Bridging worlds

Bridging worlds

He set out to study physics, but found his niche in anthropology

It takes a slew of e-mail to arrange our meetings. Bill Brunton is constantly on the go -- speaking, teaching and traveling all over the United States and abroad. He's just back from a board meeting in the Twin Cities of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and is leaving in a day or so for Hawaii. We meet at his light-filled bi-level home in one of Fargo's newer south side developments. We've chatted before so I am prepared with my trusty digital tape recorder -- this man talks fast. Big ideas fall like a three-day snowstorm and I need my brain and eyes engaged in deep listening, not taking notes. His gentle guardian, a border collie cross named McDough, laps intimately at his ankles and visits me occasionally for a quick ear scratch. The couch is one of those soft wrap-around things that can devour a short person so I sit cross-legged, punch record, and we take off. Hungry for complex ideas, I want hours of this conversation. I feel a bit like an anthropologist myself as I collect about five hours of tape and mourn the loss of some of the greatest bits, which come after I thought we'd concluded and the recorder was turned off. So it goes. I skim the books he's recommended and promise myself a deeper read soon, especially of The Cosmic Serpent. My research mostly complete, the harder work of writing begins. The magazine's readership is diverse. What will engage them? Provoke them? Which threads to pull and which to let languish in my sound files? Is it possible to capture a theory about the origins of the universe in 2,500 words? I love this assignment.


A small blonde boy lives in the scablands of eastern Washington, that wild geologic oddity left by glacial rivers of an ancient age. The boy is a bright and isolated child who pays close attention to the world around him. He pores over the National Geographic magazines his German-Russian grandmother provides and imagines himself as a great physicist. The grownups around him are women. He is their center and there is no question but that he will attend college. They're hoping he'll be a medical doctor or a lawyer

As the boy becomes a young man, that early isolation pays off. He is his own person, equally at ease with the wild boys and the pocket protector crowd. He is a math geek on a motorcycle and has discovered that he is skilled in bridging worlds -- moving between the roles and identities in which his peers are caught. Perhaps that first signals his calling to the study of anthropology.

Diploma, sunglasses and slide rule in hand, stoked with ambition and big dreams, he leaves Walla Walla. Already an adept mathematician, he still wants to be a physicist and unlock the mysteries of the universe. He enters the University of Washington in 1959. There, to please a girl, he takes a class in the anthropology department, The Art of Preliterate Peoples; then he takes another. Soon his math and physics books are gathering dust for he is well and truly in love -- with anthropology as well as the girl. Along the way he takes a little break to do the odd things bright young men like to do: he builds and flies model airplanes, develops his skills as a brewer (and tester of that brew), works as a mathematician for a company that makes missiles for the U.S. government. Restored to the classroom after a year's hiatus, Brunton discovers civil disobedience, grows his hair long, and protests the war in Vietnam. His yearning to practice anthropology -- to understand other cultures, to learn, for example, how groups assign meaning to concepts like family or leadership -- continues to deepen.

Spurred by his studies, he moves past the skepticism and even disdain for a perceived "softness" in scientific method that he'd always associated with the social sciences. He comes to understand that the anthropological data are demanding and rigorous; still empirical but with the empiricism flavored differently when the instrument of observation is a human being rather than a telescope. The data are harder to quantify and much of the power lies not in counting and tallying, but in grasping the big picture that lies beneath the day-to-day activities of human beings. The complexity of his studies provides a channel for his insatiable curiosity.

He marries the girl and they steer a course into the deep waters of anthropology -- fieldwork. But the birth of a child with special medical needs cuts short doctoral study in Hawaii and their field work in French Polynesia. Returning to Washington with his family, he builds a relationship with a family from the Kootenai tribe of Plateau Indians. Some of the more familiar Plateau Tribes are the Nez Pierce and the Flathead. His scientific observation and the insider's view he gains by being adopted into the tribe provide a master's thesis and a dissertation called The Legacy of Skincoats. This game, Skincoats, is played by the Kootenai and has a host of meanings for the tribe -- social, economic and spiritual. Kootenai culture becomes his academic focus and brings life-long friendships, and a first insider's glimpse of the spirit worlds that will become his greatest passion.

This is a story about the man and about his study of shamanism, an authentic and ancient healing science that relies upon a set of skills often dismissed in Western culture, but highly valued in many others.

