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Anna Dincheuvna Kimonko (centre) with her husband and daughter; photo by Kira Van Deusen

Storytelling as a Shamanic Art:
The Udeghe People of the Amur Region

Previously published in Shamanism and other Indigenous Beliefs and Practices. Moscow: Academy of Sciences. 1999. © Kira Van Deusen

Storytelling and songs have always played a key role in shamanic cultures, including that of the Udeghe people of the Amur River region in the Russian Far East. The art of the storyteller is closely related to that of the shaman, as both are able to call spirits and to see beyond the boundaries that divide ordinary life from the worlds of dreams and visions. Like shamans, storytellers have the ability to heal individuals and societies. Shamanic storytelling tradition includes life stories and legends about shamans, stories and songs that are part of a ceremony, as well as magic tales whose plots follow the course of a shaman's initiation and/or healing journey (nimanku(1)), and which also contain shamanic imagery (for example shape-changing, death and rebirth, bones, communication with animals, use of shaman's tools.)

Outsiders are attracted to Siberian shamanism in its relation to healing and ecology and have begun travelling in Siberia and inviting shamans and storytellers to Europe, Japan, and North America. As these very local traditions gain global attention, ancient magic tales are told in new languages to audiences thousands of kilometres from their places of origin.

I would like to describe the process of introducing this tradition to Canada, through one Udeghe storyteller, Valentina Kyalundzyuga. Traditionally hunting and fishing people, today the Udeghe number about 2000 and live mostly in villages and cities. The Udeghe language is severely endangered, spoken by only about 350 people, most of them in the older generations. It is part of the southern Tungus group of Siberian languages, a branch of the Altai family which also includes the Turkic languages and Japanese and Korean.

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Kyalundzyuga is in her early '60s. She grew up in a nomadic family and on a kolkhoz (collective), worked for thirty years as administrative head of the village of Gvasyugi in the Khabarovsk Territory. She is co-author of a large bilingual edition of Udeghe folklore which has just come out from the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, and includes her linguistic and cultural notes as well as stories she collected from local elders. She is active in today's cultural revival, as well as working on ecological and political issues affecting her people. In 1998 she performed with her niece Nadezhda Kimonko at two storytelling festivals in Canada. I will trace one of her stories through several transmissions, including translation from Udeghe to Russian and later to English. We will look at the changes which took place in the story text, the presence and absence of spiritual and shamanic elements in various time periods, as well as its non-verbal performance aspects. Then I will describe briefly the Udeghe cultural revival of the 1990s, and raise questions about the effects of modern audiences at home and abroad on storytellers and shamans.


There is no performance storytelling movement in the Russian Far East, and Valentina Kyalundzyuga was pleased and surprised to be invited to tell stories in Canada. She brought with her transcriptions of tales she heard 30-40 years ago from elders whose memory extended back before the 1917 revolution. These versions are unusual in that they were told in the Udegei language to an insider to the culture, instead of to a Russian folklorist as most recorded tales were during that time period(2). She had told these same tales to me in Russian several times in her home village of Gvasyugi in 1993-1997, where we sat in her kitchen in the company of her children and grandchildren. (I have been telling these stories in performance since then.) In Canada the context was public performance in Udeghe and English at storytelling festivals, with audiences of 20-400.

I will concentrate here on the story of "Gamuli", about three girls who answer the challenge of the Master of the Wind, and climb his ice mountain. One of the points of the story is that the heroine Gamuli is a fine artist—her clothes are covered with beautiful embroidery. (A good clothing artist was a highly desirable marriage partner in traditional society.) She wears fishskin (dried, bleached and softened salmon-skin), the usual material for clothing before the twentieth century, with an old fishskin coat on top. Her rivals wear imported Chinese silk and satin and are blown off the ice mountain(3). Between 1993 and 1997 I published an article (Van Deusen 1996) on the symbolic ways embroidery acts as a spiritual protection—and showed it to Valentina. She praised the article in general and then retold the story, emphasizing that the importance of Gamuli's clothing lay in its practicality, protecting her literally from the storms sent by the Master of the Winds. In this version the other two girls dressed poorly—their clothes were neither beautiful nor practical. This seemed to be her way of warning me not to get too tied up in symbolism, ignoring the practical. It may also mean that she does not distinguish between the spiritual and the practical in the same way that I do.

