They are North America's aboriginal shamans.
They are the hundreds, if not thousands, of native Indian men and womenat the forefront of a revival of Indian spirituality from the deserts of NewMexico to the misty forests of Alaska.
Norman Bancroft Hunt details the exotic exploits of shamans, both oldand contemporary, in his new book Shamanism in North America (FireflyBooks), which for the first time describes all the continent's shamantraditions in one volume.
Today's shamans, Bancroft Hunt writes, are not exactly like those ofyesteryear, who would bless warriors, battle for power against Christianpriests and enter into dreamlike trances to discern the path of prairiebuffalo for a hunting party.
Although contemporary shamans still orchestrate elaborate dances andrituals, Bancroft Hunt says they don't, as many believe, "practicehocus-pocus and witchcraft. They don't wave a bunch of bones around and hopefor a miracle."
Instead, Bancroft Hunt compares the shaman's power to that of apsychologist-priest. Shamans deal with "powerful forces that could bedangerous," he says. They bring together mind and spirit in a waytheoretical scientists are only now beginning to understand.
In an interview, the British professor who lives in Vancouver, describedspending the past 30 years slowly developing trusting relationships withthis continent's Indians, which allowed him to witness modern-day shamans'private rites.
He met Pueblo shamans who attend Catholic church and Navajo shamans whoalso worked at lumber mills.
Shamans are animists, says Bancroft Hunt. They believe all naturalentities, from animals to trees to the wind, are sentient beings withindividual souls. Shamans will go into trances to communicate with thosesouls, or "life forces," to bless fields, animals and humans.
In some ways, he says, shamans practice complementary medicine. Theydon't try to cure broken bones or physical wounds. But they're called uponto heal mental problems, from lethargy to severe headaches, depression todizziness. A few work with modern hospitals or advise the U.S. or Canadiangovernments.
Whether they're prairie Blackfeet, Arctic Inuit or Washington CoastSalish, Bancroft Hunt never reveals the identities of modern-day shamans inhis dramatically illustrated book. Instead, he weaves the past and presentstory of North American shamanism into a cohesive whole.
Aboriginal shamans have nothing against so-called "neo-shamans," whobring together shamanistic traditions from all over the world to lead NewAge seekers in drumming groups. But they make it clear they're on a moredemanding and specific path.
The stories of the shamans' rich native Indian culture of the NorthwestCoast, including Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, illustratemany of the shared traits of North American shamanism.
Bancroft Hunt has been to their private rites, where sometimes he's beenthe only white man out of 800 participants. He's found Oregon shamans whogrow their hair long for spiritual strength. Through his own research andthat of other anthropologists, Bancroft Hunt discovered Northwest Coastnatives believe certain shamans could "think" another person to death.
Like most of the continent's shamans, Northwest Coast shamans oftenengaged in rivalries with each other, sometimes using trickery. They wouldexaggerate their powers, for instance, by secretly using invisible stringsto move shamanistic puppets across smoke-filled ceremonial rooms.
Sometimes shamans use clever sleight-of-hand to impress audiences,Bancroft Hunt says, but not to be fraudulent. They do so with a wink and anudge to increase a patient's faith in the spirit's mysterious ability toheal.