The Reality of Spirits, Page 2
By Edith Turner
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

To reach a peak experience in a ritual, sinking oneself fully in it really is necessary. Thus for me, "going native" achieved a breakthrough to an altogether different world view, foreign to academia, by means of which certain material was chronicled that could have been gathered in no other way.

On the subject of radical participation, Dan Rose predicted that:

...students will seek to place themselves in unfolding situations, to live through complex ongoing events...rather than looking alone for the meanings of gestures, the presentations of selves, class relations, the meaning of rituals, or other abstract, analytical category phenomena on which we historically have relied.

Jackson2 helps to make this point: "To break the habit of using a linear communicational model for understanding bodily praxis, it is necessary to adopt a methodological strategy of joining in without ulterior motive and literally putting oneself in the place of other persons: inhabiting their world [what was pejoratively labeled 'going native' in the early days of anthropology]."

Participation thus became an end in itself rather than a means of gathering closely observed data which will be subject to interpretation elsewhere after the event.3

Later, in 1987, when I went to northern Alaska to conduct research on the healing methods of Inupiat Eskimos, I similarly found myself swamped with stories of strange events, miracles, rescues, healings by telephone hundreds of miles away, visions of God, and many other manifestations. It was by these things that the people lived. Their ears were pricked up for them, as it were. I spent a year in the village acting as a kind of pseudo auntie, listening to, and believing, the stories. And naturally, those things happened to me about as frequently as they did to them.

For instance, it happened that in July 1987, before I went to Alaska or knew the ecology at first hand, I attended Michael Harner's shaman workshop in Virginia. He was teaching the workshop participants how to make a shamanic journey while lying down in darkness. We were to visualize a climb upward, up a tree, or mountain, or building, or the like. After a first stage of visualization, the experience itself was liable to take over, and we would meet a "teacher" of some kind.

We lay down and Michael beat his drum steadily. I visualized my ascent and found myself out on a bank of cloud. "How corny," I said. A figure appeared on my left, a monk in a cowl, and I again thought, "How corny, like a cartoon. " I went up a little more and came to an entire wall of electronic appliances, VCRs, CD sets, stereos, radios, and a large TV screen toward the right. Pictured in the screen was something dark red, filling the whole rectangle. It looked like a maze of internal organs sideways-on, elongated, and definitely unlike human internal organs. Why were they there? What was that all about?

But I must not criticize, and when the drumming changed I went down the way I had come and eventually remembered that I was lying on the floor. The other participants were sitting up around me. We told our experiences to Harner; he accepted them but did not analyze them psychologically.

Four months later in November, when I was settled among the Eskimos at Point Hope, Alaska, sitting in Ernest Frankson's house, Ernest pulled into the room the body of a ringed seal. His wife laid the seal on some cardboard and proceeded to take off the skin. She allowed me to help cut off the blubber. Then she made a slit down the stomach and displayed to view the internal organs. Wondering, I contemplated them carefully. It was striking to see the dark red parts, liver, spleen, intestines, lungs, heart, and so on, settled together, sliding together with such orderliness and easy movement.

Two days later I caught on, as my diary records. Those internal organs were the same organs that I had seen on the shaman TV screen in July.

Ernie caught himself a whale the following April. (I use the word "caught" in keeping with Eskimo etiquette toward the whale.) I was working for another whaling crew and was occupied with cooking for the men. We waited on the edge of the ice, but no whales came near. An English BBC man was staying in my house in the village, hoping to film the whale hunt. Ernie said, "The whales don't like filming." But what could I do, turn the BBC man out?

One day, while my crew and I were down on the ice, a dangerous wind came up, and we left in a hurry, observing widening cracks as we made for the beach. After that, no whaling was possible for two weeks. Finally, the BBC man was refused his request to film the whaling and left town. The minute he left, the wind changed back in our favor. All was well, and Ernie caught his whale, with our assistance.

Ernie simply said, "The whale can change the weather." The whole village, including me, understood the matter in the same way.

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