The Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu by H. Arlo Nimmo is loosely based on the experiences he had conducting field work as an anthropologist. Nimmo injects into the narrative insight based on the two years in the mid-1960's he spent living with the nomadic boat-dwelling Bajau in the Sulu Islands of the southern Philippines. The book contains a total of 16 stories, many of which describe the practices of shamans and the role that they play in the context of this particular community.
In general a Shaman is defined as "a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events ("shaman")." According to Atkinson, the concept of Shamism in the study of ananthropology has been met with a great deal of skepticism. Atkinson explains that "shamanism is ... A made-up, modem, Western category, an artful reification of disparate practices, snatches of folklore and overarching folklorizations, residues of long-established myths intermingled with the poli-tics of academic departments, curricula, conferences, journal juries and arti-cles, [and] funding agencies (Atkinson 1992, 307)." Despite such assertions the subject of shamanism has been able to survive the throws of anthropological study. Books such as The Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu, written by an anthropologist, give more credence to the need to study the subject of Shamanism.
In many societies Shamans are amongst the most respected individuals in the community because of the power they are believed to possess. This is particularly true in areas of the world that have traditionally embraced and dependent upon Shamans for haling and spiritual guidance. In The Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu the narrator tells the story of "female shamans fighting against the Saitan. Saitan is "the, spirit that causes illness and other misfortune (Soloman, 1994)." Saitan is also seen as the spirit of the island in the narrative. The book depicts this battle in dramatic ways and seeks to give the reader a true understanding of the ways in which spiritual issues were handled amongst the Bajau people in the Sulu Islands of the southern Philippines.
In reality the fictional narrative presented by Nimmo are consistent with the manner in which the Bajau people function and operate. As of 2001, there were between 70,000 to 100,000 Bajau living in the southern Philippines. They tend to have the belief that all problems that they encounter can be attributed to saiton. They believe that saiton are, evil spirits who live in both the sea and mangrove forests. In addition the Bajau tribe also believes in various other spirits that move from place to place and have the appearance of animals or fish. In fact they believe that a significant number of the spirits commonly invade villages and are the source of illness. Torres & Gonzales also explain the role of Shamans in Bajau society as it pertains to handling these spirits. The authors assert that
"It used to be that shamans would perform a curative rite known as the omboh, which involves the launching of a pamatulikan (spirit boat), to get rid of such spirits. These days, the Bajau are too poor to launch even a small boat for the ritual. But they also know that their omboh may not be able to protect them from more ruthless saitan who wear bonnet masks and are called by many names like pirata or Abu Sayyaf. Not to mention the big commercial fishing vessels that now dominate the waters they used to call home (Torres & Gonzales). "
The stories in the book that deal most intimately with Shamanism are The Saiton, The Possessed, and To Each His God. Each of these stories exposes the superstitions and remedies to spiritual problems and spiritual evils that the Bajau people face in their daily lives. There is a palpable feeling presented throughout the book that assist the reader in understanding the environment being described. In some ways the Bajau people seem to be obsessed with the belief that evil spirits were out to destroy their community. A belief likely passed from generation to generation.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the presence of female Shamans. Throughout other works of fiction the use of female Shamans in the narrative is rare in more modern works. In addition from an anthropological point-of-view female shamans are known to exist in many different societies. For instance, amongst the Mapuche people of Chile most Shamans are known to be women. Mapuche is described as a 'thoroughly patrilineal and patripotestal society' (Faron I964: I27), and shamans, the vast majority of whom are women (I964: I23) combat sorcerers and hence may be considered to be the representatives of the forces of good in the society at large. These female shamans are 'never part of the core group of any reservation on which they reside' and so may be aptly described as peripheral' members of the community (Wilson,1967, 372)."
Although female shamanism is common in some cultures, other cultures only allow men to be shamans. In some cultures women are allowed to be shamans but they are not allowed to carry out certain practices such as exorcism. Still in other people groups both males and females could be shamans but they did not have the same type of powers. For instance in the Tubatulabal North American Indian tribe, male shamans had witching powers and curative powers; however female shamans only had witching powers (Heizer & Sturtevant, 441). The reason for the differences between the male and female powers differing has a great deal to do with the perceived role of men and women amongst this particular people group.
Although the presence of female shamans is common amongst many tribes the female shaman has been ridiculed and demonized by many. Much of this demonization of female shamans came as a result of colonization and wars that brought westerners into Eastern countries. These westerners had significant influence on the manner in which women were viewed in general. Western though tends to embrace a patriarchal line of thinking which often excludes women from making certain contributions to society. This mode of thought has diminished the presence of shaman's greatly in certain cultures including amongst the Bajau people. This mode of thinking has also forever altered the traditional beliefs and practices of the Bajau people.
With this understood, Nimmos portrayal of the shaman women is remarkable and gives insight into the way the Bajau people regard women in general and shamans in particular. It is evident throughout the book that these shamans are respected and that, in many ways, the community views the shamans as the only way to escape the evil shaman. On the other hand there is a character in the book who respects the saiton. It seems that this respect is dependent upon the belief that certain things should or have to occur. The work of the saiton is looked upon as the fate of the people. Still others believe that the shamans must rid the island of saiton.
The book also focuses on the balance between the spiritual world and the natural love and the convergence of these two worlds in the context of the Bajau culture. The book illustrates the need that human beings have for spiritual and emotional fulfillment while also providing intriguing insight into the anthropological issues present within the group as it pertains to gender roles and religious practices. The book also places a great deal of emphasis on explaining the ways in which the water that surrounds the island carries spiritual significance and is a serious aspect of the manner in which people live on the island. Through this work it is made evident that the work of shamans was valued and believed to be…