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Ashaman is one who serves his people by acting as an intermediary to the spirit world. The claimed ability to communicate with the world beyond death is at least as old as the time when early humans first conceived the idea that some part of them somehow survived physical death and existed in some other place in spirit form. The grief that came with the sorrowful thought of losing all contact with a loved one was lessened by the assertion of a fellow tribesperson that he or she could still communicate with the spirit of the one who lay in the grave. Among early humans, those individuals who claimed to be able to visit the place of the dead were known as shamans, and the messages that they relayed from the spirit world were sought by the elders regarding every major tribal decision. Originally, the term "shaman" was applied to the spirit doctors and exorcists of the Tungus of Siberia, but in recent years the title has been applied as well to the medicine men and women of the various North American tribes who also serve as mediums, healers, and visionaries for their people. Many tribal traditionalists still revere the wisdom that is shared by those men and women who maintain the shamanic traditions and who travel to the other side in the company of their spirit helper.

In the introduction to his book The Way of the Shaman (1982) anthropologist Michael Harner writes that shamans "whom we in the 'civilized' world have called 'medicine men' and 'witchdoctors' are the keepers of a remarkable body of ancient techniques that they use to achieve and maintain well-being and healing for themselves and members of their communities." Harner states that shamanic methods are remarkably similar throughout the world, "even for those peoples whose cultures are quite different in other respects, and who have been separated by oceans and continents for tens of thousands of years."

The anthropologist Ivar Lissner, who spent a great deal of time among the Tungus of Siberia, as well as native peoples in North America, defines a shaman as one "who knows how to deal with spirits and influence them.The essential characteristic of the shaman is his excitement, his ecstasy and trancelike condition.[The elements which constitute this ecstasy are] a form of self-severance from mundane existence, a state of heightened sensibility, and spiritual awareness. The shaman loses outward consciousness and becomes inspired or enraptured. While in this state of enthusiasm, he sees dreamlike apparitions, hears voices, and receives visions of truth. More than that, his soul sometimes leaves his body to go wandering."

It is believed that during those times when the souls of shamans go wandering, they project their consciousness to faraway places on Earth as well as to the shadow world of spirits. These soul journeys may inform those who seek their shaman's counsel of everything from where to find the choicest herds of game to how to banish a troublesome spirit from their home. Those men and women who aspire to learning such techniques for themselves may pay a shamanic practitioner for the privilege of undergoing an arduous course of training that would include periods of fasting, going on vision quests, and encounters with the world of spiritsa regimen that may take the student many years to accomplish.

In 1865, the great warrior Roman Nose, who had studied under the tutelage of White Bull, an elderly Cheyenne medicine man, lay on a raft for four days in the midst of a sacred lake. Roman Nose partook of no food or water, and he suffered a relentless sun by day and a pouring rain by night. But he felt none of these distractions, for Roman Nose was in a trance so deep that he appeared to be dead.

When he returned from the Land of the Grandparents, the place of spirits, Roman Nose had obtained the necessary vision teachings to attack the white man's cavalry who were invading the Powder River country. On the day of battle, Roman Nose mounted his white pony and told the assembled warriors not to accompany his charge until the Blue Coat soldiers had emptied their rifles at him. The power that he had received from the spirits during his "little death" had rendered him impervious to their bullets.

Roman Nose broke away from the rest of the war party and urged his pony into a run toward the ranks of white soldiers standing behind their wagons. When he was so near that he could see their faces, Roman Nose wheeled his mount and rode parallel to their ranks and their rifles. He made three or four passes before volley after volley from the soldiers' Springfield rifles. He remained untouched, unscratched. Finally a musket ball knocked his pony out from under him, but Roman Nose rose untouched and signaled his warriors to attack. They believed that magic he had received from the spirits kept him safe that day from all the bullets.

While one can pursue the path of becoming a medicine man or woman by undergoing a vision quest, receiving a spirit guide, and serving an apprenticeship under the direction of an established medicine person, traditionally, it seems, the greatest shamans are created by spiritual intervention in the shape of a sudden and severe illness, spells of fever, epileptic seizures, or possession by tutelary spirits. It would appear that those who become the most effective intermediaries between the worlds of flesh and spirit must have their physical bodies purged and nearly destroyed before they can establish contact with spirits.

Black Elk (18631950), the respected medicine practitioner/shaman of the Oglala Sioux, became a "hole," a port of entry for spirits to enter the physical world, when he fell terribly ill as a boy of nine. He heard voices telling him that it was time for him to receive his first great vision, and he was taken out of his body by two spirit guides who informed him that they were to take him to the land of his grandfathers. Here, in the land of the spirits, Black Elk received the great vision that was to sustain him all of his life. When he was returned to his body, his parents greeted the first flutterings of his eyelids with great joy. The boy had been lying as if dead for 12 days.

As he grew to maturity and learned to focus his healing and clairvoyant energies, Black Elk never failed to credit the other world for his accomplishments and to explain that he was but a "hole" through which the spirits entered this world. Rather than the term "hole," today's counterparts of the shamanic mission might say that they are spirit mediums or channels through which the power from the spirit world might flow.

In many tribal societies, the pseudo-death, or near-death experience, appears to be nearly a precondition that must be met by those who aspire to the role of the most prestigious of shamans.

In 1890, Jack Wilson, a Paiute who worked as a hired hand for a white rancher, came down with a terrible fever. His sickness became so bad that for three days he lay as if dead. When he returned to consciousness, he told the Paiutes who had assembled around his "corpse" that his spirit had walked with God, the Old Man, for those three days; and the Old Man had given him a powerful vision to share with the Paiute people.

His vision proclaimed that the dead of many tribes were all alive, waiting to be reborn. If the native peoples wished the buffalo to return, the grasses to grow tall, and the rivers to run clean, they must not injure anyone; they must not do harm to any living thing. They must not make war. They must lead lives of purity, cease gambling, put away strong drink, and guard themselves against all lusts of the flesh.

Jack Wilson's grandfather had been the esteemed prophet Wodziwob. His father had been the respected holy man Tavibo. Among his own people, Wilson was known as Wovoka; and now he, too, had spent his time of initiation in death and had emerged as a holy man and a prophet.

The most important part of the vision that the Great Spirit had given to Wovoka was the Ghost Dance. The Paiute prophet told his people that the dance had never been performed anywhere on Earth. It was the dance of the spirit people of the Other World. To perform this dance was to insure that the Great Mystery's blessings would be bestowed upon the tribe. Wovoka said that the Old Man had spoken to him as if he were his son and assured him that many miracles would be worked through him. The native people had received their shamanic messiah.

A crucial element in shamanism is the ability to rise above the constrictions and restraints of linear time. In his text for American Indian Ceremonial Dances (1972), John Collier comments upon the shaman's and the traditional native people's possession of a time sense that is different from the present societal understanding of the passages of minutes, hours, and days. At one time everyone possessed such freedom, Collier says, but the mechanized world took it away. If humans could exist, as the native people in their whole lives affirmed, "in a dimension of time, a reality of timenot linear, not clock-measured, clock-controlled, and clock-ended," Collier suggests that they should gladly enter it, for individuals would expand their consciousness by being there. "In solitary, mystical experience many of ourselves do enter another time dimension," he continues. But the "frown of clockwork time" demands a return to chronological time. The shaman, however, recognizes that this other time dimension originated "within the germ plasm and the organic rhythmsof moveless eternity. It is life's instinct and environment and human society's instinct and environment. To realize it or not realize it makes an enormous difference."

Achieving a deep trance state appears to be the most effective way that shamans regularly abandon linear time restrictions in order to gain entrance to that other dimension of time. By singing their special songs received in vision quests or dreams, shamans put themselves into trances that permit them to travel with their spirit helpers to the Land of the Grandparents, a place free of "clockwork time," where they gain the knowledge to predict the future, to heal, and to relay messages of wisdom from the spirit people.

