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Native-izing Therapies: shamanic healing and the value of homeland connection in Mongolia

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Abstract: Being native to rural homelands carries particular value in contemporary Mongolia. This value is especially salient for shamans, considered proximate and able to ‘speak for’ the natural world, both localized landscape (particular mountains, rivers, etc.), and the nation’s nature writ large. In this paper, I argue that this dual local/national understanding of the natural world was inadvertently shaped by Soviet-era indigenization policies that encouraged a sense of ethno-national belonging in borderland republics. Throughout much of the 20th century, being local was simultaneously a way to identify with the larger socialist ecumene. In recent decades marked by heightened urbanization, shamanic healing practices involve re-forging rural homeland connections, as shamans mediate relations between clients and deities associated with earth and water attributed with causing illness. Such practices and discourses ‘root’ people into localized, national soil. This case study reveals indigeneity not as essence, but as a form of positioning (Li 2000) in which the body is central.

Elizabeth Turk is a Research Associate and Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. She is currently working on the AHRC -funded project ‘Mongolian Cosmopolitical Heritage: Tracing Divergent Healing Practices Across the Chinese-Mongolian Border’. She earned her doctoral degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge in 2018

Dr Turk’s research focuses on nature-based and ‘alternative’ medicine in contemporary Mongolia, exploring themes in both medical and environmental anthropology. She first began research in Mongolia in 2010 as a Fulbright scholar exploring shamanic healing practices, specifically the connection between spiritual illness and the impending mining boom. Research interests since then have shifted towards a practice-focused approach to the study of healing, historicizing such practices as they have and continue to relate to political economy. Dr Turk is in the process of preparing her first manuscript which explores the articulation of healing practices with nationalist and social progressivist discourses.

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