Cultural Foundations and Ontological Models of ​Classical Siberian Shamanism

Shamanic Healing Practices of the Ulchi

Roberta Louis with Jan Van Ysslestyne

Originally Published in Shaman's Drum magazine Issue 53, 1999


On June 22, 1995, I had the good fortune to be present when Grandfather Mikhail Duvan, a ninety-two-year-old shaman from the Siberian village of Bulava, conducted a kamlania (shaman's ceremony) in Washington State during his first visit to the U.S. The following weekend, I attended and taped a workshop at which Grandfather Misha, as he was affectionately known, conducted a number of rituals and shamanic ceremonies and shared some of the traditional teachings of his people, the Ulchi or Nanee.(1) Assisting him was Nadyezhda Duvan, an oral historian, shaman, and dance leader of the Ulchi. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to interview Nadyezhda, then forty-six years old, and I have subsequently attended one of her kamlanias.

The information presented in this article was drawn from my recordings of Grandfather Misha and Nadyezhda, as well as additional tapes and extensive supplemental explanations provided by Jan Van Ysslestyne, assistant director of the Amba School of Siberian Shamanism, in Seattle, Washington, which Nadyezhda directs. Jan is the leading Western practitioner of Ulchi shamanism, and the only speaker of the Ulchi language living in North America. As Grandfather Misha spoke only Ulchi, and Nadyezhda only Ulchi and Russian when my recordings were made (she is now learning English), I also relied on Jan's translation skills in the writing of this article.(2)

The article is dedicated to the memory of Grandfather Misha, who passed from this world in 1997. His teachings and kindness remain an enduring presence in my life.


The Spirit World of the Ulchi

Along the Amur River, north of the city of Khabarovsk, lies the Ulchi village of Bulava.(3) In this harsh part of Siberia, there is little electricity or indoor plumbing, and water is delivered each day by a truck that makes its rounds, filling the water barrels outside most households. In winter, the ground is frozen solid, and in spring and fall, the dirt streets turn to mud.

In Bulava, and elsewhere across the Ulchi region, many of the old ways of the shamans still survive, despite the encroachments of modern society and the attempted eradication of shamanism during the Soviet regime. The Ulchi speak a dialect belonging to the Manchu-Tungus language group; thus, their shamans called saman (from sa, "to know") are among the prototypical ecstatic shamans popularized by Eliade and others. Today, the few remaining Ulchi shamans still look after the spiritual needs of their people(4) mediating with the spirits, performing healings and soul retrievals, and restoring balance with a spiritual world that is at once beneficent and foreboding.

In traditional Ulchi cosmology, not only is everything alive "each stone, plant, and animal with its own living spirit" but the spirits are sentient, ever-watching, often with strict expectations of the people who live among them. If these expectations are not met, if the required offerings are not made, proper respect not shown, and taboos not upheld, the spirits may inflict harsh retribution, which can take the form of misfortune, illness, or even death. Thus, in the traditional way, the daily life of each person requires constant awareness of and interaction with the spirit world.

Shaman Grandmother Yetchaka with her drums and wooden idolsTo a large extent, the responsibility for maintaining health and well-being starts with the individual and the family. Virtually all aspects of traditional Ulchi life involve rituals and offerings to the spirits. Daily offerings are made at the malee, a table altar on the south wall of the home, where the family's house spirits reside inside carved saivens (in this case, wooden statues embodying helping spirits).(5) These house saivens typically include the masee, or master spirit of the house (ma=strong; asee=wife), which often takes the form of a tiger or a bear, the sacred clan totems of the Ulchi; Kaljamu, a mountain spirit who protects the home, children, and travelers in the mountains; and other helping and protective spirits associated with the family. Family members may also have personal saivens, embodying other spirits, and these, too, require regular offerings.

In Ulchi shamanism, the saiven is not merely an image that depicts or represents the helping spirit; it serves as a house for the spirit, and the spirit is free to travel to and from it at will. Nadyezhda remembers from her childhood how her father, who was not a shaman, would often make offerings to the family saivens, which were kept in the rafters of the house, the place in the home considered to be the cleanest and most sacred. Some of these saivens were wrapped in gimsacha sacred streamers shaved in a spiral fashion from one of the Ulchi sacred woods, usually willow, rowan, or elm, and some were dressed in clothing made from sable fur or deerskin. He would address each saiven in its own way, and he would prepare food for them and put it to their mouths to feed them. Today, the elders still say that if a person doesn't feed his or her saivens, those spirits can get angry and punish the person.

Even Ulchi shamans do not consider themselves to be "masters" of the spirits they enlist the help of the spirits by treating them with respect and humility. A shaman may have many saivens, each embodying a different spirit helper, and each of these must be spoken with and fed. Once or twice a month, Sophia Anga, an elder shaman from Bulava, affectionately known as Grandmother Tika, who passed away last year, would gather all her saivens together and place them on a table, where she would have a spirit "tea party" for them. She would spend the entire day cleaning them, feeding them, and talking with them.

In addition to caring for the house saivens, traditional Ulchi families each have a tudja, a sacred larch tree, where family members make offerings, petitioning the spirits for protection and well-being.(6) Offering rituals may also be conducted by individual families to honor and to petition spirits of the fire, water, earth, sun, moon, and many other powers and aspects of nature. Even the sacred Bear Festival, in which a bear was traditionally sacrificed as a messenger to the spirit world, was conducted by the family that had hand-raised the bear.(7)

Certain matters, however, may require the assistance or intervention of a shaman. Traditionally, the village shamans hold major roles in providing for the people's welfare. Depending on their individual specialties, they may assist in rituals of birth, death, or marriage; exorcise evil spirits; predict the future; mediate with ancestral or elemental spirits; or even exert control over the weather. Some shamans work only with the dead, some only with children, and others only with adults. There are shamans who only perform divinations. The most powerful of all shamans are the kasa shamans, who guide the spirits of the deceased to the road leading to the lowerworld and who communicate the needs of the departed to the living.

