Archaeological Excavation

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Curing Shamans
Fishing Shamans
War Shamans
Wealth and Rank
Men's Activities
Women's Activities

Tsimshian Villages

Tsimshian Society and Culture


Curing Shamans

Shaman - CD94-633-006 - 71-5570 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.

Shaman 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.

Dot Tools of the Curing Shaman

  1. Charms
  2. The Soul Catcher
  3. The Rattle
  4. The Staff
  5. The Head Scratcher
  6. The Drum


Charm - CD95-759-064 - S93-8223 Housefront charm, made from slate and used as a medicinal charm
Collected by I.W. Powell, ca. 1879

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 - 
CD95-759-024 - S93-8143 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

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 smokeholes of the houses to prevent souls from leaving prematurely.

The Rattle

shaman - 
CD94-633-012 - 62475 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

shaman - 
CD94-633-013 - 59800 Charles Mark, shaman, ca. 1923.

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

shaman - 
CD94-633-009 - 62478                                                                                                
Johnny Laknitz singing with drum, Kitwanga, ca. 1924.

The drum was used to mark rhythm in shamanic chants.