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Way back before the advent of HMOs and over-the-counter cure-alls, the native peoples of Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory typically sought the services of a shaman when they needed to treat a toothache, infection, or bad case of indigestion.
The tribal shaman was considered a messenger between the human and spirit worlds and performed a variety of functions including healing.
Shamans were believed to have the power to cure ailments by mending the soul after entering supernatural dimensions where spirit guides revealed solutions to problems affecting the tribe. By helping alleviate spiritual traumas, shamans were thought to restore balance to the physical body and eliminate the source of sickness. That is until Europeans brought smallpox and other diseases that defied the traditional healer's powers and relegated the shaman's role to history.
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"Spiritual Healing: Shamans of the Northwest," an intriguing new show at the Frost Art Museum, lifts the veil on the ritual practices of animistic tribes such as the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida, all of which believed nature is endowed with spirits that manifest in the form of illness and disease.
The exhibit features an enchanting array of historic tools shamans used to enter a trance, communicate with the spirit world, and cure their patients, along with more contemporary objects displayed together as works of art. On view are amulets, rattles, masks, drums, crowns, necklaces, and clan poles, each bearing carved or painted crests of animals — symbols and figures associated with clan lore and mythology.
At the entrance to the exhibit, a towering clan pole representing a raven greets visitors. The raven is the bird associated with the creation myth of many indigenous peoples living on the Northwest Coast and was also considered a trickster figure known for its guile in outwitting adversaries.
Often mistakenly referred to as totem poles, these structures were heraldic and not totemic in nature and featured different designs including bears, birds, frogs, aquatic creatures, people, and supernatural beings that functioned as crests of families or chiefs. Also used to reflect wealth and power, the poles recounted the stories and accomplishments of specific clans or commemorated particular occasions.
For the Tlingits, who had access to easily exploited natural resources and developed a complex hunter-gatherer culture, their clan or house poles were important sources for reflecting economic status as well as family kinship. Their society was divided into two kinship groups represented by the raven and the eagle, each subdivided into lineages or house groups. Both figures appear prominently in their weavings, jewelry, canoes, feast dishes, and other art forms. A fine example of a Tlingit house post, carved with the crest of an eagle and beaver, can be found in the show.
In one of the rare, undated black-and-white pictures on display, a Tlingit shaman wears a feathered headdress while madly shaking a ceremonial rattle to induce a trance.
Nearby is a wood and deerskin drum, created circa 1960 by Cicero August of the Salish, with a painted eagle on the hide, representing the type of ritual instrument once used by tribal healers to bang out cosmic rhythms and communicate with spirit guides.
Next to the ritual apparatus is a bentwood box drum the size of a large suitcase that was crafted from a single bent piece of cedar. Painted on either side of the hushed ritual apparatus are the figures of an octopus and salmon, which were common to the region.
The only other picture of an actual shaman on view depicts "Skundoo" of the Chilkat tribe, known for one of the most complex weaving techniques in the world. His unruly hair is matted from sweat and festooned with filthy strips of ribbon, making him look more like a fugitive from Winter Music Conference than a medicine man. He wears a bearskin shawl and holds a rattle emblazoned with the figure of a sisiutl, a warrior god known for its supernatural shape-shifting powers.
In a Plexiglas case stand examples of amulets or soul-catchers used by shamans in healing rituals. The items are typically constructed from bear femurs incised on both sides and often ornamented with abalone shells.
Soul-catchers were decorated with a sisiutl-like animal — a land otter or bear head — at both ends of the tube and an anthropomorphic figure in the middle. The form represented the mythological land otter canoe and symbolized the ability to travel among the three realms: air, the god realm (kijek); earth, the human and animal realm (takijek); and the water or spirit realm (tekijek). The land otter was considered the source of all shamanic power. These amulets were usually worn as necklaces and used to suck a lost soul out of the spirit world and blow its essence back into the patient.
One of the neat examples on display dates from 1870 and depicts a land otter devouring a man inlaid with abalone.
The concept of sucking nasty maladies from the frail and spiritually addled can be found in a late 20th-century mask representing a mosquito. It is painted bright blue and boasts eyes, teeth, and ears inlaid with abalone, which represents a shaman's ability to swallow poison infecting the body. The insect's snoot, the length of a turkey baster, juts from a wall.
Across from it sits a Tsimshian rattle depicting a frog and an owl. It might have been used to ward off death when a patient's condition was rapidly deteriorating. Although the owl was generally considered a shaman's helper, they were also believed to be the cause of death for people they unexpectedly flew over.
For anyone interested in exploring ritual healing systems based on nature worship and ancestral traditions, or simply enjoying these beautiful, intricately crafted objects as works of art, this modest offering conjures some potent magic.