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West Words

Visions of California's Indigenous Shamans

September 20, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Precious little remains of the art and artifacts of the very first people to dwell in California. Confronted with Spanish conquest and then American "manifest destiny," the signs of Native American civilization began to disappear from the California landscape soon after the Europeans arrived, victims of the occasional massacre and the relentless processes of disease and dislocation. And yet a remnant of California's original culture is preserved in stone, as we discover in "The Art of the Shaman: Rock Art of California" by David S. Whitley (University of Utah Press, $45, 138 pages).

"The Art of the Shaman" is presented as a coffee-table book, big and lush, full of color plates on glossy paper. But it is also a serious work of science and, above all, a celebration of the spiritual beliefs and practices of the native Californians. Whitley may be a professional archeologist, but he clearly responds deeply and powerfully to the spiritual legacy of the cultures and communities that he studies.

"Like the shaman who entered the supernatural to recapture the stolen souls of his patients and thereby rescue them from unconsciousness," Whitley writes of his own work in preserving the rock art of the original Californians, "we too use archeology to resuscitate lost cultures."

As Whitley points out, the Native Americans who resided in what is now California were diverse in language, technology, cuisine and folkways, but they all shared a faith based on shamanism, a religious system in which spiritual practitioners--called "doctors" or "dreamers" or "men of power"--were believed to maintain "direct and personal links with the supernatural world."

"Priests talk to gods, the anthropological saying goes," quips Whitley, "whereas the gods talk to shamans."

One of the key concepts of shamanism, according to Whitley, is the belief that the spiritual underworld comes into contact with the "mundane" world at specific points on the terrain--caves, crags, mountain peaks and promontories. And it is in such places that we can still see the remnants of a strong shamanistic tradition in the form of rock carvings and paintings--Puberty Rock in Riverside, for example, is the site where a rite of passage for adolescent girls was conducted, and the image of a bighorn sheep scratched into a rock in Inscription Canyon in the Mojave Desert is the imagined "spirit helper" of a medicine man.

"Shamans produced rock art at the conclusion of their vision quests to illustrate the spirits they had seen and the supernatural events, such as curing, rainmaking and sorcery, they had participated in during their altered states of consciousness," Whitley explains. "The shaman's rock art site was a sacred place and served as his portal into the supernatural."

Some examples of Native American rock art, ranging in age from 100 to 10,000 years, consist of human and animal figures rendered in a riot of color and detail--a Chumash rock painting near Santa Barbara depicts a hammerhead shark, a rattlesnake and a salamander amid swirling geometric shapes. Other examples are minimalist--a boulder on the Russian River in Mendocino County, for example, is pocked with the scratches and scoops that illustrate the so-called "Pit and Groove Tradition." Near Hemet, the "Maze Stone" resembles a labyrinthine Celtic figure. And some examples, such as the oversized figures scraped into the desert hardpan near Fort Mojave that depict "the creator god and his evil brother," are so vast in scale that they can be seen only from above.

To experience the art of the original Californians, Whitley explains, it is necessary to go into the wilderness--another significant feature of Native American tradition. "Contrary to the prevailing concept of art in European culture, which tends to associate aesthetic statements with art galleries, museums and civilized salons," writes Whitley, "native art is immediately juxtaposed against the natural and wild landscape." Only a few of the sites studied by Whitley are open for public viewing, and he lists a dozen of the most accessible in "The Art of the Shaman." But the book itself, so richly illustrated and annotated, allows us to witness what Whitley searched out in the course of his adventuring in the mountains and deserts of California.

*

To say that water has shaped the destiny of California seems obvious, but "Water and the Shaping of California" by Sue McClurg (Water Education Foundation and Heyday Books, $90, hardcover; $35, paper, 168 pages) goes beyond that and shows us, quite literally, how water has changed the landscape over the last century or so of California history.

With more than 200 photographs, drawings and maps--and passages from the work of John Muir and Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and William Saroyan, Joan Didion and Gary Snyder, among others--the book is a blend of science and sentiment, poetry and politics, all of it focusing on the real treasure of the Golden State.

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