Despite differences in specialty and in technique, most shamans also conduct healings. Although each family traditionally has its own healing remedies, passed down from generation to generation, when these prove to be insufficient, the family calls for the services of a shaman.

The Shaman's Ceremony

Most Ulchi shamans perform the kamlania, a traditional ceremony involving a prototypical shamanic journey to and from the other worlds.(8) Kamlanias may be performed for any number of reasons, including individual healing, predicting the future, seeking the cause of a family or village misfortune, or making offerings to various spirits. For example, someone may request a kamlania to find out why his fishing or hunting isn't going well. Other types of kamlania are performed by the shaman on a regular basis on behalf of the entire community.

It is said that, during kamlanias, shamans can travel back and forth between the worlds "in the blink of an eye," with the assistance of their helping spirits. While various helping spirits may assist shamans in their kamlania journeys, the Ulchi say that the greatest shamans travel on the back of Amba, the flying tiger, the queen of the spirits and the legendary ancestress of the Ulchi people. Grandmother Tika had two tigers as her main spiritual helpers, and she traveled on their backs to both the lowerworld and the upperworld.

Ulchi elders have often told stories about their visions and dreams of the lowerworld. They speak of Bunee "the resting place of the deceased" as a land much like that of the living, with rivers, forests, houses, and families. Some say that it is always dark there, while others say that it is night in the lowerworld when it is day in our world, the middleworld.

Ulchi women playing log drum for bear festival circa 1934Grandmother Tika, based on her visions, said that the people in the lowerworld even have their own saivens and their own spirit helpers. She also told of a great mystic dream in which she traveled to the upperworld known as Ba which is presided over by Enduree, the pair of great dragons that are masters of the heavens.(9) In her dream, everything in the heavens was clear and silver. There was a large opening, guarded by seven or nine beautiful young women. At first, the women refused to allow Tika to pass through the opening, but somehow she managed to enter. Beyond that opening, she found an even more beautiful, more transparent, more silver world, in which there was a nine-story-tall golden idol that looked like a Chinese god.

Grandfather Misha also spoke of one of his spiritual journeys to the upperworld: "In one kamlania, I went up on this level and there was another level, the high level, where the land was clear and transparent, like glass. And there was a frog there. I thought, "Why is there a frog in the transparent heaven?' And this was the frog that can control the rain; this frog gives rain to the earth."

Divining a Need for Kamlania

Traditionally, each family has its own herbal treatments for various minor ailments. Other types of ailments can be cured by making ritual offerings perhaps at the family tudjar by smudging either the afflicted person or a particular medicine bundle with the smoke of burning senkure, a marsh rosemary plant considered sacred and used for purification. Sometimes senkure leaves are rubbed directly on a person's body to effect a healing. Other times, fir branches are swept over the body to cleanse and heal a person. However, if these methods fail, or for more serious ailments, a shaman may be consulted.

Typically, the shaman will determine, through an initial diagnostic session, whether he or she can help the patient. If the shaman decides to take the case, a date is set for the treatment, usually during the waxing moon or, if possible, on the full moon; Ulchi belief is that the waxing moon belongs to the living, and the waning moon to the ancestors.

In order to gain information concerning the person's illness, some Ulchi shamans may consult a ponga saiven, a carved statue used for divination. These ponga saivens, which are usually attached to leather thongs, are used much as pendulums are in the West. One of the most well-known ponga saivens, called Buchu, belongs to a race of mountain spirits that are six to seven feet tall and covered with hair, similar to the yeti or sasquatch. The Buchu saiven, which is carved out of larch, with a conical head, two wings, and a tapered body with one leg and one foot is often consulted during the kamlania, as well as during divination. Its wings are said to represent the upperworld, or the ability to fly into the different worlds, and its one leg and foot represent a person's steady path on the middleworld. Grandmother Tika often used Buchu in her divinations, while Grandmother Wycha Nadyezhda's aunt, the last living elder shaman in Bulava uses Sava, the owl, a great protector and guide to the spiritual worlds.

The shaman activates the ponga saiven by blowing tobacco smoke from a cigarette or pipe into its face,(10) and then questions the ponga saiven aloud, noting the direction of its movement to determine the answers. Sometimes, this procedure alone yields sufficient information to cure the patient. At other times, the shaman may ascertain, through consultation with the helping spirits, that the healing requires a kamlania. Then, the ceremony is typically scheduled for a later date, usually at night, either at the patient's home or the home of the shaman.

In the case of personal healings, kamlanias may be performed for a specified number of days often three or movre consecutive days or a number of periodic, perhaps monthly, ceremonies may be held. If there is to be a series of healings, the shaman often schedules the first kamlania at his or her own home, so the shaman's house spirits can help in the work, and the later kamlanias at the home of the patient, so that the shaman can work with the energies and spirits present there.Shaman Grandfather Misha dancing in village healing ceremony

Preparing for the Kamlania

On the day of a kamlania, the shaman typically leads a procession called an undee to a specific number of houses in the village, usually three, seven, or nine. An assistant advises the households that the shaman will be coming and then accompanies the procession as it winds through and around each of the houses. In each house, the shaman is provided with a drink of water containing some senkure leaves and with a cup of vodka, and someone in the household sews a little piece of cloth onto the shaman's ritual garments. These small strips of cloth which are sewn on without the use of knots, so that evil spirits will not become entangled in the thread, provide the shaman with protection and additional energy. As the shaman leaves each house, one or two people from the household usually join in the procession. Nadyezhda recalls that, as a child, she attended processions with her mother in which perhaps fifty people ended up winding in a line through the village.

In the evening, the people in the procession gather in the home where the ceremony is to take place. The shaman then purifies the house and all present with the smoke of burning senkure leaves. He or she addresses the malee, the house altar, on which will be found three small cups. The first cup contains plain water, the second contains water with some senkure leaves floating in it, and the third holds vodka. The shaman flicks drops from each cup into the four corners of the house to feed the house spirits.

