This semester, Assistant Professor of Religion and Assistant Professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Justine Buck Quijada is teaching “Shamanism” (RELI239) as well as the first year seminar “Magical Money” (RELI270). Professor Quijada researches shamanism in Russia, frequently visiting the province of Buryatia. She sat down with The Argus to talk about her Siberian travels, the best time to get a haircut, and shamanism.
The Argus: So, what’s on your bookshelf?
JQ: Well there’s a lot of books. That shelf specifically is all Russian books that I brought back from Ulan-Ude, where I work. The little horse there is a statue representation of a himori, which is the Buryat term for… you know these Tibetan prayer flags that you see sometimes that are tied onto trees? People tie them onto trees and then eventually they sort of fall apart. The Buryat term for them is Khi Morin, which is wind horses, so that’s sort of a sculptural representation of a wind horse that I also brought back, that someone gave to me in Buryatia.
Let’s see, what else is on my bookshelf… This is a little recreation of a Hopi Kachina doll…that was given to me at a job I had before I went back to grad school when I worked at the Brooklyn Museum on repatriation.
…This is a book I got at a library book sale at Chicago, which is where I got my degree. It is a Russian language, Soviet-era publication of the biography of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the priest in Spain who argued that Indians have souls.
So this is a Soviet-era biography of him that was given as a gift to the anthropologist, Sol Tax, when he worked at the University of Chicago. He donated it to the library, the library didn’t want it, and they put it in one of these book sales and I saw it and I was like, “Wow, I’m, like, the only person on the planet that would appreciate this.” [Laughs.] I keep that on my shelf where I can see it.
A: You mentioned one time in class growing up in kind of an alternative household. Can you talk a little about that?
JQ: Sure. I’m from New York originally, but my parents are not. My mom is from Germany and my father is from Wisconsin, and both of them grew up Lutheran Protestant, but both of them, in the 1960s and ’70s, were part of the rethinking of traditional religion and got very interested in alternative forms of spirituality, and when I was a kid they mostly practiced transcendental meditation. They don’t do it much any more.
They sort of personified what is sometimes called a “seeker,” a religious seeker. They never settled on anything; they never joined a particular religion. But the question of religion and what it means to people was always a really big question in my house growing up, and so it makes sense that that was something that stuck with me.
A: So how did you first decide to go to Siberia?
JQ: I had a work-study job while I was in college helping to complete inventories for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that was passed in 1990. And my first job after college—my first real job after college—was in that field as well. So I worked at the Brooklyn Museum doing this inventory and also running consultation visits with representatives of Native American tribes, and that work made it really, really clear that there’s a very strong link between religion and indigenous identity and indigenous identity politics, and the way in which that’s constructed in contemporary life.
But it was also very clear that at this point in time…it’s very important for Native Americans to be able to produce knowledge about themselves rather than to continue the process of other people producing knowledge about them. So I started looking for other places where I could ask the questions that I was interested in, but the political situation would be different, and so that particular power structure would be different. And Siberia ended up being the place where it seemed like one could do that.
Then I went just for a summer trip to learn Russian to Irkutsk actually, and I went on a cultural excursion to Ulan-Ude, and I met people there and they were so enthusiastic about the idea of anyone coming to study there. Everyone was so nice and friendly and so, like, “Yes, we do want people to come here,” and it was such a fascinating city because it’s very much an indigenous capital city, and that’s unusual, and so I was fascinated. It was like, okay, I want to work there, that’s where I want to go back to.
I had actually been to the Soviet Union once, briefly, as a high school student, so that experience probably predisposed me to be interested in going to Russia, but it was also this question of, “Where can I ask the questions I’m interested in in a way that’s not going to be such a problem?” Where people actually want to talk about it, and where it’s not as much of a feeling that, you know, “once again, someone else is writing about us.” I didn’t want to be part of that. I didn’t want to be in a position where I was constantly uncomfortable representing someone else.
A: What’s one thing that you would want Wesleyan at large to know about shamanism?
JQ: Wow, that’s a hard question. [Laughs.] That shamanism is a living tradition and practice that is far more widespread than you probably think it is, and a lot more complicated than you probably think it is. I think people have a lot of preconceptions about all religions and what they are. People tend to have a lot of preconceptions about any religion that they are not part of. But this is one of the areas of human religious practice that has a lot of powerful stereotypical images that really don’t have a whole lot of connection to what people actually do. And that’s what makes it interesting. [Laughs.]
A: And for more information you can come to the class?
JQ: And for more information you can take my class! Exactly. Eventually, I’ll have a faculty webpage and stuff like that, but I haven’t gotten around to finishing it all yet. It’s on my to-do list.
A: How did you end up at Wesleyan?
JQ: The usual process. There was a job ad and I applied for it and I was lucky enough to get hired. Yeah, that’s a fairly simple one. I immediately knew that I wanted the job.
