The Shaman’s Daughter
“Don’t whistle in the dark.”
My father was adamant that I take his warning seriously. It was after dusk as we walked home from visiting a relative. I was focused on practicing my whistling, hoping to master the skill. He warned me the sound attracted ghosts and evil spirits who would take the soul from the physical body. Losing your soul meant harm or sickness would befall you in the human realm.
Like any young child with a deep reverence for their father, I stopped whistling and let silence occupy our conversation.
I had learned from experience that my father was right more often than wrong when it came to his stories about spirits and folklores. A few years before, he had sternly told me to not point at the moon because it was rude. The vengeful moon spirit cuts the ears of those who point at her to teach them a lesson. Undeterred by his ominous message, I pointed at the moon anyway, feeling a little brave and rebellious.
The next morning, I noticed blood on my pillow and reached up to touch my ears, only to feel a small cut like the size of a paper cut on the right ear lobe.
My father was a txiv neeb (“shaman”) and I spent my childhood watching him travel to the spirit realm to communicate with the spirits and ancestors through traditional rituals and ceremonies of ua neeg and hu plig (“calling the soul”). With a mixture of awe and curiosity I watched him chant with his face covered with a red cloth and jump up and down on a wooden bench. These were shamanistic practices carried over from our ancestor’s nomadic lives in the mountains of Laos and Thailand, and that had been passed down from generation to generation.
As a teenager, I was part of a Southeast Asian youth leadership cohort that was given the opportunity to participate in a wilderness trip through YMCA Camp Menogyn with the support from Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’ Thomas Flint Boundary Waters Wilderness Fund. My parents were concerned about me going to camp and worried that my soul was vulnerable to the spirits that roam the forests.
On the day of my departure to camp, my father woke early to light the incense at the shaman altar in our living room and asked for protection from our ancestors. My mother gifted me with a red string bracelet she had blessed, meant to ward off evil spirits. As an extra precaution, she filled a bowl of water and placed three leaves that contained my saliva and hair. The bowl was meant to be a beacon for my soul, to help her find her way back home if she unexpectedly got lost in the wilderness. A simple fall, like tripping during a portage, or acknowledging a sound or my name in the woods, or getting scared, could potentially tear my soul from my body.
This tradition of my parents frantically blessing me and performing rituals to ensure I was equipped with protections from our ancestors happened every summer that I went to camp.
My experiences in the BWCA are shaped and informed by my relationship with shamanism and spirits. There is an unspoken understanding of the natural world where I recognize my place as a human and the impact I can have on it, especially for the spirits that live there.
The way I prepare for trips to the BWCA involves a process I learned in camp. This includes filling the canoe packs with gear, organizing the dehydrated meals into the food barrel, taking out my PFD and wooden paddle from storage, and making sure there is enough sunscreen and bug spray to last the trip.
Another layer of the preparation involves asking my mother for a blessed red string or pouch as a protective ward. A lot of these traditional beliefs complement modern ideas about our relationship with nature. For me, Leave No Trace is an easy concept to understand and practice since it aligns with the way I live my life to ensure I don’t disrupt spirits. By damaging, leaving behind or taking something from a place like the BWCA, you risk the spirits attaching themselves to you then coming home with you and affecting your wellbeing.
Over the years, I have not been shy about attributing my safety in the BWCA to my shamanistic beliefs. The steadfast emphasis in the value of superstitions, respect for the spirits and blessings from my parents always resulted in me returning home healthy and unscathed. I am simply a visitor in a place that has long existed before me and will long exist after me. The land is home to spirits that we as humans should not interrupt their way of existence. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.
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