Delving Deeper

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin. The Ency clopedia of Native American Religions. New York: MJF Books, 1992.

Lissner, Ivar. Man, God and Magic. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.

Steiger, Brad. Medicine Power. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Spirit Guide

When spirit mediums speak of their control or guide, they are referring to the entity from the world beyond physical death who assists them in establishing contact with deceased humans. The spirit guides of mediums usually claim to have lived as humans on Earth before the time of their death and their graduation to higher realms of being.

In the shamanic tradition, the spirit guide or spirit helper is usually received by those who choose to participate in a vision quest. Before initiates embark upon this ordeal, tribal elders and shamans tutor them for many weeks on what to expect and what is expected of them. In many shamanic traditions, the spirit helper serves as an ambassador from the world of spirits to the world of humans an often manifests in animal form to serve as a kind of chaperone during visits to other dimensions of reality.

For the more contemporary spirit mediums, who often prefer to call themselves "channels," the guide may represent itself as a being who once lived as a human on Earth or as a Light Being, an extraterrestrial, or even an angel. Regardless of the semantics involved, today's mediums and channels follow the basic procedures of ancient shamanic traditions.

Delving Deeper

Fodor, Nandor. Between Two Worlds. New York: Paperback Library, 1969.

Garrett, Eileen. Many Voices: The Autobiography of a Medium. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968.

Murphy, Gardner, and Robert O. Ballou, eds. William James on Psychical Research. New York: Viking Press, 1960.

Paranormal News. 1 October 2001.

Post, Eric G. Communicating with the Beyond. New York: Atlantic Publishing, 1946.

Totem Animal

Among the shamanic or medicine teachings of the traditional Native Americans, the totem animal represents the physical form of one's spirit helper, the guide, who will lead the shaman into the spirit world and return him or her safely to the physical world. Contrary to the misinterpretations of early missionaries, the native people did not worship these animal representations of their guides as gods.

Latvian ethnologist Ivar Lissner stated in his Man, God, and Magic (1961) that his 17 years of expeditions among the shamans and people of the Tungus, Polynesians, Malaysians, Australian Aborigines, Ainus, Chinese, Mongols, and North American tribes demonstrated to him quite clearly that totemism is not religion. While all these diverse people lived in a world filled with animate beings, they all believed in a single supreme deity.

Aside from a few Venus-type mother-goddess statuettes, there remains a rather strange collection of ghostly creatures and a great variety of two-legged beings with the heads of animals and birds. Why, so many anthropologists have wondered, did these cave painters, despite their remarkable artistic gifts, never pass on an accurate idea of their features? Why did they confine themselves to portraying beings that were half-human, half-animal?

And then Lissner has an inspiration. It is quite possible that the Stone-Age artists really were portraying themselves, but in something more than in human shape. Perhaps they were depicting themselves "in the guise of intermediary beings who were stronger than common men and able to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of fate, that unfathomable interrelationship between animals, men, and gods." Lissner suggests that what the ancient cave painters may have been relaying is that the "road to supernatural powers is easier to follow in animal shape and that spirits can only be reached with an animal's assistance." The ancient artists may have been portraying themselves after all, but in animal guise, shamanistically.

The spirit guides, appearing as totemic animals, guide the shamans to the mysterious, transcendent reality beyond the material world and lead them into another dimension of time and space wherein dwell the inhabitants of the spirit world. It is through such a portal that mediumistic shamans must pass to gain their contact with the grandfathers and grandmothers who reside there. With their spirit guide at their side in the form of a totem animal, they can communicate with the spirits and derive wisdom and knowledge which will serve their tribe or those who have come to seek specific information from the world beyond death.

Delving Deeper

Bennett, Hal Zina. Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Pub lishing, 2000.

Steiger, Brad. Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.

Vision Quest

The personal revelatory experience and the contact with the spirit world received during the vision quest becomes the fundamental guiding force in the shaman's power (medicine). In addition to those who would be shamans, all traditional young men and women may partake of the vision quest, setting out alone in the wilderness to fast, to exhaust the physical body, to pray, to establish their own contact with the dimension of spirit, and to receive their individual "medicine" power. The dogma of tribal rituals and the religious expressions of others become secondary to the guidance that one receives from his or her own personal visions.

"The seeker goes forth solitary," writes Hartley Burr Alexander in The World's Rim (1967) "carrying his pipe and with an offering of tobacco. There in the wilderness alone, he chants his song and utters his prayers while he waits, fasting, such revelation as the Powers may grant."

The vision quest is basic to all traditional Native American religious experience, but one may certainly see similarities between the youthful tribal members presenting themselves to the Great Mystery as helpless, shelterless, and humble supplicants and the initiates of other religious traditions who fast, flagellate,

and prostrate themselves before their concept of a Supreme Being. In Christianity, the questing devotees kneel before a personal deity and beseech insight from the Son of God, whom they hope to please with their example of piety and self-sacrifice. In the Native American tribal traditions, the power granted by the vision quest comes from a vast and impersonal repository of spiritual energy; and those who partake of the quest receive their personal guardian spirit and a great vision that will grant them insight into the spiritual dimensions beyond physical reality.

For the traditional Native American, the vision quest may be likened to the first Communion in Christianity. Far from being a goal achieved, the vision quest marks the beginning of the traditionalist's lifelong search for knowledge and wisdom. Nor are the spiritual mechanics of the vision quest ignored once the youths have established contact with their guardian spirit and with the forces that are to aid them in the shaping of their destiny. At any stressful period of their life, the traditionalists may go into the wilderness to fast and to seek insight into the particular problems that beset them.

Hartley Burr Alexander saw the continued quest for wisdom of body and mindthe search for the single essential force at the core of every thought and deedas the perpetually accumulating elements in medicine power. The reason the term "medicine" became applied to this life-career function is simply because those attaining stature as men and women who had acquired this special kind of wisdom were so often also great healers. The true meaning of "medicine" extends beyond the arts of healing to clairvoyance, precognition, and the control of weather elements. The power received in the vision quest enables the practitioner to obtain personal contact with the invisible world of spirits and to pierce the sensory world of illusion which veils the Great Mystery.

Delving Deeper

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin. The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. New York: MJF Books, 1992.

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A complex pattern of diverse rites and beliefs, shamanism is a tribal religion in societies without a literary tradition. Healing is one function of the shaman and the most important along with prophecy. The shaman uses mystical powers to journey to other worlds or realities and communicate with spirits in order to bring about a balance between the physical and spiritual worlds.


Shamanism is the oldest form of human healing. It is a type of religious medicine that originated over 25,000 years ago in the Paleolithic hunting cultures of Siberia and Central Asia. The English word shaman is derived from the Siberian Tungus word "saman," which is defined as a technique of ecstasy. The shaman is considered a great master of trance and ecstasy. He or she is the dominating figure in certain indigenous populations.

Most early cultures' healing practices stem from a shamanic tradition. For instance, when visiting the sick, Egyptian magicians often brought a papyrus roll filled with incantations and amulets in order to drive out demons.

The shaman is often the religious leader or priest of the tribe. He is believed to have magical powers that can heal the sick. The shaman is called upon to mediate between the people of the community and the spirit world to cure disease, exorcize evil spirits, and to promote success in hunting and food production and to keep the tribal community in balance. Traditional shamanic rituals included singing, dancing, chanting, drumming, storytelling, and healing. The shaman is a specialist in human souls. He is able to see them and know their form and destiny. The shaman controls the spirits. Rather than being possessed by them, he communicates with the dead, demons, and nature spirits.

The shaman's work is based on the belief that the soul can forsake the body even while a person is alive and can stray into other cosmic realms where it falls prey to demons and sorcerers. The shaman diagnoses the problem, then goes in search of the wandering soul and makes it return to the body.