A: Have you ever personally been treated by a shaman during your research?
JQ: For small things, yes. I’ve never had a major intervention like an exorcism or anything like that. I’ve had minor divinations and small blessings and things like that said. I’ve been lucky enough not to have encountered any major illnesses or crises in my life. So it that sense I’m lucky that I have never needed to be treated for anything serious. Let’s hope that continues. [Knocks on wood.]
A: Because you don’t want to have to go to the shaman?
JQ: No one wants to have, you know, major misfortunes in their life that would have to be treated.
A: So you said that when you go to Siberia you work in a team with your husband, who is a photographer?
JQ: Yes. My husband is a photographer and he came with me for the full year’s dissertation fieldwork, and he was also a member of the research team that came for the grant project I was working on last summer. It’s been wonderful to get to do that as a team. He has a website that has some of the photos from our field-site. It’s nice to have the two different perspectives. His is very much a layperson’s but also from an artistic photography kind of perspective, whereas I have the much more academic take on it, and the confluence of the two is very productive. I’m really lucky that he’s been willing to participate in all of that.
A: The landscape in Buryatia kind of reminds me of Alaska.
JQ: Yeah, the part to the east of Lake Baikal tends to be a lot of steppe and plains with rolling mountains… and the sky is just so big. People talk about the Dakotas as big sky country but that’s always what I think of in Buryatia; the sky is just bigger than it is here. It’s huge, it’s enormous, and I’m not sure how to convey that. This idea that you can see everything stretching out forever is…
JQ: It’s really beautiful. Siberia is beautiful at all times of the year. It’s very harsh weather and a harsh landscape. It gets really cold in the winter and really hot in the summer. It gets unbelievably dusty in the spring; it’s really windy and dusty. But it’s unbelievably beautiful, one of the places everyone should see and probably no one will.
Lake Baikal is phenomenally beautiful. In the summer it’s unbelievably beautiful. In the winter it freezes solid, the top does, to the point where you can drive across it, but it takes a while and so parts of ice floes will freeze and then push each other up and they make these ice sculptures. It’s so white, no tree; it’s the most extreme landscape I’ve ever seen, Lake Baikal in the winter.
A: You can drive on it?
JQ: You can totally drive it on it, yeah. So we’re by the shores of the lake in the middle of winter—it was probably February or March—and there’s a fisherman who’s carved a hole in the ice and he’s fishing through the hole in the ice. We’re all very carefully peeking over the edge and so I ask him, “isn’t this dangerous? Is there a chance we’re going to fall through?” and he starts laughing his head off at me. He’s like, “look in the hole, look in the hole,” and I look down and it’s literally ten feet of ice that he’s carved through to get to the water underneath in order to fish. And, you know, then you feel really stupid because you realize, no it’s not going to break. [Laughs] But yeah you’ve never seen anything like this…well, maybe in Alaska yeah, or parts of Canada perhaps. It’s gorgeous, it’s really gorgeous. I feel very lucky that I’ve have had the chance to spend as much time there as I have, and I look forward to going back.
JQ: [My husband] has been documenting these rituals, so we picked out together a certain number of photos from one ritual that seem to illustrate the progression of the ritual, and then we interviewed the director of the shamans’ organization, the head shaman, to ask him what was going on in each of the photos. So eventually we want to edit that together into a short film that has a slideshow from one image to the next overlaid with his voice and a transcription at the bottom of what he’s saying about what’s going on in the ceremony.
We’ve never done any real video recording of it, but I like the photographs, because in a sense they give you a chance to step back and reflect on it. So we can show [each] photo for as long as it takes to hear what he has to say about it…So eventually that’ll get done.
…And this is one of the [shamanic] organization’s calendars [she directs my attention to a calendar on the wall, with various symbols next to each date.] It lists ceremonial days and days that are lucky for various events, things like that. That’s something that all the Buddhist organizations do as well: they have these astrological calendars that tell you when it’s safe to start a journey, and what days are lucky for various different things, what days are unlucky. So the shamans’ organization has started to do the same thing.
A: [Pointing to an airplane symbol that appears next to some dates] Are those days when it’s okay to fly?
JQ: Mhm, yeah. And these with the little scissors are days when it’s auspicious to get a haircut, weirdly enough. [Laughs]
A: Strangely specific.
JQ: Strangely specific, yeah. Well that’s something that’s kind of a risky behavior, I guess [laughs]. Cutting off part of yourself.
A: Can you talk about how repatriation factors into your research?
JQ: Oh, ok. It’s a complicated law. It’s been going on for a long time, and Wesleyan just actually hired a repatriation coordinator, so that could be your next interview. Professor Honor Keeler just started last year and she’s in charge of completing Wesleyan’s inventories and repatriation project. But yeah, it’s unbelievable how much stuff is in museums, and bodies, how many human remains are in museums. We were lucky at the Brooklyn Museum that human remains were not really a big part of the collection. It’s kind of unbelievable when you think about the scope of it.
