Shaman's Belt

Shaman's Belt

Leather shaman’s belt with amulets

Consisting of a middle strip in dark skin bordered by lighter coloured skin. Seventeen (17) ivory or bone figures hang are sewn to the middle strip. A light coloured skin thread is embroidered around the figures in a criss-cross wave pattern. Six (6) amulet figures dangle from either the front or the back of the leather belt and are fastened with dark leather strips. Of these figures three (3) are bone or ivory, two (2) are ivory, and one (1) is stone. The end is marked with an effigy of a human head, and by a leather loop at the other end, probably for fastening.

The belt comes from Hershel Island in the Yukon and was originally owned by Bishop Issac O. Stringer. It was used by an Inuvialuit shaman before the turn of the 20th century. Attached to the belt are amulets and effigies which could be call upon during a shaman's duties and rituals. Shamans on Hershel Island were a vibrant component of Inuvialuit culture up until Christianity took a foothold in the community.

The Inuvialuit shaman was deemed to have supernatural powers and assisted his people in the matter of illness, the hunt, and winter survival but was also called upon during any serious social crisis. The Inuvialuit believed in two coexisting worlds, the physical world and the spiritual world. These realms existed in the same space and time but the spiritual realm could only be entered by a shaman. A shaman's mystical powers were far reaching allowing the shaman to take another form, converse with animals and watch events as an invisible but omnipresent observer.

It was widely believed that when the universe was at peace, good fortune would come to the Inuvialuit. The cause of starvation, bad weather and illness was usually caused by unhappy spirits who would hide the food or send sickness and ill fortune to the people. The shaman would have to rectify the situation by placating the spirit world. When required the shaman would enter the spirit world. There he could track down animal spirits guides, retrieve souls, battle with other shaman, or visit Inuvialuit myth figures to restore peace in the universe. Amulets and effigies helped the shaman to contact these spirits when needed.

This belt was collected by Isaac Stringer on Hershel Island a small island located in the Beaufort Sea above the 69th parallel. When Bishop Isaac Stringer went to Hershel Island in 1893 the inhabitants consisted of Inuvialuit peoples and American whalers who had a corrupting effect on the indigenous peoples of the area. Bishop Stringer first act of business was to stop the licentious activities the whalers inflicted on the native population such as alcohol consumption and the misuse of Inuvialuit woman. Although Bishop Stringer found his work slow and often discouraging, he did manage to achieve some change and had a fair following by the time of his departure in 1901.

The Inuvialuit, like the Inuit live in the north of Canada. The Inuvialuit people are from the region of the Alaskan border to the western edge of Canadian arctic islands west of the Inuit lands. 'Inuvialuit' means "real human being" as they considered the people to the east to be more barbaric then themselves. There are three distinctions of Inuit peoples, the Inuit, the Inuvialuit, and the Inuipiat of Alaska. All are believed to be descendents of the Thule people that crossed Beringia, the prehistoric land bridge connecting Siberia to Canada.

A traditional Inuvialuit story dating from the late 20th century gives an example of a shaman's powers. "The Inuvialuit first noticed Nunatamiut (Alaskan Inuit) moving through the Mackenzie Delta. They were afraid that the Nunatamuit would discover the excellent hunting offered by the Bluenose caribou herd east of the river, so an Inuviauit shaman diverted the herd so that it could not be found. Unfortunately, he hid it too successfully and it was many years before the animals returned to their former haunts". This version of this story is gathered from the Canadian Museum of Civilization website and the work of Dr. David Morrison.


Old Log Church Museum, Whitehorse

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