As promised, the subject of this segment is the use of ritual animal dress in shaman practices/ animistic culture. In trying to find reference material (which elaborates upon the basic information I already know while adding credibility to my writing), I have made a frustrating observation: With so many New Age-y pages on shamanism/ animism, it’s hard to find good, legitimate sources on the topic. ::headdesk:: Also, my apologies in that I was a little later getting this posted than I had intended. Life happens.
There are rich histories of shamans the world over. Even in today’s world shamans still exist, although a lot of traditional practices are dying out – The last shaman of the Oroqen people died in 2000 (4). While there are differences in rituals, beliefs and practices between the different communities, it is a general rule,
that animal costume served to connect to the spirit world, through the power of the animal. It is also generally the shaman who has the ability to perform such rituals (but this is not always the case, there are some non-shaman rituals during which participants dress up).
The Pacific Northwest
The native peoples of the Pacific Northwest (Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Haida) carved elaborate masks. Some of the masks look like human faces, but they represent supernatural beings. Others are clan totem animal
masks. These masks were worn during ceremonies and
rituals by trained dancers and storytellers. One of the important rituals was the potlatch. The potlatch was held for special occasions such as marriages, births, rites of passage, funerals, etc. These were essentially large gift giving ceremonies where there would be food, singing and dancing. Often there would be dancers dressed in regalia, which included the intricately carved and painted masks, such as the wolf dancer in the photo to the left. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Canadian and American governments banned and outlawed the potlatch ceremonies. These bans were only repealed as recently as 1951 (11).
For the indigenous peoples of Siberia, such as the Orochon and the Yukaghir, the reindeer was an important part of life. In fact, the name “Orochon” actually means “reindeer people”. The reindeer provided fur and meat, they pulled sleds and were even entrusted with carrying small children and babies. It was also the skin of the reindeer that the shaman wore, along with the antlers in some tribes. I’ve also read that the coat is made to represent a bird skin, so that the shaman can fly (10). Perhaps as a sign of the importance the role the shaman played in Yukaghir culture, upon death, his body was dismembered and a part given to each member of his clan (10). Today, while shamanism is still practiced in the region, it is no longer as wide spread. Reindeer are still a part of life, and some tribesmen have taken up breeding domesticated reindeer.
For most of this post, I have been looking at instances where humans take on animal form. There is, however, one case I have come across where the opposite is true from a spiritual standpoint. For the Ainu (an indigenous people of Hokkaido), animal deities look and behave the way humans do when they are in their own realm. When these deities come to the human realm, they come disguised so as to bring gifts of meat and fur. (8)
Another interesting tidbit I learned while reading up on Ainu shamanism that I was not previously aware of:
Among the Hokkaidō Ainu, shamanism is not highly regarded and shamans are usually women, who collectively have lower social status than men. The Hokkaidō Ainu shaman also enters a possession trance, but she does so only if a male elder induces it in her by offering prayers to the deities. Although she too diagnoses illnesses, male elders take over the healing process. Male elders must consult a shaman before they make important decisions for the community. In other words, the politically powerful male cannot even declare a war without consulting the shaman—an intriguing cultural mechanism to balance formalized and nonformalized power. (8)
The Eagle Dance
My personal favorite occasion in which people don animal dress is the Eagle Dance. When I was a very young girl, my Grandfather used to take me to powwows. The part I always loved the most were the dances.. especially Eagle Dance, because of all the pretty feathers and how the dancer always looked so grand with his wings outstretched. Eagle Dance isn’t specific to any one tribe, as the eagle held deep importance for many Native Americans.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and while doing the reading for this entry, I came across other aspects of indigenous wardrobes that I would like to look into in depth sometime, such as Chilkat blankets. Not wanting to tangent from topic, I will have to remind myself to come back to it later. (Tangential researching, another factor in not having this posted on time, lol) In Part 2, I will be discussing Furries.
1. Shamans and Shamanism. http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Shamans.htm
2. Canada’s First Peoples. http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com
3. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism
4. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism_in_Siberia
5. The History of the Eagle Dance. http://www.brownielocks.com/eagledance.html
6. Support Native American Art: Northwest Coast Masks. http://www.support-native-american-art.com/northwest-coast-masks.html
7. The Glenbow Museum.http://www.glenbow.org/collections/museum/native/inuit.cfm
8. Ainu-Religion and Expressive Culture. http://www.everyculture.com/East-Southeast-Asia/Ainu-Religion-and-Expressive-Culture.html
9. Sakha Open World. http://www.sakhaopenworld.org/sd/shaman_eng.html
10. The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1929.31.1.02a00200/pdf
11. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch