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  Tsimshian Shamanism
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  Curing Shamans
  Shaman curing a sick boy
Shaman curing a sick boy, Kitwanga, ca. 1910.
  The search for supernatural power is a cultural trait common to most North American Native cultures. Shamans often had survived a serious illness, thereby gaining the power to heal others.

Shamans were usually called upon for their curing powers after all known herbal remedies and purification rites (sweat-baths) had failed. By this time, the patient could be very ill.

After making a preliminary examination, shamans could refuse to treat the patient, saying their spirit power could not handle that particular type of illness. In difficult cases, shamans informed the family that the patient would probably die, but that they were willing to attempt a cure, as long as it was understood that there was no guarantee of success. This protected the shamans if the patient died.

Tsimshian healing shamans did not usually wear masks while performing curing ceremonies. They wore bearskin robes, aprons, and crowns of grizzly-bear claws.

They also used a number of aids, including round rattles, skin drums, and charms. When shamans fell into a trance, they called on supernatural powers to cure the sick.

  Tools Of The Curing Shaman

House front charm, made from slate and used as a medicinal charm Collected by I.W. Powell, ca. 1879 (VII-C-33)

Shamanic charms were small, carved figurines, as well as natural objects or animal parts. These were worn or carried by the shamans.

Some of the shamans’ tools; especially their rattles, staffs, and containers for their equipment, were decorated with paint or carvings representing their spirit helpers.

  The Soul Catcher

Soul catcher, a medicinal charm for curing ceremonies, decorated with a figure representing a double-headed serpent Collected by I.W. Powell, 1879; Tsimshian, Lynn Canal (VII-X-39)

Personal health depended on the condition of the soul. If the soul became lost while separated from the body during a dream, or was driven out by witchcraft, a curer was hired to find it, capture it in a soul catcher, and restore it.

This prevented illness from invading the ‘empty’ body. Loss of soul was not the only cause of illness, however.

The introduction of a foreign object into the body, or the casting of an evil spell, could also bring sickness.


If the illness could not be cast out, or if the shaman was not strong enough, the sick person would die.

Soul catchers were usually made of hollowed bear leg-bones, carved at each end to resemble the shape of an open-mouthed creature.

Large soul catchers were sometimes mounted in the smoke holes of the houses to prevent souls from leaving prematurely.

  The Rattle

Johnny Laknitz of Kitwanga holding a staff and rattle, ca. 1924

The shaman’s rattle was used to call up power from other worlds.

The rattle was round and usually plain. Carvings or decorations made the world of supernatural beings visible.

  The Staff
  The shaman’s staff was representative of the spirit helper, and was a visualization of the world axis that joined the upper world and the underworld.
  The Head Scratcher

Head scratchers were usually made of bone, and were sometimes carved with figures representing the shaman.

They were used for scratching the shaman’s head, since a shaman’s hair is thought to contain power and must not be touched.

  The Drum

Johnny Laknitz singing with drum, Kitwanga, ca. 1924

The drum was used to mark rhythm in shamanic chants.

  Fishing Shamans

Fishing shamans ritually welcomed the first fish of the season at the annual First Salmon ceremony. Salmon were regarded as immortal beings who voluntarily sacrificed themselves for the benefit of humans.

It was important not to offend them, or they might not return the following year.

As well, fishing shamans encouraged the salmon by chants and ceremonies if spawning runs were late.

  War Shamans

Slate mirror, used by shamans to aid meditation. Collected by Lord Bossom, ca. 1900 (VII-C-1796)

War shamans were consulted about the best time to launch an attack, and often employed a slate mirror to predict the outcome of the battle.


In Tsimshian society, witches were described as people who worked to harm their neighbours through mysterious ways.

They did not go through fasts or purifications, nor did they have contact with spiritual helpers, as shamans did.

When shamans were called upon to expel sickness due to witchcraft, they tried to convince the sick person that his or her spirit was stronger than that of the witch’s, in order to cast out the spell.


© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Produced and/or compiled by the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation (CMCC)

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