Lushootseed Culture and the Shamanic Odyssey: An Anchored Radiance.  Jay Miller.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. 185 pp.


Brian Thom

McGill University


            In this book, Miller argues that Lushootseed culture -- one of the Coast Salish cultures on the Northwest Coast -- is rooted in place.  People draw spiritual power from the places they are anchored to and have built their cosmology around the drainages of Puget Sound.  This is a useful way to think about Coast Salish cultures, for which the land and particular places in the landscape are central figures.  However, in this book, the idea is better than the execution.  The book does not place itself within the discourse of contemporary relationships to land.  Miller centres his discussion on “traditional concerns of the early 1800s, when the culture was more consistently integrated among its members and environments” (p. 6).  Miller articulates his notion of the ‘anchored radiance’ of Lushootseed culture through reviewing published and archival sources, drawing in comparative material from other Coast Salish communities for comparison.  To a degree, his approach is useful in highlighting the connectedness of Lushootseed people to place.  But the book is fraught with methodological and logical weaknesses which spoil the attempt.

            The first chapter provides an overview of the people of Puget Sound, their spiritual and shamanic practices, and their “sharing strategies” for food and wealth.  The ethnohistory of the area is reviewed in the second chapter, drawing on the Alexandra Harmon’s PhD dissertation (a fine work which has recently been published as Indians in the Making, U. California Press, 1998).  In the third chapter Miller gives a summary of many of the published accounts of oral traditions from Lushootseed and neighbouring Coast Salish peoples to provide some context for Lushootseed cosmology.  His fourth and fifth chapters discuss how ‘houses’ and ‘canoes’ might be seen as useful metaphors for Lushootseed worldviews, and provides ethnographic reconstructions of such topics as class, gender, poltaching and winter dances.  The sixth and perhaps most original chapter discusses the importance of decedence in reckoning kinship, the typical social roles of people at various stages in their lives, and concepts of bodily sickness.  Miller concludes the book with a short chapter revisiting the historical descriptions of the shamanic odyssey to the land of the dead and makes an argument for the relevance of the metaphors of house and body for contemporary Lushootseed concepts of health, personhood and cultural continuity.

            Miller does not engage the contemporary political economy literature, or the more philosophical strains of social science which view power as essential and embedded in all cultural and social relations.  Thus, when Miller discusses urbanization, he centres on the increased utility in automotive transport, rather than the alienation of land and resources that has come with it.  To cleanse the potent power relations embedded in the past 200 years of colonization and acculturation, Miller conceptually separates cultural traits concerned with ‘survival’ (those things which are “drudgery, mechanical and uninformative” (p.31) and which amount to “what people have to do to keep themselves and their families in food, clothing, and other necessities” (p. 30)) from ‘culture’ (which he sees as being a “dynamic, interactive and receptive process of insightful learning” (p. 31)).  For Miller, the underlying utility of the division is to provide a way to explain how even though contemporary Lushootseed have acculturated to a degree into mainstream American society, they retain a distinctive culture.

            Miller similarly ignores the important contribution of scholars like Dell Hymes and Julie Cruikshank who have discussed the relevance of the social context and narrative form of oral traditions for interpreting their meanings.  In his review of Lushootseed legends, Miller summarizes many of the prominent traditions in his own words, boiling down native narrative form to highlight their ethnographic and historical content, and providing little to help the reader understand when and how the stories are used, or by whom.  This static presentation of culture is at its worst in Miller’s frequent use of native terminology to help illustrate his interpretation of culture.  In discussing the potlatch, for example, Miller claims that ‘to exclude’ is not a word in Salishan languages, and therefore the idea of ‘exclusion’ is not thinkable.  However, Miller is not fluent in the language, nor has he conducted the necessary linguistic studies to test his strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  A simple comparison to Upriver Halkomelem, a Salishan language very closely related to Lushootseed, reveals that ‘exclusion’ is indeed thinkable and is part of the lexicon: awe sq’eq’ó glosses as ‘not be included’ and áyeles glosses as ‘to abandon someone’.

            Miller’s most insightful discussion centres on the practice of decedence in Coast Salish communities.  Decedence is the recognition of affinal and collateral kin after a parent’s death.  Many Salishan language mark decedence with special kin terms for surviving aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.  Miller suggests that responsibility for children is passed from the deceased to the surviving kin group through the use of decedence terms to ensure the continued recognition of both affinal and collateral kin (p. 123).  This practice was a recognition of the importance of having close kin to maintain family honour, traditions and “corporate rights to traditions and resources” (p. 124).  Miller makes the comparison of these decedence reckoning, corporate kin groups as being the equivalent to the famous matrilineal groups of the northern Northwest Coast.

            Though the quibbles I have with the facts and interpretations presented in the book are too many to innumerate here, I would like to discuss one as an example.  In his discussion of spirit quests, Miller states that “the longer one quested and the farther one went away from civilization, the more powerful was the spirit acquired” (p. 59). Later, Miller argues that “because males were courageous [my emphasis] enough to travel to the remote places inhabited by the most powerful spritis, men usually had stronger spirits than women” (p. 118). From discussions I have had with several Coast Salish, I would conclude that no such simple formula can be applied.  Powerful individuals have received their gifts close to home, while others who have searched for years have come out with little.  ‘Courage’ has never been a term my Coast Salish consultants have used to talk about their relations with their spirits, nor have they described a division of ‘strength’ along gender lines.

            My final note is to point out the context in which ethnographies are now written in many indigenous communities.  Writing ethnographies is in itself a highly political act, embedded with issues of representation and authority made even more important by the strong possibility that the ethnographic writing will come up in places like courtrooms or environmental protests.  Though Miller does not touch these issues, he is clearly aware of the importance attached to expressing the ‘right’ view of Lushootseed culture.  However, he has neither informed nor aided anyone by making superlative statements such as:  “the Lushootseed potlatch was more subtle, requiring greater cultural understanding [than other potlatches] by all those involved” (p.8), or that shamans “engaged in one of the most impressive and meaningful ceremonies in Native North American and the world” (p. 36).  Classic-style ethnographies should be left to the generation who has come before, where at least they can be situated in a historical context.