Then that shaman lived among the people. He was kind and nice to the people. He only helped those people. He used that magic.
—Ignatius Kosbruk, from “Alutiiq Ethnicity,” 1992
This shaman’s rattle represents a toothed bird; its eyes are copper. Inside is a sinew-wrapped charm bundle that includes a quartz crystal, a mica flake, a sliver of wood, and clippings of hair. The rattle may have been used to summon helping spirits, which were birds, animals, and human souls. Shamans performed cures and predicted the future.
Region: Alaska Peninsula
Object Category: Ceremony
Dimensions: Length 25cm
Accession Date: 1887
Source: William J. Fisher (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E127805
Sven Haakanson, Sr.: Everybody sitting here – now you’re getting scared of these shamans. But I used to be inquisitive when I was small. Why were there shamans? And why did they allow them to stay? Each village had a shaman and a lot of times you hear the story of the old, ugly, crippled-looking shaman. But they said in Eagle Harbor and some [other] places that, if somebody fell down and maybe broke his hip or back or something, the community wouldn’t render him useless. They would take him and let him become a shaman, because he couldn’t hunt and fish anymore. He’d hobble around, but he’d learn all the methods. And the shamans were usually good people who helped people when they were sick. They had medicines that they got from the mountains that cured people.
Old man Demetri told me at Eagle Harbor that a girl was out hunting sea gull eggs, and she fell off the bluff.
She was all smashed up, and they brought her home. She was just screaming and crying. And the shaman went up the hill and came down and made some kind of roots and boiled them and let her drink the water. She calmed right down, and she was even laughing while they were straightening her to so she could heal without being all messed up.
So those shamans were really good. They studied their whole lives to be shamans, to help their people, and they were good people. But later on after some Europeans came with all kinds of flu and diphtheria and stuff that killed a lot of people, the people didn’t trust the shamans anymore. They went for bromoquinine instead. They went to the white doctor and the Russian doctors. So this made those shamans who were good people pretty bitter. But they knew these powers and medicines and stuff that can put you to sleep, like what made that girl heal. And they could even put you in a sleep so strong that people would think you’re dead. And it’s because they were mad. They lost their jobs, and they started using that in evil practices.
[From discussions at the 1997 Elders’ conference for planning the exhibition Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. Recorded at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska.]
Laurie Mulcahy: Did they [shamans] have some kind of rattle?
Larry Matfay: I guess so. From what I hear, they got music and some kind of drum. Maybe that’s how the drums come to be.
[From an oral history interview with Sugpiaq elder Larry Matfay, conducted in July 1986 with interviewer Laurie Mulcahy. Used by permission of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, Kodiak, Alaska.]