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

The Russian Bear

Russian interests in Tuva began early in the 17th Century, but amounted to little until late in the 19th. Increasing numbers of Russian settlers and commercial interests eventually led to annexations in 1914 (Czarist) and 1944 (Soviet). Before this, little Tuva had experienced political domination from both Mongolia and China. While these latter masters created feudal systems that exploited their Tuvan vassals, the Russians initially had only commercial interests. As difficult as these early exploitations were on the Tuvans, they were permitted to remain Tuvan, culturally, including the presence of, and reliance on, shamans. The Soviet approach was to transform Tuva. A major goal of this transformation was to eliminate shamanism and Lamaism (a Tibetan form of Buddhism). To this end the Soviet communists were ruthless and thorough. Estimates of the number of shamans imprisoned and/or put to death runs from a few hundred to thousands. Whatever the actual number, the impact on Tuvans was brutal. No family was left untouched by this painful excision. The few remaining shamans either quit working altogether, or practiced secretly, always fearful that they would be discovered. It was during this time that cloth flags replaced drums for spirit extraction work — they did not make any noise that would reveal a shaman at work.

The Soviet period lasted long enough to create a missing generation of shamans. People remember the shamans. There are many stories told about them and their feats of power and healing. These victims of Soviet ethnocentrism are still mourned. People still remember the details of a song sung by one, or a ritual performed by another. The few who survived are now old — in their seventies or eighties. Some of these old shamans have put on a newly-made shaman's garment and picked up a drum (often from a museum). They are performing rituals again and are doing healing work. Shamans who never quit continue their healing work today. There are some new ones: young women who are learning from the old ones and from psychic institutes in places like Moscow — an irony. They try to bridge the enormous gap hacked in their culture by outsiders who tried to eliminate what they thought to be backward customs that frustrated their own idea of "progress," with a socialist twist.

Modern Tuva

Modern Tuvan culture is a blend of elements from the older pattern and that introduced by the Soviets. In Kyzyl and the larger towns Tuvans dress like Westerners, watch television, drive cars or ride in packed Russian buses, etc. But, in the countryside, extended families consisting of grandparents, parents, and children live in yurts without electricity and draw their water from a nearby stream. Here, nature is close at hand; it can be heard, smelled and seen in every moment. One has the sense that if the world economy collapsed, this rural Tuvan pastoral life would continue with only the inconvenience borne of having grown used to foreign amenities.

Here in this rural world of yurts, grass and livestock, as well as in the cities and smaller communities of Tuva, there is a strong longing for a new identity that is an old identity. Tuvans, like other tribal peoples of Siberia, want to be who they are. As in other places in Siberia, this means that they want their spiritual lives restored. In Tuva this vital link to themselves and their world is shamanism blended with Lamaist Buddhism. It was this pressing interest on the part of Tuvans that led to the Foundation expedition to Tuva in the summer of 1993.

An Expedition to Tuva

On his 1992 field trip to Tuva, Heimo Lappalainen, Finnish anthropologist, film maker, and Foundation Field Associate, had the opportunity to discuss the religious future of Tuva with its President, Oorzhak Sherig-Ool. This conversation and others with interested Tuvans eventually led to an invitation to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies to visit Tuva for the purpose of holding a joint scientific conference on shamanism. In a sense, the expedition began with those conversations and other work Heimo did for several years in faraway Tuva. Heimo's experience in conceptualizing and helping to organize the conference and expedition shows how important Field Associates are to the Foundation's commitment to respond creatively to the needs of peoples whose shamanic traditions are in jeopardy. Here, in his own words, is what that beginning was like:

In October 1992 I made my fourth field trip to Tuva, partly sponsored, by the Foundation. I traveled extensively and met shamans all over the country. During some of the trips I was assisted by Zoya Khirghiz [Tuvan ethnomusicologist] and on others by Mongush Kenin-Lopsan [senior ethnologist and expert on Tuvan shamanism]. During one of the trips in the southwestern area of the country, it suddenly struck me that a seminar on shamanism should be organized; a seminar having both scientists, Tuvan shamans, and active practitioners of shamanism as participants. I think the idea started to grow because I so often heard mention of the Dalai Lama's visit to Tuva. He had made his first to Tuva the preceding month, September 1992. It was an official visit organized on the highest level with the President and other dignitaries involved. This, of course, meant promoting and officially sanctioning Buddhism in the country again. In my discussions with the President I brought this point out, arguing that as Tuva, through the Dalai Lama's visit, had focused public interest on one of the spiritual traditions of the country, wouldn't it also be time to cast some light on the other, the older spiritual tradition, by organizing a seminar on shamanism? He agreed.

Off to Tuva

Faxes, letters, and phone calls: a flurry of activity preceding the departure for Tuva by ten expectant people making up the Foundation team. Coming from Austria, Canada, Finland and the United States, most had never met, and would only do so in Moscow the day before departing for Krasnoyarsk en route to Kyzyl, where they would arrive June 29, 1993. The Foundation team consisted of the following persons:

Bill Brunton, Ph.D.—Ethnologist; Faculty member; Director of Field Associates
Heimo Lappalainen—Ethnologist; Film Maker; Field Associate
Larry Peters, Ph.D.—Ethnologist, Field Associate
Norman Benzie—Board member
Melinda Maxfield, Ph.D.—Psychologist; Board member
Gabriele Weiss, Ph.D.—Ethnologist
Paul Uccusic—Journalist, Author, Faculty member
Roswitha Uccusic
Tom Anderson and Tamia Marg-Anderson—Video and Film Production

We felt relieved when our seriously overloaded Aeroflot Yak-40 aircraft touched down in Kyzyl and taxied to a stop on the tarmac. We were welcomed to the "Land of Eagles" by our host, Dr. Mongush Kenin Lopsan, head of the Tuvan society of shamans (Dungur), and "national treasure" of Tuva. A television crew from the local station filmed our arrival and conducted the mandatory interview, which produced such notable quotes as, "We are pleased to be here in your beautiful country."

Ushered into waiting vehicles, we were whisked away to a banquet, introductions, and our first negotiation. The hotel rooms that we had booked were now unavailable. Our hosts wished to scatter the ten of us among as many families' private flats (apartments), or we could stay in a dreary asylum-like place outside Kyzyl. Neither of these choices was acceptable to a team that needed to function as one and did not wish to be isolated. As Gabriele Weiss observed:

After a short discussion we called in our spirits and formed a circle; under the rolling waves of attack by thousands of mosquitoes we decided to insist to stay overnight in Kyzyl instead of remaining in the countryside. During the whole conference, we were accommodated in two private flats (three Austrians in one flat and the rest in another) with a warm reception by the Tuvans who lived there.

The Tuvans could not understand why we preferred this arrangement, but finally agreed. Melinda (Mo) Maxfield notes:

It must have been confusing to the Tuvans to see seven of us, by choice, pile into one small flat, and later we learned that our hostess was mortified that someone had to sleep on the floor. It was, however, one of our most important decisions as it set in motion the superb quality of teamwork that was going to be required and was exhibited as we went forward.

And, it was teamwork in the best sense of that term. Each of the participants contributed to the effort of the group, both by cooperative focus and by the incredible way each person's skills, personality, and provisions dovetailed into a mosaic of effective action. One important aspect of our community was that we were a sacred circle from the very beginning of our stay in Tuva, as Gabriele mentioned above. Time and again we drew on the familiar power of the circle, the blessings of which extended to the Tuvans as well.

