Justin Erik Halldór Smith (no relation) is a writer. I want to be such a writer someday. He is also a professor of philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. His blog, “an archive of journalism, essays, and assorted belles lettres,” is a marvel of brilliant social and political commentary, and his command of words is nothing short of amazing.
Today’s essay is entitled “Imaginary Tribes #1: The Yuktun.” In it, Smith creates not only an imaginary Siberian tribe but the language they speak as well. He then discusses a run-in that delegates from Moscow had with the tribe’s elder shaman, a woman named Narda, back in 1933. The first thing they do after the encounter is issue a report—of course!—to the Central Committee of the Communist Party on “Shamanistic Practices and Historical Progress among the Siberian Tribes.”
This part of said report had me giggling:
The shaman is usually picked from the most unproductive, most nearly criminal element within Yuktun society. . . . They are positively hostile to labor, often grand mal epileptics, and prone to the sort of deceitfulness and evasiveness that in a socialist society can only be described as counterrevolutionary. They practice their art by convincing other tribe members that they are in contact with spirits from the ‘underworld.’ They speak in tongues and beat on drums to invoke these spirits, and their fellow tribesmen watch, spellbound. It is a magic show and a stunt, all craftily organized by the shaman to gain the maximum respect possible, and, we dare mention, the maximum remuneration in the form of gifts.
The report goes on to describe how the delegates were conned into participating in a ceremony where, by skillful use of smoke, intoxicating herbs, and disorienting glossolalia, she managed to make asses out of all of them.
It’s too long and involved to go into further detail (though it all seems to hinge on the translation of a single Yuktun word, nâk), but it’s hysterical and poignant and a true work of genius. Please do yourself the favor and read it when you get a chance.
Then come back here and tell me what you thought of it.