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May 15, 1911

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A detailed shamanistic ritual is described by Stefansson but he realizes it's nothing more than myth and cold reading.





My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 18

Vilhjalmur Stefansson


Important Text:

Shamanism. May 15 we missed our primus stove “ needle "-- it may have been taken by someone or it may have got lost. A woman angatkuk ( shaman ), I -ku -tok [by name], offered to get it for us (by witchcraft) if I paid for the performance. This I refused to do unless it were a success in which event I would give her a small file. That suited her, and the performance began. As Natkusiak understands them (the shamanistic performances] somewhat better than I, it was arranged he should act in my part and “ say yes” for me. There were about 15 persons in our tent and 50 or 60 outside listening. The woman got a free floor space about 11 by 3 feet in the middle of the tent, where she stood up. She began at first quietly, saying in an ordinary tone and manner that she would first look for the lost articles “ apkuota ” l — the “ road, ” I suppose, by which it was taken away when stolen. Where was it when it was stolen ? In that box ? Where was the box ? In what part of the box was it ? Was she to find the thief ? Was she to get her spirit to find the “ road ” of the thief ? (to 19 out of 20 at least of her questions the answer was “ yes ” ). 

Most of her questions (the shaman) asked of me, but some she asked of others. Not only the person asked but half a dozen others would answer “ yes ” in chorus, or else [they answered] by other affirmatives and urgings to “ go on,"' " describe the thief,” etc. 

Gradually [ the shaman ] became more excited and little by little she narrowed her eyes till they were finally held closely shut. Then of a sudden she changed her tone of voice, evidently now trying to imitate an old man both by tone of speech and by hoarse laughing. She now announced that she was so-and-so (the name escaped me -it was no doubt the name of the spirit that now possessed her). “ Ha, I see the road ! It did not go out by the tent door ; it went out by that corner of the tent ! ( As a matter of fact, our visitors used to come and go under any but the back side of our tent. ) She to the village ! It is not a man ; it is a woman. She has hidden the needle in her boot. She has on a pair of ' fancy ' boots.” ( Here followed a detailed description of [ the thief's] costume, but as most women dress alike, no one could recognize the description. ) 

[ The listeners now commenced asking eager questions of the shaman. ) “ Tell us, is she old or young ? Is she a big woman ? ” 1 Apkuota = its path ; thoroughfare or channel by which it traveled. etc. [But the sorceress kept on as if she did not hear. ] “ Oh, now I cannot see clearly; there is a fog coming over me. But I see one thing. She goes to a house a little east of the middle of the village. ([The audience:] ' Which house ? which house ?' ) The house has snow walls and a tent roof (nine-tenths of all the houses had) —it has a peaked tent roof ( three-fourths of the houses had) ( audience: ‘ What sort of gear is outside the house ? Tell us and we will recognize the house'). There is a bag full of clothes (every house had one or more). There is a seal spear; there are two seal spears ( a common number - most houses had two families). I cannot see more, the fog darkens. (Here she became more quiet. After being possessed by the spirit she spoke in hoarse shrieks. By now she was out of breath and tired. ) I am now myself again, I am now no longer so-and-so.” 

Of a sudden the shaman staggered as if to fall backwards, then regained herself and began to mutter rapidly and not harshly. It was now said she was possessed by a Kablunak ( turnnrak ).1 There were apparently no real words in this muttering ( i.e. no Eskimo or any other speech ), but it was said she was now speaking Kablunat ( white men's) language. There were constant repetitions of -a -tji, -la-tji, -ta -tji, etc., reminding one strongly of Athabascan Indian speech, and almost exactly like our Tannaumirk's alleged imitations of Loucheux talk. 

When all was done (about ten minutes of mutterings), the woman announced that the thief had left the village. She then assumed her natural voice and the performance was over. As two or three families had left that morning, starting east towards the bottom of the Sound, it was concluded one of the women (of those families) was the thief. A man offered to go get the needle (from them ). No one seemed to doubt he would get it. I offered the man the file if he would the woman acknowledged she had failed to get the needle for me. She was, however, to get some pay also if the man succeeded. The man was gone about six hours, and came back unsuccessful. With him came back the whole suspected party, apparently to assert their innocence. 

A man angatkuk now offered to try. His performance consisted in "ceremonially” removing from the primus stove box every article it contained except the (glass) alcohol bottle. This he feared, and I had to take it out for him. Fearing this was considered by the rest to be a sign of great wisdom. None of them had known enough to fear it and several had touched it (for it had looked harmless to them and it was only the supernatural wisdom of the Great Shaman that saw the insidious peril of this transparent thing that looked like ice but wasn't). He then stuck his head into the box and kept it there three or four minutes, lifting and setting down the top several times meanwhile (his head all the time in the box). He finally emerged and announced he could not see the road by which the needle went. He said he had not been looking for the thief, merely for the “road” of the needle.

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The Inuit lived for as long as 10,000 years in the far north of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland and likely come from Mongolian Bering-Strait travelers. They ate an all-meat diet of seal, whale, caribou, musk ox, fish, birds, and eggs. Their nutritional transition to civilized plant foods spelled their health demise.
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