Tuva, Land of Eagles—The Foundation's 1993 Expedition to Tuva
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Spring 1994, Vol. 7, No. 1

During a search for possible Living Treasures of Shamanism in the Central Asian republic of Tuva two years ago, Foundation Field Associate Heimo Lappalainen discovered that the prior Communist rule there had outlawed and almost destroyed shamanism, once the proud and flourishing heritage of the Tuvan peoples. Heimo also found that although the number of Tuvan shamans had radically diminished under Soviet rule, now many Tuvans wished to see shamanism restored to their daily lives.

Heimo reviewed the situation with me, and we agreed that he should approach the President of Tuva to learn if there was official interest in having the Foundation help provide encouragement for the revival of shamanism there. He subsequently met with the President, and they agreed that in late June and early July 1993 the Republic of Tuva and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies would co-sponsor a conference as the cooperative vehicle for the rehabilitation of shamanism. The conference was to be officially labeled "scientific," but with the recognition that participants from both sides would primarily be persons who practiced shamanism as well as studied it.

I had hoped to lead the Foundation group and participate in healing work and other collaboration with Tuvan shamans, but prior obligations prevented me from going. The formal leadership of the expedition devolved upon Field Associates Director Bill Brunton, with the important assistance of Heimo Lappalainen. The other participants in the expedition were: FSS Board members Norman Benzie and Mo Maxfield; Field Associates Larry Peters and Tom and Tamia Anderson; and from the Austrian branch of the Foundation, Faculty Member Paul Uccusic, Roswitha Uccusic, and Gabriele Weiss. Accounts of their experiences are included in the following article by Bill Brunton.

Although the Foundation's team was in Tuva for only ten days, its impact was even more than had been hoped. Perhaps it is sufficient simply to note that on the day preceding the departure of the Foundation team, the President of Tuva delayed his own flight to Moscow in order to consult with team members concerning the relative roles of shamanism and Buddhism. He thereupon publicly declared that both would be equally respected in the modern Tuvan Republic.

The work of the Foundation in helping to revive shamanism in Tuva is planned to continue this summer with an expedition headed by Paul Uccusic. Meanwhile, we may have identified a Tuvan who should be honored as a Living Treasure of Shamanism.

I thank the Foundation's members and donors whose support is essential to such achievements as we work together to help restore shamanism to the Planet.

— Michael Harner

Tuva, Land of Eagles

During the summer of 1993 the Foundation responded to an invitation by the President of Tuva and scholars and shamans from that tiny mountainous country by sending a delegation of ten to attend Tuva's first international conference on shamanism. We were assured that we also would be able to meet and work with local shamans and be taken into the countryside. There, we would meet ordinary Tuvans living in yurts and tending livestock in a picturesque landscape. We were told that there is great interest in reviving shamanism, now that the Communists are no longer in power.

What happened as a result of that invitation is reported in the following pages in the words of those who were there. We hope these words bring you close to the experience of being in this exotic place at the center of Asia as we do this important work.

There is a land called Tuva in the center of Asia where the sight of many soaring eagles wheeling just overhead is not exceptional and where crystal-clear streams rush from surrounding mountains to form one of Siberia's most mighty rivers, the Yenisei. It is a land of taiga forest, high mountains and rolling steppe. The air is so clear that fair-skinned people protect themselves from direct sunlight. Grassy, undulating terrain gives way to sweeping valleys and hills. Their soft emerald glow is dotted here and there by the camps of herdsman and their families, wisps of white smoke rising from the wood stove in each yurt. Rounding a bend or cresting a hill may suddenly reveal a majestic, craggy mountain jutting from a nearly flat valley floor, such as the sacred Bear Mountain, Khaiyrakan. Or, the incredible panorama of a river valley may burst into view with such suddenness that one catches their breath for a moment. There is also the blight of industrial pollution here like an open-pit asbestos mine that looms over a small city in western Tuva; the result of Soviet interests in the area.

Roads and Towns

A narrow two-lane road connects the capital, Kyzyl, with communities to the west, north, and south. But, away from this main artery there are few roads that are more than a track. Virtually the entire eastern half of the country is without roads, access being along rivers or by air in vintage radial-engine biplanes. —Except for Kyzyl, with a population in 1989 of 153,000, communities are small. They are typical Russian-style settlements with numerous concrete apartment buildings. Small, unpainted wooden houses with board-fenced yards, a few shops, and some public buildings such as a theater or cultural center are also typical. Kyzyl, with the National Theater and central government, has the most impressive buildings. It also has a monument to the center of Asia, located on the bank of the Yenisei River. Buddhist temples are being rebuilt now that the Soviet period has ended. The current population of this 67,000 square mile country is around 350,000, two-thirds of which is ethnically Tuvan (the rest being mostly Russian). Most Tuvans live in cities, towns and villages.

An Ancient Land

Tuva's cultural history is both rich and deep. It is one that stretches from the Old Stone Age through modern times, involving European and Asian populations. Many peoples comprise the contemporary Tuvan population, and their culture is a composite one blended from their various tribal roots. The predominating language and culture of pre-Soviet Tuva derive from Turkic peoples, mostly pastoral nomads who herded flocks of sheep, cattle, goats, camels (in the south) and yaks (at higher elevations). Horses are the very capable small Asian breed common to this part of the world. Tuvans lived in felt-covered yurts (round structures with conical roofs) which they moved four times each year as they shifted to fresh pastures. In the eastern part of the country, particularly in the northern taiga forests, reindeer breeding and hunting were the mainstays of the economy. A sensitivity for, and deep understanding of, nature was characteristic of Tuvans, who wore up-turned shoes so that they might walk lightly on the earth. Their respect for nature even extended to a reluctance to pick wild flowers. Tillage, though known for much of their history, was always incidental to their economy.

Shamans and Spirits

A significant part of Tuvan respect for nature is expressed through shamanic traditions. All of nature is considered sacred, the fabric of their world view being woven in the sacred thread of their myths. Here, features of the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it are settings and characters in great stories that describe and explain the world. Principal places and characters of this mythic and natural world are Tuva's nine sacred springs, nine sacred mountains, and nine sacred celestial objects; the Sun, Moon and seven stars of the "Great Bear" (the Big Dipper). There are dragons in the sky, sirens who inhabit the steppe, and a sacred flower that has the power to hold strangers together in marriage. Each place in nature has its special spiritual inhabitants. This spiritual aspect of nature is equally as important to Tuvans as are physical attributes. It requires attention from people who are sensitive to, and trained in, relating to this side of nature. These people are the shamans.

The shamans of pre-Soviet Tuva were healers, diviners, and conductors of ritual necessary for Tuvan life. Both men and women became shamans after they were visited with the "shaman's sickness." Often, a shaman interpreted this as invasion by the spirit of a dead shaman. This invading Being, wanted the living person to become a shaman. The onset of this illness was commonly early in life, but also occurred in people more than 40 years of age. If the person ignored the calling, continued sickness or even death occurred. The illness frequently manifested itself as fainting spells, memory loss, or convulsions. Heeding the call resulted in a complete remission of symptoms.

The shamanic vocation often had an hereditary aspect in Tuva, as in much of the rest of Siberia. Relatives watched children carefully for the appearance of characteristics that signaled a new shaman. Training under an existing shaman was necessary, as was a drum, garment, and feather headdress. Relatives were responsible for making the new shaman's equipment. There was a ceremony of investment for the new shaman during which relatives enlivened the new drum (the shaman's horse) by beating it.

Shamans were central to Tuvan society. Not only did they represent their kin and work for them spiritually, but they were respected repositories of important knowledge. They conducted necessary rituals such as the yearly "fire ceremony" and rituals to bless the land and promote fertility. Tuvan shamanic ceremony was quite colorful, with shamans reciting long verses, dancing, and singing to the accompaniment of their drums. They also employed a jew's harp in their performances. Healing work included extraction, removing harmful spirits from places, purification, and soul work involving the transition at death. Their garments were knee-length shirts, upon which were sewn long streamers that represented their spirit helpers (called "snakes"), bells and rods of metal, and metal effigies. Besides their symbolic value, costume decorations moved with the dancing shaman, producing auditory and visual stimulation.

Secrecy, independence, and competition also characterized Tuvan shamans. They were each unique in the way they worked and typically worked alone. Like tribal shamans in other places, they sometimes engaged in competitive struggles with each other.

Shamans were considered very special people, being revered and feared at the same time. When they died, they were not interred like ordinary people, but were placed in open wooden sarcophaguses elevated above the ground by four posts. Here, their bodies lay exposed to the elements while their spirits continued to serve their people. That servitude was, however, frustrated by the forces of history. The living and dead shamans would have to deal with an ambitious state to the north, called Russia.

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