“Witch doctor” reflects the white man’s religious arrogance and superstition. When they encountered the Indian, the white men were separated into narrow, antagonistic, even violent religious groups (just as they still are today in certain countries). Each sect of such religions declared that anything which did not conform to its own rules was “of the devil”.
The white doctors of the encounter-era were still using procedures and remedies which had little reason, and less science, and which were as likely to kill as cure. But seeing the mysterious dances, songs, and trappings of the Indian shaman, who often, but not always, used his rites for “healing”, they called the Indians “witch doctors” or “medicine men”, and feared them.
To the Indians, dreams were as important as every-day experiences. Some, however, had the power to go into a trance or death-like “sleep”. Sometimes it occurred spontaneously in a time of great emotional stress, or during a severe illness – what we would call today a “coma”. We know that some people today can practice self-hypnosis, but under hypnosis they usually do not remember anything that happened. The Indian experience seems to have been more like a modern “drug trip”, and perhaps it was.
To understand what the Indians thought had happened, we will briefly review their abstract idea of the human experience. We have learned that they symbolized the phases of life as a flat disc divided by four axes. The intersection of the axes symbolized a stage of life in which a male became a man. Through this point they imagined an axle or axis extending both above and below the disc. A child went out alone to seek a vision by prayer during a period of withdrawal, communication with nature, starvation, and ultimately a “dream”, from which he came back with knowledge of his guardian animal, and a song sacred to him. It was believed that the youngster’s spirit had traveled down the lower axis, been in communication with his personal animal spirit and had come back into the world of everyday. Except for his normal sleeping dreams the ordinary individual had few further mystical experiences.
A very few individuals, usually many years later, experienced a mystical or psychic phenomenon to which we have referred. During such a time, the sleeper was treated with great awe, for the Indians believed that his spirit had departed from his body, and taken the way of the upper part of the axis of their sacred symbol to the realms of Yage (heaven). In other words, for the time being, the visionary was dead.
During the trance or the meditation that accompanied it, the person destined to become a shaman believed that he was given supernatural power — in himself but for his people — and that he was taught a song by which he could teach or cure others.
When he “came back to his body” he might be convinced that he had power to heal. He was then the “shaman”. Others had a religious message to impart, and/or an alleged ability to foretell the future. These were the prophets. Some found power as great storytellers or poets. Probably the experience of becoming a shaman could be compared to our religious concept of “conversion”. Most important was the belief that the shaman’s power was not supposed to benefit himself but his people.
Not all shamans remained “good” or benevolent, but used their power for evil. A shaman who used his gifts for selfish gain was believed to harm himself more than his victim. If he used his power to kill another person, they believed that the victim went directly to Yage (heaven, the other world) but the shaman took on himself all the burdens that would have weighed down his victim’s “shadow” in the after life. The “bad” shaman was thought to have brought upon himself inexplicable bad luck.
In his trance the true shaman was believed to receive, directly from the Great Spirit, a song to sing to his people. In the Beaver language it was called ahata-yine. Ridington says these were songs given only to “men who have died (symbolically) and been re-created through their experience of the power of creator”. The ahata-yine was not to be kept secret by the shaman but was to be sung publicly at important functions and solemn ceremonies. They were to be memorized by the people to become a part of their literature, remembered often long after the giver was dead.
At the public ceremonies presided over by the shaman, the Athapaskan-speaking people danced, going clockwise, or as they say “like the sun” around a fire. Among the Algonkian-speakers the dancers typically go the other way.
During the dances the experience of the shaman was transmitted to his people. He danced. He mimicked the actions of the animals. He told of his dreams and his prophecies over and over, until they became part of the culture. Such ceremonials are still considered as “dancing to heaven” along the mystic axis which the shaman had followed to the death and from which he had come back alive. Every Beaver hoped to follow that path after death.
The young shaman seems to have undergone a period of apprenticeship to the “wise old man” in which he learned and practiced a great deal of sleight of hand and illusion, like our professional magicians or conjurers. It added a great deal to his prestige. As well, he had to master a vast amount of “medical” lore, and all of the traditional songs of his predecessors. In due time, on the death of the senior shaman, the student would become the most revered holy man.
Although the shaman was enjoined to use his gifts for people, the people were not supposed to ask for them free. The would-be recipient was supposed to offer the shaman a gift, but there was a generally recognized price for certain services. This applied only to the shaman who practiced as a “medicine man”, which only some of the shamans did. The would-be recipient knew, for instance, that a horse was fair exchange for a piece of calamus or rat-root an inch long. This might be considered excessive, except that the people were convinced that there were certain ways and times and ceremonials known only to the medicine men for digging of the roots that were free for anyone to dig. The Indians did not consider the gift a “price”, but a measure of their gratitude for “value received.” There was also the possibility that, if the shaman failed when called upon, his client might engage a more powerful shaman to punish him. The most sacred gift to offer was a quantity of tobacco, or a choice piece of meat.