A ritual offering dish known as an oto will have been placed on the malee. Usually made from larch, with one end carved in the shape of a bear and the other in that of a fish, the oto contains offerings to the house spirits, including foods such as berries, fruit, cooked grains, and fish, as well as some tobacco. Red meat is never offered, as this would be considered an affront to the spirits of the animals. The shaman may smoke a bit of tobacco from the oto prior to the start of the kamlania, to satisfy his or her spirits; however, the food will remain on the altar until the end of the ceremony.

After the purification is completed, the people present gather in a circle. At this time, it is their responsibility to raise the energy of the kamlania and help the shaman enter a state of ecstasy through their singing, drumming, and dancing. They often act out the movements of a shaman, as well as those of birds and other animals. This also serves as an opportunity for young people to practice the drumming rhythms, develop their dance skills, and show the elders their talents. The shaman sits and observes their drumming and dancing. This part of the ceremony functions as a type of competition, and sometimes, at the end of the kamlania, the group judged most meritorious will have the honor of sharing a cup of ritual vodka with the shaman; at other times, the cup of vodka will be passed around to all those present and each will take a sip.

After all the groups finish their performances, the petitioner presents the shaman with a cloth bag traditionally filled with silver Chinese coins, but now often containing a Russian paper bill and one or more Russian coins, which is worn around the neck by the shaman throughout the ceremony and then kept as a gift. This is not so much a payment to the shaman as it is a gift to the spirits so they will be satisfied with the relationship between the petitioner and the shaman. It helps to ensure both the success of the kamlania and the safety of the shaman, who is about to embark on a dangerous journey on the petitioner's behalf. A second odee (offering), of a different nature, is presented at the end of the ceremony.

Shaman's Drumstick-Healing BatonThe Shaman's Ecstatic Journey

When the kamlania proper begins, the lights in the house are extinguished, and the shaman's journey takes place in darkness, except perhaps for the light of a candle. The shaman, in full regalia, begins by singing and drumming to call his or her helping spirits. During this part of the ceremony, the shaman's song may include the telling of a legend or an origin story, the retelling of a vision, or the recitation of the shaman's personal history.

It is sometimes said that the shaman's helping spirits begin to come flying at the first stroke of the drum, and that they sit inside the rim of the shaman's drum until sent away at the close of the kamlania. Grandfather Misha related that his principal helping spirits would sit on his shoulder and talk to him during the kamlania. These spirits, which are visible to the shamans and sometimes to others, usually appear as animals as or as anthropomorphic beings resembling their carved saivens.

Once the helping spirits are present, the shaman's ecstatic journey begins. At this time, the shaman stands up and the song and rhythm shift. The first time I observed Grandfather Misha conduct kamlania, I was amazed. This tiny, frail man hard-of-hearing and with very limited vision had to be helped to a chair before the ceremony began.(11) But when he stood and began his journey, he was transformed; he rose with power and danced energetically to the rhythm of his own drumming. His voice rang out, clear and strong. Indeed, it is often said that the elder shamans become younger when they perform kamlania.

The shaman relates in song his or her travels through the other worlds recovering lost souls, finding answers, and discovering prescriptions for patients. While traveling, the shaman communes regularly with his or her spirit helpers. Each journey, and thus the song of each journey, is unique.

During the journey, the shaman may see many paths and must choose among them. Some may be very dangerous, and some may belong to other, powerful shamans; these generally are avoided. Grandfather Misha and Grandmother Tika were sky shamans; most of their spirit helpers came from the sky, and their paths often led through the clouds, up into the stars or even beyond. In contrast, Grandmother Indyaka, an elder Ulchi shaman from the village of Sophinsk, usually travels on a path through the middleworld. But wherever the journey leads, the shaman is careful to never go to the end of his or her own path, as it is believed that would soon result in the shaman's death.

In the case of a healing, it is the path of the patient not that of the shaman that will be followed to find the missing soul. The shaman selects the proper path and begins to travel along it, generally singing of whatever he or she encounters or observes along the way. Although most of the journey is sung in Ulchi, some shamans have secret spirit languages unique to themselves, taught to them by their helping spirits, which they use at certain times during the kamlania.

In a village kamlania, there are usually a number of elders present who have the power to see the shaman's vision as he or she travels, and they may accompany the shaman on the journey, giving encouragement or advice. In addition to providing support, they have the power to bring the shaman back if the situation becomes too dangerous. For this purpose, the shaman keeps a sunee, an energetic "rope" created through visualization, tied around his or her waist; if necessary, an elder or an assistant may recall the shaman to this world by pulling on that rope.

Other persons present, including the patient, may also accompany the shaman on the journey. Nadyezhda tells about a kamlania performed by Grandmother Indyaka for an eighteen-year-old who had suffered from epilepsy since birth. The young man's mother later reported that, during the kamlania, her son, who spoke virtually no Ulchi and could not understand the words of Grandmother Indyaka's song, stood up from time to time and began to run around like a bear, jump and growl like a tiger, or make bird sounds. It turned out that his behaviors related directly to stages of Grandmother Indyaka's journey, and they were performed at the appropriate times. After the kamlania, when the shaman asked the young man what he had seen, he related the entire journey that she had taken, in great detail.

At times, the shaman may stop singing and speak to the spirits he or she encounters, requesting the help of ancestors or shouting at evil spirits. At other times, the shaman will dance or move around during the song, rattling his or her yampa the shaman's dance belt, hung with metal bells to drive away unwanted spirits. If the patient's soul has merely wandered, restoring it is fairly simple. However, if the soul has been captured by evil spirits, the shaman may have to do battle to retrieve it.

Each shaman has an arsenal of magical weapons, usually visible only in the nonordinary realms, that have been given to him or her by the helping spirits. One elder male shaman was known to have a magic net of iron with which he could ensnare evil spirits, and some other shamans have had magical iron spears. Iron is believed to have great powers of protection and destruction. In some instances, the helping spirits will do battle on the shaman's behalf. The action of the battle might or might not be shown through the shaman's movements, but they will usually be reflected in the words and rhythms of the song.

