Shamanic Spirituality for American (and other) Mutts

It Ain't Native American Religion!

Starrhawke, October 23, 2000

When you hear the word "shamanism," what images jiffy-pop into your mind's eye? Do you picture feather head-dresses, buffalo hides, medicine wheels and dream-catchers - images associated with Native American cultures?

Contrary to popular opinion, a "shaman" is not an Indian medicine man, and "shamanism" is not a Native American religion. In fact, many Native Americans find the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" offensive. The word "shaman" actually originates among the natives of Siberia, where it describes a specialized type of holy person. The shamans of Siberia interact with deities and spirits not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but through direct contact with the spirits themselves.

With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman enters a very deep or ecstatic trance. In discussions of shamanism, the word ecstasy is used in its original sense, from the Greek roots ex and histanai meaning "out of place" or "out of the physical" - an out-of-body mystical state. This trance frees the shaman's consciousness from the body, allowing it to fly into the realms the spirits inhabit, and to experience these Otherworlds with all the senses of the ordinary physical realm.

Yet, shamanic journeys are more than mystical encounters with spirits; shamans undertake trance-journeys for practical purposes, in service to their community. A shaman may journey in the Otherworlds to gather information from the spirits, perform healings, guide the spirits of the dead to resting places, gain spiritual favor and power, or any number of other reasons. Like priests in Western society, shamans are not self-appointed, but called to their tasks by the spirits themselves, and then trained and recognized by their Elders and the community.

This specialized, sacred role of the shaman exists in many cultures outside Siberia, and the accounts of ecstatic trance-journeys are remarkably similar around the world. The ecstatic trance seems to open the human mind to archetypal experiences, transcending cultural boundaries. The spiritual realms are almost always experienced in three layers: one equivalent to the physical plane of the earth, another to the heavens above, and a third that lies below the earth. Each culture interprets these realms and their inhabitants slightly differently, but the similarities are enough to suggest that the pattern of imagery arises from the process of the trance-journey itself, rather than from cultural expectations. There is even evidence that the ecstatic trance-journey may have been part of the development of all religions, including Christianity. Although the practice of the trance-journey has all but vanished in many cultures, remnants of it exist in myths and traditions.

Since any Western words for the role of shaman disappeared along with the practice, the term shaman was adopted into English from Russian in approximately 1700. It describes not only the Siberian shamans, but any community-recognized specialists of the ecstatic trance-journey, whatever their culture or religion may be. Shamanism refers to the typical practices and beliefs of these spiritual specialists, including the methods of ecstatic trance-journey, as well as the beliefs and methods that arise from their experiences. The term shamanism also describes religions like those of Siberia which support and depend upon the shaman as a necessary central figure to their practices (much as Catholicism supports and depends upon on priests). Modern examples of this type of religion are rare, so most current uses of the word "shamanism" refer to trance-journey practices used within a religion, rather than to a religion itself.

Although Euro-American cultures don't support the classical role of a shaman, there is a modern effort to re-introduce shamanic practices to the West. Known as neo-shamanism, this spiritual movement adapts the methods of the shamanic trance-journey to the needs of modern society. Like traditional shamanism, neo-shamanism is not a religion, but a set of practices and techniques used within existing belief systems and cultures. Neo-shamanism focuses on spiritual and psychological healing, and is finding acceptance not only within alternative belief systems, but also among some Christian and other mainstream religious groups, as well as in certain branches of psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, the term shamanism has been misused in popular culture for many years. The entertainment industry has used "medicine man" and "shaman" interchangeably (and usually inaccurately) to describe holy men and women of Native America. The public began to assume that "shaman" was a Native American word, and that "shamanism" was a universal Indian Religion -- yet in reality, there is no universal "Indian Religion." There are hundreds of Indian Nations in North America, each with its own culture, language, and spiritual belief system. Many of these Nations are very different from one another in their religious traditions, and none of them describe their beliefs as shamanism. Even from a scholarly standpoint, few Native systems can be accurately described as "shamanism" - the ecstatic trance-journey is simply not a major part of most North American Indian cultures.

This confusion is reinforced by commercialized pseudo-indian groups that sprang up in the late 1970's. Focused mainly on New Age alternative healing methods and environmental awareness, these groups misrepresent themselves as genuine teachers of Indian traditions. Exploiting the stereotype of Native Americans as ecological warriors and spiritual healers, they commonly charge high fees for teachings and ceremonies, a practice particularly offensive to traditional Native Americans. Although the teachings of these movements may be valid in their own right, they are neither traditional nor typical of Indian beliefs, nor are they shamanic, as they rarely if ever stress the ecstatic trance-journey as a central practice. Yet the movement continues to misrepresent itself as both Indian and shamanism.

As a result, many Native Americans see the use of the word "shamanism" as the height of an offensive stereotype and commercial exploitation of their people's beliefs. Many neo-shamanists and scholars are sensitive to this issue, and strive to educate the public about exploitation of indigenous cultures, as well as correcting common misconceptions about the words "shaman" and "shamanism."

A "shaman" is a specialist and master of the ecstatic trance-journey, not a synonym for tribal healer, holy person or medicine man. "Shamanism" is the practice of ecstatic trance-journey, and the typical beliefs and techniques that arise from and support it. Shamanism is not a catch-all term for indigenous religion, earth-based religions, spiritual healing, or beliefs in totems, animal guardians or nature spirits. These misconceptions about shamanism are promoted by both well-meaning and fraudulent teachers, books, periodicals and web pages. They need to be corrected both for the preservation of traditional Native American cultures, and for the advancement of spiritual learning in the West.