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In that second version she added a conversation between the Master of the Wind (Doye) and his mother, in which he admires Gamuli's bravery and strength. He also later apologizes to the heroine for trying to kill her. This made the story more comprehensible on an emotional level.

In Canada we returned to the way Valentina herself heard the story in the 1960s—with a few explanations. Here Gamuli "thinks" of Doye before setting out, rather than hearing a rumour about him(4). Valentina says she saw him in a dream or vision. Here his mother tells him outright to kill Gamuli. Of course there is no ethnographic description of the ice mountain, nor of any of the household items like Gamuli's walking stick or hook, Doye's house and door. All of this was presumably added by Valentina in telling to me: an outsider. The 1960s version mentions the man's side of the house which Valentina had left out, perhaps to save explaining that a traditional house was divided into male and female sides. Again the girls are dressed in fishskin, silk, and satin.

There is an incident where the Master of the Wind throws a knife at Gamuli. Although in her first telling Valentina simply said that Doye threw the knife and wounded Gamuli's leg, in the early version they throw it back and forth several times before he finally wounds her. This adds drama to the telling as well as showing that the two have equal strength. In performance Valentina drew this part out even more with gestures. She also draws out certain vowel sounds in the Udegei language, which emphasizes the importance of this part of the story and also the passing of time. She emphasized important conversations (such as Doye's mother's instructions to him) by singing them in a particular style associated with sacred songs in much of Siberia (Leisiö 1999).

After the knife fight, Gamuli is angry and goes away, leaving a sample of her embroidery in Doye's bedding. The mother finds it, realizes that Gamuli is a fine artist and sends Doye after her. As she walks, Gamuli takes off her old outer coat, further revealing her artistry. Doye stops her by throwing his hunting spear so that it lands across her path. In the original there is no explanation of why she should not step over it, although Valentina explained it to me as a hunting tabboo. In the 1960s version he first shoots an arrow, which she steps across out of defiance. Then he throws the spear, thus drawing out the drama. Gamuli says she is stepping over it on purpose, to pay him back because he had tried to kill her with the winds and the knife. The implication is that she could kill him by stepping over the spear, since a woman's menstrual magic has the ability to overwhelm the man's hunting magic. In traditional society it was considered a "sin" (sondo) for a woman to step across a man's weapons. Most likely these spiritual elements have even greater clarity and impact in the original language.

Between my first research trip and the second I developed an interest in shamanism. As I asked questions, Valentina added details about shamans' predictions to several of her stories. I asked if "Gamuli" might be a tale of the girl's shamanic initiation, because of her initiatory climb, the protective spirits of her clothing, the image of death and rebirth in the knife fight, her contests with the Master of the Wind and finally her alliance with him. Valentina disagreed, although she also pointed out that the Master of the Wind was a healer, using his own saliva to heal the wound he had inflicted on Gamuli's leg. Like his mother, he had the ability to "see far", also characteristic of shamans. As is often the case, there is more than one character with shamanic abilities in this story. But still Valentina insists that the story's plot does not represent Gamuli's shamanic initiation.

