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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Soul Catcher
Bear Femur, Abalone Shell & Hide Cordage, 6 ⅝” Length, c.1870
Tlingit Soul Catcher
Tlingit Soul Catcher
Tlingit Soul Catcher

"Soul Catcher" is the name applied to a type of shamanic amulet carved in this typically carved as a tube with slightly flaring ends, adorned with a symmetrical relief-carving representing a shaman’s clan crest emblems and/or his spiritual helpers.

A Soul Catcher would be worn around the neck with the attached cord and was employed in a spiritual journey of soul recovery. Illness or other forms of imbalance were attributed to spirit intervention or possession, and it was the job of the shaman to travel to the spirit world to recover the ‘lost soul’ of his patient. The amulet was used to contain the captured soul within it, plugged in place with wads of shredded cedar bark or other material, and return the lost soul to the living world and its rightful owner.

Carved by master artists, Soul Catchers reflect the best of the conventions and traditions of the Northwest Coast two-dimensional design system. Others, possibly including this example, were most likely carved by the shamans themselves, who may or may not have been taught the detailed conventions of the northern coast art form. Nonetheless, the piece displays the powerful diverging symmetry of the twin-profile classical format, in a more personal carving and design style.

The design work on Soul Catchers, as seen here, was frequently embellished with iridescent abalone shell pieces inlaid into the bone surface to represent teeth and to highlight design elements as desired by the carver. A profile animal head, a common theme, adorns each end of this object, suggestive of wolves or possibly sea lions, though only the original owner and carver would have known their true identities. At the center, a humanoid bear cub crouches with a bold appearance and subtle sculpture in its face, possibly representing one of the shaman-owner’s helping spirits, known as "yeik" in the Tlingit language.


Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008