Jojo M. Fung SJ


This article argues that the Aboriginal dignity is a primordial given and an experiential factity reinforced by the seasonal ritualistic celebration of aboriginal festivities and passage of life.  The more these rituals in relation to the spirit-world are being experienced, the more indigenous peoples become aware that the shamanic world is a foundational constituent or the existential DNA-stuff of their aboriginal dignity. This article begins with an anthropological inquiry. In this inquiry, I will explain how aboriginal dignity is subverted when their shamanic beliefs and practices have been denigrated during the colonial era, both by the powers that be and the mainstream religions. Yet the very experience of being subverted enables indigenous shamanism to be every more subversive and creative. The ever “subversive yet creative space”’ demonstrate a certain power-over the government official, the logging business and the Indonesian military. This space in reverse subverts the hegemonism of any systemic erasure of aboriginal cultures and shamanism. The latter can be outlawed but not outlived for the shamanic world are about transcendental realities known as the sacred world of spirits. In section II of this article, viable strategies are enumerated so that the Church, as a significant stackholder, can engage both the members of the dominant society and the indigenous communities in the promotion of aboriginal dignity, with a special focus on women and the young. These strategies aim at the kind of collaborative efforts that will bring about the total human flourishing of indigenous peoples so that they enjoy their rightful dignity as equal citizens in our world.

Jojo M. Fung, SJ                                                                                           

The shift in the regional and global perception of the aboriginal dignity and rights is perceptible before and after the UN Year and Decade of Indigenous Peoples in 1993 and 1994-2004 respectively. This paradigmatic shift is made possible by the local and regional efforts of the aboriginal subaltern movements around the world. The aboriginal movements in Asia no less, have contributed their share to the ripple effects of the regional and global flow of heightened consciousness of aboriginal dignity.

Any festive celebration of the recognition of Indigenous status enjoins the regional and global communities to retrospectively recognize that aboriginal peoples celebrate their dignity as the people of the land even before the arrival of the colonial subjects. The various stackholders in the civil society need to be involved in a concerted effort to reverse all policies that are determined to subvert the indigenous cultures and religiosity. On the other hand, concerted and collaborative efforts continue to sustain all life-giving cultural and religious practices that enhance full human flourishing of the indigenous communities. Though the collective memory of the dominant society has chosen to dis-member

* I would like to thank Daniel Kister, SJ for reading and commenting on the first draft which was a paper presented at the New Pentecost Forum 2007, Australian Catholic University, Sydney, Australia.
rather than re-member the primordial factity of indigenous dignity, it is the prerogative of the civil society stakeholders to ceremonially affirm and assert, even joyously celebrate the aboriginality of indigenous peoples.

This paper calls attention to the inherent fact that the aboriginal dignity is inseparable from indigenous shamanic beliefs and rituals, especially their age-old institution known as shamans with its religio-cultural practices commonly denoted as indigenous shamanism. This paper contends that the everyday struggle for the full legal recognition of the aboriginal dignity is firmly grounded in aboriginal cultural and religious beliefs and practices. In the first section, I will establish that the cultural and religious practices manifest a certain subversive memory that defies the developmental logic of the authorities. I will attempt to foreground such subversive memory through three narratives. The first account established the fact that indigenous shamanism is a subverted space. The second narrative relates to the current struggle of the Semai in Malaysia which will offer a window of understanding of the intimate relation before ritualistic celebration and everyday struggle. In the second and third narratives, I will highlight how indigenous shamanism has become an ever subversive and creative space. In part two, I will enumerate some viable strategies by which the Church as a significant stackholder can engage members of the dominant and aboriginal societies in the promotion of the full human flourishing of the dignity of indigenous peoples in a subversive space that celebrates our differences in an ever-evolving modern society.


I.   Indigeneous Shamanism: A Subverted Space

Indigenous shamanism constituted the practice of beliefs in an ever subverted space. The systemic closure and erasure of indigenous cultural and religious beliefs and practices is common knowledge in any colonized society. According to Mark J. Plotkin, an American ethnobotanist, “the denigration of shamanism is by no means restricted to one area of the world.”  He cited few incidences to illustrate his point.

In Zimbawa shamanism was outlawed by the Witchcraft Regulations of 1895 and the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1899. Guilty parties were subject to thirty-six lashes and/or seven years in prison. During the 1930s and 1940s in Siberia, the cradle of shamanism, medicine men were considered counterrevolutionaries. Government officials went so far as to compose poems celebrating the godlike qualities of Lenin and Stalin, which they distributed among tribespeople to convince them that communism’s leaders were more powerful than their own. In Mexico, the conquistadors destroyed sacred temples and built churches on the same foundations, then melted down sacred gold and silver idols and turned them into coins and crucifixes. And throughout North America, American Indians, who have melded Christianity with their native beliefs, still struggle to be allowed to consume peyote, a traditional part of their religious rituals.

          In Indonesia island of Siberut, west of Sumatra, the Protestant church issued a declaration against the healers of that land. It states that the church considers the activities of the Kerei (medicine men) as heathen and blasphemous, and is determined to abolish the Kerei activities as fraud at the expense of the people. The Protestant church forbids their church members to have anything to do with a Kerei, and Kerei are banned from the church.

In Venezuela, whole villages of Panare Indians were terrified into converting to Christianity when a Bible published in their language claimed that the Panare had crucified Jesus Christ and had better be prepared to suffer the consequences. Only by following the way of the one true God could they expect forgiveness. And in the Columbian Amazon, Protestant and Catholic clergymen set fire to holy longhouses and ornaments and exposed sacred musical instruments to the women and children of the tribe – a practice expressly forbidden by the tenets of the Indians’ religion.”

The subversion of shamanism is no exception in Soviet Russia. Mariko Namba Walter describes how shamans were persecuted in the Soviet era at least from 1920s to the 1970s.

Shamans were severely persecuted by the government, through social isolation, purges, and extermination policies. This persecution was based on the cultural evolutionary theories of Marx and Engels who viewed shamanism, like any forms of religion, as superstitious and destined to end in alienation from the common good. Being treated as class enemies, thousands of shamans were arrested and deported from their homes, often dying in gulags, with a subsequent loss in the rich oral traditions of Siberian shamanism. (Glavatskaya 2001, 245).

Not only is shamanism subverted by the powers that be, but also by mainstream religions. As recent as 2003, my conversation with Inai Kusia,  a well known shamaness of the Kadazandusun, the largest indigenous peoples in the state of Sabah (formerly known as British North Borneo) questioned and pleaded with me: “Why is the Catholic Church and the priests continue to preach against us? Can you talk to them to stop this?”  Her plea represented a modern-day cry of an age-old practice and belief-system that is still being relentlessly subverted by the modern religions.

Given the evidences of hegemonic practices of subversion by the powers that be and the mainstream religions, I postulate that indigenous shamanism is an ever subversive and ever creative space whence the indigenous communities negotiate and resist the very hegemony that threatens and subverts their dignity as indigenous peoples of the land.

II.   Indigenous Shamanism: Ever Subversive Ever Creative

    The narratives in this section will foreground the fact that when the shamans and shamanic practices that constitute the ‘building blocks’ of aboriginal dignity are being subverted, the very subverted space become the site that is ever subversive and creative, in different ways at different times and places.
  (A) A Semai Narrative

An aboriginal community known as Semai located in Perak, a state in the central part of Peninsular Malaysia. This community is in the midst of a conflict with the authorities, including the State and Federal Governments, over their land that will be annexed for purpose of establishing a botanical park. The case, according to Tijah, the community spokeswoman, will eventually end up in the court and a long-drawn legal battle will ensue. She is convinced that judicial activism is the last resort for this aboriginal community. Yet this struggle is not just a matter of multi-party negotiation involving several stackholders but it is also a symbolic struggle involving communal prayer when the dignity of a people is subverted.