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Whether an Udeghe shaman would see this kind of story differently is impossible to say, as today there are none alive to ask. (Buriat and Tuvan shamans have agreed to a similar proposal). Valentina sees the tales as historical and educational, which is in line with looking at them as literal truth (as Siberian people usually do) and not as metaphor or symbol. It also respects the privacy of spiritual life. While there is no ownership or restriction on the retelling of Udegei magic tales by outsiders, as there is among many North American peoples, it is considered spiritually dangerous to speak of spirits or the inner lives of shamans directly. So perhaps the stories are a way to speak of that reality in an oblique way, much as sacred animals like the tiger and bear are called by nick-names. Especially if the teller were a shaman, subtle ways of "speaking around" the subject would protect the speaker. I was beginning to understand the complexity of the Udeghe spiritual world, and the ways an outside view can distort it. To call these multi-layered stories shamanic in a narrow sense is an over-simplification. The western fascination with shamans has tended to emphasize one aspect of Siberian spirituality at the expense of others, including the art of the storyteller.

During the twentieth century Udeghe magic tales have been told further and further from their original setting. Storytellers have changed emphasis, adding and deleting details from the many layers of meaning inherent in them, answering the needs of their listeners. For myself as a storyteller, it is important to understand what kinds of changes can be made while still remaining true to the essence of the story. Valentina's recent emphasis on details of spiritual life came in response to the continuing revival of spiritual culture at home and to contacts with both native and non-native Canadians with an interest in spiritual matters.

Audiences, Belief Systems and the Cultural Revival:

What role do stories like "Gamuli" play in today's cultural revival? And how do the preconceptions, needs and expectations of various audiences influence storytellers and shamans? Unlike many parts of Siberia, no new shamans have appeared in the Amur region, and the cultural revival focuses on art, music and dance—mostly with children. There is not much dialogue about the deeper meaning of traditional stories or their significance in the cultural revival, although some writers are using ancient motifs in contemporary settings(5).

Of the shamans from the older generations who never stopped practicing during the Soviet era, very few are alive today. Some of these elder shamans visited North America in 1994-5, where they gave seminars. Today people consult them on questions relating to traditional culture, as well as for divination and healing. People wait for new younger shamans to appear, which will have to happen in certain families. The gift is hereditary, and must be accompanied by signs showing selection by spirits, such as an unexplained illness or prophetic dreams. One young Udeghe girl had a dream in which a white-haired old man spoke to her about Khanyaunya khuni, the rite of accompanying the souls of the dead to the next world. This was exciting because the girl had grown up in the city and did not understand the Udeghe words which she heard in her dream until they were explained to her, but so far nothing more has developed. Meanwhile a lively debate goes on about what is needed in terms of community healing and laying to rest the souls of the dead who have not been properly seen off to the next world(6).

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There are at least two medical doctors who use traditional shamanic methods in their treatment, along with western medicine. One of these doctors, Lyubov Passar, tells of visual disturbances and dreams that preceded her work in alternative medicine (which includes treating alcoholism using hypnotism and magnetic healing). Her experience sounds like a story of shamanic initiation (again, this is my idea!) Later Passar learned that she has shamanic ancestry, and her authority in the community resembles that of a shaman. Shamanic doctors like Passar are meeting the changed needs of a partly urban population.

Storytelling can heal a people's self-esteem, just as shamanic practice heals their bodies and souls. There is no doubt that storytellers are influenced by their audiences just as shamans are influenced by their clients. More than many performing arts, storytelling is an interaction. Tellers speak to the needs of the audience, known both rationally and intuitively, trusting the story to speak on deeper levels than can be grasped in the moment. Although much of this is very individual, audiences as a whole have very different approaches and needs, and storytellers respond to them. Siberian shamanic tales, legends, and practice are received by very different audiences at home and abroad.

Under the Soviet system public storytelling was forbidden along with shamanic practice, both out of fear of the teller as community leader, and of the content, which glorified heroes of the past and praised values out of line with the new ideology, such as not taking more than is needed from the forests and rivers. The policy of educating children in boarding schools where they heard only Russian folklore soon interrupted even the home storytelling tradition. The sense of telling stories to "insiders" to the tradition almost disappeared, as children adopted behaviour, language, and thought patterns from the larger "outside" Soviet society. The only lessons that were safe to draw from traditional tales were ethnographic: "how people used to live". Story details were pointed out showing how people hunted, what kinds of houses they lived in, and various customs. Today elders say that they cannot tell stories to children because the children do not understand the language, and without the language the stories lose their vitality. Published editions of native stories in the Soviet period were highly edited and selected to show socialist values and downplay national heroism and spirituality. Shamans were shown as charlatans—weak, greedy and foolish. Even some oral versions of stories adopted elements of Soviet ideology (Simonov 1998:391).

