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Impearls: HIC 3.11: Disease and witchcraft

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Disease and witchcraft   by A. L. Kroeber

The function of shamans is to diagnose in a condition of clairvoyance into which dancing and smoking the pipe has brought them; to manipulate the patient; and to cure by sucking out his pain.  They do not ordinarily employ herbs or medicaments, these being reserved as the physical basis of the rituals of which formulas are the central feature.  The pipe is the shaman's chief apparatus; she also wears strings of feathers from the two masses of her hair, and a maple-bark skirt.  Her song may be learned in her original dream; the words she is said to improvise.

Disease is caused in various ways.  The breaking of a taboo or ceremonial regulation often makes illness, but such is perhaps most often treated by another ceremony or a formula.

Shamans themselves make people sick in order to earn fees.  They perhaps smoke during the night, then address their pipe, saying:  “So and so, I wish you to become ill.”  When called to treat such a man, they are likely to leave at least one pain in him, that after this has grown they may be summoned with another fee.

Then there are people who have learned or bought a mysterious thing called uma'a, with which they destroy those whom they envy or hate.  The possessors of such charms seem also to be called uma'a.  Sometimes this thing is put on the end of a little arrow which is shot, at night from a distance, from a miniature bow at the house of the victim, one of whose inmates soon sickens.  At times an uma'a can be seen at night, traveling on his nefarious errand.  He may be carrying his charm concealed under his arm, but the thing is strong, breaks out, and is visible as sparks or a bluish light that shoots or rises and falls.  If this enter a man, he is likely to sleep into his death.  Some shamans, however, can suck it out.

Another cause of disease is a sort of poison called ohpok, compounded of crushed dog flesh, salamander larva, frog, or rattlesnake.  This is put into the victim's food, care being taken that it reaches only him, and that any residue is destroyed.  For a whole year he continues in apparent health; but when the same season comes around, he sickens, as the poison grows in him.  Strong shamans can see and extract the ohpok by the customary means.

Upunamitl is a greatly dreaded swelling or choking of organs, due to an internal growth, but is perhaps to be interpreted as being to the Yurok a physiological process, since it appears itself to be caused by witchcraft, breach of taboo, and perhaps other influences.

The Yurok also fear what they call sa'atl or sa'aitl, dwarf-like spirits who haunt overgrown spots in creeks, and the like.  Sometimes a bark is heard from such a place when no dog is about.  Then one stops his ears with his fingers and runs off.  Nor is water drunk from such streams.  The word sa'aitl is probably connected with so'o, “ghost” or “skeleton,” and o-sa'ai-wor, “his shadow.”

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