Transformation and Shamanism

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

© AMNH / Denis Finnin


When A Bear Becomes Human

"Too-Large the Thunderbird lifted at once the jaw of his Thunderbird mask, and said, 'O, brother! We are people.'"
 —from a Kwakwaka'wakw myth

In traditional Native Northwest Coast belief, humans and animals can change forms—a killer whale transforms into a wolf, for instance, or a bear becomes a person. At their homes, animals shed their skins, revealing that they are human beings underneath.

Transformations also may happen as a spirit moves between the realms of the universe—from the ocean or sky to the land. Many families today still trace their ancestry to powerful figures in the animal kingdom, such as bears, killer whales, and eagles.

Shaman's Necklace
Donald Gregory (Tlingit)


Among human beings, shamans are especially gifted at transforming in order to move between realms. In the past, shamans healed the sick; helped bring success in hunting, fishing, or war; and worked for spiritual balance in the community. By traveling to the spirit world, shamans could call upon spirit-helpers to aid them in recovering lost or afflicted souls. Shamanism was driven into decline by missionaries in the early 1900s, yet some shamanic practices remain alive today.

Contacting the Spirit World

A healing ritual, the shaman's most important task, began with the noise of drums and rattles, which built to a crescendo to attract the spirits. The curing practices varied depending on the malady. Some diseases were said to arise when the patient's spirit left his body. The shaman could go into a trance, travel to the spirit world and use a soul catcher to capture the wayward spirit and return it to the patient.