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Don’t be afraid of the big, bad wolf

We are living without the sense of the shamanic and the transformational that our forebears found vital for survival.

One of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen was a Yupik wolf mask, made in Nunivak in around 1890. Actually, to use the term “wolf mask” here is already to go astray: what this ritual object would have invoked, (or rather, what it would have brought into being at the time of its proper use) was the actual wolf spirit, or inua, itself – and the shaman who wore the mask would have become temporarily invested with the power of that inua, a condition that might well have posed considerable dangers but also offered immense benefits to his community.  

To use the term “wolf spirit” here is highly dubious, though: those who made this ritual object would seem to have viewed the inua as simultaneously – or rather, continuously – animal and human, the rift we in the “developed world” currently experience between humanity and “nature” being considerably less apparent to them.

For the Yupik, all life was continuous, animal with human with “spirit”, and recognising that continuum allowed them to undergo transformations that we, locked into our own disappointingly Cartesian skins, find impossible even to imagine. But the term “transformations” here is somewhat misleading, for what we usually think of as a transformation happens in a temporal realm that, (as any good, down-to-earth mystic will tell you), while it may be a highly useful convention for several excellent, and some not so excellent purposes, is also quite illusory.

As is becoming clear, it is easy to get tied up in semantic knots when trying to speak of the shamanic and the transformational – and I really want to say here that I make no claim to expertise regarding the Yupik or any other indigenous culture. I have read books about the Inuit and I have seen documentary evidence of various groups hunting and performing ritual acts – possibly for the camera – but this has made no difference at all to what I feel about that wolf mask, (which I should never have seen in the first place, or certainly not in an art gallery: after their ritual use, such sacred objects should be put away, usually in designated family or clan coffers, concealed to preserve their power and assure their integrity). To look at them at all is, on my part, a kind of sacrilege.

Yet I cannot forego such experiences and I hope that my fumbling and ill-informed regard will make up for the intrusion, partly because I feel lonely for a connection with a wider animal world and partly because I miss the sense of the inua (or whatever was once its local equivalent) in the place where I dwell and in my own too-individuated skin.

Indeed, as my own supposed culture disintegrates into reductionism and greed, I am willing to use anything – begged, borrowed, or stolen – to recover those transformative and connective presences.

In the shamanic past, the reasons for assuming animal form were many (here comes that semantic quicksand again) and they were often highly practical, in terms of a tribe or clan’s wellbeing or even survival (the shaman might foretell, or perhaps influence the weather, for example), but what I am searching for, as I stare into the eyes of a Haida bear mask or the hooked beak of a Tlingit crow man, is a sense of continuity with other living things so rudimentary that the Inuit simply took it for granted.

That my own community’s survival is in jeopardy is, by now, common knowledge (we gave up any real hope of wellbeing long ago), but the danger arises not because we are running short of the physical “resources” we (think we) require but because we lack – indeed, many of us even disdain – the animal and spirit connections that allowed those supposed primitives to be so much more adept, in their time, than we are in ours.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez