Some of them would go into a trance and then tell the people what was going to happen – [they would] foresee the future.
—Sven Haakanson, Sr., 1987, from the Alutiiq Museum oral history archive
Sugpiaq shamans claimed powers to heal the sick, quell storms, read minds, change into animals, fly through the air, and see into the future. These shaman’s charm bracelets are made from the noses of land otters, an animal whose spirit shamans summoned to assist in their work. Each otter wears an ivory or bone nose pin. Beach pebbles with natural, water-worn holes are attached to the bracelets.
Region: Alaska Peninsula
Object Category: Ceremony
Dimensions: Diameter 7cm
Accession Date: 1887
Source: William J. Fisher (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E127803
1987 & 1991
Sven Haakanson, Sr.: The shamans learned to take care of medicine for the people. . . . They spent a lifetime learning the herbs. . . . A lot of times if someone got hurt or crippled up or born crippled or something, they never rendered them useless in the village. They either became a go-for boy or a messenger, or shaman’s assistant and became shaman. That’s why you hear some of the stories the old ugly, crippled shaman. So if they didn’t become skin sewers or weather forecasters or something, to help people . . .
See the shamans knew all the medicine and the healing that they were immune to or knew about. But when they brought the outside diseases like smallpox and typhoid fever, the shaman had no medicine for it because they never experienced it. And so people were saying the shamans were no good no more. And you hear stories why shamans felt bad and got bitter and moved into the hills, because people didn’t want them anymore.
They got new medicine, but they didn’t work, a lot of people died. But they should have kept it on – not realizing these shamans knew to take care of them for any sickness they’d known for generations. And all of a sudden, they were out of a job so to speak. . . . Their whole life was learning the art of the medicine that they needed. . . I remember even my dad mentioning that they should never give that up.(1)
Laurie Mulcahy: Were the shamans dreamers?
Sven Haakanson, Sr.: Well, I guess they knew how to go in trances and predict the future and stuff. . . . My mom said . . . those shamanaaqs [shamans] were smart, they knew what was going to happen.
[From oral history interviews with Sugpiaq elder Sven Haakanson, Sr., conducted in 1987 with interviewer Laurie Mulcahy and in June 1991 with interviewer Debo Robinson. Used by permission of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, Kodiak, Alaska.]