Taboos, Shamanism, and Indigenous Worldviews
Shamanism is a practice that involves a person able to reach a certain state of consciousness that will enable that person to cross the borders between our physical world and the spiritual world. That person is some sort of practitioner and is called a shaman. This practice can be found in many places around the world, such as America, Africa, India, Russia and Asia, but it plays an especially central role in Native Americans’ culture. In most of the Northern American Native tribes, the shamans’ role, along with many other functions, is to lead people towards a good life, a good path both in the physical and in the spiritual world. In order to understand this “religious” belief, one must first look at the Natives’ perception of the world that surrounds them and the taboos that result from their perception. Therefore I will first look at the Indigenous interpretation of the world and then focus on the practice of shamanism itself.
It is important to know that Native American way of life is much more related to nature than the common Western lifestyles. The Indigenous vision of the objects and elements that surround them are based upon the fact that each of them, including man itself, has a body, an image and a soul. The body is nothing but a shell that contains the soul and image. Broadly speaking, the image is located in the brain but works aside from the body. It is the image that will guide the body and the mind according to certain situation; it is somehow what the Western man would call “instinct”. The soul, in accordance with Native Americans, is probably the most important part of a being. The soul is located in the heart, but as the image, generally works apart from the body. It is the intelligent part and the will of the being. Intelligent as it will enable the body to interpret things, to feel things and understand them in order to remember them. Diamond Jenness states therefore that “it is the soul that experiences pleasure, grief and anger.” The will, or the soul helps the body to achieve things; it is the invisible entity that will push you to do things and complete them. An insane man, and a drunk man as well, will be said to have lost their souls. Furthermore, since all beings present on earth possess a body, an image and a soul, communication is therefore possible between men and everything around them. And these relations between men, animals, trees, stones, water and other natural beings are often the cause of taboos among Native tribes. Later, I will develop more about those taboos and their strong connection with shamanism. Knowing all that, it is easier to understand the spirituality of some Native beliefs and practices and especially the role of the shaman, as the one who can reach this unknown spiritual world and make a connection with the physical world, with the Mother Earth.
First and foremost, it is important to know how shamans are chosen, well they are not. According to several writings and interviews about the practice of shamanism, we can know that a child, boy or girl, could become a shaman before its own birth. And that is those taboos mentioned previously that help elders to know whether a child – before its birth or in early childhood – has the abilities to become a good shaman. If the child has abilities, other shamans will help to train the said child. The latter will be “tested, forbidding [himself] from eating and drinking for many days, waiting for new-found spiritual ability” (Eric Anoee, 1977:13). Taboos varied from one tribe to another, but most of the time they are linked with animals and plants that should not be killed, preparations for warriors and hunters, the way way some animals should be killed, pregnancy, food custom, children education, death and others. Even though taboos varied depending on the tribes and the ecosystem surrounding them, their purpose and their origin are often quite similar. For instance, in tribes located in the Nunavut territory, when a woman just had babies or when women are menstruating, they should not be eating anything brought by a man considered as taboo. Those men are called tiringnaqtuq in Inuktikut. In Cherokee clans, when a women give birth she is to avoid her husband, so she must not have sexual intercourse with him. She must not prepare meals for him and should even try not to touch him. When a Cherokee woman is in her moon time (menstruating), she should be separate from the community.
If the member of a tribe breaks a taboo he/she must confess it to the shaman in order to prevent any major problems, and if the troubles have already come, he/she must confess it as well so the shaman can fix the problem, heal the disease or whatever. Children that have a “great sensitiveness to any breach of taboo was a sign that [they] should live to be great shamans” (Rasmussen, 1929:116).
Not all shamans are considered as good shamans, for they are linked with the spiritual world and there can be both good and evil spirits, thus there can be evil shaman as well. Good shamans are bearers of good spirits and have therefore strong shamanistic power that can heal, protect, teach or find people.. Spirits belong to the shamanic upper and lower worlds. Upper world spirits are mostly spirit teachers and lower world spirits are mostly spirit helpers that often take the shape of animals. Most of the shamans will have the same kind of practices, including drums, songs, dances, amulets, or healing rituals. Each practice has its own use according to the tribe. Singing and dancing are primarily personal and help a shaman to find its True Self. It is through the “soul song”, while in a shamanic state of consciousness, that a shaman can find its True Self, or even that an individual can discovers that he or she has become a shaman. Amulets are essentially to protect people. Healing rituals, once again, vary according to the tribe, but most of the time they include a shaman’s soul journey in which the shaman will try to find the broken taboos, which is the nature of the illness. Once the shaman has found it, the sick person, as mentioned previously, must confess the transgressed taboo so the shaman can heal the person. During those shamanic journeys, shamans use special dresses and special instruments (ropes, caribou skin, plants etc). In a way, shamans are trusted men and women such as doctors, except that they have the ability to cross the borders of the spiritual and the physical world, a power that enables them to understand “the realm of mind and thoughts” (Diamond Jenness, 1930: 62).
Nowadays there is an increasing scepticism among Indigenous people regarding the practice of shamanism and others “religious” practices and beliefs. It is partly due to the fact that more and more people claim to know about the physical laws that rule natural events. Nevertheless, many Indigenous people still trust their traditional beliefs. And I, personally, hope that shamanism, along with other spiritual practices, will be used for many years to come. For it does not seek to explain everything, but represents magnificently, and also logically, the place of man in the world as merely equal to everything surrounding him, considering that every natural object has a soul.
Chapter Seventeen: Shamanism, Uqalurait An Oral History of Nunavut, by John Bennett and Susan Rowley, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Chapter 17, pp 176-186. 2004
“The Indian’s Interpretation of Man and Nature.” by Diamond Jenness, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, vol. XXIV, section II, pp.57-62. 1930
SHAMANISM101, Shamanic Spirits, http://www.shamanism101.com/Shamanic-Spirits.html, webpage visited on 24/03/2016
AAANATIVEARTS, Cherokee Taboos, http://www.aaanativearts.com/cherokee/cherokee-taboos.htm, webpage visited on 24/03/2016
Neal McLeod : Indigenous Heritage and Methods of Teaching
Neal McLeod, professor of Indigenious Studies at the University of Trent in Ontario, has an interesting and innovative take on indigenous culture and how to teach it. In an interview with professor Daniel Coleman at McMaster University, he talked about various subjects such as the Cree culture, his own roots, how to interest people in indigenous studies, and how to preserve the said culture. On the subject of knowledge, he said that one’s knowledge is not always measured by education and diplomas. One might have a PhD for instance, but it does not mean that he or she has more knowledge than somebody else who does not possess one; just that their knowledge is different. As an example, he points out that despite his Cree heritage, he does not know how to hunt and would probably die if he got lost in the woods. Therefore, knowledge cannot be measured solely in terms of educational background. He gives another example in relation with his Cree roots saying that his uncle, who had a grade six education, spoke Cree as well as English, read Aristotle, Plato, and Marx, and was very well read overall. These examples prove that knowledge is not always tied to education or schooling, and Native people possess a lot of knowledge.
The dominant way of telling a story for Native people is orally. McLeod is a big advocate of telling those stories and, as a result, is not that preoccupied with respecting the traditional way of evaluating his students, or respecting every single Native tradition. He suggests that stories are made to be told and should be told no matter what traditional restriction one might want to observe. He argues that if a story exists and is not told, then it will die, and there is no point in telling stories only to let them die afterwards. Letting a story die is to let a part of the culture die. As for his methods of teaching, McLeod gives the example of a student of his whom he recognized as funny. This student, instead of having to write a conventional research paper, will do a stand-up comedy routine as part of his evaluation. McLeod says that his Native heritage drives him to be a lot more liberal when it comes to evaluating students, and that for some, the accepted way of doing things might not be the best way. Asked if he thinks that both Native and European cultures can coexist, he assures us that they can, since if they could not, he would not have an identity himself, since he is half Cree and half Swedish. On that topic, he also believes that in order for the two cultures to coexist and understand each other, more scholars should make an effort to speak indigenous languages, saying that some of them have been studying Native cultures for more than twenty years while complaining that it was dying and that we were not doing what was necessary to save it, but they never bothered to learn a single word of the language of the people they were studying! He argues that “ during that time, instead of complaining, you could have learned ten words.” In short, if you want to save a culture, the best way to do it is to live in it rather than study it from a distance. Continuing on the topic of colonization, he said that not all colonizers had bad intentions, referring to his Swedish roots and the fact that his family had immigrated to Canada because of poverty and they were in search of a better life rather than wanting to acquire land.
Despite the fact that Native traditions call for oral literature rather than the European model of written literature, it is possible to help preserve orality using the European way, with the help of outsiders. As an example, he refers to a friend of his, Arok Wolvengrey, who despite not being Cree himself, has written the most extensive and detailed dictionary of Cree language available, making it possible for anybody to have access to a comprehensive database of the Cree language. Therefore, it is by learning about the culture and making an effort to understand it that we can help preserve it rather than just studying it as an outsider.
Going back to his teaching philosophy, he is, as mentioned before, quite different from the majority of his colleagues. To him, the “narrative and knowledge of indigenous elders is the foundation of the discipline of Indian Studies.” This means that he believes that through the knowledge of the elders and the story they share, we can learn more than with any other available tools. Elders are the ones who possess the knowledge that is important to understanding indigenous culture, which brings us back to his point that knowledge and formal education can at times be very far removed from each other. Most of this elder knowledge as he points out, comes from the oral tradition and it is therefore important for him to incorporate some elements of it in his teaching. As a result, he encourages a dialogue between his students and himself, since their knowledge can be as valuable as his.
In short, McLeod believes that a dialogue between the colonizer and the colonized is very possible, as long as the colonizer is open to the other cultures and makes an effort to understand them and incorporate them into his or her life. It is not enough just to study the culture; it is also important to try and learn the language, the traditions, and the ways in which stories and knowledge are passed from one to another. When someone from another culture teaches you something, his educational background, in the classic sense of the term. is of little importance. There are things that we know, and there are things that the person facing us knows. What matters is that the both of us can learn from each other. In the case of Native culture, it has a long tradition of oral history and communion with nature and it is our duty as people who take an interest in this culture to try to understand it and preserve it.
McLeod, Neal. Interview by Daniel Coleman. “Speaking With Neal McLeod At Mcmaster University” Youtube. Different Knowings, 21 August 2014. Web. April 5 2016.
Mcleod, Neal. Teaching Philosophy. Trent U, Web. April 5 2016.
Teachings of the Piikani Nation
The Piikani Nation is part of a larger collective of First Nations called the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Piikani, Siksika, and the Bloods are united in this confederacy under a common language, Blackfoot. It is worth noting that the Tsuu T’ina also fall under the Blackfoot Confederacy, though they speak an unrelated language. The Piikani Nation sits on the U.S.-Canadian border, reaching from Alberta to northern Montana. The political border has divided the Piikani into Aapátohsipikáni, or “Northern Piikani,” and Aamsskáápipikani, “Southern Piikani” (Jones 77). Their modern territory was established in 1877 by an agreement between Queen Victoria and the Blackfoot Confederacy, among others, under what is known as Treaty 7. Today, the Old Man River Cultural Centre, located on the Northern Piikani Nation, is working to preserve and protect Piikani culture while looking for ways to translate its elements into Western education and governing systems.
The Piikani worldview could be considered ‘circular.’ According to Dr. Reg Crowshoe, a former chief of the Piikani, many elders in the Piikani Nation consider the Piikani to be a part of a greater ‘oral circle’ that spans across the first nations of North America. This may be reflected in the structure of traditional Piikani tipis.
People participating in a ceremony commonly sit around the rim of the tipi, facing the center, where a fire is kept. Each person has a role and a place relative to the ceremony, and everyone is equal, in this way. The circular form of the ceremony emphasized working together as a group, with every part of said group vital.
In Piikani culture, one is taught that humans are not just equal to one another, but created equal to all of creation— animals, plants, insects, the stars, etc. One of the many roles of each individual in the Piikani society is to learn the act of respecting, and practice what Dr. Reg Crowshoe calls ‘true discernment,’ which aids in that. He has a wonderful recounting of the moment he came to realize what true discernment meant after he set out on a vision quest; he was able to funnel all his being into his five senses and understand in full that they were truly gifts from the Creator. With this understanding came respect— respect for these gifts, the Creator, and all of creation.
Such vision quests can also grant individuals with ‘rites.’ Rites are ceremonies and rituals that must be strictly cared for and practiced in order to maintain the cultural knowledge held within them. Some rites are considered to be ‘transferred’ rites, which contain sacred knowledge reaching far back to the beginning of creation.
Transferring rites is subject to the Piikani legal processes. When taking on a transferred rite, one must be able to perform the correct dance and song, and to understand the language, all within the correct venue, in order to receive the responsibility of caring for the knowledge contained in that rite.
These rites are linked to the Piikani Nations’s bundles. A bundle contains items of accumulated cultural knowledge, often given to them in encounters with spirit beings. Each relic in a bundle will have meaning, and one can make vows to these relics in order to appeal to the Creator for help (for example, in health matters). These bundles are very sacred, sitting close to the center of tipis during ceremonies.
However, many of these bundles had been lost during a time that the Blackfoot peoples grappled with the encroachment of western civilisation; a number ended up in museums or private collections. Some were sold in face of economic hardship— others given up for the sake of protection. Whatever the case, more than 100 sacred bundles have been returned to Blackfoot communities through the efforts of First Nation leaders and Alberta’s First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act (Walton, “Sacred Bundles”).
Loss of sacred and ceremonial items is not the only challenge the Piikani Nation has been faced with over the years; the Piikani have had to learn how to approach elements of western society while still remaining true to and incorporating their deep-set beliefs and practices. Dr. Reg Crowshoe laments how, often, teaching their children about their own Piikani culture means translating it back to them through a Western education system, which is not always compatible.
However, he says, there are ways to interpret Western culture through a Piikani lens— he uses a boardroom as an example. The topic can parallel the bundle in traditional Piikani ceremony, approached with reverence and care. The gavel is used to start meetings and works much like the smudge altar of a Piikani ceremony, and elders still need to be present to guide decision-making processes.
In fact, the famous story behind the signing of Treaty 7 has a similar Piikani-Western crossover— before the chiefs signed the treaty, they had to perform ceremonial song and dance and imbue that tradition into the signing of a Western document.
The people of the Piikani Nation have a rich history that can be traced back through their bundles and rites. Their culture continues to thrive and adapt in the face of a changing world.
Crowshoe, Reg, Dr., and Geoff Crow Eagle. “Piikani Blackfoot Teaching.” Four Directions Teachings – Aboriginal Online Teachings and Resource Centre. 4D Interactive Inc., 2012. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
Jones, Mari C., and Sarah Ogilvie. Keeping Languages Alive: Documentation, Pedagogy and Revitalization. Cambridge: U Printing House, 2013. Print.
