“You are a cow!” Kenin-Lobsam concluded emphatically. “I am also a cow. Based upon the astrological conditions surrounding our births, I can work with you. What can I do for you?”
I had heard that Kenin-Lobsam is the leading academic authority on Shamanism in the Republic of Tuva. Tuva is tucked away in a corner of Siberia, somewhere between Mongolia, Kazakstan, and the Altay mountains. Unlike many similarly remote and impoverished Russian Federation Republics, Tuva has actually achieved some notoriety in the West, thanks largely to several high-profile films and books, and the unusual Tuvinian style of “throat-singing.” Tuva is also the ancient heartland of Shamanism, and it was my hope that Kenin-Lobsam would be able to point me towards some traces of this tradition.
“I would like to learn about Shamanism.”
Kenin-Lobsam gave me an intense and drawn-out stare. He shut his eyes, already partly obscured by masses of straggly grey hair which hung down down his forehead, stuck straight up in the air, and jutted out sideways with mad-professor style. He suddenly broke his gaze with an eccentric shudder as if stopping himself short, and slid a fifty-year-old typewriter front and center on his desk. For the next ten minutes Kenin-Lobsam typed furiously without pause while I sat quietly examining the deer skulls, eagle feathers, and stuffed dolls which decorated his office. Finally, he ripped the paper out and separated three copies from sheets of carbon paper, and spoke.
“Take these and give them to the town’s Shaman.” He shut his eyes again. “They will work with you. Normally we don’t do this for anyone, and when we do, they must pay a lot of money. But, though I don’t know why, I have a good feeling about you and I like you.”
Leaning on a crooked old cane, he shuffled over to a cabinet and removed two enormous stamps and an ink pad. Perhaps a legacy of the seventy years of Soviet obssession with papers, permissions, and bureaucracy, he signed and stamped each copy twice. With just a hint of a smile but no less drama, he formally handed me two of the copies and placed the third in a old file.
“Thank you. I am very honored.” I replied, having no idea what to make of this situation, but thrilled nonetheless.
The next morning I presented my certificate at the gate of one of Tuva’s Shaman societies, and was promptly ushered into a yurt, a nomad’s tent. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed a man sitting casually on a stool in the corner, a cigarrette drooping from his mouth. With such a relaxed and ordinary pose, I scarcely gave a second thought to his chicken feather headdress and horse-hide jacket. He reached over for an ash-tray, the bells strung from his shoulders jingled and enormous bear claw hung from his sleeve. He looked at me with a friendly smile and reached his heavily tattooed arm into his jacket and pulled out a laminated business card:
Society of Tuva Shamans Dungur
Orzak Dugur-Surun Ochur-Oolovich
“Kenin-Lobsam has told me that you can help me try to understand what a Shaman is.”
He laughed. “Well, I am a Shaman. Some of us just have a gift from the Gods, from nature. We are able to communicate especially well with nature and to act as an intermediary between the elements and humans. Sometimes we are even able to invoke the powers of nature.”
His association, Mr. Oolovich went on to explain, was a bit the Shamanic equivalent of a medical clinic. Ordinary people called on him here asking for advice on just about any imaginable topic. Depending upon the problem, Mr. Oolovich could perform a variety of trance-inducing rituals, perhaps revealing some clue to aid diagnosis, or even influencing nature itself. Excessive practice of these rituals has at times resulted in the insanity of many Shamans, and they always involve risk. In exchange, patrons left small donations from which the society survived.
Mr. Oolovich’s explanation was abruptly interrupted when a woman entered through the door of the yurt. From her clothes I deduced that she also believed she had the gift of supernatural communication with nature. She was introduced to me as Nadja Satmizhit-Dorzhujevna and she quickly joined the conversation.
“Recently someone came to me and asked for help with the problem of forest fires we’ve had in Siberia. I contacted the fire department and together we went out to a spring in the forest with a 4x4, under the explicit instructions from my chief not to return until it was raining. Though I’d never performed it before, there I used the ritual of calling water — it was really as if someone else was acting through me. And then we waited. We drank tea. We looked at the sky. We sat and we prayed. By midnight there were a few drops of rain, but then a small moon reappeared and we all got depressed. At 1am I became really embarrassed that I’d called the firemen, and we all rode home in silence. The next morning, I woke up, slowly opened one eye, and looked out the window. It was grey. I crept up to it and looked out properly and saw that it was pouring rain!” she shouted, clapping her hands and laughing. “Such is the magic of the Shaman and our connection with nature. The next day the chief called me and told me that the rain hadn’t reached the south of Tuva and there were more fires down there. I just said to him ‘they have their own Shaman down there and they can do their own work’ and hung up.”
“How can someone become a Shaman?” I asked, as my imagination raced to catalog the personal possibilities it could afford.
“You can’t just become a Shaman. It is a gift which you either have or you don’t,” he explained disappointingly.
“I learned that I was a Shaman when I was in diapers!” exclaimed Nadja, who seemed to be gaining enthusiasm as we went along. “I have always known. I can remember playing in the barn of my grandmother and seeing a little tiny mouse. I moved closer and saw that it had big sharp ears and a nose like a pig. It was a little devil with the most beautiful eyes and it looked straight at me and then disappeared through the wall. I called my friends into the barn and we left bread and water out for it and called for it to come back. But no one else could ever see it.