Nadyezhda explains that shamans can take the forms of various spirit animals while traveling; at those times, they often move like those animals or utter their calls. As the rhythmic signatures of the animals are well known within Ulchi culture, the beat of the drum may be used to signal when the shaman is changing form during his or her travels. The rhythm of the drum can also indicate the stage of the shaman's journey.

Shaman Grandmother Tika playing drum in her backyard in village of BulavaVarious shamans also have their own methods for achieving shamanic flight. Some shamans, such as Grandmother Tika, would fly on the backs of their animal spirit helpers, and some others would travel in a sled pulled by flying reindeer. Grandfather Misha would often fly in the form of a swan, a crow, or a bat, and his form might change during each stage of the journey. Some shamans travel up the Tree of Life, the great tudja whose roots extend to the underworld and whose branches touch the heavens. Grandfather Misha sometimes launched himself off a specific mountain top, while petitioning his ancestors and his helping spirits for assistance. Once flight is achieved, movement between the worlds can happen instantaneously. Grandfather Misha, for example, often rested on a cloud and then, upon taking flight, suddenly found himself in the lowerworld or middleworld. Oftentimes, the shamans themselves do not choose the path they are to follow; it is their helping spirits that decide where to go.

Ulchi Concepts of Soul Retrieval

According to Ulchi beliefs, each person actually has three souls, one housed in the person's heart, one that travels when the person dreams at night and then returns to the body, and a third that has similarities to the Western concepts of the astral body, double, or doppelganger. It is this third soul that is prone to wandering and to being captured by evil spirits, and that is recovered by the shaman during the kamlania.

Sometimes soul loss can be caused by merely startling a person who is sleeping or relaxing. The soul may remain where it was when the person was startled, and this may require the intervention of a shaman. The soul may wander for a wide variety of reasons, but it must be returned to the body or put in a safe place, to avoid imbalance, illness, or even death. Once the soul is in a safe place, an offering must be made to the spirits each month.

The souls of children are particularly vulnerable. Until a child reaches one year of age, the soul is considered to be in a stage of development called ome, in which it belongs to the heavens and resembles a bird's soul. During that first year, even if a baby becomes ill, a shaman will not intercede, as the soul does not belong to the Earth. If the infant dies during that time, the body is not buried in the ordinary way but is wrapped in white cloth and hung on tree branches deep in the forest, so that the soul can quickly fly back to the heavens.

Once the child reaches one year of age, the soul enters the second stage of development, known as urga. At this time, the child soul is said to fully belong to the Earth, and the shaman is able to intercede on the child's behalf. The soul will remain in this stage until it transforms into the adult soul, the panya, at eighteen to twenty years of age.

Whenever a soul has been lost or abducted, a kamlania must be held to retrieve and safeguard it. Grandmother Tika told Nadyezhda about how she had once lost her soul and had fallen sick for a long time. A shaman performed kamlania for her and saw that her soul was fastened to a tree in the lowerworld. In her sleep, Tika said, "I see that over my head the tiger is hanging from the tree." The grandmother who performed the kamlania freed her soul and took it out of the lowerworld, and then Tika got well.

To recover a lost soul, the shaman may go directly to one of the worlds, or he or she may search among the worlds to find it. Both Grandfather Misha and Grandmother Tika would ask their saivens to help them recover the missing soul. The shaman may find the soul lost or wandering, upon a cloud or among the stars, trapped in a tree or held captive by an evil spirit. Then, with the assistance of the helping spirits, he or she will recover it and return home.

The retrieved soul may be either returned to the client's body, or if the shaman has agreed to become a personal shaman for that person and to help him or her on an ongoing basis, placed by the shaman in a secure location. Nadyezhda had a personal shaman who performed kamlania for her and watched over her soul from early childhood until she was fifteen years old, when the grandmother passed on. In a kamlania, this grandmother traveled to the blue star, the earliest star that appears in the night sky, and placed Nadyezhda's soul there for safekeeping. Nadyezhda says, "When she had my soul there, I felt great. It was not in my body" I was a little child, I didn't understand anything. But I did not get sick. Everything was fine for me."

The grandmother also prepared a sacred bundle to protect Nadyezhda's child soul, and to this day, that bundle which has since been renewed, with new items added protects both her soul and the souls of her children. At times, if she or one of her children is ill, Nadyezhda cleanses the contents of that bundle with the smoke of burning senkure or passes the bundle over her body with cleansing motions; sometimes that is sufficient to drive the illness away.

Shaman Grandmother Nadia in her Ainu clothing from her mother's clan KuisaliAfter the death of Nadyezhda's personal shaman, Grandfather Misha took her soul into protection. When she asked him what would happen to her soul if he died while it was under his protection, he replied, "Your soul is where it is, where I have it. And if I die, it won't be a bad thing. Every month, you must make the offering even if you're afraid, even if you get sick, every month if you feel bad, if something's not going well for you, or if it's difficult for someone in your family. Enduree sees everything and will put everything in its place."

Even when a soul is under a shaman's protection, however, there is always the possibility of it wandering or straying. The spirit master of Grandfather Misha's storage place would take regular inventory of the souls under his care, and if any had strayed, he would notify Grandfather of the need to recover them. Grandfather Misha would hear the spirit master giving him that message and would then either conduct a kamlania or set out to recover the souls during his sleep, while lucid dreaming.

Grandfather Misha's own soul was protected directly by the spirits. Once when he was out hunting in the taiga, he made an offering at a place of three larch trees. Although he was ill, he asked only for happiness and success in his hunt. That night, in a visionary dream, the master spirit of the taiga took Grandfather's soul into his care and stored it with the three larch trees, which guarded and protected it henceforth.

