Shamans, Prophets and Christ

From the Tsimshian and Their Neighbors of the North Pacific Coast, edited by Jay Miller and Carol M. Eastman, Universty of Washington Press 1984, pgs 137- 138, Tsimshian Religion in Historical Perspective, Shamans Prophets, & Christ. Jay Miller

Aboriginal religon focused on the crucial concept of Haleyt augmented by that of naxnox. Vastly simplifying, haleyt refers to controlled supernatural power expressed through simulations of desired state, while naxnox is unwieldy supernatureal power associated with chiefly might, antisocial acts, and distinctive tendencies intended to instill fear into the onlookers. Haleyt had continuous, legitimate usage, while naxnox was limited to masked performance and dramatic events held during the winter season.

During initital stages of Euro-Canadian intrusion, these concepts were challenged and demeaned. In their defense, making the concepts more acceptable to the Evangelical Christianity that eventually superceded them;. Of these prophets, the most famous was Bini, a Carrier Athapaskan who founded a line of imitators who also used his name. While accounts of Bini among the Tsimshian have yet to appear of print, Jennes (1943:550-59) discusses him within the Carrier context as the younger brother of Sistyel and nephew of Sami, earlier prophets. Some of the appeal of Bini related to his position as chief of the Beaver phratry, strengthened further when he gave a large potlach to dedicate his Fireweed totem pole at Bulkley Canyon. In fact, during his life he was best known as Dwiis, the Beaver chiefly name, only taking hte name Bini, and later Samtelesa, after successive visits to the sky. He died about 1870, apparently from water - which he used for curing - that had been poisoned.

At present all of the older Tsmshian and many of the younger ones are devout Christians, the result of missionary work by William Duncan, Thomas Crosby, and others less well known. With their conversion, the Tsimshian came to publicly reject their previous beliefs as pagan and, as they say, "low class." Their native medicoreligious specialist were hounded into abandoning their practice by accusations that they were in league with the devil. Even now with a reawakened appreciations of their past greatness, the accepted translation of the word "swansk" (shaman, Indian Doctor) is "witch doctor" or "devil worker". Of all the Tsimshian, only the Gitksan, somewhat insulated by their interior homeland, continue to recognize and patronize shamans who derive their power from the Christian God and who practice a Christianized shamanism.

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