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Impearls: HIC 2.11: Legal status of the shaman

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Legal status of the shaman   by A. L. Kroeber

Shaman's fees for the treatment of disease were very high, as the examples previously given indicate.  Shamans are said to have frequently urged their female relatives to try to acquire “pains” — shamanistic powers — because wealth was easily got thereby.  The rule was for payment to be tendered with the invitation to cure.  Usually some negotiation followed.  The doctor held out for more; but being legally obliged to go was apt to plead indisposition or illness of her own.  The offer was then increased, the pay being actually shown, it appears, and, reaching a satisfactory figure, was accepted, and the shaman went on her visit.  Acceptance, however, implied cure, and if this was not attained the entire amount must be returned to the patient or his relatives.  This was the old law; but the Karok state that American physicians' example has in recent years caused the practice to spring up of the shaman retaining a small part of her fee as compensation for her time and trouble.

Usually the patient felt improved and the doctor returned claiming a cure.  If a relapse followed, she was summoned and came again, receiving a small fee.  In strict logic, she should have served for nothing, the patient not having received the complete cure that was tacitly contracted for; but a new effort being involved, there seems to have been some concession to this.  The principle is analogous to that which compels a widower to pay a small sum for his second wife, who replaces the first.  It is as if the law recognized the equity of partially distributing the loss in cases that are in their nature beyond human agency.  This is a mitigating influence that contrasts rather strangely and somewhat pleasingly with the remorseless rigor of the main tenor of Yurok law.

It is a common belief of the Yurok that some shamans would extract one of the pains from a sick person, thus effecting a temporary improvement in his condition, but deliberately leave another within him, in order to be paid for a second treatment.  Other shamans sometimes accused them of such malpractice, declaring they could see the remaining pain.  It is very characteristic that the Yurok and their northwestern neighbors think in such cases of the shaman's motives as greed, the other California Indians almost invariably as malice.

On the other hand, the law-spinning inclination of the Yurok is manifest in their absolute rule that a shaman who had declined to visit a patient was liable, in the event of his death, even after treatment by another shaman, for the full fee tendered her, or even a little more.  Only a conflicting case, or genuine sickness of the shaman herself, was ground for an attempt on the shaman's part to evade this liability.  The argument was that if the fee had been accepted and treatment extended, the sick person might not have died.  Hence the liability was complete up to the amount which the patient's family were ready to offer in his behalf.  A Karok shaman who had attained some reputation by once appearing to die and then returning to tell of her experiences in the other world, subsequently laid herself open to a claim for not attending a sick person and refused to settle it.  The kinsmen of her prospective but deceased patient thereupon waylaid her in the brush and choked her to death.  Many a central and south California doctor has met this fate: but his supposed misconduct was intent to kill, as evidenced by failure to cure.  The northwesterners took satisfaction because a claim for damages was not met.

It is said that people were bewitched not only by shamans hungering for fees and by avowed foes, but sometimes by mere enviers, who hoped to see a rich man's wealth gradually pass from him to his physicians.

A Karok of Katimin began to suffer with headache, and accused a woman of having bewitched him.  Doubtless there was ill feeling between them.  He formally voiced his complaint to her brother.  The family conferred and offered him three strings as damages.  He refused the amount as insufficient, and they, feeling that a sincere effort at reparation had been slighted, announced that they would henceforth be inivashan, enemies.  Since that time the families have not spoken.

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