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

Conference Extras

As part of the conference we were given a tour of the National Museum. There, we took part in the inauguration of a new exhibition on Tuvan culture and traditions. Professor Kenin-Lopsan introduced us to the treasures and meanings of shamanic activity: drums, costumes, feather caps, medical paraphernalia, books, paintings, stone carvings, petrogIyphs and spiritual knowledge. Outside the museum one of the older shamans performed a purification ceremony. Burning juniper, he called in powerful spirits, intending to guarantee happiness and good luck for those present. The fenced-in area outside the museum also housed some large stone uprights incised with writing and "stone men" of the Turkic period. They probably represent warrior leaders of specific regions. We were to see one of these on the steppe of western Tuva.

We also took a walking tour of parts of Kyzyl, ending at the monument to the center of Asia. It was here on the banks of the Yenisei River that we saw our first Tuvan eagles soaring fearlessly over our heads. We visited with stone carvers and looked at beautiful pieces for sale. Prices were exceptionally high. Here, and at other times, we had to refute the "rich Westerner" stereotype. There was also a shamanic play by a local theater group, written and performed for us. Television and newspaper interviews punctuated our stay.

The Professor

Throughout our time in Tuva, whether at the meetings, riding a bumpy bus, or at a site in the countryside, Mongush Kenin Lopsan seized the opportunity to teach us. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of knowledge to share: a lifetime of work waiting for just this moment. "The professor," as he is known locally, is beloved. His shock of white hair tells of a long life, but does not reveal the depth of his personal and professional suffering. His passion for research has always been Tuvan shamanism, but this interest was aggressively forbidden by the Soviets. As a result, his every attempt was frustrated, and he was not allowed to publish the volumes of data he has painstakingly collected. He was also ostracized. Moreover, his mother's older sister, a renowned shaman, was imprisoned by the authorities. From his frequent references to this event, it must have hurt him deeply. Even her death had an especially cruel twist; the location of her grave was not divulged by the Communists, and remains unknown today.

Kenin Lopsan's personal tragedy is finally ending. By being the host of our joint scientific conference, the first in Tuva ever to focus on shamanism, he brought the issue of rehabilitating shamanism into focus. Media attention and governmental interest assured some action would be taken. Publication of conference papers in three languages (English, Russian and Tuvinian) and of his life's work is underway. He showed the personal joy he experienced in his teaching role each time he lectured himself to exhaustion, despite and because of his severe heart condition. Still, the opportunity knocked at last and he would not miss a single chance to share. The teacher had students!

Between Worlds

The conference and every other activity in Tuva depended on accurate communication. Three languages were involved: English, Russian, and Tuvinian. At times French and German were also necessary. The burden of the enormous task of translating what was spoken and written fell in the hands of our main interpreters: Rollanda Kongar and Dina Oyun.

Due to Tuva's isolation until the fall of the Soviet Union, few Tuvans were exposed to English and there was almost no opportunity to speak it with native speakers. As imperfect as translation had to be under these conditions, we were continually amazed at how well our interpreters did, and how quickly they adapted to the nuances of American, Canadian, Austrian, and Finnish English.

The Concert

Like rumbles of thunder on a distant horizon, we began hearing of a planned "concert" in which we were expected to take part. At first we were confused by the term, which we took at its literal meaning. "Why would our group be associated with such an event," we wondered? Evidently, this was a problem in translation. The actual meaning was something like "public performance on a stage." Several negotiations failed to resolve the issue. We were not able to dissuade the Tuvans from the position that there was to be a concert and that we would perform there. "Besides," they said, "we have already sold the tickets!"

In their subsequent written reports to the Foundation, members of the expedition covered many topics with different slants. This is expected when independent observers participate in complex events over time. However, there is a voice of unanimity about the concert. Excerpting from the report by Norman Benzie, we learn how precipitously the concert went from discussions and uncertainty to concrete event.

We returned to Kyzyl in the late afternoon and were told of the "concert" which we would be attending. We thought it was to be in our honor. It turned out we were to be performers. The organizers began telling us that we should each do what we did the best.
The reaction of our group was one that was the closest thing to a revolt!
We were dropped off briefly to change clothes and then attended the concert. My thoughts were running rampant. "How could they possibly do something like this? What nerve! They were totally insensitive to what we do. This is a sacred event and they sold tickets to the public to put us on stage as performers!" I had brought my rattle to Tuva. I consider it a sacred instrument. There was no way I was going to take it on stage to perform in front of the public. I therefore decided not to take it with me and left for the concert with the others.
Even up to the last seconds before the curtain went up, we were backstage seriously considering refusing to do anything. They had absolutely no idea of what we did, or how we did it. The audience was clapping to get the "show" started and there we were, still considering what to do. We finally decided to form a circle on stage, to begin drumming, and trusted that the spirits would do what needed to be done. We also were told that the most popular actor in Tuva was there to be healed. He had been released from the hospital, specifically to attend this function. He had a serious heart condition. After considering refusal, we decided to have him come up on the stage to be in the center of our circle once we had begun.

The crisis caused by the concert taught us a valuable lesson: one that we were to have repeated more than once in Tuva; shamanism requires flexibility!

What followed those moments of final resistance on the stage of Tuva's National Theater, with the need of the actor and his desperate wife at the focus, was a major turning point for the rest of our work. Unknown to Larry Peters, who had served as a Nepalese shaman's apprentice during his research for his doctorate in anthropology, and who had recently been studying advanced Core Shamanism with Michael Harner, the spirits were about to make him the instrument of power in a breathtaking healing. Norm continues in his report that,

We began to rattle and drum. The energy moved to higher and higher levels very quickly. Larry got up and began to dance around the circle and still the energies moved higher. Larry then moved to the actor and began to frantically extract from his chest and different parts of his body. The energy continued to climb while Moon Heart rose up and almost broke the drum with her beating. The drunk shaman was beating erratically, the lama began ringing bells, the box of Tic Tacs I was using as a temporary rattle got louder and louder. The drums were shaking the stage until they created such a din that the actor on the floor in the center of the circle looked like he was going to immediately go into cardiac arrest. Still Larry kept frantically pulling and extracting. After some indeterminable time, the drumming slowed and stopped. Larry was totally spaced-out and completely exhausted, the actor was shaking and Mo was at his head trying to create some form of closure.

The actor shortly got to his feet and exclaimed that he was free of pain. He was returned to the hospital for observation, but was released the next day. There was applause and the hands — together praying — honoring gesture from the audience. We looked toward the wings of the stage. To our surprise, we saw the Tuvan shamans who had not joined us on the stage (four had) honoring us too. They also gave us hugs as we left the stage. From that moment the Tuvans accepted the authenticity of our shamanic work. We then began a series of "concerts" and other healing sessions that continued until we left Tuva. (Readers interested in the full account of Larry's experience in this healing should consult the 1993 Fall/ Winter issue of Shaman's Drum.) Four days later the actor and his wife, all smiles and filled with energy, served as our hosts at their flat. He continues to prosper as of this writing.

Pastoral Tuva

Two excursions to the countryside were high-water marks for members of our party. The first was for a single day to the south of Kyzyl where we visited yurts and experienced traditional Tuvan hospitality for the first time. The setting was picturesque; the first pair of yurts were in forested hills, beside a cold, clear stream with a flock of sheep grazing serenely on a nearby hillside. We were given traditional Tuvan foods such as various sheep, goat, and cow cheeses, butter, yogurt, mutton, milk-tea with salt, and such Russian foods as dark bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Araká, the traditional drink distilled from fermented cow's milk, accompanied this meal and all others we had with pastoral Tuvans. It is considered proper etiquette to offer this drink to guests, and is reciprocally proper to drink it down in a single draught. Russian champagne, cognac, and vodka are also normally served. At the second pair of yurts, located in a more open area, we observed the "white death" for the first time. This is the bloodless slaughter of a sheep said to have been decreed by Genghis Khan. By this method, two men hold a sheep down on its back. The master of the yurt makes a small incision in the animal's chest just below the breastbone, reaches in, and grasps the aorta. The sheep dies within minutes. It is then butchered, everything being used. The intestines, cleaned and filled with blood and then boiled, become blood sausage. The meat is also boiled. No seasonings are used with the mutton. The choice part is the fattest piece near the tail, which is served to the guest of honor.

After the meal a shaman conducted the fire ceremony, once done yearly, but not conducted for many years due to Soviet intolerance. He kindled a fire on a slab of stone placed on the floor of the yurt. Food and drink were offered to the fire as the shaman sang songs and blessed the yurt, livestock, water, and people. He used small brass mirrors to divine the health of the mistress of the yurt. Calling in good spirits and chasing away bad ones, he consecrated a single sheep that would never be slaughtered.

Sacred Places

On our second excursion we traveled west from Kyzyl, accompanied by a second Russian bus carrying Norwegian educators. We stopped at communities along the way where we were expected to do concerts. The format we tried to adopt of introducing ourselves and describing the Foundation and its work abruptly gave way to doing healing sessions for those who came forward with complaints. We learned from this the great need for healing in Tuva and the apparent lack of people (shamans, doctors, and lamas) to do it. Gabriele, reflecting on this phase of our work in Tuva, described our party as a "flying shamans' circus." Others chose a "rock band" metaphor. We felt uneasy about being thrust into the spotlight, but saw no alternative. In the one case where we refused to work due to great fatigue we were met by frightening hostility.

There was some one-on-one healing work done, but the most profound came from working in a circle. Drums throbbing, now one, and then another member of our group stepped forward to do a healing on someone brought into the circle. The spirits matched the healer with the client. For example, Paul moved into the center of the circle to work for a crippled man who was paralyzed on one side of his body. After an exhausting extraction, and a power animal retrieval, the man got up and danced to the applause of the audience. He bounded on our bus and spun around to show how well he could move just as we were about to leave.

The Tuvan shamans traveling with us joined us in these circles of healing. It was a new way for us to work, and for them, and it was a powerful one. What Larry had experienced in his "spiritual opening" in Kyzyl with the actor, others experienced in their own ways in the remote villages and towns with exotic names like Shagonar. Chadan, and Kyzyl Mazalyk. Or, this occurred in some other sacred context, but, it happened. Repeatedly, members of the team expressed the belief that they were undergoing a significant transformation, catalyzed by their shamanic experiences in Tuva. Surprisingly, the young Tuvan shamans were saying the same thing for themselves.

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