Indigenous ‘Nature Spirits’, Bio-regional Animisms and the Legal Personhood of Other-than-human Persons

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(Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. An inactive, million-year old vulcano, Mauna Kea is the largest mountain on earth. While Mount Everest is the tallest mountain when measured from sea-level up, Mauna Kea, when measured from its actual base deep in the Pacific Ocean to its peak, exceeds the Himalayan sacred mountain considerably)

The day before yesterday I was fortunate enough to catch some of the panels of the first day of a jam-packed two-day conference held at my University titled ‘Indigenous Storytelling and Law.’ The conference, which was presented by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, brought together a great number of native and some non-native litigators, scholars, activists and community members to reflect on and discuss a range of pressing issues affecting native communities, with a spotlight on how indigenous politics, sovereignty, experiences, histories, and cultural, economic and legal practices have come up against those of both state and federal settler colonial U.S. authorities and non-native groups and institutions. Click here to see the fantastic line-up across the two-day event. Continue reading

Celebrity Shamans and the Question of Indigenous Knowledge: A Review of, and some stray Reflections on ‘Inyanga: Sarah Mashele’s Story’

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I was wafting around a second-hand clothing store when I was in Cape Town, South Africa in December last year when I came across a curious little volume hidden behind some piles of clothing and gaudy costume jewelry. The book’s single word title ‘Inyanga’ caught my eye. Inyanga is a technical term in isiZulu and isiXhosa for a particular kind of traditional healer or curer (more on the technical specifications or lack thereof of this designation later). Written by white South African writer and journalist Lilian Simon, Inyanga was published in 1993, one year before the abolition of Apartheid, and constitutes a kind-of memoir for prominent black South African traditional healer Sarah Mashele. From roughly the 1950s until the present (I have not been able to determine yet if she is still alive) Sarah Mashele worked full-time as a healer in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg – and in the formally blacks-only segregated urban neighbourhood of Soweto in particular – providing services to patients across the race, class and cultural spectrum. I just finished reading the book, and so I thought I would offer a review of it as well as some reflections on its contents and Simon and Mashele’s collaboration for interested readers. Continue reading

Demon Directories: On Listing and Living with Tibetan Worldly Spirits

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(An image of a blue the’u rang or tebrang spirit from a Tibetan manuscript. Scanned images from this manuscript of many Tibetan worldly spirits described in the post that follows can be found here at himalayanart.org but unfortunately the name and date of the source-text is not given. If anyone knows these details, please do let me know!)

I came across the following condensed directory of worldly spirits, gods, demons and other non-human Tibetan persons that go bump in the night in a book of essays which deal with the history and controversies surrounding the Tibetan protector-spirit Dolgyal, which I briefly discussed here. The book, whose short title is ‘The Impurity-Dispelling Mirror – An Investigation into the Origination and Controversy of Dolgyal’ was compiled by the Office of the Central Executive Committee of Dhomay (Amdo) Province in exile. The Committee spent some four odd years conducting research into the contentious spirit’s origins and nature and has penned a series of excellent essays explaining the role of spirit-protectors in Tibetan Buddhism and the development of the controversial sectarian issues associated with this spirit in particular. The essays in the book provide much needed context for a very complex issue, part of which revolves around divided opinions on the theological status of the spirit in question. Supporters of the spirit claim that it is a legitimate protector that is upholding its vows and deserving of propitiation; whereas His Holiness the Dalai Lama and numerous other authorities consider the being to be a harmful and demonic presence, a difficult to control hyper-zealous (and hyper-sectarian) force of violence and evil that should be avoided altogether. Continue reading

The Red Wind of Memory: A Review of Susan Kenyon’s ‘Slaves and Spirits of Central Sudan’ (2012)

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I thought I would re-post a review that I wrote some months ago of anthropologist Susan Kenyon’s 2012 longitudinal study of zar possession practices in Central Sudan, Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar. A slightly edited version of this review appeared in print in Anthropology News, and was also featured on the periodical’s website. Since the online review appears to no longer be accessible, I am re-sharing it here so people more people read it and learn about zar and Susan’s book.

Zar spirits and ‘healing cult’ phenomena are compelling for many reasons. Zar is distinctly transnational in both its cosmological scope and actual practice, yet it is also tied to specific regional histories and experiences, to very specific lives and biographies. With its layered and cosmopolitan spirit cosmologies, zar possession reveals beautifully how history lives in the body, how legacies of colonialism and violence, of upheaval and encounters with the culturally other, are intimate, living presences that may come as afflictions but also as lovers, friends, helpers, and teachers in disguise. Zar provides material for the study of religious pluralism, it presents rich examples of the tense back-and-forths between affliction and accommodation, oppression and opportunity that have fascinated and challenged anthropologists (and well, everyone else) for generations. Zar’s particular approach to placating and accommodating spirits is a distinctly gendered phenomenon. Zar has been described both as a women’s ‘cult of affliction’ and as a form of women’s resistance, an empowering spiritual club for women and gender misfits (or in the language of more contemporary, internet-assisted identity politics maybe, for ‘femmes’) which sits at times parallel and at times perpendicularly to mainstream Islam and its institutions Continue reading

Illuminati Penis Enlargement: Foreigness and Cross-cultural Healing in the South African Magical Market-place

Recently, for laughs, a friend of mine shared this picture on Facebook:

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It is a somewhat unique example of a certain type of advertisement that one commonly sees plastered on various public surfaces, handed out as flyers, or posted in classifieds sections all over South Africa. These notices, which advertise the services of various kinds of spiritual doctors, healers and ritual specialists – have become their own genre, and their curious English phrasings, frequent references to exotic materials and methods, and claims to provide such services as penile enlargement, vaginal tightening or the magical return of straying lovers are a regular source of amusement for non-customers and skeptics.  Continue reading

Retiring the Gods? Tibetan Democracy in Exile and Alternative Modernities

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(I originally made the following post on my Facebook page on April 7th. I reproduce it here, along with some clarifications and further reflections at the end. This picture collage shows the Nechung kuten in trance at the top, the Tsering Chenga goddesses possessing their medium on the bottom left, and Security and Welfare minister Mr Ngodup Drongchung is on the right, during an interview with Tibetan exile media immediately following his resignation)

Tibetan social media and exile society have been alive of late with commentary about the recent pronouncements and actions made by some of the Tibetan state oracles here in India. The state oracles, who are known in Tibetan as ཆོས་སྐྱོང ༼chökyong༽ or བསྟན་སྲུང་ ༼tensoong༽, i.e. ‘dharma-protectors’, are powerful and ferocious spirits – supernatural bouncers or ‘fixers’ – who are oath-bound to serve the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government and the Tibetan people by providing prophetic advice on religious issues and affairs of state. Continue reading