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Shamans and Ritual Performances in Contemporary Contexts Research Group

English Summary

Shamans and Ritual Performances in Contemporary Contexts

The classic topic of shamanism has recently been reconsidered from a number of perspectives. These perspectives include general definitional and comparative issues (Kehoe 2000; MacDonald 2002; Znamenski ed. 2004); universalist and evolutionary considerations (Winkelman 2002); neo-shamanism and shamanic practices in the contemporary world (Blain and Wallis 2006); and aspects of shamanic activities connected with conflict, aggression, and cosmology (Strathern and Stewart 2004; Whitehead, 2002; Whitehead and Wright 2004 eds.).
In the approach of this research group emphasis will be placed on the central performative healing and mediating roles of shamans among the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and on the idea of performance in relation to shamanic practices in general; and a special Reading List on performance and performativity in ritual will be developed during 2007 for collective use by this research group's members. This literature will then be related back to the information on shamanic practices in the Taiwan context and used also to guide future field research.
The importance of ritual experts known in the ethnographic literature as shamans is well-known for the Austronesian-speaking groups in Taiwan, parts of New Guinea and South-East Asia, and many other areas of the world. These experts, female or male, play leading roles as healers, diviners, and mediators in processes of conflict and the establishment of political power in local contexts. In the case of the Taiwanese indigenous peoples, shamans (and issues surrounding their practices) have become significant in two particular ways: one through historical conflicts with the teachings of Christian missionaries, especially at the times of conversion to Christianity; and second, more recently through their prominence in movements for "cultural revival" and the re-appropriation of indigenous cultural identity. Shamans are also relevant figures in the constellation of gender relations and local political power in their communities; and they may continue to play roles as healers in the treatment of illnesses . As well, there is some indication that charismatic Christian Protestant healers may take on positions that approximate those previously held by shamans in some cases, showing how the shamanic concept can transform itself over time or enter into relations of a hybrid kind with other traditions. By focusing on Shamanic Performances, past and present, and examining how these relate to wider processes of change, adaptation, or conflict within the society at large, we plan to bring together the study of ideas and practices and to understand the flexible power that is generated through shamanic activities. The phenomenon of shamanic actions and their contexts of performance will be seen as an index of a number of vital social and cultural processes at work in contemporary indigenous communities.
Further Points that this Research Group will be considering include: -In relation to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan we will need to define the concept of performance to fit the local contexts. This makes necessary the collaboration with scholars working on different Aboriginal people (e.g., Paiwan, Amis, Puyuma, Kavalan, Atayal, and Bunun) and able to provide our group with detailed relevant ethnography. -Before their encounter with Han settlers, these shamanic societies were not closed to one another. Economic and cultural exchanges were frequent. Thus, it is first important to pay attention to the way these societies were interconnected and to the cultural results and implications of these exchanges. Then, we have to focus on the specific historical conditions within which each of these societies encountered Outsiders in general, including the Han settlers and the Christian missionaries. We also have to identify the influence of these specific historical contexts on each society's social changes. -All of the societies mentioned above have (or had) female shaman groups who are / were central to their social organization, and this is rare in comparative terms around the world. Nowadays, some of these societies still exclude men totally (e.g., Kavalan, Paiwan and Rukai), or with rare exceptions, from the position of shaman (e.g., Puyuma and Amis). This situation is not simply a result of the social changes involved by the integration of these societies in modern state economies and political systems as has been observed in other parts of the world. This is why the role played by women as shamans has to retain our attention in order to enable us to achieve a better understanding of the importance of their ritual practices in the survival of their groups in the contemporary social context. In analyzing this point it is important to recognize also that women's activities are set into an overall gendered field of relationships, including men as well as women in the reproduction or transformation of social relations. This dynamic of gendered relations is one that can be explored further as the work of the Research Group develops. -Complex historical / political impacts of successive waves of outside colonizers on the lives of the indigenous peoples have constantly to be taken into account in assessing contemporary practices of a shamanic kind. Because of the complex interrelations between Outsiders and the indigenous populations, hybrid practices containing elements from different societies have developed in the realm of shamanic activity. In addition, there are differences between the different indigenous groups in terms of fixity or fluidity of their shamanic practices, which we will aim to study comparatively. One theme that is important throughout, however, is the significance of dreams. A detailed study of the ritual chants in various shamanic traditions will be used in order to elucidate elements of continuity or change from the past.
Organizers: Hu Tai-Li; Liu Pi-chen

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