At 11.00 pm on Thursday, March 22, 2007, the communal prayer known as “sewang” took place. Tijah and I went over to Pak Ipan’s house at about 10.45pm. Upon arrival, we were told that Pak Ipan was invited over to one of the participants’ house to shamanize (known in Semai as“jumpi”) because he was suffering from a “neck-pain.” (Malay: sakit leher). But as we decided to go back to the house, we met 3 young women and we doubled back to Pak Ipan’s house. Tijah went inside to the space at the back where the kitchen was, to prepare for the sewang. I stayed in the main hall (front-space) to watch a Cantonese Police Story. Then Tijah called me in and I went into the kitchen to have a drink (tea and some biscuits) with the gathering, some of whom are youths of the village. As we chatted, Pak Ipan felt that it was time to begin the ritual. So he requested that all of us faced the front of him as he sat at the back next to the leafy brushes (known in Semai as Canau), incense pot and the jar of flowers. Then the wife held the container with the “canau”” over the incense and then incensed the jar of flowers around the base. With the Pak Ipan began the ritual. According to Tijah, the long and short of it is: (a) as disclosed by her before the prayer for a spirit of tolerance on the part of the personnels representing the authorities (District Office, Public Works Department (JKR), Land Department (Jabatan Tanah), the Aboriginal Affairs Department (JHEOA)…etc); (b) during the prayer: Pak Ipan called on the spirits of the trees, rocks, rivers, birds, animals, the ancestors … the entire environment to come to the aid of the negotiation and that the spirits will ameliorate the minds and hearts of those who are in charge so that they will be receptive at the negotiation. He prayed that the negative energy and harmful knowledge (ilmu Gob). To conclude the “Sewang,”the woman assistant, Kenmerija carried the canau (the action of carrying is known in Semai as repa) to the main entrance of the house to cast away whatever is evil and destructive, to the point that they may even recoil on the heads of the wicked. Then the “sewang” ended, and the Pak Ipan instructed and explained about the relation of the prayer to the negotiation process on Saturday and what they needed to bring with them to the negotiation session.

Knowing the power of the symbolic and how it impinges on the cultural struggle, and interested in the effect of the sewang on the negotiation which took place two days later, I enquired Tijah the result of the negotiation. She mentioned that she spoke with great confidence to the stackholders during the negotiation. The representatives of the authorities had their heads down, ashamed and guilty. Only the District Officer spoke in a manner she perceived to be open and friendly. She was grateful for the prayers offered in the village and she realized that her agency is never purely human but religious, symbolic of the world of the Divine and the spirits.

     This current subaltern narrative from the Semai aboriginal community informs us that the dignity of the aboriginal community is indelibly rooted at the symbolic level in which rituals such as sewang is just a vital expression of inalienable dignity of the aboriginal peoples. This symbolic dimension is rightly a subversive and creative space in which human efforts, when infused with the shamanic power of the spirits, subverts the very powers that attempts to subvert them. So the subverted victims become the creative subverting agents in the very space when the symbolic and the everyday are fused into a unitary seamless whole. Such a reciprocal creative process is rightly called subversion-in-reverse.

(B) A Historical Murut Narrative

Garing is the key protagonist in a really astounding narrative in the period known as confrontasi (a Malay word that signified the conflict)  in which Garing was a border scout for the 2nd K.E.O. Gurkhas division of the British Army. The conflict became the occasion for Garing to exercise his shamanic power.

One day, while on surveillance at the Sabah-Kalimantan border, the Gurkhas realized that there were Indonesian soldiers nearby. He was given orders to climb to the top of a Tarap tree and take secret photos of the enemy soldiers. He willingly agreed to do this as he could scale trees more easily than the others. However, the leafy branches of the Tarap tree blocked his view. He was then told to try and cut off some of the branches so that he could have a better view and shot. As he was cutting the first branch, it broke and made a loud noise falling to the ground. He decided it would be safer to get out of the tree. However, the sound of the falling branch had attracted the attention of the Indonesian soldiers. They spotted Garing trying to climb out of the tree and they shot at him. Somehow, the bullets hit the branches, breaking them, instead of hitting him. They shot off several branches of the tree. Mortars were fired on him as well. The Gurkhas ran off, thinking that he was killed. But later, he emerged amidst them. Unscathed. When he was sent back for another reconnaissance mission, they were again fired upon too. He instructed his fellow soldiers to cling onto him for protection. They escaped from the enemy without incurring any casualty. Only then it became apparent to the Gurkhas that Garing had power to protect as many as six of them at one time from any harm of bullets and mortars.