Bill Brunton came to North Dakota State University in 1969 as an associate professor and finished his dissertation in 1972. He became professor emeritus in 2001 ending the academic phase of an anthropological career that began with National Geographic magazines in Walla Walla, Washington, and continues to this minute with his work for the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Along the way, he chaired the anthro-pology and sociology department, served as editor of Shamanic Journal, and maintained his connections and research with the Kootenai.


Brunton is an anthropologist who studies shamanism. He is also a highly trained, working shaman and teacher of shamans who sees no conflict in acting simultaneously as scientist and practitioner. Indeed, he argues, it is a rational and appropriate course to take if one is to truly comprehend an ancient practice that can only be described in metaphors -- a subject that literally must be experienced to be comprehended.

One of the ways Brunton explains why a researcher discovers more by being both investigator and practitioner is to describe how archeologists who study stone tools often become stone toolmakers in order to fully grasp the craft and the people who created it. In the process they learn that what most of us call "primitive" is in fact a highly sophisticated technology.

What is shamanism? Brunton finds it's easiest to start with what it is not: shamanism is not a religion. It is not witchcraft or magic. It doesn't require belief in a deity or a lot of ritual trappings, though it is found in religions and in the spiritual practices of tribal cultures. A drum, rattle or some other method is used to induce a trance state -- a change in brain wave frequency -- this leads to expanded awareness, an awareness of unseen realities. As Brunton explains it, shamanism is a science, a technology, and a method of using the world of spirit to bring healing to those who seek it.

From the shamanic perspective, reality is divided into three parts: the upper world, the middle world and the lower world. Human beings inhabit the middle world, which includes all physical reality or as Brunton says "the universe as far out as it goes." The upper world is the world of teachers, guides and guardians. One travels outward to reach it. The lower world is the world of animal helpers and is reached by sending one's consciousness or spirit inward. The idea of three worlds is something about which all shamanic cultures agree. That agreement is the impetus for scientific attempts to explore and map the shamanic worlds in an empirical way

This has long been controversial.

Remember when Descartes and the Pope cut a deal and divided the world into what scientists could investigate and what the church would control? The church would stay out of "observable phenomenon" like astronomy and biology and scientists would stay out of the "unseen realms" of the spirit.

These historic "barriers" have made it difficult for anthropologists, including Brunton, to explain cultural similarities and differences. So for example, it is excruciatingly difficult for adults to learn how to perceive reality in ways other than the way of their own culture. In the West, we have agreed upon five senses, but other cultures recognize more. This is hard to understand because we don't think in those terms. We may talk about having a sixth sense as a way of talking about nonordinary reality, but do we trust it?

Brunton clearly loves finding the metaphors and similes that are needed to explain a circular worldview to someone who thinks in straight lines. Many cultures think in circles rather than straight lines, and the verb, rather than the noun, is the driving force -- in other words actions take precedence over things.

While he has experienced harsh criticism and outright shunning for his choice to "act outside the box," to study shamanism by becoming one, Brunton is no longer troubled by the disapproval of others. It's a consequence of maturity, experience, and clear indications to him that scientific objectivity is being increasingly challenged, particularly by the social sciences and quantum physics

The questions he asks in his research are: Why shouldn't science be addressing the spiritual? If the spiritual is a phenomenon, can it be studied in a methodical way? Haven't we already begun to broaden our view of science, rather than adhere to the old bargain? He points out that scientists studying the brain are looking at EEGs of meditating monks and beginning to see how the spiritual and physical are interrelated. Quantum physicists are reaching the point in their observations where matter ceases to be physical and becomes something else.

Brunton maintained his early interest in physics and sees profound connections with what he's learned from anthropology. "If you do things with an open mind you find out, like quantum physics has found, that the nature of reality is a lot more subtle and complicated than we ever thought it was and Newton's laws don't work. That is, they work fine for a teeter totter; they work fine for other kinds of mechanical systems that are moving slowly relative to the speed of light, but when you get to speed of light then relativistic things come in and Newton's laws have to be adjusted. ... The more you incorporate the more complicated it gets until you get to the subtle sublime level of the very underlying fabric of time and space and at the quantum level that starts to look pretty simple again. When I read quantum physics it sounds like shamanism to me."

--L. Baker