Medicine Man Art

Medicine Man Art  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Inc.

The figure is haunting and surreal.  It’s a 19th century Northwest Coast carved-wood, Tlingit shaman seated on a base of a frog.  The red-painted medicine man in the basketry cap holds a serpent with an animal head clutched to his chest. 

The significance of the figure is a mystery.   

In most Native traditions the shaman is a larger-than-life character said to possess supernatural powers.  He was and is a blend of myth, magic and reality, a medium between the spirit world and the human world.  A figure of great power.

The shaman could bring on the rains and see into the future.  He dispelled negative energy and mended souls.  He talked with the living and also the dead.

In Tlingit mythology the shaman was also a protector.  He fought the Kushtaka—an evil spirit-being, half human and half land otter. 

Everything is alive for the shaman and carries information.  To communicate with the spirit of things, the shaman shifts his consciousness. 

He fought for the souls of the dying in the age old battle between good and evil.

The Tlingit tribe lives in Southeast Alaska.  Among the people, it’s the grandmother who usually holds and hands down the tribe’s culture, traditions and customs.  Tales of Kushtaka and the hero’s journey abound in her stories. 

“In this world, boundaries between the animal and human realms were blurred, said Mary Giraudo Beck in her book “Shamans and Kushtakas.”   “The early Tlingit or Haida (bordering tribe) could hear an omen in the hoot of an owl, or a chilling curfew in the croak of a raven.”

Usually male but sometimes female, the shaman inherited his gift from a shaman uncle or by being “called” to the role.  Shamanism is not a religion.  It has been and is still being practiced by peoples of religions from Christianity, to Judaism, to Hinduism. 

In a nutshell, everything is alive for the shaman and carries information.  To communicate with the spirit of things, the shaman shifts his consciousness. 

He does it through meditation, repetitive sounds such as a drum or rattle, or through the help of plants.  He then "sees" through new eyes.  The shift of consciousness allows the free part of his soul to leave the body.  He can then go and retrieve information for the healing and growth of a person.

Like other Indians in their region, the Tlingit were excellent carvers.  Their most valuable wood was red cedar. 

Whole canoes were carved from a single tree.  Totem poles were also carved from cedar as well as many three-dimensional items like the carved shaman figure described as well as bowls, rattles, spoons, bowls, clubs and dance batons.

Almost all were decorated with animal and crest designs.  Some were painted with a simple design.  Other designs were carved directly on the pieces.

Tlingit homes were filled with art. Art was so common to the tribe that large portions of museum collections of Northwest Coast art came from the Tlingit.

On May 15, Skinner Auctioneers featured a selection of Tlingit and other Northwest Coast Indian pieces in its American Indian & Ethnographic Art. 

Totem Pole; on round base with avian, animal and amphibian totems; circa 1900; bears stamp; 16 ¼ inches high;  $1,896. 

Wood Paddle; carved and painted with stylized animal and avian designs; circa 1900; 52 inches high;  $2,370.

Totem Pole; Argillite; stylized human and animal forms; late-19th century; signed; 15 ½ inches high;  $2,844.

Shaman Figure; Tlingit; carved and painted wood; last quarter 19th century; 8 ½ inches high;  $7,110.

Wood Bowl; carved; in the form of a seal; the head with early Russian trade bead eyes; early-19th century; 11 inches high;  $33,180.

Wood Finial; Tlingit; carved and painted; second half 19th century; 20 inches high;  $66,360.  

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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