There are still practicing shamans among the natives. This writer had the opportunity to interview one of a family of “medicine men”, (and women) in the summer of 1973. One of them deplored the fact that the knowledge of the old medicines and cures was being lost because no young people were learning them. When I suggested that arrangements could be made with an anthropology department to record them in their native tongue, the medicine man made it quickly known that for each “secret” he would expect a good horse or a fine saddle. When I told this to another Indian he said, ” ____ is not a good medicine man. He should accept what you offer.” Since I was not asking anything for myself, but trying to help him record his lore, I did not go into the horse-business, nor start shopping for saddles!
When the shaman “came back” from his first supernatural experience, he had acquired a certain distinction. To show it, his lodge was reversed – he slept with his head to the sunset – to signify that his spirit had gone out with the setting sun – it had died – but had come back from the West, the sunset place. The Christian religion has a similar concept “Ye shall be born again”.
After the mystic experience which made him a shaman, the man hung his medicine bag or medicine bundle at the western side of the teepee. From that time forward the shaman might make many “flights” to the Yage, coming back again and again with songs for his people, and messages for them in times of great trouble.
The Beavers symbolized the flight of the spirit to the supernatural realms by the highest-flying bird, the beautiful swan, whose body in flight makes the sign of the cross, and which is believed to be the only bird capable of flying to heaven and returning. The shaman is identified with the Swan, for “the myth of the culture-hero that is the prototype of both the vision-quest and the shamanic flights, tells the story of a boy named Swan who became the first man to discover the road to heaven.” (Ridington)
As we have said before, the trance-like state into which a shaman lapsed was very like the LSD “trip”, of modern day. Among the Beavers we have not found any reference to the use of drugs to produce the visions. The peyote cactus is not known to grow here. There are, however, hundreds of fungi and other plants, which might have the same effect. If any were potent in this way, the shamans would naturally keep it a secret among themselves to enhance their prestige.
There is a suggestion that the plant, Devil’s Club, Fatsia horrida, could be used to produce psychedelic phenomena. The anthropologists at one of our Western universities has experimented with it in many ways, but one of them told this writer that in no way had anyone got the slightest reaction from it. Parts of some plants are frequently found in medicine bundles that have come to museums. But until it is proved to the contrary, we may choose to accept the belief that some Indians can induce a sort of self-hypnosis, by mental effort alone. When they “come out of it”, they can recall the mental impressions they have had. Since many of the shamans, like Charlie Yahey, lived to great old age, this must be a less destroying method than the use of some drugs.
“Medicine for sickness”, according to Dr. Diamond Jenness, writing about the Sekani, bears the same name, nadetche, as hunting medicine which it resembled in many ways. Both were secret, and lost if the dream was revealed. Both often involved taboos and amulets worn or carried on the person… [In medicine power] a bond was forged between the dreamer and the object… an animal, more often, but apparently it could be inanimate, like water or a gun.” The power was not in the object, but in the man, who wasn’t interested in its mystic basis, but who believed that it supplied a vital need in his life, helping him when his hunting medicine was of no avail. His hunting medicine helped him only in time of starvation, not in sickness, or when his enemies were threatening. It could be used only once or twice in a lifetime. The “sickness” medicine never “wore out”, and while it could be used in sickness, it had other uses as well. Few attained it, and then not at puberty. When he was seeking his hunting medicine, it came, as we might say “out of the blue” – by chance, usually after marriage, since it had no close association with the animal world, and the taint of marriage made no difference. A man who obtained one medicine might attain several for he was blessed with peculiarly receptive powers, especially the power to decide when the sickness he was called for was in the mind – and needed only rekindling a desire to live. He was, therefore, a very important member of his band, a true medicine man whose services might be called on in any case of severe illness.
“He was also a source of danger. His power was like a magic ray that can not only cure but cause sickness and death, even to himself. Thus, if he were forbidden to eat when people were walking near him, and if he disobeyed the taboo, he would become insane, and the person walking near would die. Such a man would always warn people to sit down before he ate. If someone seemed about to rise, he would strike the offender with something, to recall the taboo to his memory.”
Paraphrasing Dr. Jenness again: “Sickness, according to the Sekani was produced by one of four ways. (1) It might arise from some physical cause, as a knife; (2) from the patient’s soul leaving his body and wandering away (unconsciousness) (3) through the curse of some other shaman or (4) from some cause unknown. In events (2) and (4) the trouble would likely be attributed to another shaman.
A shaman might work evil in at least two ways. He might point his medicine token at his victim or pray that its counterpart might enter his body unseen. Or he might enter a sweathouse, seize the wandering soul of his sleeping enemy in his hands and beat it so that it could not return.
Cases of illness, the Indians thought, might be caused by wrongdoing or eating forbidden food. The shaman might accuse the patient, but confession in no way aided recovery. Many tribes believed this. Indians would not neglect their simple herbal remedies, but for anything serious they called on the shaman, who used his power, not only to gain influence, but wealth as well, which was allowable in his case. The “chief” on the contrary, was allowed no more food or possessions than any other person.
After opening his medicine bundle each shaman had his own method of treatment – going into a sweat-house by himself to wait the revelation of the cause and cure of the patient’s illness, or perhaps the conviction that the patient would not recover. Or he might dance or sit beside the sick one, singing his medicine songs, beating his drum, touching the patient’s body with his “magic” charms. The shamans were masters of showmanship — a “healing” was an emotion-charged experience.
If the shaman failed, he announced that some more powerful shaman than he had cursed the patient who would now die. Either the patient began to show improvement at once, or he soon died.
Women could become “dreamers” – inferior medicine “men” who could diagnose the illness but not effect “magic cures”. However, many old women had an extensive knowledge of herbs. One who was noted in this area was “grandma” Mary Whitford of Fairview who died only a very long and much admired life.
The psychological aspect of “cures” such as the shamans seemed to effect is usually ignored. Indians were fatalists — moreover, their concept of Yage or “heaven” and their lack of a sense of “sin” and “judgment” made fear of death different from that of the Europeans. Therefore it was not likely that a person, believing himself to have been put under a curse by some powerful “medicine man” would simply give up. Because modern doctors know that the “will to live” plays an important part in the success of dangerous operations such as open-heart surgery, they will refuse to operate on a patient who is psychologically negative, either to the operation or towards the surgeon. If the shaman could arouse the desire to live, the curse could be shaken off. The patient would live.
It is also know that after certain traumatic experiences, people will lose the power to walk or talk. We know that in the emotionally charged atmosphere of pilgrimages to shrines, people who believe strongly have experienced a reaction that has broken the mental block and made them able to function again.
Modern psychologists know that in certain cases, psychiatric treatment has helped the individuals to overcome disabling conditions. The shamans were intuitive psychologists.
The missionaries’ conviction that the shamans were nothing more than servants of the devil still colours the opinion of many people. The good shamans served a very important purpose in the Indian community. Considering that they were probably the most intelligent men in the community, and certainly the most influential, it seems a pity that their abilities were not enlisted instead of alienated..
Malaysia has many thousands of aboriginal people more primitive and isolated than our remotest Indians today. Their shamans are as entrenched in power as any that ever practiced in America. In the remotest jungles they carry on their rituals and dictate the taboos. Wishing to provide public health care for the aborigines, the Malaysian government built a 360 bed modern hospital, for aborigines only, twelve miles from Kuala Lumpur, and the capitol. Around it, they built simple housing units for the families of the patients. Then they induced the shamans to come in for a “crash course”. They taught them how to identify the most prevalent conditions which can be treated by certain common medications, – malaria, infections, and pain. Because the shamans could not read, they gave them quinine, penicillin, sulpha and aspirin, each in a distinctive bright colour. They showed the shamans that by having the families come to the hospital with the patient, they could observe the tribal taboos in food, etc. Then with a portable two-way radio with which to get instructions from or information to Gombak, the hospital, the shamans were sent home. The operation was an outstanding success. The shaman had not “lost face”; the tribal customs were not downgraded. Within two hours a qualified doctor could be at any scene by native canoe, jeep, or helicopter. In emergencies, patient and family could be brought to Gombak all free of charge!
By objectively acknowledging the undeniable value to the aboriginal village of their own kind of priest-doctor-poet, the non-Christian Malaysians may have shown themselves more humane and wiser than we.
The fur traders seem to have tolerated the shamans, and even abetted them. The traders treated them as chiefs, although the Indians did not consider them so. A “chief” or “headman” was chosen by the band — the shaman’s power and authority came from a mystical source. The best way to be on the right side of the shaman was to take his daughter as a “country wife”. As a relative-by-adoption, that trader was reasonably sure of getting all the trade from that group.
With the missionaries it was another matter. With their implicit belief in the devil, and the conviction that he could take possession of people, they had no doubt that the shaman’s works were “of the devil”, so they attacked his minions with zeal. There was another aspect which the missionaries were not too spiritual to recognize. The shamans were the greatest stumbling block to Christianizing the natives, for they were not about to give up their prestige to a black-robed stranger whom they considered nothing better than a rude barbarian. Moreover, the shamans were often skilled debaters and logical as well. Much of the missionaries’ failure to convince the shamans (and through them the people) lay in their lack of understanding of Indian ways of thinking. For example, Chief Long Lance describes a visit from the missionary who sent word that he was coming to speak to the Indians about his God:
The shamans took a new lease on life in the 1870s and 80s. In 1872, Black Elk, the last of the Sioux holy men, had a compelling vision in which he foresaw a time of great trouble for all the Indian peoples. He saw a time in which the white man would almost overcome them, but from which the Indian would rise again, not to conquer the white race, but to lead the nation back to the good old days. In 1890 another American holy man, Wavoka, brought the Ghost Dance to the Western Plains and with it some of the Christian teaching. With phenomenal speed this teaching spread even to our remote area, for Charlie Yahey’s religious exhortations as late as the 1960s had elements of Wavoka’s vision. The ability to synthesize the native and white religions, which the missionary could not or would not do, may have prolonged the influence of the shaman.
The day of the shaman is not wholly past. They are still practicing in Northern Canada. Whether there will be any young initiates to replace, remains to be seen. Considering the resurgence of the native religious conferences in Alberta, it is impossible to predict what the elders may undertake.s