“These are the sorts of skills we have,” she went on, as she removed a file containing stacks of drawings. “Sometimes I draw, but it isn’t really me drawing these. I just move my hand and this is what comes out.” One after another she showed me pencil sketches of abstract shapes and eerie looking faces. She pointed at a dot on one of the drawings and shrugged. “UFOs?”
As I announced that it was getting time for me to leave, they quickly turned the tables on me, prying loose my birthday from me. “Your element is water. You must talk more to water,” Mr. Oolovich offered. I was embarrassed to ask precisely how one goes about this.
Nadja then showed me a silk doll which she had made from the hair of a bear, and she presented it to me as a gift. “This will protect you from evil” she told me, and then she grabbed my hand, stretched out my fingers, and scrutinized the lines on my palm.
“What can you see in my hand?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t yet studied this science.”
That afternoon I visited a second “Shamanic Medical Clinic,” called Tos Deer. Walking through the front door I passed a European-looking woman who looked fresh off of a one-year stint in Kathmandu. I wondered to myself, was she American or European? She nodded at me as she passed and pointed inside. “Do you work here?” I asked, eager to strike up a conversation.
“Yes. I am Shaman,” she said matter-of-factly and with the utmost earnestness, and she quickly scurried out the door before I could pry any further.
Once again, Kenin-Lobsam’s magical paper got me an audience. This time I was ushered into a small room dominated by loud Western new age music playing on a mini hi-fi. It was empty and I waited patiently scanning the wall decorations, mostly posters advertising Tos Deer’s performances of rituals in Switzerland, and one in English showing publicity photos of all the society’s Shaman — all ethnic Tuvans except for the mysterious “Natalya” whom I had just passed on my way in.
A Tuvan woman marched in, short in height but with an air of authority which made her unmistakably the association’s chief. She sat down on a stool next to me and without any introduction it was straight to business: “What do you want here?” Even as we began I already had the sense of a totally different atmosphere from the very appealing down-to-earth friendliness and infectious enthusiasm of this morning. Tos Deer was obviously the far more “professional” society with many ties to Europe and America — and evidently much better funded. The casual curiosity of an ignorant foreigner was nothing new to them.
“I am interested to learn about Shamanism, and what exactly a Shaman is.”
Without a moment’s pause she began telling of the prohibition of Shamanism under communism and how all of these traditions had been kept alive in secret. Anyone who had discovered that they were a Shaman told very few, and practiced advising and healing only among close friends. But now times had changed, and Kenin-Lobsam founded these socieites in 1991, societies which now practiced the traditions and offered their services.
“But there is no way for me just to tell you what a Shaman is. If you’re really interested, why haven’t you come out into the countryside with us to actually take part in our rituals?” she said with increasing annoyance. “You come here and you ask me to tell you what a Shaman is, but there is no way to explain this to you. You must experience it. I cannot explain why I have these powers, they are simply there!” she said, now shouting at me angrily. I was quite perplexed at her aggression. I had not uttered a further word and her annoyance seemed to me to have had no obvious cause. I surmised that the casual, superifical extent of my inquiry was bothering her; a mere hour of conversation with her and I was attempting to understand such an ancient tradition.
“I have heard that Shaman are intermediaries between nature and humans” I offered, repeating verbatim what I had been told this morning, hopeful of defusing the animosity a bit. But again, this was apparently the wrong thing to say.
“The Shaman is not an intermediary between nature and humans. The Shaman is a part of nature. Therefore that’s not a bad way to describe it. The Shaman simply has these powers — this intuition — the ability to know things and to do things. For example, I can see immediately that you are a person who is fighting with yourself. Maybe you are kind, but you have no peace with yourself.” This was surely a psychological evaluation performed with record-shattering speed, and I was again bewildered at how an innocent question (at least to me) could elicit such a fiery response.
I patiently heard her out as she broadened the topic. “Western civilization is destroying the soul of man. Western countries have lost this soul entirely. Western women give birth to invalids.” I wondered if her smart looking Teva sandals from Arizona endangered her spitirual well-being. The facetiousness of this thought made me momentarily terrified that her special abilities included mind-reading.
As I listened to her diatribe, I did concede that one thing which she had said was certainly true — it would take much more than a few days for me to understand what Shamanism was all about and this conversation certainly wasn’t bringing me any further. Should I politely thank her for her time? She beat me to putting an end to the conversation, finallying concluding, “Perhaps a Shaman is someone who can’t explain what a Shaman is.” Finally she cracked a little smile and turned around and went rummaging through a stack of Cher and Celine Dion CDs until she came upon one without a label. “This is a gift for you. It is a recording of me singing during one of our rituals. Please take it.” The gesture gave me some much needed relief but the encounter had still left me utterly dumbfounded. I thanked her and began to head for the door.
“What people really need here is hope. The Shaman gives them this.” I was surprised by the psychological as opposed to spiritual nature of her parting comment and it struck me perhaps more than anything else which she had said.
I went back to Kenin-Lobsam and found him sitting at his desk poring over newspaper clippings, just as I had left him the previous day. I wanted first to thank him, and then to confess that I felt I had merely scratched the surface. I still didn’t have any real idea of what Shamanism was all about.
“Come back next year. Spend a week here with us. We will go into the countryside and meet more Shaman. Bring a movie camera.”
Maybe I will.