Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Power of Communitas

Edith Turner offers an excerpt from the preface of her book, Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. In the excerpt, she recounts an incident while doing fieldwork among whale hunters in Alaska when a moment of “collective effervescence” was generated by the community in an effort to influence environmental conditions to better support their whale hunting activities.

 Originally published in:
(2012) Turner, Edith,
Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy
Contemporary Anthropology of Religion Series
New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Published on Material Religions 11 March 2015.

I was conducting research in the snowy north of Alaska. This was in 1990, in a village where the tradition of whale hunting has continued for many centuries as a way of providing food in a harsh climate. In late April, a warm current was coming up the Bering Strait. I found the whale men looking anxiously out of their windows toward the favored south shore, hoping for “water cloud,” the sign of open water in the long-frozen ocean. They needed a north wind to blow the ice out to sea and open the waterway. But the weather was too warm and muggy and a southerly wind was blowing the ice against the south shore. As there was no water through which a whale could come, there would be no whales, and no food source.

The wind was blowing from the south after church on Sunday. That afternoon I was visiting my neighbor Annie Kasugaq when a call came through on the citizens’ band. There was going to be a Rogation (prayer for whales) in the church at 3:00. I knew I had to go. I remembered how the sons of the preacher had brought their whaling boat into church the first year I was there, and how the preacher blessed it and all the village crews, and prayed for whales. I left Molly’s house and wandered outside in the snow to watch. Over a stretch of snow beside the preacher’s house, I saw men collecting around a sixteen-foot skin boat that still rested on its high rack. The men manhandled it down onto a sled, which was hitched to a snowmobile. I had to run to keep the boat in view as the snowmobile, sled, and boat glided around the streets and to the side of the church. I came up panting behind the boat and saw the captains with five of their young sons heaving the boat off the sled. They took the sled and deftly passed into the church and parked it up in the aisle in the sanctuary. Then they lifted the boat itself through the church entrance, sideways, banging and slipping until they could finally get it through the door. The boat was set up on the sled as if it were ready to go down to the sea, but this was in church – where the altar boy was in the act of changing the colored altar cloth for a white one. Whales like white. The preacher wore white. The paddles were all scoured white and set upright in the boat, which is a signal to other boats at sea, meaning “a catch.”

The church was now filling quickly. All twenty-two whaling captains, including the hunter with the greatest catch, Robert Nashanik, stood in a crowd on each side of the boat. The preacher took up his station at the prow and began. We all sang: “The whales and all that move in the waters,” “The sea is his and he made it,” and, “When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds”; songs that brought tears to the eyes of many of us—Annie Kasugaq, Robert’s wife, Dora, myself. Then the captains stepped forward and put their hands on the gunwale all around, and the wives came behind them and put their hands on their husbands. The congregation went up and put their hands on the wives until we were all touching. Then we all began to pray for the wind to change. The sound rose until my eyes were starting out of my head. I prayed hard—and weird cries came from the crowd and arms whirled high in the air. The clamor grew and grew and grew.

I had never participated in a religious event like this before. I looked over at Robert’s face in the crowd. It was calm—and faintly happy. I knew he was a shaman, and I calmed down, too. Soon the uproar was over. We finished with one more hymn. By this time I had goose bumps. As the congregation started to leave, I stayed to watch the men take the boat down and out of the door. I ventured gingerly over the snowy step to find my friend Annie waiting to walk back with me.

When we reached the end of the church and faced the open, the realization came to me. The wind had changed to the north. It blew icy and fresh at ten degrees Fahrenheit, and fell freely on our cheeks and the south shore. It would below the ice away—there would be water, a passage for the whales.

No one said a word. This was their way of life. The next day there was open water near the south beach, and the men went down on the ice to break trail over the ice ridges for the snowmobiles. By Tuesday, many crews had come down to the water. They caught their quota of three whales.

The people’s call to the wind was an act of communitas, inspired fellowship. The villagers had made contact with the shamanic powers. They were aware that the whale was a spirit animal. Clem, a whaling captain, used to tell me, “The whales know and they control the wind and the weather. They have senses that are much more than ours.” He spoke deeply of the Iñupiat vision: “When things are right, our friendship covers all of us like a tent.” I could see that. Down on the ice, we wore our mammalian warm-blooded skins and our fur parkas, and over us all was the friendship that made any environment possible. So it was not a matter of degrees of comfort, or of just accepting the weather: degrees of friendship overrode these by far. We had gotten on a certain wavelength in the church, and it carried us away up yonder where the power was, the power easily connecting to the outside of the church and the welter of changing wind pressures, to big movements of air ceasing to pour from the south and now arising from the top of the world, strong enough to push the ice away from the south shore and open a water channel for the whale.

The village was sited on a liminal place, perched on a strip of land betwixt-and-between the sea and a lagoon, dependent on the vagaries of the sea for food. The unpredictable nature of the sea kept things unsteady, sometimes stressful. But these people were at home with prayer, that is, shamanic power in which they were skilled. So they brought the boat and its sacred whale’s symbolism into the church, they Eskimoized the church, and there they sang their lives in harmony. Music can be pure communitas, and the voices in flow started the communitas. Moreover, having moved forward, we were all touching each other, with the whale boat in the center, in alignment each-with-each, a sense that grew, like a tower, a fountain, in the midst of us. Communitas arose, a tower of the senses, fierce with spirituality. The whole event lasted only half an hour; it was peculiarly nested in time. Everyone knew when it started—with the songs, tears, and cries. The very pleasure of communitas grew, too, as our voices rose to the rafters. As soon as the people came out and saw the north wind, the communitas was transmuted into a sense of siblinghood throughout the villages.

For the Iñupiat this event was embedded in a long history of land problems, frustration, and insult from racist whites. It was an example of a powerful ability that would sometimes come over them – in this instance, to alter the weather with their whirling arms as they stood in a thick crowd. This and other seeming impossibilities – healing, second sight, sensing the dead – occurred with communitas, with me there to see, a researcher who witnessed and experienced it. I had been seeking the phenomena since the end of my collaboration with Victor Turner. It was he who established the term “communitas” during our fieldwork together. After his death, I traveled widely to develop a further understanding of the concept.

The communitas elements I experienced were numerous. This kind of power had nothing to do with the other kind of power, that of the oil industry for example. Commercialization and oil exploitation were of a different order from the whale hunt. No one in the village would ever sell whale meat. Individual ownership of it was unthinkable. They would only give, give, give the meat.

When anthropological research enters a culture for the purposes of fieldwork, it may exist as a strange seed inside the womb of that culture. It grows and strains against its flesh, producing something entirely new—a combination of that culture’s own truth, and the gift of a vision of what that society is really like. This book describes scenes where light dawns for all kinds of groups, times, and places, where people stumble on “the best time they’ve ever had” – the time of communitas, unexpected and extraordinary. I not only describe these experiences but also show the distinct nature of communitas, the ways it behaves, where it is found and not found, its very probable optimal conditions, and the curious and startling facts about its shyness and its untouchability by commercialization or institutionalization. Moreover I show that the moment of its inception can be noted, and the time it takes for it to develop or “kick in” among a group of strangers can be measured. This book is an opportunity for the reader to get a purchase on the elusive nature of communitas, the overlooked moment of memorable experience. When communitas emerges, one feels it; it is a face of everyone’s experience. That being so, once we become familiar with its properties, it can be recognized as necessary for survival.

The author in her home in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Rose Wellman.


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