The Secret of the Pakoika

One of the oldest shamanic cultures in Siberia is that of the Nganasans. This ethnic group of about 900 people lives in the far north of Eurasia, on the Taimyr Peninsula. Typically, these Uralic-speaking indigenous people are reindeer herders and hunters. They believe that man-made objects can be charged with shamanic power.

Shamanic power object - sacred image

These “spirit figures”, which are also known in other parts of Siberia (especially among the Nanai), have a protective function as classical power objects – both for the shaman and for the entire community. One of these figures, a “Pakoika” (literally translated “wooden image”) came into the possession of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies through the Finnish ethnologist Heimo Lappalainen (d. 1994). The Nganasan shaman Saine had entrusted the figure to the Russian ethnologist Yuri Simchenko (d. 1995) in 1962. “Keep this well, and do not forget it even after death”, was Saime’s instruction. The obvious reason for giving it to a non-Nganasan was that Saime had no successor as a shaman. In addition, there was the danger of the figure being destroyed in the course of communist “iconoclasm” or that it could have ended up on the international art market for commercial reasons and thus lost to the Nganasans forever. FSS founder Michael Harner decided to purchase Pakoika – with the intention of returning the shrine to its owners at the appropriate time.

The significance of the figure for the Nganasans can be compared to that of the Ark of the Covenant for the Israelites. According to tradition, Pakoika was carried on a sledge in battles and enabled the legendary tribal leader Tarudo to defeat the hostile neighbouring Nenets and Tungus tribes. The wooden image, which is about 200 years old, was examined by archaeologists in the USA, digitally photographed in three dimensions and thus precisely documented. Even though Pakoika is “back home”, this document is still available to scientists.

Characteristic of the “patron saint” are some broken limbs, notches on the surface and holes, often even drilled through the entire object. It may be that Pakoika was injured in fights (and therefore was taken from fighters), other than that it certainly has shamanic significance.

The time of return could have come now (2005). Nadezhda Kosterkina, the daughter of the deceased last Nganasan great shaman Tubyaku Kosterkin, has already been contacted by representatives of the Russian Academy of Science. She might be the appropriate person to receive this shrine on behalf of her people. The return of the wooden figure by Bill Brunton was completed in 2005. Pakoika has since been exhibited in the National Museum of Dudinka.



Lappalainen, Heimo (1993): Idol Nganasan Spiritual Protector, unpublished manuscript of the FSS (1993).

Popow, A.A. (1948): Nganasani. Die Expeditionen der sowjetischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu den Nganasanen 1936-1938, Moskau (russ.).

Milovsky, Alexander (1992): Tubiakou’s Spirit Flight. Natural History 34, pp. 35-41.

Simtschenko, Juri (1991): A Computer for the Shaman. Newsletter of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies 4 (1991).


Dr. Bill Brunton is a cultural anthropologist and emeritus faculty member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.