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My Tutelary Uncle

Dreamed 1993/5/28 by Chris Wayan

I live on the Northwest Coast in a small town with mostly Native people. I'm mixed but can pass for white. My uncle, a shaman, taught me some medicine, but he died in middle age before my training was done.

So, he started haunting me. He wasn't finished teaching, so he showed up as a teacher in my dreams, and wouldn't take no for an answer. Traditionally, having a spirit teacher like this, what anthros call a "tutelary spirit", is the whole point of shamanism--it's usually a quest, an ordeal, taking years of hard work.

But now, I don't need to go seek a spirit guide. In fact, I can't shut him up. His advice is perfectly good, but he won't let me learn on my own--my uncle jumps in at the start, before I've even had a chance to stray from his traditional path.

So slowly, quietly, I'm trying to gain the strength to kick out my helpful uncle. To lose my tutelary spirit.

I start doing our traditional dance-exercises. They're kind of like the Chinese ones you see in the parks down in Vancouver--tai ji, I think they call it. Balance is the purpose. A shaman must have good balance, my uncle said. It must be true--now, when I'm dancing right, he fades out and all there is is the dance. Dream: I'm haunted by my uncle, a former shaman in our Kwatkiutl village.

I practice daily. When I get it right my uncle shuts up... One morning in mid-dance, I turn around to find others imitating me! I've become an unintentional teacher of the old balance.

I acquire a reputation as a good balance dancer, and I guess I really do some good, especially among local whites who are all out of balance--I can speak their language and explain it.

But inside, I still feel I'm a failure. I've never dislodged my annoying uncle. Soon as I quit dancing, there he is again, helping me.

During a radio interview I blurt out "I came to shamanism too late. To have that balance and sense of yourself as an animal in the world--whether the physical or spirit world--to make that instinctive, you either gotta hang on to it right through childhood or relearn it not long after. It's like ballet or the Olympics, you gotta start young. Me, I was trained too many years to be far from my body and feelings. So I became a white-type intellectual. What I teach is TRUE, but it's from my head and my spirit--I can't live it without effort. It's not in my body yet, not naturally, the way an animal's is, and I dunno if it ever will be."

Now I know that this wound--and my annoying spirit-uncle--together form my shamanic illness, they're why I'm so motivated to do the balance dance. I need these troubles to keep me on my toes! Well, heels, we use our heals a lot. Oops, I typed heals. Ha.

Anyway, my uncle-troubles keep me sympathetic to other people who are stuck in their heads or their souls. So my illness is good for others, in a way.

But it's still bad for me!

It's so easy to label these things and judge them: "Possession--bad!" or "Spirit guide--good!" "Sellout teaching whites--bad!" "Dancing the balance--good!" "Can't cure herself--bad!" "Understands being stuck--good!" When all these pulls-and-pushes are as tangled as a climax forest! And they always will be--you can't be sure what'll help and what'll hurt. Not quite.

Not ever.


I'm not certain our tribe was Kwakiutl/Kwakwakawakw, but other dreams around that time keep referring to that tribe. It was a small fishing town in a fjord on the mainland, not the islands. It seemed drier and warmer than much of the BC coast, so it may have been in the rainshadow of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Reincarnation, in the Northwest Coast tribes, is believed to commonly run from uncle/aunt to niece/nephew, or grandparent to grandchild; so my uncle's ghost might mean an old self from a past life is haunting me, rather than a literal uncle.

On the other hand, I really do have a bunch of living uncles (and graves of grandparents) scattered around Puget Sound. They're not good role-models for me--shy, passive, sexually repressed. But I do have roots there.

ACTION: less soul-searching, more dance. I know the balance, I just have to live it in my body.

1999 NOTE

A few years after this I learned that my one of my uncles from Puget Sound, Uncle Hugh, lived with us while he was getting shock treatments, and told me in detail what it was like to be strapped down and tortured. I was only two, but it was impossible to forget, though I buried the knowledge. It became a ghost that haunted me--the floating fear that if I let my shamanism show, the white people will come lock me away and fry me.

Like they fried him. After, he was a broken man.

LISTS AND LINKS: heritage - I'm Just Not Myself Today - cross-cultural dreams - Native Americans (Kwakiutl) - shamanic dreams - ghosts, revenants and reincarnation - dance dreams - on the job - career advice - lifepaths - the effects of uncle Hugh

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