Jan Van Ysslestyne – shaman, author, friend of the Ulchi people

It is with the deepest regret and sadness that I have to share that Jan Van Ysslestyne passed away unexpectedly in early June this year. Jan’s devotion to the Ulchi people and her determination to create ways for their history to be retold and remembered was ‘beyond passion’ as evidenced by her amazing book Spirits from the Edge of the World as well as her articles. Indie Shaman was fortunate in publishing Jan’s fantastic article Spirits in a Foreign Land in our April 2021 magazine (Issue 48) as well as an interview with Jan and her article Shamanism of the Ulchi in edition 40 back in 2019.

Jan Van Ysslestyne, M.A. was a fluent speaker of the Manchu-Tungus language spoken by the Ulchi culture. She lectured on Classical Shamanism through the University of Washington, Burke Museum, Antioch and Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington. Jan was a contributing author to the book First Fish, First People, Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim (University of Washington Press) and author of Spirits from the Edge of the World. Her research into the pre-technical medical practices of indigenous cultures in the territories of south-eastern Siberia was on-going at the time of her passing.

On a personal level I had the deepest respect for Jan’s ethos, her work and for her as an individual. She was in the US and I am in the UK but I had the pleasure of chatting to her via WhatsApp back in April and am saddened that I will not be able to do so again. She was an inspiration as well as a very warm and genuine person. It was an honour to discover she had a deep respect for Indie Shaman magazine and that we shared much similarity of thought on many matters.

Since she passed it has been wonderful to hear that Jan’s work will carry on through her friends and students. Her death is a great loss to our community, she shall be missed, her light shines on through all those her wisdom touched and I am sure that she is now on new adventures with the spirits who were ever present in her life.

In tribute and with gratitude I am happy to share Jan’s article Spirits in a Foreign Land below.

Spirits in a Foreign Land
Jan Van Ysslestyne

One of the more interesting teachings I encountered was the temporary introduction of spirits into an unknown land and the proper protocols and etiquette necessary to ensure harmony between the local and the visiting spirits of foreign lands.

In 1995, the Ulchi shamans had come to the United States to teach their culture and traditions to both academics at the University of Washington and shamanic enthusiasts.

When Grandfather Misha Duvan and Grandmother Nadia Duvan arrived in the Pacific Northwest, a meeting with the local indigenous peoples was conducted according to the Ulchi traditions. Grandfather said, “If we are going to do our work here…if we are going to call our spirits to fly across the ocean and join us in this land, then we first must have permission to do so.”

I asked, “Whose permission?”

Grandfather said, “The permission of the local spirits as well as the first peoples of this place.”

The word of their arrival on American soil quickly spread out to the indigenous tribes stretching from Washington State to British Columbia in Canada.

A large potlatch was arranged. (The word ‘potlatch’ means ‘to give’ and comes from a trade jargon, Chinook, formerly used along the Pacific coast of Canada.) Many tribal leaders from various Coast Salish tribes arrived to participate and greet their cousins from across the ancient Bering land bridge from Eastern Siberia to North America.

The Coast Salish are a large, loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples span from the northern limit of the Salish Sea (aka the Strait of Georgia) on Vancouver Island and covers most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland, and most of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula.

Grandfather Misha, Coast Salish Gathering
Grandfather Misha, Coast Salish Gathering

This potlatch lasted for most of the day; where food, stories, legends, drumming and dances took place among each other. Gifts and good wishes were exchanged first, before the requests of the Ulchi visitors.

As a translator, it was incumbent on me to be clear and concise about their requests. The Salish Chiefs and leaders sat down and listened quietly to Grandfather Misha’s words and quickly responded in the affirmative with no further discussion.

I was told by a Tsawwassen elder that the consensus among the various groups was that the protocol of asking permission from the local people was not only appreciated but unexpected.

The first peoples had given permission and did not object to the upcoming ceremonies about to take place on their ancestral lands but now the Duvans needed to speak with the local spirits of place.

If they were to work in Seattle, they needed to speak directly to the Chief Sealth (Seattle) tribe, the Suquamish/Duwamish, to be exact.

A second privately held feast was held at the shore of the George family’s home on the Suquamish reservation. Marlin George and his family had prepared an offering of salmon, geoducks (a species of very large saltwater clam), clams, potatoes and other local vegetables for the gathering. The seafood had been caught and harvested that very day. Grandmother Nadia danced the Ulchi Bear dance alongside Marlin’s eight-year-old son, who was performing the Suquamish Bear movements. Marlin’s daughters were also traditional dancers who competed in the local Pow Wows throughout the region. That evening on the beach was filled with the sharing of dancing, drumming, laughter and taking in the local cuisine over a large outdoor fire that lasted late into the night.

Grandfather Misha and Coast Salish Spirit Dancer
Grandfather Misha and Coast Salish Spirit Dancer

The stage was set and the Duvans felt comfortable in proceeding with their work. Now it was time to address the local spirit inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. Various excursions were set in place where the shamans would introduce themselves to this foreign land’s inhabitants.

Their first petition to the local spirits came with a trip to Mt. Rainier. Ascending to 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier stands as an icon in the Washington landscape. An active volcano, Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S.A., spawning five major rivers.

With tobacco, rice, berries and salmon, the Duvans traveled deep into the forested regions halfway up the mountain. Speaking quietly to the spirits while making their food offerings, they explained why they were making first contact.

Grandfather Misha Duvan and Grandmother Nadia Duvan walking up Mt. Rainier

This conversation with the mountain spirits continued for over 30 minutes, ending with a satisfactory agreement by all parties concerned. Now it was time to travel to Lake Washington, where the Duvans would once again introduce themselves and seek permission.

This seeking approval and permission was reenacted for over 25 years; every time they traveled to the Western United States’ shores.

Grandfather Misha would remark, “No matter where you are traveling in nature, you must always remember to make offerings to the spirits along the way, especially in a foreign land where they don’t know you. You must introduce yourself and let them know why you have come to their territory. Be polite and humble and always ask their permission before you do your work.”

The Duvans giving offerings at Mt. Rainer
The Duvans giving offerings at Mt. Rainer

Grandmother Nadia then said, “Always respect the spirits of the land where you live. They can either help you or punish you.”

The Ulchi spirits were like visiting tourists who would depart with their hosts when they returned to Eastern Siberia. This led me to ask questions to my teachers. Is there a difference between temporary spirit visitors and those who migrate to new lands? Since I had adopted their tradition, how would the Ulchi spirits adapt to a new North America environment?

They informed me that my region of the world contained the same flora and fauna of the Ulchi homeland and that the spirits would feel comfortable because of the familiarity. Every culture’s spirits have their style and temperament. As a whole, the Ulchi spirits are genuinely kind, fun-loving, considerate and gentle unless they are threatened or provoked. Their nature is adaptive as they seek compromise and collaboration in all relationships, whether human or with other spirits.

I am relaying this story because of the lesson that it teaches. What if your spirits do not come from the territory in which you reside? Is this permissible? Can there be conflicts between local and foreign spirits? What constitutes local versus an alien spirit?  Great Britain had been populated by various migrations and incursions of European and Scandinavian peoples since ancient times. Were these spirits of imported cultures still relegated to the limbo of new immigrant status or had they become absorbed into cross-pollination where they, like people, called this new land home?

According to Tungus beliefs, the introduction of new spirits, through time, will either stay around and adjust to their new surroundings or be driven out by their spirit hosts; no different than people who arrive in a new territory who go on to display aggressive, destructive or warlike temperaments.  Adaptation and flexibility in this human world, as well as the invisible worlds, are the critical components.

I know that many of you have studied and could be practicing traditions that do not originate from your land or the first peoples of your territory. Many students in America would ask Grandmother Nadia this same question. She said, “Be mindful that when you practice and or participate in a ceremony that is not native to the land or traditions of its people, be a courteous and respectful guest. Ask for permission to invite the spirits who help you.”

I asked Grandmother Nadia about who constituted the ancient ancestors of any land and how far back in time should people look to the past? These were her words. “I can only speak for the Ulchi but you see how our most ancient teachings of the first shaman speak of the Great Mammoth who taught the art of shamanism to humans. A long time ago, the most ancient ones lived with the mammoth. Look to the people of these times and honor the past.”

So the next time you travel to North Yorkshire, introduce yourself to the ancestors and spirits of Star Carr. Perhaps you’ll travel to the Kennet Valley in Berkshire or other Mesolithic settlements scattered throughout the countryside. The early ancestors and local spirits of Great Britain still live in their homeland, although a distinct culture no longer exists. Recognise and honour these ancient people as your guides to the natural world. Or, as the Ulchi’s would say, “If you remember them, they’ll remember you.”





Please follow, share and like us:

One thought on “Jan Van Ysslestyne – shaman, author, friend of the Ulchi people

  • 5th August 2021 at 9:15 pm

    I am sorry to hear Grandfather Misha has left Middle World. May he be happy in his new life. I am not afraid of death. It is like going to a new country where you will meet many old and new friends and I look forward to going. I might miss my children and grandchildren but I will be happy.—Isabel Herrera Hagar


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow by Email
%d bloggers like this: