 charms protecting the patient

"In extreme cases he [the shaman] may protect the sick in his absence from evil spirits, by enclosing him in a fence of string passed around four stakes forming a rectangle. At intervals are tied ornamentally cut feathers ..., and standing perpendicular-weasel skins, stuffed mink ... or some charm possessing spirit power."

The shaman "takes a small skin bag containing dry powdered mineral paint which he rubs on his face, and may then paint the face, breast, hands and feet of the patient. This is done to keep evil spirits away."

p. 219 derivation of the word /halait/

"Guedon (1984b:196) postulates the possibility of ... something twirled, which may be the root term of halait (halhal)."

{cf. /H.ALH.ALah/ ‘writhing’ (Strong’s 2479)}

A halait hath peculiar dreams (.e.g., p. 214).

{/H.ALo^m/ ‘dream’ (Strong’s 2472)}

Guedon 1984b = Marie-Franc,oise Guedon : "Tsimshian Shamanic Images". In :- M. Seguin (ed.) : The Tshimshian : Images of the Past; Views for the Present. Vancouver : U of BC Pr.

Strong = Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of Bible Words.

pp. 220-1 use of a model canoe in shamanic curing

p. 220

When used in diagnosis, "the canoes are always painted red, and used with eagle down."

p. 221

The shaman "cures the patient by drawing a canoe out of her and placing it in his own chest."

p. 222 soul-catcher tube

"an item of shamanic paraphernalia, which is generally called a soul-catcher, ... is central to the treatment of soul loss. ... the object is a bone tube open at both ends and decorated with the figure of a naxnox met in trances, and is thus a manifestation of the shaman’s spirit helper. When the soul is found, it is stored in this tube. The ends are plugged to prevent the soul’s escape and it is taken to the patient. The soul is then either placed on the patient’s head and blown or patted into it, or the tube is used to blow it into the patient’s mouth."

p. 223 interrment of the corpse of a shaman

Seeking a lost soul, in "an "extreme" case ... the healers conclude the soul could be found in a shaman’s grave and that they should go there to remove it from the corpse."

"When shamans die, ... Unlike nonshamans, they are not cremated prior to burial.

The locations are dangerous".

{Shamans’ graveyards are likewise deemed dangerous in Buryatia.}

pp. 225-6 shamanic seerdom

p. 225

"Prophecy can be a specialization, and its practitioners were called laxelth ... . ... . ... the seer used supernatural means ... to for[e]cast the weather and fish runs, though the seer could ... see other events, such as the arrival of strangers ... . ...

p. 226

Shamans of this type ... had a number of other powers ... through ... telepathy and telekinesis ... . Two shamans living in different villages tested each other ... . One would communicate his desires through a song which the other would hear while in a trance. He would then send it [via telekinesis] to his counterpart’s house where it would arrive through the smoke hole."


CARLETON LIBRARY SER., No. 139 = John Cove : Shattered Images : Dialogues and Meditations on Tsimshian Narratives. Carleton U Pr, Ottawa, 1987.