Walton, Dawn. “Sacred Bundles Hold Centuries of Secrets.” The Globe and Mail (2009): n. pag. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
Jeannette Armstrong’s Poem
Born in 1948, Jeannette Armstrong grew up in British Columbia on the Penticton Indian Reserve to become the first native woman novelist from Canada (Johnson, & Curtright, 2004). Not only is she an engaged novelist, she is a poet, a teacher and a know activist. In 1985 she published her famous first novel Slash. Later she published her poetry through Breath Tracks (1991) and then Native Poetry in Canada : A Comtemporary Anthology (2001). One of her poems that stood out to me is “Indian Woman.” Her poem offers different points of view to the reader. One can read through various angles: prejudice and feminism, fatality and hope, and post-colonialism. In this poem, Armstrong addresses the condition of the native woman. She starts by writing about strong stereotypes about the native woman. She goes as far as not only comparing her to a mammal but, perhaps ironically, suggesting this is all she is. Her only purpose and use is reproduction, pure reproduction, nothing more: “I am a female only in the ability to breed and bear papooses to be carried quaintly on a board or lost to welfare”. In this passage Armstrong suggests that the role and ability of the native woman in the public view cannot go beyond reproduction, that after that they fail. They fail at raising their children; they raise them to welfare. The native woman is blamed for producing children that are capable of nothing better than social welfare. And all this, she writes as if it were normal, simple and usual, as if what she states as facts had no repercussions on the native woman. She writes that these perceptions do not generate emotions “I have not feelings”. And this lack of feelings serves as a justification and explanation for abuse. since the native woman with no emotions will not react to these revolting acts. In fact, she writes that the native woman’s body is only used to be “raped, beaten, and bludgeoned in some B-grade western.” The author presents the body of the native woman as having no history, no reason, no explanation, and no life; she says it is only good “to be painted or photographed sold and hung on lawyers’ wall”. Here the native woman literary is an object of culture; her body is used as an object and this only. Armstrong keeps this tone and view point of the native woman until a turning point; when she says “Someone is lying.” At this point, she writes about the complete opposite of what the native woman was considered to be previously. She displays her as being far more than a weak mammal. In fact, she says she is a “the keeper of generations” and “the strength of nations”. This native woman does not “bear papooses”; she is gives life “to whole tribes”. She is a powerful woman. She has a history and culture and knows how to transmit it to future generations and to the others.
The speaker refers to “the other” several times in the text, a reference from which we can relate to post-colonization. In fact, in the first part of the poem the speaker presents the Indian woman in a negative manner; she is presented as the stereotype of colonizers may have of her. The indian woman is described with factual words as an emotionless mammal meant to be used as trophy or as a breeder only. In other words, the speaker presents facts about the common stereotype post-colonizers may consider as reality, truth, and facts. And then, as if the Indian woman had just been described by “the other”, the speaker points out that “Some one is lying”. Someone is describing the Indian woman wrongly, someone is lying to others about the Indian woman, and the Indian woman is lying to herself about herself. At this point in the poem, the reader can observe a major shift in the speaker’s voices and tone. The speaker, whom we could assume to be the Indian woman herself, finds her own identity again and finds the courage to believe in herself and expresses it to others. She also talks about the next generations and how she will teach them about her reality and story, about her heritage and culture. With all the strength found in the second half of the poem, the speaker firmly expresses her need for identity and the power that she has to support or to challenge others. She clearly says to the other “I am a sacred trust”, “I am Indian woman”. She says it not only as a personal characteristic, but as a profound cultural identity, something that simply is her identity.
When reading Jeannette Armstrong’s poem “Indian Woman,” several themes can be considered by a reader. Feminism is the first that caught my attention, but after close-reading I realized that not only is the author addressing feminism, she is especially addressing Native feminism, a form of feminism our society, colonizers descendants, should recognize as a major cause. This poem caught my attention and touched me deeply. I believe Jeannette Armstrong’s poem should be read over and over again so that we will never forget.
Johnson, J. & Curtright, L. (2004). Jeannette Armstrong. Retrieved from the University of
Minnesota Digital Conservancy http://hdl.handle.net/11299/167857
Four Direction Teaching: Cree – A Summary
The Four Direction Teaching website allows people to learn about the beliefs and knowledge of five of the First Nations groups: the Blackfoot, the Cree, the Ojibwe, the Mohawk and the Mi’kmaq. The goal of the website is to share “Indigenous knowledge and philosophy” that would also allow teachers to use the oral traditions shared by elders in their own teaching. The principal contributor to the website is the Canadian Culture Online Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage. For my web page contribution, I decided to focus on the Cree teaching that can be found on The Four Direction Teaching website. Mary Lee from Pelican Lake in Saskatchewan is the elder that shares the Cree teaching with the visitors of the website.
