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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 03, 2014 - 6:53 am

Taissumani, Jan. 3

Kiinaalik Becomes a Shaman

KENN HARPER

Kiinaalik was a woman of about 30 years when the ethnographer Knud Rasmussen met her in the Kivalliq region in the 1920s. He described her as intelligent, pleasant, and easy to talk with. Moreover, she was neat and clean, amiable and trustworthy.

She had a reputation among her people for being a powerful shaman.

Like the male shamans in her group, she had a special shaman’s belt, to which were attached a number of items used as amulets: part of a gun butt, a piece of sinew, a piece of ribbon that had been tied around a gift of tobacco, a piece of the cap of her deceased brother, a piece of white caribou skin, a piece of a knitted vest that had belonged to a white man, a caribou tooth, caribou skin mittens, and part of the skin from a seal flipper. All of these items had been gifts and, as such, imparted magical powers to her.

Kiinaalik was a sister-in-law of a well-known shaman, Igjugaarjuk. It became apparent to the people of her village that Kiinaalik was destined to become a shaman, because of powerful dreams that she had had.

She spent five days out in extreme weather, suspended from tent-poles above the ground, so that Hila (the weather spirit) might take notice of her. She felt no cold, because of the presence of her helping spirits.

Next the people of her village were called together and her mother Abgaarjuk, decided that she should be shot, as this was also a means of acquiring shamanic power.

She sat in the snowhouse, in a kitchen off the entrance passage. Her brother-in-law, Igjugaarjuk, himself a powerful shaman, shot her with a small round stone and Kiinaalik fell over dead. The villagers held a song-feast while the woman lay dead the whole night.

The next morning she woke up of her own accord. She had been shot through the heart — the stone was removed and her mother preserved it.

This death and resurrection had made Kiinaalik acceptable to the spirits. Hila had noticed her, and helping spirits would henceforth come to her of their own volition.

Chief among them was her dead brother of whom she spoke freely and cheerfully, for among her people there was no prohibition on mentioning the names of the dead, as there was among the coast dwellers. Her brother “used to come to her gliding through the air, legs uppermost, head downwards, but as soon as he had reached the ground he could walk like an ordinary man.” She also had a polar bear as a helping spirit.

Igjugaarjuk trained her in shamanism, but he did not carry her training as far as he might, for he took pity on her suffering. That was because it was necessary to suffer a great deal in order to become a powerful shaman. Rasmussen, who learned all this from Igjugaarjuk, concluded that “the fact is that the more one suffers for one’s art, the greater shaman one becomes.”

Another method of becoming a shaman among the Caribou Inuit was to experience drowning. Rasmussen described this method in the training of a young man:

“Aggiaartoq was tied fast to a long tent pole and then carried by Igjugaarjuk and Ulibvaq – an elderly man in the village – down to a big lake. There a hole was hewn in the ice and, clad in caribou-skin frock, mittens and full outfit, Aggiaartoq, bound to the tent pole, was pushed down through the hole so that he stood on the bottom of the lake. There they let him stay five whole days, and when they took him up again he was as dry as if he had never been in the water. This young man’s helping spirits were the spirit of his dead mother and a human skeleton.”

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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