Shamanism is still practiced all over the world, although each culture's shamanic tradition has evolved in different ways. Native American medicine men perform soul flights and vision quests to heal. North American Inuit shamans undertake undersea spirit journeys to ensure a plentiful supply of game. Tibetan shamans use a drum to help them in spirit flight and soul retrieval. Central and South American shamans often use hallucinogenic plants to invoke their shamanic journeys. Australian aborigine shamans believe that crystals can be inserted into the body for power. Some cultures have female as well as male shamans.


Shamanism is based on the belief that the condition of the soul must be addressed in order for healing to occur. Relief of pain, anxiety , and stress , as well as spiritual and emotional healing, are common benefits of a shamanic healing.


Shamans believe that there are realities that exist beyond the dimension that we experience on Earth. They believe that all creation is aliverocks, plants, animals, trees, fishand work regularly with these forces of nature.

The role of the shaman is to mediate between different realities to treat disease and create harmony between the physical and spiritual dimensions. Shamanism is a combination of "magic" and medicine. A shaman is a warrior who uses his power to combat disease, demons, and practitioners of black magic. They also perform rights to assure success in hunting and fishing, to protect the tribe's lands, and increase and develop the family. Although shamans have traditionally been male, there are many female shamans in contemporary Asia and Africa.

Shamans can see and exorcize spirits, perceive when a person's soul has fled from the body, and return souls to their rightful owners. They specialize in soul healing, healing

physical sickness, and delivering a deceased person's soul to the underworld of death. They also communicate with ancestral spirits, gods, and demons through ceremony, sacred dance, vision quests, by visiting places of power, and through dreams and out-of-body experiences.

The basis of a shaman's work stems from his or her mastery of the ecstasy technique, in which he or she enters an altered state of consciousness known as the trance state. During this state, the shaman's soul leaves his or her body to travel to nonphysical realities, in order to communicate with spirits and gain information for healing.

The state of ecstasy is brought about in several ways, depending upon the shaman's culture. Native American shamans use drumming, dancing, and chanting to enter the trance state. Some Central and South American shamans use peyote or other hallucinogenic plants to enter a state of altered consciousness.

During their spiritual journey, shamans may travel to heavens and hells, higher levels of existence, parallel physical worlds, or other regions of the world. The shaman is protected during his travels by spirit helpers and such animal guides as bears, wolves, stags, hares, and birds.

According to Central and North American shamanism, disease is caused when the soul strays or is stolen from the body. To restore health a shaman goes in search of the spirit, captures it, and persuades it to return. Illness may also be caused when the body becomes possessed by evil spirits, or by a magical object such as a pebble or insect that has been telepathically implanted in the body by sorcerers of black magic. The shaman removes the item by sucking it out of the patient's body.

Shamans often wear ritual costumes such as feathers, masks, or animal skins. They may also use ritual objects, charms, and herbs.

Training & certification

Becoming a shaman is not an ordinary task that occurs overnight. Shamans go through strenuous training before they begin to practice as a shaman. They are usually chosen or "called" by the spirits. This call to become a shaman may involve a series of tests to prove intent and worth.

A personal crisis, severe trauma, near-death experience, lightning strike, or life-threatening illness may serve as the calling to become a shaman. Initiation may also occur though dreams or visions as the spirits are made known to the chosen one. This connection between a call to become a shaman and physical or emotional trauma is one reason why some historians and psychiatrists regard shamanism as evidence of mental illness. They see resemblances between the dreams, visions, and other unusual experiences reported by shamans and the delusions and hallucinations associated with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

In many cultures, the shamanic tradition is passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, or to those outside the shaman's family who have answered the call. The teaching involves training by master shamans in the ecstatic trance; a thorough understanding of traditional shamanic techniques; the names and functions of spirits; and the mythology and genealogy of the clan. While in the apprentice stage, the shaman-to-be learns about the soul: the forces that can threaten it and where it may flee or be captured by evil spirits.

A shaman's initiation typically involves a visionary death or dismemberment of the body during the trance journey. By knowing death and returning from it, the shaman attains the secret of life and the power to heal. The shaman-in-training must also undergo an initiation in which he faces and resolves his fears. After the initiation, the shaman is trained by a more experienced shaman until he has reached a level of mastery.

