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Shasta

Worldview

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Anthopologist Roland Dixon who conducted ethnographic research among the Shasta between 1900-1904 writes:

To the Shasta, apparently, 'ghost,' 'soul' and 'life' are practically synonymous terms. Ghosts are much feared, and are seen in the form of flickering flames or vague lights, chiefly in the vicinity of graveyards. To see them brings bad luck, or even death. The ghost or soul often is thought to leave the body of a person some hours before death.... The body of the sick person may continue to breathe for hours; but... the life, the soul, has already gone. No shaman is able to bring back the soul, once it has left the body. (468-469)

After death the soul was thought to travel westward, assisted in its journey by the funeral dances. It eventually rises into the sky, and travels along the Milky Way until it eventually passes into another world. Although, Dixon felt that the Shasta did not have a clear conception of this other world, he reported that it was "a pleasant place, where food is always plenty and the ghosts make merry"(469).

Early nineteenth century ethnographers affirmed that the Shasta believed that the world had always existed; that they had little concept of creation or a creator, and that coyote seemed to have served as a "culture hero" in Shasta mythology.1 Holt's remark that, "At one time Mount Shasta, another mountain near Happy Camp called Old Man Mountain, and another at the head of the Rogue River were 'all that was sticking up out of the ocean'"(326) seems to suggest that the Shasta did acknowledge a previous time when the world was different. Five was a sacred number to the Shasta as were multiples of five, especially the number ten. These numbers appear constantly in rituals, ceremonies, myths and tales:

The entire area occupied by the Shasta is thought of as thronged with spiritual, mysterious powers, spoken of as Ax'ki or 'pains.' These are conceived of in human form (rather shorter than the ordinary stature), and as inhabiting rocks, cliffs, lakes, and mountain summits, and the rapids and eddies in streams. Many animals are also regarded as Ax'ki. They are the cause of all disease, death, and trouble, and become the guardians of the shamans, and are often inherited by them.(Dixon 470)

Ax'ki were believed to shoot their "pains" into humans; all problems were blamed on the Ax'ki. Shaman (doctors) were purported to receive their powers from Ax'ki and were the only ones who could actually see them. (Silver 219-220)

Each family had only one shaman (doctor); usually a woman. Older shamans were thought to be the most powerful. A person would receive a calling to doctoring in the form of a sign, typically nightmares experienced during trances. It was during the nightmares that the person would receive the power ('pains' in the head, heel, and shoulder) through a song taught to them by their guardian Ax'ki. Doctors' training consisted of learning and performing dances and rituals, and acquiring specific paraphernalia for their profession: 10 buckskins, 10 silver-gray fox skins, 10 wolf skins, 10 coyote skins, 10 fisher skins, 10 otter skins, eagle tail and wing feathers, yellowhammer and woodpecker tails, a special buckskin and paints (red, yellow and blue). Shaman cured by performing dances and songs and by blowing tobacco smoke over the ailing individual. Once the location of the illness was determined, they would remove the offending object by sucking it out. Special doctors were trained to treat specific serious injuries, such as rattlesnake and grizzly bear bites. Doctors were paid for their services; however, if a patient died the shaman would have to return the fee. Shamans could be killed if the community thought that too many of their patients died. Shamans were also paid to kill others enemies by shooting 'pains' into the victim (Silver 220). While shamans were important, most people didn't like them. Shamans were subject to being killed for a host of reasons, and they also had to observe many taboos--the majority of people didn't aspire to become shamans (Holt 328).

Shamans weren't the only healers. Women, with special talents for nursing, cared for the sick and injured with an assortment of herbs and treatments. According to Holt, "there were always some especially skillful [women] whose services were always in demand" (340).

The Shasta were not known to have any important group rituals or ceremonies other than "the girl's puberty dance, the war dance, and the shaman ceremonials" (Holt 335).

The bulk of Shasta mythology is concerned with stories of magic and adventure often involving the trickster, coyote. Storytelling took place only on winter evenings, as it was believed that telling stories during summer would offend the rattlesnake (Holt 338).

 

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