Journey to Meet the Last Shaman of the Mi’kmaq

Tsimshian Indian shamanPhoto:
Bini, a Tsimshian Indian shaman / (British Columbia, Canada)
Photo –

Many years ago, the author and a close friend took a summer road trip from New England (USA) through the Canadian Maritime provinces. The vehicle was a ‘trip’ unto itself, a 1950s Studebaker whose rocker arms were shot. The only way we made it around the Gaspé Peninsula was to race down the hill road we were on at highest speed, then floor the accelerator as climbing the next hill began. We cursed and prayed, and eventually ferried ourselves over to Prince Edward Island, the smallest province in Canada – and one that lacks steep small mountains.

Afternoon on Prince Edward Island

Yupik shaman / AlaskaPhoto:
Yupik shaman, exorcising evil / Nushagak, Alaska 1890s
Photo – Carpenter, Frank G. (Frank George) Yksin / Wikipedia

One afternoon on the west end of Prince Edward Island, driving down a lovely country road, I spotted a sign for an Indian village tourist attraction. There was one old car in the small parking lot and no one visible as I pulled in, parked and got out to take a stroll.

Mi’kmaq man (Canada), 1859
Photo – Library and Archives Canada

A late middle-aged man in his 60s soon appeared. His clothing was a costume designed to attract attention in which most items were Plains Indian objects and attire. He introduced himself as a Mi’kmaq shaman and we sat down on a log bench. Fortuitously only one visitor appeared during the next four hours. We ‘talked story’ for most of that time, and it was a sad, mythic tale of a culture lost that could now never be retrieved. I deliberately took no notes or photographs, and I no longer remember the name of this last shaman.

Mi’kmaq Wigwams / Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1857
Photo – Library and Archives Canada

The first recorded contact with the Mi’kmaq people on Prince Edward Island was a visit by the famous French Explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534. In addition to Epegoitg – Prince Edward Island – the Mi’kmaq historically occupied Nova Scotia, eastern and northern New Brunswick, parts of the Gaspe Peninsula (Quebec), and northern New England. Mi’kmaq cultural integrity had been destroyed by 1800. Luckily, the Algonquin language spoken by the Mi’kmaq people had withered but not died out. There is only one publication where a native Mi’kmaq talks about his people’s culture before European contact and there are no photographs or prints of Mi’kmaq shamans that the author is aware of.

Mi’kmaq family / Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
Photo – retrorocketrick / flikr

This last shaman described himself as the last of two full blood Mi’kmaqs alive at this time. The other was a long time friend, a woman, then living in Quebec city, whom he had not visited for several years. He spun a tale of great pathos, his sadness was deep and at times it seemed overwhelming. He fully knew that his time was ending, and with his death and that of his friend in Quebec, the people would pass over a boundary from which there could be no return. The last of Mi’kmaq culture would further shatter into fragments, or be consigned to a closet of academic artifacts. I was witness to someone who was pre-occupied by death, the death of a language and rituals, and the closing of a door upon one more indigenous people whose time should have been always timeless.

We talked for nearly three hours and I left feeling haunted, knowing that another hole in the universe would soon be opened. The deaths and causalities of these holes are an immortality and as history marches forward, they multiply.

Koryak (Kamchatka) shamanPhoto:
Koryak (Kamchatka) shaman dancing with drum / dance troupe
Photo – Kasten 1966 / (Russia)


Tribal shamanism originated in central and northern Asia (Siberia) during the Upper Paleolithic. Following the herds of megafauna eastward toward the rising sun, Siberian indigenous peoples migrated over the Bering Straits Land Bridge and brought shamanism to a new world.

Neither a religion nor a cult, shamanism is a precisely defined protocol. If learned correctly, it catalyzes out of body, spirit journeys in which the soul can leave the physical body and journey into the Dreamtime, meet and talk story with gods and ancestors. The larger objective is to learn more, to increase one’s reservoir of valuable knowledge so as to better serve the clan. Healing, predicting important events that have yet to arrive from the future time track of the universe, and decisions about auspicious days for important events – war, hunting, marriage, etc. – are at the top of any shaman’s obligations.

