Martin Pallot talks to Jan Van Ysslestyne about her book ‘Spirits from the Edge of the World’.
Martin: First of all, can you tell us something of how you first came to meet and know the Grandparents whose voices fill this book and what brought you to make this study?
Jan: After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev implemented perestroika (economic reform) and glasnost (openness). This allowed Russian citizens to obtain their own passports for the purpose of free travel outside their own nation. In 1993 I hosted a man, Viktor Bondarenko, who came to the United States in order to make contact with our local museums for the purpose of sharing an exhibition of original artefacts from the Manchu-Tungus speaking tribes of Eastern Siberia. He came and presented a series of lectures about these people in my bookstore and gallery in Seattle, Washington. I was so intrigued that I asked him when he returned to Russia might he speak with the peoples themselves in the hope that we could actually have them travel to the United States. It was one thing to look at their artefacts and hear the stories of these people but I wanted to meet them in person. When Viktor returned home, he helped set up the first trip for members of these tribes to the Pacific Northwest in the United States.
Martin: In one of her commentaries, Grandmother Nadia refers to the people of today being in need of ‘ecology of the soul’. Can you explain what she meant by that for a western reader?
Jan: Now human ecology is defined as the relationship between people and their natural environments. The philosophy of the Ulchi is founded in the form of archaic Taoism (called the Doro) which defines nature, not unlike the Chinese word Ziran (nature). The word literally means spontaneous and freely responding within the natural course of events. Ecology of the soul would be best understood as reminding people to return to their natural state and to live in harmony with nature inherent in the principles of natural law.
Martin: Later, you give an account of Grandmother Nadia referring to the ‘electric people’ in the home; the microwave, refrigerator, etc. and her reference to ‘all types of spirits in the home’ – a concept that some in the west might have difficulty with. How do the Ulchi approach and deal with these spirits?
Jan: I am often bemused by people who call themselves animist but either reject or ignore the fact that this is inclusive of everything that exists. Everything has consciousness (self-awareness). This ‘consciousness’ may be different from human understanding but it is nevertheless self-aware. The Shinto practitioners of Japan still have facilities where old electronics and other items are taken so that the souls of the ‘electric people’ are released to reincarnate into new electric devices. Because the Ulchi believe that humans grew out of nature everything created by people from stone tools to computers is alive, animate and has a soul. All types of spirits are always traveling and going hither and yon in this world; spirits are not unlike people who have rich and complex personalities, proclivities and behaviour. They have their own families, work, hobbies and interests but there are different types of spirits. There are spirits who are eternal like the sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, seas and other natural landscapes and those spirits who have taken up human form in the past but now reside in the other parallel worlds adjacent to us. Their ideas of spirits are very complex. All spirits, no matter their form or uniqueness, must be treated like welcomed guests and food offerings are always given when a person is aware of their presence. Spirits are always around us and interacting with us whether we are aware of them or not.
Martin: With regard to the Ducks, small fish and the Rainbow who came to witness Grandfather Misha’s offerings and song to the water spirits on his visit to the Pacific Northwest and Lake Washington …. Are there any other examples of this kind of interaction you can share with us?
Jan: In the book, I give a few more examples of how my Ulchi teachers interacted with nature and their natural surroundings. I have always been sceptical when it comes to esoteric teachings and truth claims. I am an “I’ll believe it when I see it” type of person. Suffice it to say that to observe and participate with my teachers was a wonder to behold.
Martin: You tell us of the Stalinist era and the ‘purges’ of Shaman in the 1930s. As well as the false spying accusations, imprisonment and execution of Shaman. I have heard that the authorities, in other areas, also ‘confiscated’ or stole the Shamans Drums, tools and artefacts to prevent them practicing their healing, etc. Did the Ulchi shaman face this as well and how did they find ways to continue, as they obviously did, their work for the people?
Jan: The various Siberian tribes experienced the shaman purges in different ways especially those in the Western region of the former Soviet Union. One of the more notorious stories recorded was an agent from the secret police who would travel into Western Siberian villages posing as a foreign traveller in the region. He would feign illness and the local people would take him to a shaman for help to cure his malady. Once he could identify the local shaman of the region, he would execute the shaman and take the shaman’s drum as a trophy back to his home. It was reported by his relatives, after his death, that over two dozen drums were found in his apartment. Because the Ulchi are a small populated group in a very remote eastern region, the Soviet authorities were either ignorant or unconcerned about having their boot on the neck of Ulchi shamans. Yes, they would go into the Ulchi villages and demand that the practicing shamans be prohibited from working in the fishing cooperatives but as soon as the authorities would leave the region any dictates from the government officials were ignored.
Martin: You say towards the end of this fascinating book that the young people of the Ulchi are losing touch with their language and dream teachings, although the Spirits still seem to be trying to connect with them. Can you foresee any kind of hopeful future for a return to understanding and do you think your book and researches might play a part in that?
Jan: This particular book was written for both the Ulchi people as well as people in Western societies. Language is everything for within it lays the structure of how people perceive the reality of existence. We all know that how the world is explained to us is not the world as it is. Within any ancient language lies the foundation of the culture and its teachings. The Ulchi elders are sad concerning the loss of the language by their youth. This is true for many other indigenous peoples throughout the world. The shamanic teachings in the dream world are taught in the Ulchi language to their youth but if they don’t understand their own native tongue, they will not understand the path. Currently, in the school systems of the Ulchi territories, the Ulchi language is being taught from first grade on. Hopefully, the Ulchi youth will recover their native tongue in time.
Martin: Do you think, or would you like to see your book perhaps used as a guide by Westerners seeking their own Shamanic path or is it solely a remembrance and record of an ancient way of life the world is losing?
Jan: As far as a guide for Westerners the book is a rich repository of practices, beliefs and ideas about the shamanic path. No matter the form that Westerners choose to explore the teachings, the book will add a more detailed and nuanced explanation to the specifics of the practice. Grandmother Nadia and Grandfather Misha would always encourage Western students of shamanism to go and explore other traditions until they found a solid practice that spoke to their heart. Once that occurred then live the practice. The world will never lose this ancient way of life as long as people continue to live the teachings and preserve them.
Martin: You say that the information in your book is “just the tip of the iceberg” … Is there any chance that more might be revealed in the future?
Jan: This path of Ulchi shamanism is deep and complex and the rabbit hole that leads to wonderland is a lifetime journey. My next book will include details of the practice as taught to me by the last shamans of the Ulchi culture. It will be an amalgamation of what I teach to groups and private individuals.
Jan Van Ysslestyne, M.A. is a fluent speaker of the Manchu-Tungus language spoken by the Ulchi culture. She lectures through the University of Washington, Burke Museum, Antioch and Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington. She is a contributing author to the book First Fish, First People, Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim, University of Washington Press and teaches both individuals and groups the foundational practices of Classical Siberian shamanism. Her current focus on the pre-technical medical practices of indigenous cultures of south-eastern Siberia is in translation including a definitive primer of the practices and methods.
This article featured in Issue 40 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in April 2019.