According to Mircea Eliade, shamanism is the mother and father of all the arts and the shaman is the prototype of the artist (Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press: 1968). Ursula Le Guin (1929–2018) took it all the way home. She was a Magical Realist as much as a Science Fiction/Fantasy voice, especially in the case of her young adult fiction, in the vein of Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, whose oeuvres inherited from her. For her, the personal, sociological, spiritual and ideological healing role of storytelling, in the shaman story sense that transmits ‘wonder tales’ or transformational narratives that have redeeming power and are numinous, was second nature.
Her parents were anthropologists and she grew up in Berkeley in the milieu of the university community. Her mother was the author of the seminal (“ovial”?) work on Ishi, the last known survivor of the Yahi tribe of Northern California (Theodora Kroeber: ‘Ishi In Two Worlds,’ University of California Press). “It seems the family is inextricably tied to Ishi, the man said to have been the last North American Indian roaming the wilds. As the tale goes, his Yahi tribe was hunted and massacred in the late 1800s until only a handful remained” (Ann Japenga, ‘Revisiting Ishi: Questions about discovery of the ‘last wild Indian’ haunt anthropologist’s descendants,’ LA Times, August 29, 2003).
While Le Guin never met him, he having died thirteen years prior to her birth, Ishi remained an abiding spiritual presence in the household, albeit a painful one. “Although enduring, the bond between the Kroebers and Ishi is clearly lopsided. Ishi was alone in an unfamiliar culture. He never told anyone his name (Kroeber dubbed him Ishi, meaning ‘man’ in the Yana language, the tribe to which the Yahi band belonged) or learned to speak more than a few hundred words in English.”
Her father, Alfred Kroeber, was curator of the Museum of Anthropology at UC San Francisco. (The museum later moved to UC Berkeley and became the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.) He had probably saved the Native American’s life when he and a colleague sprang him from jail, Ishi having been jailed after emerging from the Mt. Lassen Hills in a desperate and emaciated condition. Ishi became the guest of the museum for the remainder of his life, with his life needs finally supported by the civilization that had reduced his tribe’s habitat, range, and hunter-gatherer livelihood to starvation levels. In return, he offered invaluable knowledge about his tribe and the realities of First Nations’ hunter gatherer societies, not only in Northern California, but across North America.
In 2003, Le Guin’s brothers, Karl and Clif Kroeber, published “Ishi in Three Centuries” (University of Nebraska Press). “In a sense, this was a family obligation,” says Le Guin, who lives in Portland. “Ishi is not a mystique or a fascination with our family. But when he became a hot topic again a few years ago, my brothers picked up the football. I think they felt obliged to.” Native American writer and UC Berkeley American Studies professor Gerald Vizenor predicts the obligation will persist: “You could say the two families came together by chance and they’ll always be together historically.” (Le Guin to Japenga, ‘Revisiting…,’ in the LA Times, August 29, 2003)
Le Guin’s family involvement with presenting the plights of endangered individuals, species, societies, habitats, spiritualities, and alternative ideologies of survival and sustainability has fed her word paintings and narratives among a mind-bending range of past and future centuries and hypothetical worlds. But primarily, she was her own invention, not anthropologist but maestra of the transforming art of storytelling — not scientist nor theorist, but self-created artist and actualized mage. Not solely Green, nor simply Feminist, hers was a uniquely androgynous, multi-perspectival, trans-cultural, time-hopping, cosmological Voice.
She’s authored over ninety-five discrete publications and has been lauded for her literary works in many genres. Her works have received intense critical attention, with scores of volumes of literary criticism and dissertations dedicated to her oeuvre. She’s received nearly every award going, both within her field and without. Feminist critiques of her writing are ongoing. Her last publication was a 2017 collection of non-fiction, titled No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Her groundbreaking insights on sex and gender, social exclusions, race and ‘otherizing’ have fuelled countless scholarly discourses. Critics such as Harold Bloom have referred to her novels as “masterpieces,” and she was referred to by scholar Donna White as a “major figure in American letters.” (White, Donna (1999). Dancing with Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Critics. Columbia, South Carolina, US: Camden House.)
The quote in the Facebook meme above embodies the inspirited message animating all her works:
The works of humankind are all constructed. It’s all art and artifacts. Civilization, society and hierarchies are artifacts, human made constructs. Therefore, we can deconstruct and, more importantly, reconstruct them, the resistance of the status quo notwithstanding. While our societal constructs do, certainly, ‘grow legs’ and take on ideational lives of their own, they can be cultivated, re-crafted, re-designed, refined and evolved — consciously and conscientiously.
Her every word was in aid of that message, that song of human and humane artistic/shamanic empowerment.