Prescribing Saivens for Healing

Sometimes, during the kamlania, the shaman may search for a saiven for the afflicted person to wear and care for, in order to attain health. Certain types of saivens are known to be effective for specific ailments. For example, one saiven with a pointed head can heal and protect people from head illnesses, and a saiven called ayami (literally, "twins"), which can have either one or two heads and which contains the representation of a heart, is often prescribed for heart ailments.(12) However, the saiven prescribed is ultimately determined by what the spirits tell the shaman during the kamlania.

In some cases, the shaman will create the saiven for the client. In other instances, the client will be instructed to either make it or order it from the village woodcarver. Some saivens, particularly those dealing with women's illnesses, may be fashioned of cloth, grass, paper, leather, or other materials. Whatever its construction, the saiven is either worn or carried by the client, usually for a specific time period or until the illness is gone, and it must be given regular offerings. If a prescribed saiven fails to help the patient, the shaman may determine that evil spirits have entered it and interfered with the work. In this circumstance, the saiven will be discarded and the shaman will search for a new saiven to help the patient.

Nadyezhda relates how, many years ago, before there were any Western doctors in Bulava, her sister was cured of rheumatism by a shaman's kamlania and prescription of a saiven. That saiven, a figure with jointed legs and hands, carved of larch, was a helper spirit used specifically for healing bones and rheumatism. Each month, the sister would make an offering to the saiven, and gradually her rheumatism was healed.

Spirit idolsLater, when medical doctors were unable to help Nadyezhda heal a leg injury, she herself was healed by a series of three kamlanias conducted by Grandfather Misha and his prescription of a saiven depicting the head and one paw of Mapaw, the bear.(13) During the first of these kamlanias, Grandfather Misha accurately saw and related events of her childhood, including a time she turned her leg while almost drowning at ten years of age. This earlier accident, he told her, created a weakness that led to her later injury. It was not until the last kamlania, though, that he identified the saiven for her, which she still wears and feeds every month.

Fixing the Results of the Ceremony

After the soul is recovered or the other needed information is received, and the shaman returns from his or her ecstatic flight, the results of the ceremony must be fixed, or fastened. In the case of a healing, the shaman typically hands the drum to an assistant to play, while he or she works with the patient. Frequently, the shaman will cleanse and heal the person with the gimsacha, the sacred streamers.(14) Unlike other forms of gimsacha that are used on the shaman's regalia or in offering rituals, the gimsacha used for cleansing patients is shaved in such a way that it has a handle with perhaps twenty or thirty ribbonlike shavings at one end.

During healings, the gimsacha can be used to entrap evil spirits and pull them out of a person. In a soul retrieval, the shaman may also use the gimsacha to capture and return the wandering soul to the patient's body. The gimsacha will then be placed at the top of the patient's head and stroked down his or her body, while the shaman sings to call the soul back into the body. As the soul returns, the gimsacha also captures any otherworldly residue or any negative energies that may still be clinging to the soul. Afterwards, the gimsacha used in this way is considered polluted, or toxic, and it must be taken out usually by the patient to the family tudja or deep into the forest where no one will disturb it. (In contrast, the gimsacha worn by shamans as part of their regalia are often reused; if one should fall to the floor during a kamlania, it is considered good luck for a person to pick it up and keep it.)

Once the cleansing is completed, the shaman will typically take the drum beater, or geespu, and place it on the top of the patient's head while singing a fastening song. The geespu helps fasten the soul back into the body. Sometimes, the shaman will perform a final fastening, known as sukponguwu, which involves removing the geespu from the patient's head and quickly bending over and biting the top of the head while uttering a loud cry. It is said that if the sick person is startled and feels tremors through his or her entire body, and then experiences flying through the clouds, lighter than air, he or she has truly had the healing experience. If such sensations are not felt, then the healing is considered not quite complete.

When Grandfather Misha conducted the series of kamlanias to heal Nadyezhda's leg, he performed sukponguwu on her each time. She relates that the first time he did this, she didn't experience any change. The second time, she reports, "I felt the change from my waist up." Finally, during the third kamlania, she says, "I felt it move through my entire body and that was when I felt the relief."

Shaman Grandfather Misha performing a Fire ritual song in the Pacific NorthwestAfter completing the fastening, shamans usually save themselves, driving away any remaining evil spirits from themselves, the patient, and the others assembled there. Different shamans save themselves in different ways. Grandfather Misha would drum and sing while moving about and shaking the yampa fastened around his waist. Grandmother Tika would throw her yampa over her back, beating her back with it. All, however, tend to use the yampa at this time.

Once this process is completed, the shaman thanks all of the helping spirits and bids them fly away, back to their homes. The lights are turned back on, and the shaman gradually returns to a normal state of consciousness.

The shaman is then presented with the second odee, or gift, by the client. This gift traditionally includes a small bowl, usually made of porcelain, and some cloth, either a bolt of cloth or a new piece of clothing. The gift is obligatory, as it closes the deal between shaman and client in the required way and serves to prevent the shaman from taking on the client's evil spirits.

After addressing the altar and making offerings to the spirits, the shaman may again flick a little vodka into the corners of the house. Any remaining ritual vodka is usually passed around and shared by all present. The oto is also passed around, with each person eating a bit of the ritual food. The remaining food will be taken out to the tudja of the house, to feed the house spirits. A feast, sponsored by the petitioner, is then served, and all present eat together.

After the Kamlania

Even after the kamlania is completed and the feast is done, the shaman's work may not be over. It is not unusual for a healing to involve a series of kamlanias, as when Grandfather Misha healed Nadyezhda's leg. Grandfather Misha explained that, between sessions of a healing, it is the shaman's responsibility to think about the patient and to commune with the spirits about that patient's needs twenty-four hours a day, if possible.

The patient's work will also continue after the kamlania is over. He or she must follow the spirit prescriptions regarding obtaining, feeding, and caring for the saivens. And if it has been determined that the patient has forgotten to do a proper ritual for hunting or fishing, or has failed to keep up the rituals necessary to his or her ancestors, these oversights will have to be rectified.

In one interesting case, which took place in Bulava in early 1995, Grandfather Misha conducted a kamlania for a man suffering from chronic depression and from bad luck in fishing. During the kamlania, Grandfather began talking to this man as if he (the client) were a woman, referring to his husband and the children he had borne. It soon became apparent that Grandfather had traveled into a past life of this man and had determined that the depression was caused, at least partially, by problems stemming from that life.(15)

Then Grandfather switched back to referring to his client as a male and commented that the client's mother had died about a year before. When the client confirmed that this was so, Grandfather said that the spirit of the man's mother was unhappy, because the man had neglected to make the required offerings to her tudja. He determined that the man's bad luck in fishing was caused not by a violation of the fishing taboos but by his neglect of his mother's tudja. After the kamlania, the man started making regular offerings to the tudja, and within several months, his luck had changed dramatically.

Disrespect to a family tudja is known to have serious repercussions, even if the act of defilement is performed inadvertently or by an unrelated party. In one example, Grandfather Misha sold his home, located near his tudja, and the new owner defiled the tree, apparently unaware of its sacred status. Within a year, the man had died, and his son died soon thereafter. Moreover, Grandfather Misha himself suffered ill health that he attributed to this cause.

Shaman Grandmother Indyeka outside her home in the Ulchi territoriesThe case of the young man with epilepsy treated by Grandmother Indyaka demonstrates the broad reach of prescriptions given by the spirits. The day after that kamlania, the young man and his mother traveled to Khabarovsk for the son's annual physical exam. There, the shocked clinic doctors kept the son for observation and tests for six days, but they were unable to determine how he had become completely well. Despite the apparent cure, the family still needed to move to a new home. During the kamlania, Grandmother Indyaka had seen that the evil spirit of a young woman lived in the family home and, furthermore, that the house had been built in an unfortunate place in which a bad deed had taken place long ago. Indyaka had determined those problems had caused the young man's sickness, as well as the ill health of his mother. She had advised the family that they needed to move to a different plot of land and they did.

The information gained in Indyaka's kamlania was later confirmed independently by a friend of the mother. This friend had gone to visit the mother a short time before the healing. When she had arrived at the family's home, and the mother opened the door, the friend had seen the apparition of a beautiful, young woman standing next to the mother. Frightened speechless, the friend had turned around and run home. A year after the fact, the friend related her experience of seeing the woman's spirit, and her description matched what Grandmother Indyaka had seen during the kamlania.

Long-Distance Healings

Kamlanias may be used to provide help and healing at great distances. In cases where the shaman and patient are unable to physically meet, the patient may provide a photograph or other personal items to the shaman, who will perform the kamlania as if the patient was present. Nadyezhda relates the story of a friend, a Russian woman named Natasha, who had suffered for three years from a women's illness that medical doctors had been unable to cure. Grandmother Tika was provided with a photograph and some of Natasha's personal possessions, as well as the traditional shamanic payment. After studying the photograph and handling Natasha's clothing, she conducted a kamlania and accurately saw Natasha's symptoms, which had not been described to her. She prescribed and made several saivens two frogs and a lizard, all made from paper that Natasha was to wear in an amulet around her neck and make offerings to on a monthly basis. Natasha followed these instructions, and reported that the saivens had afforded her some relief. However, Grandmother Tika said that the healing would require a second kamlania, to finish the fastening. After the second kamlania (also conducted long distance), Natasha's condition began to improve, and within four to five months, she was restored to health, with no reoccurrence to date.

Kamlanias have also been known to afford the gift of long-distance sight. During Nadyezhda's first visit to the U.S., in 1994, Tika and Indyaka performed kamlania to keep her safe. They traveled as birds to the places she visited, and sat in the trees to watch over her. Nadyezhda relates that she had noticed two birds and sensed that they were really these two grandmothers. When she returned to the village, Tika and Indyaka provided accurate details of the places she'd been and the things she had done, and they asked her, "Was it really that way?"

Becoming a ShamanUlchi shaman mask

According to Ulchi belief, shamans are selected and trained directly by the spirits, and the path of each shaman is unique. There are several factors that can indicate a young person may be chosen to become a shaman. Ancestry is one indicator, because shamanism has a tendency to be inherited. It is also considered noteworthy if a particular child was born with a cowl over the face, or if he or she has unusual dreams or visions, or exhibits unusual behaviors.

Once a person is selected by the spirits to be a shaman, the spirits themselves provide the bulk of the training. Each shaman has his or her own helpers, and it is those helping spirits that, through dreams or auditory messages teach the shaman how to play the drum, what songs to sing, and how to heal. Older shamans may give the young ones guidance, assist them in learning the forms of the rituals, and help them develop their relationships with their helping spirits, but Ulchi shamans do not undergo formal apprenticeship.

Selection by the spirits can take place at any time, but in Ulchi tradition, a person usually becomes a shaman when either very young or very old. Grandfather Misha became a shaman when he was in his thirties. His parents had died when he was a young boy, and he and his brother were raised by their grandfather, a powerful thunder shaman who could call and control the rain and the thunder. As a rule, Grandfather Misha preferred not to speak of the events that led to his becoming a shaman, believing that to do so would have made him vulnerable.

Grandmother Tika, who represented the seventh consecutive generation of shamans in her family, spoke openly of her calling. She first became aware of her shamanic abilities at sixteen or seventeen years of age, when she began to feel the presence of a being around her. As she felt its strong breath and the sensation of fur, she sensed that the being was a tiger, and she became frightened. She told this to her father, who was himself a great shaman, but he said nothing. At around the age of eighteen, she began to dream regularly of the tiger. He soon began to appear in all her dreams, and they eventually became man and wife in her dreams. After awhile, she gave birth to two tiger sons in her dreams, but she sent them away. She didn't want to admit that she'd had animal children, so she sent them to live with their father. Later, she again got together with the tiger as man and wife in her dreams, and she again had two children two tiger cubs. This time, she kept them.