The first thing that the website’s visitors learn about the Cree knowledge is what they call the Medicine Wheel. The Cree elder narrating the website starts by explaining that there are four parts in human beings: spiritual, physical, emotional and mental. Together these four aspects form the Medicine Wheel. She shares that knowledge that in the Cree beliefs about the world, we need to balance all these four aspects. At the center of the Medicine Wheel, there is fire. To Mary Lee the fire represents the “self”. She explains that most people today tend to forget about two of the four aspects, the spiritual and emotional aspects. In that sense, many people are not balanced because of that. In fact, she suggests that people do not really know what it means to be emotional, that some of our reactions are “defense mechanisms” to actually protect this aspect. She also mentions that the problem with the spiritual aspect of the self is that we forget that it was the first thing we received when starting our journey into the world. She mentions that it is important to take the time to remember that. Balance is an important aspect of life to Cree people, I will discuss later the importance of balance when making a tipi and how they perceive it.
Another important idea expressed in this website concerns the making of a tipi or what she calls the tipi ceremony. Making a tipi to the Cree people has a much deeper meaning than simply building a tent with animal skins and poles. Mary Lee explains that to them, making a tipi is a ceremony. She shares that the position of the door on a tipi is very important, because it too has meaning. During the tipi ceremony, the door of the tipi has to face the direction of the east, because in their beliefs and knowledge of the world, the east represents the beginning of creation. However, it can face any direction after the tipi ceremony. Mary Lee shares that she believes that people nowadays tend to forget about the importance of the ceremony that comes with making a tipi. It is for that reason that when she is asked to make a tipi for someone, she guides that person into the tipi ceremony and teaching. Following animistic beliefs, Mary Lee talks about the Earth as Mother Earth. She explains that before she makes a tipi, she sits down on the ground and humbly offers tobacco to Mother Earth in return of all the material she is going to use in order to build a tipi. She explains that she offers tobacco at every step of the construction of the tipi, for every material she takes to Mother Earth, she gives tobacco back. Furthermore, she shares that the tipi is a woman’s symbol. In that sense, women must participate in the making of the tipi, because they are the ones that can teach how to build it. In that sense, making a tipi is an oral tradition to Cree women.
Additionally, Mary Lee discusses the structure of the tipi. She explains that tipis nowadays are much higher than they were before. In fact, she shares that she can make tipis that are twenty-two feet high. This is mainly due to the fact that today’s Cree people use different tools than before. The poles also play an important role in the structure of the tipis, because they carry meaning and teaching. For the Cree people, there are fifteen poles involved in the creation of a tipi. Each of them carries a lesson: obedience, respect, humility, happiness, love, faith, kinship, cleanliness, thankfulness, sharing, strength, good child rearing, hope and control flaps. She explains that there are fifteen poles tied to a tipi, thus there are fifteen teachings when making a tipi. While making the tipi, the Cree people take three poles: obedience, respect and humility. She explains that together they fortify the structure of what will become a tipi. Mary Lee shares a teaching about the three first poles that they use while making a tipi, by saying that when they are placed properly, they actually reinforce each other. She adds that “in order to make a family, you need three: the two parents and the child, to make the balance”. Therefore, the tipi is an important symbol for the Cree people.
Finally, I have to say that I have enjoyed my experience with the The Four Direction Teaching website. I believe that it demonstrates how much the oral tradition is important to the Indigenous people. On many occasions during her teaching on the website, she stresses the importance of the oral tradition in her culture as well as to herself. She mentions that what she is about to share with us came from the Cree women and that she is going to share these teachings with us. I think that this is very interesting that Mary Lee demonstrates the importance of oral traditions, as well as the importance of the elders, as they have a lot to teach us. Moreover, the animation for each teaching is extremely effective to help the visitors to clearly understand the knowledge and also makes it entertaining. I have learned a lot about the Cree knowledge and beliefs with the use of this website. In fact, this website can prove to be an effective tool to teachers as well. It offers learning activities that can be done in conjunction with the teaching of each Indigenous teaching provided on the website. It offers different learning activities for junior, intermediate and senior learners. I believe that this website is relevant and encourages the visitors to feel the need to learn more about Indigenous knowledge. And as Mary Lee shares, “you’re never done learning”.
“Four Directions Teachings.” Four Directions Teachings. Canadian Culture Online Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage, 2006. Web. 06 Apr. 2016. <http://www.fourdirectionsteachings.com/main.html>.