Many observers of Inuit societies, both Inuit themselves and anthropologists, believe that shamanism disappeared at the same time other aspects of their traditional culture were replaced by Christianity. In a recent journal article, Jarich Oosten and two colleagues demonstrate that shamanism is still alive and well, though modified, in the Arctic.
The opening pages of their article describe the negative impressions of shamanism gathered by the first European explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists who contacted the Inuit in the Nunavut area. For their part, the Inuit shamans generally were careful to conceal their activities, such as their séances, from the prying eyes of outsiders.
As the Inuit adopted Christianity, they supposedly abandoned their older beliefs. Outsiders saw the decline of shamanism as the natural consequence of progress, but the Inuit viewed it as a sign of the superiority of their ancestors over themselves, the descendants. They felt it was perfectly natural for the angakkuq (shaman) of old to have been more powerful than contemporaries.
The authors argue that shamanism is still alive and well in Nunavut, even though the Inuit themselves almost invariably profess to be Christian—emphatically so. But the habit of not admitting that one is a shaman, or practices shamanism, is a strong tradition. Secrecy was important traditionally, so the Inuit concealed their shamanism from the anthropologists. The introduction of Christianity only reinforced the habit of secrecy.
The primary author, Oosten, in an earlier piece, suggested that almost all Inuk elders were able to perform some shamanistic practices. Many adults today think that all elders have some powers, and that whites too practice shamanic rites. Famous westerners such as Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen, they believe, were doubtless angakkuit—and the denials of the whites only prove the point.
The authors describe several ways that whites have categorized the shamans—rankings, hierarchies, and the like—and they discuss the practice of ilisiniq, sorcery or witchcraft. The techniques of ilisiniq—preparing magic formulas to harm people and creating evil spirits—were similar to shamanism. Not much distinction should be drawn between shamanism and witchcraft, both of which have survived the introduction of Christianity.
The article traces the ways the angakkuit cooperated with the introduction of Christianity. In fact, Inuit leaders, many of whom may have been shamans, assisted the missionaries. Christian symbolism replaced the traditional practices and symbols. While some of the priests were quite hostile to shamanic beliefs, others were more accommodating. The authors relate the story of one priest, a Father Thibert, who gave a hunter advice that was quite similar to what a shaman might have said. While the priests generally viewed the shamans as sorcerers, the Inuit thought of them as healers.
The authors argue that shamanism is alive and well today in Nunavut, though it is subordinate to Christianity. As the Inuit in Nunavut strive to preserve their traditional culture, they have to be careful about shamanism. Some Christians associate it with devil worship, and the elders that want to preserve it do so with Christian prayers. They feel they can believe in both.
One man from Rankin Inlet, a member of the choir in the Catholic Church, said that he wanted to bring back the good things of the past, including angakkuuniq (shamanism). Another elder from the same community said that the practices of shamanism as well as the practice of prayer can help people. “The missionaries think only of the soul, they do not think about life,” he said. “An angakkuq knows that life is short and therefore he wants people to have good lives” (p.467). The elders were aware of what the authors term “the dark sides of shamanism,” and they acknowledge the problems of possible witchcraft attacks.
But while some of the elders who possess shamanistic skills are today reluctant to practice for fear of the powers they might unleash, others feel that shamanism is a central feature of Inuit traditions that should be preserved in modern Nunavut as effectively as possible. After all, they argue, the practice of shamanism was part of a larger, traditional, culture that included respect for animals, beliefs in non-human beings, and the practice of sharing foods harvested from the land.
Several people recently argued that the traditions of hunting should still be at the center of Inuit values. “The seal … provides us with our identity. It is through sharing and having a seal communion that we regain our strength, physically and mentally” (p.472), they argued. Shamanism is an important part of this broader emphasis on Inuit tradition and cosmology.
A 14 minute video on Inuit shamanism, available on YouTube, provides an interesting supplement to this article. It features an Inuit man acting as a shaman who was evidently quoted at length in a 1922 journal by Knud Rasmussen. Throughout the Inuit Shaman Life Story, the unidentified actor relates his history, with English subtitles. He describes a curse pronounced on his mother by an evil shaman and how she was saved by a raven’s skin in the hands of an old woman, another shaman. That shaman announced that the baby “was born to be dead but now he will live.”
His descriptions of his shamanic experiences are quite interesting. “I was able to see and hear things in a completely different way. This shaman light came from my brain to my whole body,” he says. He describes in detail his spirit helpers and the ways they interact with him: “They are bright and thoughtful and always cheerful when you call them.” He says he called them by singing “joy, joy, joy.” He relates how, one time, he stayed inland for too long and his helpers left him, but they came back when the song of joy returned to him.
Oosten, Jarich, Frédéric Laugrand, and Cornelius Remie. 2006. “Perceptions of Decline: Inuit Shamanism in the Canadian Arctic.” Ethnohistory 53(3): 445-477
Inuit Shaman Life Story. Igloolik Isuma Productions, September 2006. 14 minutes. Available on YouTube