Garing’s bravery earned him the royal medal of Her Majesty, the Queen of England and the Duke of Edinburgh. It was willy nilly a symbolic (albeit European) affirmation, of the local shamanic power that subverts the hegemonic might of the military of Indonesia, armed with weaponary of the powerful nations.

             The creative yet subversive memory of the aboriginal communities of the Semai and the Muruts enables us to state conclusively that shamans and indigenous shamanism are symbolic of a power-over relation that baffles the might of the dominant powers. This shamanic power is exercised in the actual asymmetric world where the unequal relation provides legitimacy to the systemic erasure of indigenous cultures and religiosity.

Landon believes the shaman are the “possessor of power, and it is power that enables him to mediate between the extrahuman and human. This concept of power is intimately linked to the idea of energy forces, the manifestation of these forces in the soul, and the growth and development of humans” as “manifested as light or aura . . . in songs” for “the shaman’s power interacts with the global energy system” (Ibid.:14). Shamans draw upon “this energy through the ecstatic experience, through dreams or through trances induced by drugs” (Ibid.:20). In view of this, I contend that shamans and shamanism are existential embodiment and symbolic expression of the ever subversive yet creative power still unbeknownst to many in the dominant society (See Fung 2000).

(C) A Recent Murut Narrative

In the year 2002, in the same village of Bantul, the son of Garing, Ringgo bin Garing, whose nickname is Elap, led the villagers on an assertive negotiation with an illegal logging company in the vicinity of the village. Elap creatively adapted the shamanic incantations which he partly inherited from his Father and from those neighbouring shamans in Kalimantan.

The logging firm, operated by a Chinese, which conducted illegal logging activities in the water catchement area near to the Bantul village  has failed to hold any prior consultation with the village committee. From the commencement of the logging activities, the villagers have not been paid any form of compensation. So Elap took the matter into his own hand and decided to meet up with the Chinese businessman. In this preliminary encounter, Elap was insulted and ridiculed when he negotiated for a just compensation for his people. In vain, Elap admonished that he and a cohort of his men would come and confiscate the two tractors.

On the appointed day, Elap gathered about 20 young and adult male Muruts and urged the group to repeatedly chant the incantations after him, to call on the spirits to empower and protect them. In normal circumstances, these incantations would be used one on one rather than in a communal setting. The repetition gave the group a sense of confidence and empowerment. At the end of the chanting session, the group marched to the logging site, armed with sticks and knives. Elap was the official spokesperson of the group. Given their sheer numbers, the handful of workers on the logging site felt intimidated. At the start of the negotiation, the Chinese businessman was contemptuous and unyielding. Elap was persisted and Elap ordered two of the Muruts to mount the two tractors. They started the engine and drove them away. Seeing the confiscation of the two tractors, the Chinese businessman sensed his own defeat. He broke down and pleaded with Elap because without his two tractors, his whole logging business would crumbled. Elap took the opportunity to negotiate for a compensation, to be transacted in a time he stipulated. When the time came to collect the due, the Chinese businessman paid up and the compensation was divided among the different households in the village.

Though the indigenous shamanism illustrated in this narrative is tailored for resolving conflict, this narrative has demonstrated that indigenous shamanism as practiced, remains an ever subversive and creative space.

These narratives arise from poverty-stricken indigenous communities. Amidst the contrastive differences between these rurual and urban communities, I must admit that in the deplorable material poverty of the rural indigenous communities, there is more “wealth” than the dominant society, cultures and religions want to concede and credit the indigenous peoples for their shamanic beliefs. When I contrast this newly found “treasures” with the modern techno-centric lifestyle, the latter truly fizzles out in its apparent significance because of its apparent “hollowness,” not to mention the “emptiness” it leaves in the hearts of many.

The contrastive differences further elucidates the many prejudiced preconceptions that become psycho-emotional boundaries that allow the differences to be all the more pronounced so much so that the dominant society continues to ignore and erase the transcendental/supernatural reality, including the multiple worlds, not to mention the spirit-world. Such a closure has denied the believers any access to this whole realm of the supernatural reality as affirmed in indigenous shamanism. This closure further reduces the human ability to listen and decipher the voices of the spirits, let alone be guided by them so as to bring about greater wholeness to human lives and the well-being of the community.

In this interstitial space of indigenous shamanism, the scientific rationality behind the current logic of globalization that reduces the “many worlds into one” world of neo-liberal capitalism is subverted by a “space” that promotes the many worlds in the one universe. Indigenous shamanism also subverts the logic of NONE IN THE ONE WORLD with their traditional wisdom of ONE IN THE MANY. Indigenous shamans believe that the one Creative Spirit is present in the many indigenous cultures, making indigenous space (especially land) and time sacred. This logic subverts the modern rationality that the world is just material, the land, terra nullis, and the earth resources, to be exploited for profit.

From these subaltern narratives, it has dawned on me that the measure by which indigenous shamanism (the shamans too) has been systemically subverted by the powers that be, the more creatively subversive and subversively creative the shamanic practices and practitioners become. In this sense, the subverted becomes ever subversive and ever creative in the lives of the indigenous communities. Tijah, Elap and Garing have demonstrated the creative and subversive edges of indigenous shamanism in their own ways, at different times and spaces. The ongoing re-enactment of these shamanic practices continues to reinforce the uniqueness of their dignity as indigenous peoples of the land.

It is in this light of such systemic suppression and marginalization that I termed the subverted yet ever subversive and creative indigenous shamanism and the practices of the shamans, a subaltern spirituality of suspect. (Fung 2005:233)


III.    Viable Strategies of Struggle

As the global and local world is simultaneously evolving, although at different rates and at different levels, it is nevertheless clear that viable strategies need to be enumerated for a forward-movement of crosscultural struggles for a fuller human flourishing of the dignity of the aboriginal peoples. I shall dwell on the strategies by which the Church can engage both the members of the dominant society and the aboriginal communities, with a special focus on women and the upcoming generation.

C.1. Members of the Dominant Society

A.    Believers of the dominant society have much to benefit from the academic research on the indigenous belief-systems and the cultural-religious practices of the shamans.  Such seminars and symposia aimed at a critical reflection and understanding of the relation between the Christian faith and indigenous belief systems must involve a critical interface between theology and social sciences such as anthropology.  In this way, believers undergo a paradigmatic change of perspectives with regard to fellow human beings (anthropology), the world (cosmology) and God (theology), including the end-goals of life in the world (teleology).
B.    The anthropology that accords full dignity to the aboriginal peoples will be the horizon that motivates members of the dominant society to struggle for the promotion of the democratic space wherein aboriginal people’s voices will be heard. When heard, members of the dominant society need to ensure that they are translated into policies that promote the full human flourishing of aboriginal peoples. In other words, aboriginal peoples must be respected as persons who are equal citizens of the nation and equal disciples of the local churches.
C.    The anthropology of human flourishing must motivate members and believers to examine and recognize the morality (intention and values) of the shamans who “work the system of indigenous beliefs” to determine whether they are gifts from God and therefore agents of God’s Spirit or the evil spirit. Respect the inherent pool of indigenous wisdom embedded in their oral traditions and sacred narratives, for on the bases of such knowledge do they formulate their own criteria, principles and norms to regulate their cultural-religious beliefs and practices.
D.    Discourses in the academia and texts in educational systems must be rightly presented to re-present the rich cultural heritages of the aboriginal community so as to promote greater sensitivity and respect for the dignity of the aboriginal peoples.
E.    Respectfully acknowledge that the shamans are in an authoritative position to explain (a) the kind of power with which they heal and exorcise for they can differentiate between white and black magic (known in Malaysia as “ilmu putih” “ilmu hitam” respectively; (b) the intended purposes of the use of such power. Reputable shamans are able to recognize and emphasize the selfless service of the community as a value and the selfish greed to enrich themselves as a disvalue to the community.
F.    Death-dealing powers inherent in indigenous shamanism must be discouraged and denounced as a disservice to society after a process of critical examination with the assistance of multidisciplinary expertise, comprising local reputable indigenous shamans and wise community leaders.
G.    Reputable shamans steeped in shamanic expertise must be regarded as partners in the concerted local and global efforts to develop a holistic approach to ecology and bodily health and wellbeing of both individuals and the local communities.
H.    Periodically participate in the rituals of life and seasonal festivities when invited by the aboriginal peoples. The end-goal is to be sensitized to aboriginal cultural ethos, values and worldviews so as to be to appreciate their worlds in their terms and become committed promoters of the sacred heritage the aboriginal peoples.
I.    Solidarity with aboriginal women enjoins women in the dominant society to learn, value, defend and promote the “spaces” that belong rightfully to aboriginal women so that they continue to exercise their roles in the aboriginal cultures and society.
J.    For the young women and men, organize learning circles that encourage localized learning through sustained but periodic long-term exposure-immersion lived-in programs in the aboriginal communities this passage to the aboriginal world and then upon the subsequent returns, will enriched the young so that the young in turn re-educate the young in the dominant society.
K.    Organize work camp for the young women and men, always in collaboration with the local aboriginal communities, so that the young women and men work together on common projects that will deepen mutual friendship and build a world of equal citizens and equal disciples in the church.
L.    Express solidarity with the aboriginal peoples by “standing with them” in their subversive space of shamanism wherein the power-over comes from the world of spirits and the Sacred.

