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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Psychohygienic and therapeutic aspects of the Salish guardian spirit ceremonial Jilek, Wolfgang George


This study is based on analysis of ethnographic literature; personal observation of contemporary spirit dance and healing ceremonies in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia; individual interviews with Coast Salish Indian leaders, ritualists, and other spirit ceremonial participants; and on five years of close contact with the Upper Stalo Indians as physician and regional mental health officer. In the Coast Salish area, the North American Indian guardian spirit complex combined the spirit quest of the Plateau tribes with secret society features of Northwest Coast culture. The suppression of the traditional ceremonial by church and government authorities in the decades following the White intrusion is briefly illustrated, and the history of the recent revival of spirit dancing in the Fraser Valley is reported. Ethnographic evidence is cited to demonstrate that the achievement of altered states of consciousness was an essential aspect of the traditional ceremonial: the spirit encounter took place in such a psychophysiologic state, and the traditional spirit quest and spirit dance initiation involved conditions and techniques identical with, or analogous to, those commonly found in the production of altered states of consciousness elsewhere. The seasonal spirit illness of future spirit dancers in traditional Coast Salish culture was a stereotyped pathomorphic, but not pathologic, prelude to the public exhibition of spirit powers in the dance ceremonial. Today it is often fused with psychic and psychophysiologic symptom formation in the context of cultural and social deprivation, a syndrome which the author describes under the heading of anomic depression. Diagnosis of this condition as spirit illness permits re-identification of an estranged Indian person with the aboriginal culture via initiation into spirit dancing. The author presents contemporary spirit dance initiation as a healing process based on the therapeutic myth of death and rebirth of the neophyte who is made to regress to a state of infantile dependency in order to obtain his spirit power and to grow with it into a more rewarding and healthier existence. Personality depatterning and reorientation towards the ideal norms of Salish culture is achieved through shock treatments and various types of sensory deprivation and stimulation, followed by physical exercise and indoctrination. In contemporary Salish theory and practice, persons suffering from depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints unresponsive to Western methods of treatment, as well as persons with behaviour problems, are candidates for the initiation procedure which implies considerable expenses and some risks. The revived ceremonial provides the local native population with an annual winter treatment programme integrating several types of therapy which are identified and discussed. Preliminary data suggest that, as far as the Indian clientele is concerned, the therapeutic effectiveness of this indigenous Salish treatment compares favourably with Western medical approaches, in conditions of ill health in which psychophysiologic mechanisms are prominent, and with Western correctional management of behaviour disorders associated with alcohol or drug abuse. Analysis of the changes occurring in the traditional ceremonial since the revival of spirit dancing, shows that what in the past was a ritual with psychohygienic aspects is now an organized Indian effort at culture-congenial psychotherapy. In an attempt to define and localize modern Salish spirit dancing as a social phenomenon within proposed classificatory schemata, it is characterized as a redemptive movement aiming at total personality change, with nativistic tendencies towards a collective Indian renaissance.

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