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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Shaman's Figures
Wood, Paint & Human Hair, 6½" Height (not including hair) c.1820-1840

Tlingit shamans employed a number of ritual objects to assist in their healing and divination processes. Masks, amulets, rattles, drums, and small human or spirit figures like the group illustrated here all found use in shamanistic rituals.

Some shaman figures were intended to represent the shaman himself and included a miniature set of masks the same as the typical set of eight that each shaman possessed and employed in their work.

These represented the various personal spirits that each shaman made and kept contact with throughout their lives and which they called upon for assistance in their rituals. Other figures represented the spirits themselves, each one differing according to the appearance of the individual spirits.

This set of four spirit images shows a distinct relation of each to the other in terms of their size, physical composition, and painted decoration. Each is carved in a traditionally Tlingit style, particularly noticeable in the sculpture of the faces. Wide eyebrows with protruding noses and lips are typical of many Tlingit shaman’s masks, and these features are prominently on display here. The expressions and mouth detail of each figure differs and represents each spirit as individuals who are related by identical costume and coloration.

The use of human hair in these figures is particularly striking, as it is an elder’s gray hair, which further projects the group into that realm between life anddeath which is the dominion of the shaman’s calling.

In actual usage, the figures could be placed on the affected area and assist in drawing the offending malevolent spirit from the patient’s body. Sometimes they were left with a patient following a ritual healing in order to maintain spiritual contact with the shaman and better effect a cure.