In modern times, shamanic knowledge is being shared with the general population. One does not have to belong to a native tribe to become a shaman. Carlos Casteneda, one of the most well-known writers of shamanism, studied under a Native American Yaqui shaman. Dr. Michael Harner, an anthropologist, is one of the world's leading authorities on shamanism and has even started a nonprofit educational organization, The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Modern shamanism is often practiced in groups and lodges and through workshops and classes. Shamanic training may be obtained through similar schools or psychological or spiritual teachers.

Several schools of shamanism are located in the United States:

  • Dance of the Deer Foundation, Center for Shamanic Studies, P.O. Box 699, Soquel, CA 95073. (831) 475-9560.
  • The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, P.O. Box 1939, Mill Valley, CA 94942. (415) 380-8282.



Goldberg, Dr. Bruce. Soul Healing. Minneapolis, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1997.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990.

Mindell, Arnold. The Shaman's Body. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1993.

Moorey, Teresa. Shamanism: A Beginner's Guide. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.


Polimeni, J., and J. P. Reiss. "How Shamanism and Group Selection May Reveal the Origins of Schizophrenia." Medical Hypotheses 58 (March 2002): 244-248.

Jennifer Wurges

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD

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Shamanism is the world's oldest and most enduring religious, medical, and psychotherapeutic tradition. For tens of thousands of years and across the world, shamans have functioned as tribal general practitioners and have offered a means for understanding and dealing with death and the dead.

Shamanism is a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities from whom they gain knowledge and power in order to serve their community. Shamans often undergo a rigorous training program that may involve apprenticeship, solitude, asceticism, and spirit guides. When trained, they function as tribal physicians, counselors, priests, and spiritual practitioners.

Shamans' relationships to death and dying are multifaceted and involve both their training and their healing work. Shamans may sometimes be chosen because they unexpectedly cheat death by recovering from severe illness. During their training they may undergo one or more powerful death-rebirth experiences in which they experience themselves dying and being reborn, often finding themselves healed and strengthened by the process. In contemporary terms this can be understood as an early example of a profound, archetypal process that has been valued and sought in multiple cultures and religious traditions for its spiritually transformative potential. During training, the shaman is also expected to develop the capacity to see and relate to "spirits," some of whom are thought to be ancestors and ancient shamans, and some of whom may become helping guardian spirits that guide and empower the shaman.

Once shamans are trained, several of their practices relate to the dead. The spiritual entities that shamans interact with may be the spirits of the living or the dead. Sick individuals may lose their spiritthe term dispirited is still usedand face suffering and death unless the shaman can recover it. Spirits of the dead may be lost, troublesome, or malevolent, and the shaman must intervene by guiding, healing, or vanquishing them. Others might be troubled by spirits, but the shamans alone are masters of them and their realms.

Techniques such as fasting, solitude, drumming, dancing, and using psychedelics may be employed to induce altered states of consciousness in which spirit vision is enhanced for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. These techniques may especially be preludes to, and inducers of, the shamanic journey: a controlled out-of-body experience to other realms where shamans may meet, mediate with, learn from, and heal spirit entities.

The tradition of shamanism has much to teach contemporary researchers and healers. It demonstrates an ancient form of medicine, spirituality, and thanatology; the power of disciplines such as solitude, asceticism, and spiritual practice; the responsible use of psychedelics; the potentials of altered states of consciousness and controlled out-of-body experiences; and the use of all these for dealing with death and serving one's community.

See also: Communication with the Dead; Ghosts


Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask. London: Arkana, 1989.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Walsh, Roger. The Spirit of Shamanism. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.


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shamanism A term, originating from Siberia, used to describe diverse religious activities in a large number of technologically simple societies. The shaman is a part-time, non-institutionalized, charismatic religious specialist whose power emanates from his or her perceived ability (often enhanced by mind-altering drugs) to contact external spiritual forces; and, through them, to prescribe solutions to technological, political, and social problems of their own society.

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