Koryat (Siberia) shamanPhoto:
Koryat (Siberia) female shaman w/ children
Photo – Jochelson / Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1905 (430pp, 32MB)

Shamans were, and are, unusual individuals in that they possess a heightened and uncommon ability to undertake spiritual journeys to the world of the gods. Shamanic journeys are literally out of body; the shaman’s spirit leaves his/her body and travels through time and space to the gods/spirits/ancestors who are often called ‘masters’ with good reason. The Spirit talks, listens and learns and then returns to the everyday dimensionality of time and space where it reintegrates with the shaman’s physical body and pre-existing mind. A more powerful teacher and healer is then available to the clan. The power accessed by capable shamans is very strong and capable of rendering an individual permanently insane in a worst case scenario. The god or clan choose candidates very carefully and the training is extremely rigorous.

Koryat (Kamchatka) shamanPhoto:
Koryat (Kamchatka) shaman
Photo – Jochelson / Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1905 (430pp, 32MB)

Shamanism is the protocol; assigning a name to the religion it serves is tricky because the religion will be different in different culture regions. Because everything in the universe possesses spirit energy, the masters, guides and personal totemic relationships that each shaman develops are not restricted to animals. The number and strength of these relationships determines the power that each shaman can access, and most importantly the strength of his/her healing practice.

Strikingly in some tribal cultures, these powerful entities to which the shaman must be attached live in a land beneath the Sun which carries the name of the Pleiades. The out-of body-spirit journey takes the shaman’s soul to the Pleiades where these multidimensional ancestors teach. Often a key ritual in the formation of shaman is the stripping of all flesh from the body, to separate all bones in the skeleton and then rebuild the skeleton as the first event when masters construct a shaman.

Nganasan / DenmimePhoto:
Nganasan / Denmime’s shaman mask, 1977
When in ritual, some exceptional shamans were possessed by a spiritual force so strong that clan members would be injured if able to look upon the shaman’s face. Hence he/she would wear a complicated headdress/mask that hid the eyes and facial features.
Photo – Folklore (Estonia) / A Lintrop

Tribal shamanism survives the longest with indigenous peoples who live in the most inhospitable climates that contain few resources of interest to western mining and industry: the taiga and tundra of Central Asia, Siberia and Scandinavia; the Arctic; a few pockets deep in the Amazon; Maya and Indians of Mexico/Central America; and those Australian Aborigines who are most isolated. This list is not complete and shamanism is not extinct in the 21st century. Archetypal shamanism is tribal and as a rule one cannot become tribal if one is not born to it. There are rare exceptions of course, and all of us were indigenous and tribal if one’s family history is traced far enough back in historical time.

Gitksan shaman, 1909Photo:
Gitksan shaman, Kispiox, British Columbia (Canada), 1909
Photo – RL65 / George Thornton Emmons Collection no. 131 / Wikipedia

Dig the ground, dynamite the rock and sell the iron, or copper or uranium; cut the forest and sell the lumber; ranch the denuded land for beef and profit; plant the land and sell the crop, the hell with biodiversity and beautiful, odd and expendable creatures; alcohol to enslave; capture the people and sell slaves and prostitutes. Finally, put the shaman’s drum in a museum case. The all too familiar religion of the invaders has been present a long time and embraced by many. We know the story of the First World’s Collision and domination over the Third World.

Oroqen (China) / female shamanPhoto:
Oroqen (China) / female shaman
Photo – Lissner-Man, God and Magic / Don’s Maps

Try to counter cultural imperialism and genocide with tears, money, artisan cooperatives, doctors, schools, solar energy, clean water, micro-economics, job training, ecotourism, and a smaller, sustainable agriculture. Everywhere they live, indigenous peoples are profoundly energized. “The Last Wave”, “Rabbit Proof Fence” and “Ten Canoes” are about what they seem to be about. The New Story has only begun to be written. Can you hear the renewed shaman’s drum?

Solon (Mongolia) / shamans wearing tiger bellsPhoto:
Solon (Mongolia) / shamans wearing tiger bells
Photo – Vienna Ethnological Museum

Tungus (Siberia) shamanPhoto:
Tungus (Siberia) shaman
Photo – Lissner – Man, God and Magic / Don’s Maps

Sources –
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 7 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14