The Reality of Spirits, Page 3
By Edith Turner
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

Ernie often accused me of not believing in these manifestations, but I protested that I did. How could I help it? Ernie usually had a bad time from Whites, who labeled his experiences "magical beliefs." But by then, I myself was within the circle of regular Eskimo society and experienced such events from time to time. I am now learning that studying such a mentality from inside is a legitimate and valuable kind of anthropology that is accessible if the anthropologist takes that "fatal" step toward "going native."

Members of many different societies, even our own, tell us they have had experience of seeing or hearing spirits. Let us recall how anthropology has dealt with the question in the past.

Mainline anthropologists have studiedly ignored the central matter of this kind of information—central in the people's own view—and only used the material as if it were metaphor or symbol, not reality, commenting that such and such "metaphor" is congruent with the function, structure, or psychological mind set of the society. Clearly, this is a laudable endeavor as far as it goes. But the neglect of the central material savors of our old bête noire, intellectual imperialism.

What is pitiful is the tendency of anthropologists from among the native peoples themselves to defer to the Western view and accordingly draw back from claiming the truth of their own religion. The mission of Western anthropologists to explain the system in positivist terms at all costs, which thereby influences a new elite, is oddly similar to the self-imposed task of the more hidebound religious missionaries who are also sworn to eliminate their hosts' religion.4

So one asks, what are the ethics of this kind of analysis, this dissection? May we continue in this age of multi power and multi cultures to enter a foreign society, however politely, measure it up according to our own standards, and then come back home and dissect it in a way entirely estranged from the ethos of the people concerned?

We can see three such methods of dissection.

The first is illustrated by the anthropologist who goes out to examine a certain feature of the society, such as Richard Nelsons did when he studied the hunters of the northern ice at Wainwright, Alaska. He contrived to write an entire book from a positivist, practical standpoint, stating that no mystery cults of occult beliefs existed at the time of writing among these Eskimos. Nevertheless, my friend, Enoch Oktollik from Wainwright, has told me how he, Enoch, resents the imputations of the Whites and the way they have eroded Eskimo culture. His own mother has seen visions and predicted the coming of a whale. Nelson, though, has now changed his tack; he no longer thinks the Natives' tales are magical rubbish.5

Then there are the anthropologists who say, "Wait a bit! We can see interesting structural regularities in this culture." Levi Strauss led this fashion by writing of Aborigine totemism—those traditional ideas involving awe and respect for certain animals: "Totemism pertains to the understanding, and the demands to which it responds and the way in which it tries to meet them are primarily of an intellectual kind.... Its image is projected, not received. "7 But the animal was sacred to the Aborigines, part of their visionary life. The Dreaming dominated their whole life—it was visionary, not intellectual.

The third stage consists of the more respectful anthropologists, who bend over backward to accord their people much fuller sympathy. They follow all the beliefs and see, for instance, how the tapir, among the Wayapi Amazonians, gives central meaning to the lives of the Natives, how the shamanic myth of the "spirit tapir" (meaning something like Joseph Campbell's use of the word "myth") has actual feedback into the social system.8 Now Alan Campbell is getting close to the Wayapi—except that the poor fellow has to cover himself regarding his English colleagues by retreating from the question and labeling the whole shamanic system "metaphoric." Even in spite of protecting himself in that way, he has been attacked by those colleagues for going too far.

Nevertheless, in this paper I really go over the edge. What will the English say to me?

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