Pacific Northwest

Pacific Northwest – Among the 11 recognized Native American nations of the North American Pacific Northwest coast, there are numerous village community identities, and shamans are prominent figures: for the Tsimshian, “Of all the people, the shaman, or medicine man, is the most powerful seer, and with the help of the spirits, the shaman sees beyond the present world and uses this understanding to look after the people.” The Gitxsan “believe human beings are neither separate nor different from natural objects, animals and spiritual entities. . . . The haalayt-dim-swannasxw [shamans] . . . see things not ordinarily visible and [are able to] visit non-human realms” (“Listening to Our Ancestors: Native Art on the North Pacific Coast,” National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.).

Transformation is a key theme in the shamanism of the region, as expressed in art: split representation, for instance, a stylistic convention that maximizes representation rather than naturalistic depiction and is most famously discussed by Franz Boas in Primitive Art (1955), allows as many identifying and characteristic features as possible to be depicted at once. This means clan totems will be immediately recognizable to the viewer: a killer whale, for example, will always have teeth and a dorsal fin, the beaver will always have two large incisors, and the hawk always has a hooked bill. Split representation refers to the reflection of an image based on a bilateral axis, and further, in some instances we see the body of an animal split lengthways and then opened out, embodying a transformation of the creature, a form of dismemberment.

Masks worn in such ceremonies as the potlatch take this element of transformation further. During the potlatch ceremony, the clan or family history is traced back to a time when there was no boundary between humans and animals. Often constructed with eyes and a mouth that open and close, such masks are worn by shamans in order to “see” into the spirit world. Other masks with human faces that open out to reveal animals within, such as the ubiquitous raven, assist shamans in transforming into these other-than-human persons. Frequently, the shaman’s rattles convey the importance of transformation and the permeability between the worlds of humans, animals, and spirits: a shaman figure lies on the back of a raven, with his tongue extended to meet the tongue of the frog set in his belly, in order to absorb the potency required to engage with these other-thanhumans. This sophisticated and complex cosmology has been appropriated and decontextualized in the neo-shamanic “trance postures” taught by Felicitas Goodman: it is assumed that by simply standing in the pose of the human figure in a shaman-and-bear “spirit” carving, any human can potentially reach an altered state of consciousness. Such interpretations may be empowering for Westerners, but they are incongruous with indigenous practices and may, indeed, be interpreted as a form of disrespectful cultural theft.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007