A: Well, they used to have live people.
JQ: Yeah, in museum displays, like the Chicago Worlds’ Fair, there were live people, are some of them ended up in the museums after they died. That’s kinda creepy.
A: That’s really creepy.
JQ: [Laughs.] Yeah, it is really creepy when you think about it that way. Well, all the human remains in museums used to be live people at some point, just, you know, did they end up in the museum before they died or afterwards. Either way, they don’t necessarily need to still be there. The law was passed in 1990, but it’s still an ongoing process of inventory and reburial and repatriation. There’s been a lot of progress made overall, a lot of stuff inventoried, a lot of both human remains and objects repatriated, but it’s nowhere near close to finished.
A: But the mummies are okay.
JQ: Well, it’s all a question of the descendants. You know, are the descendants creeped out by it or not, right? Are they disturbed by it? If the modern descendants of the Egyptian pharaohs don’t mind.
A: If there are any.
JQ: Well I guess now the Egyptian state would stand in for them. And there are actually objects of cultural patrimony that get claimed under international repatriation laws to be returned to Egypt for example, and all sorts of other countries.
You know, the Elgin Marbles have been under debate for years and years, should that go back to Greece? Because there’s a sense of, “well, this stuff is ours and we should have some say over how it gets disposed of.”
But yeah, if the Egyptian government doesn’t mind the mummies being on display, that’s okay, right? But it’s a question of, do you want your grandparents to be on display? Your grandparents are cool with that and they donated their bodies to science, that’s fine. But if it was taken, and no one asked, and the descendants are not okay with it, that’s a different story. So you can’t make a blanket statement, “bodies are okay, bodies are not okay;” it’s a tricky question. There are tourist sites that are not run by Native Americans that include Native American burials, that are highly controversial, and people are trying to shut them down. In Illinois I know there was one. Like mound-builder sites and stuff that are tourist destinations.
A: Those grassy, hill-looking things?
JQ: Yes, it’s like, “here, look at this glass floor, you can see peoples’ bodies.”
A: One time I read about how, I think it was in England, for a time, for entertainment, they used to put the recently dead bodies on display.
JQ: There are actually a bunch of different classes about that, like The Archaeology of Death, and there’s a class about funeral practices in the ancient classical world. There’s been a huge range of different ways in which the dead are disposed of. There’s still that Bodies exhibit, right? The recently dead on display, so in a sense we’re still doing that! [Laughs.] This is not necessarily something we’ve left behind; it’s still going on, that Bodies display that gets toured around. And it is weirdly fascinating, but there are also a lot of ethical questions about where the bodies came form.
A: Yeah I’m not a fan of that one. It came to my local Science Museum and I had to pass on it.
JQ: Yeah, there are a lot of questions about cultural standards, like we were talking about in class the other day, about what’s normal and what’s culturally validated as good or bad, right? What constitutes a proper burial is one of the really big questions, about what is the appropriate way to dispose of the dead. How do we honor our ancestors? How do we treat them properly is really culturally specific. You can say it’s culturally relative as long as you want to but if it’s your culture and your dead, you care. It’s really hard to be neutral on a question like that.
A: Like with the Mormons blessing past generations.
JQ: Yeah, baptizing people who are long dead. And if you’re interested, there are actually a lot of people on campus that work on comparative death rites. Professor [Victoria] Smolkin-Rothrock is doing research on the attempt to promote cremation in the Soviet Union as an appropriate Atheist funeral, and it was phenomenally unpopular amongst people, but it was part of this push to Soviet modernism, what’s an appropriate burial and what isn’t. In the Mongolian area, certain individuals including children were often buried in scaffold burials traditionally, which is where the body is exposed to the elements. So you build these scaffolds to put the body out in the idea that birds come and eat them up and it gets dissolved faster as a way of speeding up the reincarnation process. The faster the body goes away, the faster the soul can return. And from other perspectives that would be the most disrespectful thing you could ever possibly do to a body, whereas from a different perspective it’s the most respectful thing you can do to a body. We kind of got off topic.
A: That’s the fun part.
JQ: I’m also teaching an FYS, that’s my other class this semester.
A: Which one?
JQ: I’m teaching Magical Money and Enchanted Capitalism. We read a lot of Marx and a lot of ethnographies about the way capitalism is experienced as a product of mystical forces, or enchanted. Bolivian tin miners who make pacts with the devil in order to increase their production, Malaysian factory workers who are possessed by spirits, Russian new age healers who will produce business curses on competitors, Korean shamans who will bless new businesses. So we’re doing that and seeing whether Marx is useful.
A: Do you talk about the cargo cults?
JQ: We’re not doing cargo cults! Everyone asks if we’re doing cargo cults, so the next time I teach it, I think I have to do cargo cults. [Laughs.] There’s so much potential material to choose from for a class like that, surprisingly enough.