Soviet academics made extensive collecting expeditions among many native peoples, which helped preserve the stories themselves, but not the oral tradition—the art of the storyteller. There are some valuable archival collections, like those made by V.K. Arseniev and Yu.I. Sheikin. In the last forty years or so, most traditional stories have been told to ethnographers and folklorists. Beyond the academic world indigenous culture in Russia is still viewed as primitive; naive at best, evil at worst. The general public does not have the fascination with native spirituality that is such a powerful factor in North America. Both native and non-native people are sceptical about shamans—from years of hearing that they were charlatans or sorcerors, as well as from the fact that today there is a huge growth industry in all sorts of religious activity, much of it less than reputable. Another factor is the revival of nationalistic Russian Orthodoxy as the approved vehicle for spirituality.

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The way Siberian stories and especially shamans are received in North America is very different. The Nanai and Ulchi shamans who gave seminars in Washington state in 1994-5 (Mingo Geiker and Misha Duvan) met audiences composed largely of alternate healers and spiritual seekers, some connected with the neo-shamanic movement—all of whom sought something practical rather than theoretical or ethnographic in their teachings. These audiences —who live in a very materialistic world—wanted to participate in a living spiritual tradition. Some were hoping to find lost roots, or to fulfil a sense of rootlessness and experience therapeutic change by making a connection with people they perceived as exotic and uncorrupted by civilization. Others are disappointed to learn that Siberian shamans do not take apprentices.

Through this tendency to exoticise, looking for any evidence that Siberian people are living a lifestyle in complete harmony with nature, foreigners may ignore the very real problems that indigenous people are facing in Siberia today, as well as their levels of education and degree of urbanization. I frequently hear people remark on how wonderful it is that Siberian native people were so untouched by Soviet and post-Soviet realities, in spite of evidence to the contrary. At the same time the Siberian visitors are verifying their own TV preconceptions about life in North America, involving material comfort, isolation, and lack of spirituality. They adapt quickly to the conditions they meet.

Opportunism arises on both sides of the water, involving money, travel and prestige. A question which has very different answers in Khabarovsk and Seattle is whether the elderly Amur shamans succeeded in calling their spirits while in North America, and whether their trips had anything to do with the fact that both became ill and died within a short time of returning home. Apart from the spiritual realities, what happened was a complex combination of desires and expectations. It seems that the American side was quick to claim that the spirits did arrive, while the Russian side is sceptical, maintaining that their spirits are specifically connected to their land. In any case it was clear that the shamans were very concerned about not offending the spirits of the places they visited.

Some stories are created by promoters as much as by the shamans themselves. For example, one woman from the Amur region who is a specialist in traditional culture, an ensemble leader and a fine dancer, has been called a shaman in North America, although she herself has never claimed to be one, and people at home confirm that she is not. Calling a person a shaman has a greater attraction for North Americans, it seems, than calling her a specialist or simply a knowledgeable person with interesting things to say. (Similar things are happening with Native Americans in Europe.)

The audiences at storytelling festivals in 1998 were different from the workshop attenders—composed mainly of people interested in stories for their own sake, including their deeper meanings, therapeutic value and place in traditional and contemporary life. Many of these listeners are themselves storytellers, both professional and amateur, as well as people with an interest in indigenous peoples and Russia. Some had very specific interests, such as herbal medicine. At both festivals the Udegei guests had extensive contacts with First Nations people; storytellers, elders, teachers and people who use story to deal with political and ecological issues as well as in preservation of culture and language.