Shaman Grandmother Indyeka performing healing ceremony inside her homeTika resisted becoming a shaman. She told her father many times that she did not want to be a shaman, because it is a very difficult path. But after he died and his drums, saivens, and other shamanic instruments were passed on to her, the spirits forced her to take up shamanism.(16) She began to hear voices in her dreams insisting that she become a shaman and describing to her what she needed to do, what she needed to wear, and even how to beat the drum. Later, when she performed kamlania, she would travel on the backs of her tiger cubs "to the upperworld and to the lowerworld and to the middleworld in one instant," and they would help her in her work.

The Shaman's Drum

Paramount among the shaman's tools are the drum and drum beater. The single-faced drum, known alternately as umtu, umchu, and umt'hu, may be used both by shamans and by ordinary people; long ago, each villager had his or her own drum. Only the shaman's drum, however, is covered with images of spirit helpers, cut from fish skin and glued to the face of the drum.

The close relationship between the shaman and the drum is made explicit in this brief retelling by Nadyezhda of a legend describing their origin in the time before death came to the people. Interestingly, the legend describes the first shaman as being a woman.

Once there were three suns above this Earth. It was impossible to live, it was so hot. And there were many, many people living on the Earth. There wasn't enough land. There was no way for everyone to live. And so they asked Merghun, the warrior hero, to step up and to shoot down two of the suns. And living there, living from then on, as they did, the people grew, prospered, died. And they decided to choose a person (a woman) to pick up a drum and guide these deceased people to their place in the next world. And that's where the drum came from. That's where the shaman came from. So that there would be someone who could see, in all their terror and glory, the guardian spirits of the heavens and the Earth.

The Ulchi are one of the few Siberian peoples who still use a drum with a flexible backstrap. This type of drum allows for incredibly complex rhythms, as the hand holding the drum can strike it from the back in complex counterpoint to the rhythm played on the front of the drum with the drum beater. The backstrap actually consists of four leather thongs, joined in the center by a metal ring. This ring is said to represent the Earth, while the thongs are considered different paths or roads of the shaman, and the rim of the drum where the spirits sit during the kamlania is considered the cosmos.

The face of the drum is made from a raw skin usually deer or goat attached to a hoop using darpu, a glue made from sturgeon bladder. Darpu is also painted heavily on the front and back of the drum to give it a unique resonant sound. This resonance is further enhanced when the shaman sings directly into the back of the drum, creating almost unearthly sounds.

It was once very common for shamans to have multiple drums, used for different purposes. Today, that practice is less widespread, as shaman's drums are hard to come by. However, Obertina Gavrilovna, known affectionately as Grandmother Yetchka, an Ulchi shaman from another village, has three drums, each used for a different kind of healing.

The drum beater, or geespu, is a flat, curved piece of larch or rowan wood, typically carved along the back with images of the shaman's spirit helpers. Fur from an animal such as an elk or deer is glued onto the flat side, and this fur part is used to strike the drum. The geespu itself is believed to have great curative powers.

Shaman's Regalia

The ceremonial garments of a shaman are representative of his or her unique path. Traditionally, a shaman has a ceremonial jacket or coat, made from leather, fish skin, or cloth, that has either been passed down through the family or made especially for him or her. Usually, the ceremonial jacket will have representations of the shaman's spirit helpers appliquÈed onto it. It also tends to include designs from each of the worlds. In the Ulchi cosmology, dragons and birds usually represent the upperworld, animals such as tigers and bears represent the middleworld, and the crawling animals turtles, frogs, and snakes represent the lowerworld. One shaman wore a ceremonial vest with bird feathers sewn to the shoulder, to help her achieve flight into the heavens.

Shaman Grandmother Nadia back of shaman's coatIn addition, the shaman's garments include a skirt, which usually has symbols of the shaman's protecting spirits tied to it. Small bronze disks, or bronze mirrors, may be sewn around the skirt's waist or fastened to a belt. These provide the shaman protection by deflecting negative spirits.

The shaman will also wear a dayligda, or ceremonial hat, which itself possesses power and which is often specified by the shaman's helping spirits. Some shamans have different hats specific to different types of healings; others have only one. These hats can be made from leather, fish skin, cotton fabric, or sacred streamers. Usually, they will have small, carved saivens sewn to them.

Gimsacha, or sacred streamers, may also be worn by the shaman. When used in headgear or on garments, they are sometimes plaited. The shaman may also wear gimsacha wrapped around the waist, and sometimes around the wrists, forearms, or calves, to afford additional protection. The gimsacha are also used either to repel or entangle unwanted spirits.

The yampa, the shaman's leather dance belt bearing cone-shaped metal bells, has been used since ancient times, when it contained disks of Chinese origin engraved with dragons, tigers, or other designs. The clashing sound of these metal disks or bells is said to drive away evil spirits or other forces that might interfere with the shaman's journey. Helping spirits may ride on the yampa and travel with the shaman during the kamlania. Unwanted spirits, however, are repelled or captured by the bells. For these reasons, the yampa is considered a tool equal in importance to the shaman's drum. In fact, some Ulchi shamans have been known to conduct kamlania without a drum, using only the yampa.

The shaman's regalia also typically includes a bulawu, or shaman's staff, usually of shoulder height. (The name of the village of Bulava came from this word.) Although seldom used during the kamlania, this staff is carried by the shaman whenever he or she travels to another village or house, or even into the taiga. The staff serves as a place for the shaman's personal spirits to "sit" while traveling with the shaman. Designs representing the helping spirits are often carved on this staff, usually with the main helping spirit on the top. Sometimes the designs duplicate those carved on the shaman's drum beater and saivens, for it is believed that the individual spirit recognizes its specific "seat" by the design of the carving.