The Meetings

Scientific meetings are a place for scholars to report their findings to each other. This meeting was especially important since Tuvan scholarship had been isolated from that of the West. We were anxious to learn from each other. But, there was another burning issue for the Tuvans: shamanism had been a part of their culture and they wanted it back! Early in the presentation of papers one of their scholars stated: "We want to deepen and widen the practice of shamanism in our life — we want to revive shamanism in Tuva, because shamanism is the principal [spiritual tradition] of Tuva." She then asked: "What recommendation can you give us to make our life more prosperous?" At that point we had little to offer, but that would change over the course of our stay.

Our team members presented papers on the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, Nepalese shamanism, the effects of drumming on consciousness, Nganasan shamanism, and the Foundation's expedition to the Baker Lake Inuit (Eskimo). The Tuvans reported on the nature of the soul, Tuvan shamanism, differences between new and old shamanism in Tuva, and throat singing. Interpreters worked between Russian, Tuvinian, and English. Tuvan throat singers (also called "overtone" and "harmonic" singers) performed several numbers in traditional costume. Two old shamans, one of whom is a former movie actor and is now blind, performed in full regalia. This blind shaman was very interesting, for when he was assisted into the room, it appeared as if he could barely move. Once in his garb. drumming and singing, he became animated as a young man, dancing and singing for at least ten minutes. Once finished, he became an old man again. From time to time shamans were introduced from around the packed room, one being a Tuvan now living in Mongolia. The son of a shaman, he refused the shamanic call earlier in life. He now practices a variety of healing techniques, including acupuncture. His specialty is female fertility.


We were not satisfied with the level of participation between ourselves and the Tuvan shamans. The brief introductions provided no dialog. We were hungry to share perspectives with them. After continued insistence and negotiation, we were finally given the opportunity to meet exclusively with them. At last we had our opportunity. But, how were we to proceed? We began by giving our own introductions of how we had come to shamanic practice. But, the dynamic was wrong. Then we hit upon the idea: form a circle with them! We did this, and explained the symbolism of the circle. The effects were dramatic. There was an immediate easing of tension. The Tuvans each told of his or her initiatory illness and the healing work they had been given the power to do. Their stories were touching, especially that of Moon Heart: an abandoned orphan whose young life was full of personal tragedy. This was a milestone in our relationship with the Tuvan shamans.


We were not spared controversy during the conference, or later on our excursions outside Kyzyl. A Tuvan philologist (linguist) argued that shamanism cannot be taught in workshops; it comes directly from the spirits. Dr. Kenin Lopsan sided with our position, saying: "Young Tuvan shamans must be trained by an experienced one." He argued that our workshops "help people find themselves and define themselves as shamans." We made the points that workshops, like shamanic illness, allow for the identification of potential shamans, that we teach methods that give people a chance to experience a spiritual connection, and that spirits, not people, make shamans. We argued that from the many who take workshops, some will have great potential and will go on to become shamans when their communities recognize them as such. Paul Uccusic added. "We need to consider cultural differences. In the West, where shamanism is extinct (in the traditional sense), workshops are the only place to expose people to it."

Another problem expressed by this young scholar was that she had learned that there was a plan for the "American" and Tuvan shamans to perform together at a "concert." She said that such spiritual activity was not appropriate in such a setting. We had heard about the plans for this event and were also troubled. To address this point and cap this contentious debate, I stated:

Shamanism is not meant to entertain people. It's done to achieve a specific purpose. The methods are employed specifically if healing is necessary. We clearly have no intention of performing at a concert in that way (as an entertaining performance). However, last night when we had dinner with our Tuvan friends, we formed a circle and we sang a song together. This was shamanic also and it gave our hearts great gladness and joined us together in a powerful spiritual community. This sort of thing can be done. We in the West have lost all traces of shamanic culture. Here in Tuva, the Soviet period interrupted that, but you still have the memory of it, and you still have shamans. You still have a living tradition, which you are now going to reinstate, and develop, and allow to blossom like a beautiful thing. We have to wait for this to happen. In the meantime we will teach workshops, and we will bring more people into the spiritual world. We will discover more shamans and they will lead us to our new traditions.
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