C.2. Members of the Aboriginal Community

Given my limited experiences, I humbly propose the followings as ideas for your kind consideration in order to further ground and re-root the aboriginal identity and personhood, essentially building-blocks of aboriginal dignity:

M.    Participate faithfully in the “school of life” where rituals of the passages of life are celebrated to commemorate the origin of the world and aboriginal peoples and shamanic healings carried out and prayers offered by shamans to accompany the aboriginal struggles. [What is celebrated runs deep in one’s blood.]
N.    Learn from the lips and hearts of the wise aboriginal women and men leaders and the reputable shamannesses and shamans of the community to reinforce the aboriginal identity and dignity. [What is heard reverberates in the deep recesses of one’s soul]
O.    Organize and encourage the young to be involved in the activities of the school of life for it is a different space for unlearning what is learnt in the dominant society and re-learnt from the age-old wisdom stored up in the womb of the aboriginal communities.
P.    For the aboriginal women, stand tall and proud of the spaces uniquely belonging to aboriginal women and continue the struggle to be egalitarian society of equals citizens and equal disciples.
Q.    For the young aboriginal women and men, give time to be alone with the wise, be they the respected elders and the renowned shamans, earn your places in their hearts that they may impart the wisdom to the young women and men and initiate the young into the world that they constantly criss-cross back and forth in order to learn to appreciate and behold the sacred mysteries of life that lies the formulae for a harmonious nature in our ecological system.
R.    Stand together, young and old, in the subversive space of shamanic world of the Sacred and the spirits in order to neutralize the subverting forces of erasure.

These enumerated strategies are by no means exhaustive and need to be reformulated with the change of times as they are context-specific, therefore value-laden as they time and space-bound.


    The heightened local, regional and global flow of consciousness that promotes the dignity of indigenous peoples is based on the increasing appreciation of the capacity within aboriginal communities and their cultural and religions traditions to assert their subversive and creative spaces in the exercise of their collective memory. Aboriginal dignity is firmly grounded in the indigenous cultures and spirituality and more particularly in indigenous shamanism. The common experiences of the shamanic world of spirits enable the differences to be celebrated so as to foster the sense of a unifying solidarity among ALL. The growing sense of solidarity must be the condition of the possibility of the collaborative efforts of both members of the indigenous communities and the dominant society in the process of evolving any society. Conscientious and consistent efforts must be brought to bear on the authorities and their policies through the strategic involvement of multiple stackholders, especially organic and academic intellectuals, grassroots organizations, religious organizations and Church, social movements and committed citizens in the civil society. The process of social transformation must ensure that in an evolving society, there is “democratic space and subversive-creative space to coexist to bring about the full human flourishing where indigenous peoples themselves know they stand equal with the members of dominant society.


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