The shaman's personal saivens which may be worn as amulets on garments or jewelry, or in small pouches are also made in specific styles, so that the spirits will reside within them. Some of these saivens are given to the shaman by his or her helping spirits; others are passed down from generation to generation. Grandmother Tika, for example, wore three main saivens during the kamlania: an upperworld saiven called Adaha, or master, a silver figure in the form of a little man; a saiven of the mountain spirit Kaljamu; and a saiven made of deerskin decorated with snake and dragon designs. She also had a shaman's frontispiece, made of silver, that depicted other spirit helpers from the upper, middle, and lower worlds, and she wore other saivens in a small sack around her neck. Many of her saivens were inherited from her father, and since her death, many of them have passed to Nadyezhda.


Healing, to the Ulchi, remains largely a matter of restoring the proper and respectful relationship between the individual and nature, or the individual and the spirit world. According to the Ulchi world view, all of nature is to be respected. The hunter, for example, must petition the spirits of the taiga with the proper offerings before setting out on the hunt and must never take more than is needed to feed his family. On a personal level, violations of spiritual law are punished through such consequences as ill health or bad luck.

The elders believe that as increasingly large numbers of people today neglect the rituals required by the spirits and forget to give thanks, they encounter not only personal consequences but consequences of a more global nature. Grandfather Misha often said that the great frequency of earthquakes today is due to people cutting down the forests indiscriminately; without the weight of the trees to hold it down, the Earth is becoming lighter and beginning to move and shake. He also spoke of how, in the past, the people gave offerings to the lightning spirits and the cloud spirits, as they had been taught by their elders. Today, this is no longer being done, and catastrophic rains consequently ruin the crops and droughts dry out the plains.

Grandfather also spoke of a prophecy that a time will come when the Earth itself will turn upside down. The living will become dead, and the dead will come to life. Men will turn into women, and women into men. Dogs will become horses, and horses will become other animals.

The Ulchi believe that, to avoid retribution by the spirits, it is essential to carry out the sacred rituals and to give thanks throughout daily life. By so doing and by living with respect and humility people can develop and maintain a balanced relationship with the spirit world that can lead to both personal and planetary healing.


  1. Ulchi is the Russian name for the indigenous Nanee people, or People of the Earth (Na=Earth; nee=people). Both names are in common usage by the people themselves. Similarly, kamlania is the widely known Russian word for the shaman's ceremony; yiyee, meaning "song," is the Ulchi term. All other non-English words in this article are in the Ulchi dialect of the southern branch of the Manchu-Tungus language group.
  2. Some of the translation on my first set of tapes was performed by Karen Lewis, a translator of Russian.
  3. Although Bulava is located roughly in the center of the traditional Ulchi region, today it is populated by a mixture of Ulchi, Russians, and people of other nationalities. The Ulchi people, who number over 2,500, live in villages scattered across their indigenous homeland.
  4. In 1995, there were five remaining elder shamans of the Ulchi people, three of whom lived in Bulava. Since that time, two of the elders in Bulava have died, leaving Nadyezhda and her aunt Wycha to carry on the shamanic duties for the village.
  5. Saivens may take two general forms. They may be carved wooden statues of various sizes embodying totemic animals or guardian spirits, or they may be small representations made from varying materials that are typically worn as amulets on necklaces, in small pouches, or on garments or ceremonial regalia.
  6. The larch, the strongest and tallest tree in the taiga, is believed to have the closest tie to heaven; it is considered the World Tree or the Tree of Life by the Ulchi.
  7. The Bear Festival, or Cult of the Bear celebration, was traditionally held every three years to honor the spirit of the bear, considered sacred by the Ulchi people. In short, the festival involved the ritual sacrifice of a bear that had been hand-raised by a family for the entire three-year period, as well as ceremonial feasting and a period of gaming and competitions. It was believed that when the bear arrived in the other world, it would speak highly of its treatment by the Ulchi, and would thus encourage the game animals to give themselves to the Ulchi in future hunting. Until recently, the last bear sacrifice had been scheduled to be held in 1935, when the ceremony was interrupted by the Soviet government's confiscation of the bear. A few years ago, one more bear was raised and sacrificed in the traditional way, so that the tradition could be preserved on videotape for future generations.
  8. Ulchi cosmology contains three worlds: that in which we live, the heavens, and the lowerworld. There are spirits living in each of these worlds, and the shaman's journey may involve travel in all of them.
  9. There are a male and a female dragon spirit, Ama (Father) Enduree and Unya (Mother) Enduree.
  10. Tobacco, a sacred herb to the Ulchi, was traditionally smoked in pipes, although cigarettes are often substituted today.
  11. By 1996, Grandfather Misha had lost all the sight in one eye and was going blind in the other, due to cataracts. Then David McIntyre, M.D., and his staff at the McIntyre Clinic in Bellevue, WA, generously donated their time and energy to restore Grandfather's sight. The surgery was successful, and Grandfather later presented the doctor and his staff with a kamlania that he performed in their office on their behalf.
  12. Twins and the mother of twins are considered sacred and attributed certain powers, such as a degree of clairvoyance.
  13. The Ulchi consider it taboo to mention the bear directly. Thus, it like the fire is usually referred to as Mapaw, "Old One."
  14. In a ponggachee kamlania, performed for such purposes as divination, the shaman does not use the drum at all but sings holding the gimsacha and uses these to stroke the petitioner.
  15. The Ulchi believe that a person lives three lives in the lowerworld and three lives on Earth. How a person lived in Bunee will determine the form in which he or she is born, whether that be the form of a human, an animal, or an evil spirit.
  16. Upon the death of a shaman, his or her instruments are never destroyed or buried with the body. Instead, either they remain in the family, to be held for future shamans, or they are given to shamans outside the family.

"My brothers, my fathers have not come this way before. I'm here as the first in the place of the big city. I've come here the first of my people. I've crossed the nine mountains to the land where the sun sets. I've crossed the nine mountains and here the trees are different. I cross over the trees. I sing to the trees. I will sit here on the blue cloud. I will sing my song."

Excerpt from Mikhail Duvan's first kamlania in the United States, May 30, 1995