Ways of Life


In Nisg̱a’a village life before the arrival of Christian missionaries, shamans were healers and spiritual guides who practiced traditional medicine and spiritual rituals. Most shamans were men, but some were women. Villagers relied on shamans to heal sick people, provide protection from evil spirits, and offer guidance on spiritual matters.

In addition to knowledge of medicinal plants, shamans were believed to possess special powers and knowledge given to them by nax̱noḵ supernatural spirits. These spirits were not necessarily friendly to the shaman or people in general, but a shaman who had trained carefully could summon them at will and control them to do the shaman’s bidding.

After shamans had gained mastery of a particular supernatural spirit, they would often use the image of that spirit in their headdress, shaman’s staff, gwiishalite blanket, carved rattle and other tokens. It was especially important that other people did not touch the tools of the shaman: it was believed that death would befall the person who touched them. For this reason, the shaman’s tools were generally kept inside an ornately-carved cedar bent box belonging to the shaman alone.

Some shamans were chiefs, but many were not. They were people who achieved recognition in their community through the demonstration of their supernatural powers and their ability to control supernatural spirits. Shamans began their training in one of two ways: either through self-directed fasting and “questing”, such as a solitary sojourn in the forest or in the mountains away from their village, or through apprenticeship to an established shaman.

Much of a shaman’s knowledge and power was acquired through sleep dreams or visions during trance states. Shamans could not speak the details of their dreams and visions: if they did so, they would lose the supernatural powers that they had acquired in those same experiences.

A shaman could see the cause of a person’s illness, and they could see how long a person would live by watching them walk. If a person’s feet sank in the ground while walking, this person would not live long. If a person’s feet were high off the ground as they walked, this person would have a long life.

Shaman Portrait
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Shaman with patient
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Shaman with patient and people drumming behind him
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People in regalia
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