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Although there is much in common between Siberian and North American native stories, they are being used in very different ways today. Canadian First Nations storytellers frequently emphasize the spiritual and ecological significance of their stories, the lessons they offer the larger society —an approach the Udegei women found inspiring, since their own stories contain the same kinds of lessons. They were also fascinated to learn that First Nations people have won court cases over land tenure based on the evidence of storytellers about traditional land use. A developing sense of kinship will lead to further exchange in the future.

Storytelling is a barometer of health of language and culture. Today's shamanic and cultural revival cannot be separated from the economic and social crisis in which it is taking place. Top priority is simple survival. Udeghe spiritual and political leaders are most concerned with children's health and well-being, protection of their environment and finding new ways to live with self-esteem in a changed world. Oral stories and shamanic traditions can contribute to this movement, but the forms that emerge may prove to be completely unexpected. Contacts with foreigners at home and abroad can encourage healing of the whole people, and unfortunately can also contribute to rivalry and jealousy over money and prestige which distort the goals of the movement.

One of the stories Valentina's niece Nadezhda Kimonko told was her grandmother's version of a familiar tale called "Who is Strongest?" If the sun can melt the ice, the cloud can block out the sun, the wind can blow away the cloud..... Nadia's version ended with God as the strongest, interesting in light of the fact that her grandmother was one of the last Udegei shamans, who never converted to Christianity. In Soviet editions, man is always the strongest. But I've heard that long ago the story was told a different way —without an ending. Everyone had a chance to be strongest and to be defeated. Today the cycle continues, as spiritual seeds from the past are planted in new soil.

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Avrorin, V.A. 1986. Materialy po nanaiskomu yazyku i fol'kloru [Materials on Nanai Language and Folklore] Leningrad: Nauka.

Khodzher Anna. 1990. Duchenku poet. Khabarovsk: Khabarovskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo

Kyalundzyuga, Valentina. 1974 Dva solntse [Two Suns] Khabarovsk: Khabarovskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo

_____ 1998 The Ice Mountain. Vancouver BC: Udagan Books

Leisiö, T. 1999. "The Eurasian Problem of the Octosyllabic Metric Pattern" Presentation at the conference "Shamans —Epics and Ecology" Tampere, Finland.

Simonov, MD. ed 1998. Fol'klor udegeitsev: Nimanku, telungu, ekhe. Pamyatniki fol'klora narodov Sibiri i dal'nego vostoka. Novosibirsk: Nauka

Van Deusen, K.M. 1996. "Protection and Empowerment: Clothing Symbolism in the Amur River Region of the Russian Far East". In Braving the Cold: Continuity and Change in Arctic Clothing. Leiden, The Netherlands: National Museum of Ethnology


1. Nimanku is related to the Nanai words ningma, story or shamanic activity, and ningmachi, funeral. Both have their source in a root which means "to see with the eyes covered or closed", which again connects the arts of shamanism and storytelling. (Avrorin. 14-15)

2. Nadezhda Kimonko brought stories told by her grandmother, Kyandu Zandievna Kimonko, which were recorded by Russian folklorist Yu.I. Sheikin around the same time. Kyalundzyuga recorded stories by hand, while Sheikin's recordings and my own were made on audio tape.

3. The transition from fishskin to silk to satin (and later synthetics) follows the history of clothing in the twentieth century.

4. Although in a very similar 1960s version recently published by Kyalundzyuga, the heroine says she will go to look at Doye, "whom people tell about." (Simonov 1998: 147)

5. For example, Nanai poet Anna Khodzher retells the story of a musical instrument bringing a woman to life, expressing her hope that music will revive her people's culture today (1990:61).

6. Conducting the ceremony of accompanying the dead, called khanyaunya khuni in Udeghe, or Kasa in Nanai is considered the highest form of shamanism in the Amur region. Today there is no shaman alive qualified to conduct this ceremony. If the souls are not seen off, they cause problems such as violence and alcoholism in communities (Van Deusen 1996a).

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