While researching my novels and stories I occasionally turn up some material that’s worth sharing without putting a fictional story line around it. Lately I’ve been delving into the local shamanistic traditions here in the Puget Sound region and some all-but-forgotten customs have come to the fore, that quite frankly amaze me.
I suppose anyone can see that the men in the photo are performing some sort of ritual. Indeed they are and sadly, they were the last practitioners of a now-lost piece of shamanistic healing practice. All that remains of the custom are a very few photos, all of latter day reenactments rather than real rituals in progress, as well as a few widely-scattered museum pieces of the paraphernalia that went along with the craft. But it’s a shame the practice is gone. Although I’m not prone to belief in witch doctoring or voodoo, nevertheless, I sense that something valuable has been lost along with this custom.
What you see in the photo is a group of shamans who have teamed up. That in itself is unusual because shamans were mostly solo artists and often bitter rivals, all the way up to and including murdering their counterparts. However, in the healing ceremonies practiced by Chief Seattle’s tribe before their culture waned, this team effort took on spectacular dimensions. Click the image for a closer look. I only wish I could time warp back there once to see and hear the phenomenon that has since been called the Shamanic Odyssey or the Soul Recovery Ceremony.
A flight of fancy is about as close as I’ll ever get, so here goes.
Imagine a cedar plank longhouse a hundred feet long and half that wide, with dozens of families gathered around a sick person. Hear the drums begin and listen to solemn singing in Indian style as a procession of shamans enters the single large room, carrying planks of cedar carved and painted with mystical symbols of the shamanistic craft. The planks are embedded in the dirt floor in the outline of a large cedar dugout canoe and smaller wooden figures are emplaced along with the planks — effigies of ancestors and power spirits. The shamans line up in the spirit canoe like paddlers in a real boat, hoisting staffs that serve as paddles, magic wands, and weapons of war.
The ceremony proceeds through a series of stops in a journey to the Land of the Dead, where the soul of the sick person is held captive by malevolent ghosts. In a series of speeches, songs, and enactments of hunting, gathering, and warring scenes, the shamans progress through their odyssey while the entire gathered crowd sings, chants, pounds drums and clacks sticks on cedar planks to make a concerted noise that was said to cause the entire longhouse to reverberate and shake and shudder.
Implicit in the pageant was the understanding that the Land of the Dead was a real place and, while the shamans were merely carrying out a symbolic journey, nevertheless their own souls were at the time actually off among the Dead, and their own safety and lives were at risk. This notion strengthened the emotional impact of the proceedings and brought out great expressions of fervor among the onlookers as well as participants. As the shamans grappled with the ghosts and captured the lost soul and rushed homeward in their canoe, the bedlam of pounding rhythms and fervid massed singing must have been a truly awesome sight and sound to behold.
Home again, the shamans gathered around the sick one and blew the breath of the soul back into the sick body, made final speeches, and then withdrew from the longhouse. Given the incredible amount of attention given to the patient, it doesn’t surprise me that most were said to immediately get up and sing and dance their own personal power songs with life restored and health returning.
I’ll leave it to you to decide what level of credence you choose to give the practitioners of this soul quest, but consider this. When an entire village turns out to console and encourage a sick individual, how surprising is it really, that a quick recovery was the result? Perhaps we should find some analogous way to encourage our own sick patients, from people down with the flu to cancer sufferers, to take heart, be of good spirits, and rise up from their sick beds. If we gathered enough people around and if they were as passionate in their well-wishing as the Duwamish Indians once were, then the power of positive thinking might work medical miracles.
It’s a shame the old shamans are gone, leaving so few traces. Maybe someday, somehow, we can recapture the essence of this lost craft. Call it witch doctoring, call it what you will, but it seems to me it’s an art of healing that has no counterpart in today’s society.