Seven Questions for Would-Be Shamans
These days, the term “shaman” seems to be quite trendy, and I’m seeing more and more white, new-age folks calling themselves a “shaman” just because they use a drum sometimes, or they like crystals, or they went to a weekend class at a “shaman school”. I even had an acquaintance on Facebook recently post, “Do you think I’m a shaman?”, and wanted his friends to like and post their answers. Let me be clear: if any of this applies to you, you are definitely not a shaman.
Before you think I’m just pointing fingers, I can say with ease that I’m not a shaman either, even though I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and I help others learn how to do it. I call myself a shamanic practitioner because it describes what I do and helps people find me, and because there’s a difference between those terms that’s not just semantic, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Because there are increasing amounts of folks interested in learning to do shamanic work, or in receiving that work from others—and because there’s a lot of crap out there—I decided to develop a set of questions to help folks gauge the levels of authenticity, commitment, and potential cultural appropriation in would-be shamans, whether that’s yourself or someone else. Here we go…
1. Are you indigenous, and/or are you in authentic relationship with indigenous people/s?
Let’s begin with some definitions: the origin of the word “shaman” came into Western vocabulary from Russian explorers who encountered the Tungusic-speaking indigenous peoples of Siberia. Its use was mostly popularized by the ethnographer Mircea Eliade, who wrote about ‘shamanism’ as a worldwide phenomenon, and took that particular term from that specific culture, and applied it to many different kinds of spiritual practitioners, across a range of indigenous cultures. That’s the context of the original meaning and use of the word: a spiritual practitioner, using a specific set of tools, from within an intact indigenous culture.
There was one word I just used a lot in defining “shaman” and it’s this: indigenous. If you ask most people: “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘shaman’?”, in this country it’s likely to evoke some pretty consistent images. For most people, it will bring up a vision of an older, brown-skinned Native man, with long black hair going grey with wisdom, wearing fringed buckskin, with feathers in abundance, drumming or chanting over someone with smoke or mysterious herbs and charms nearby. He’s wielding magical practices of his tribe that have been honed and passed down through the generations since time immemorial, which give them a mystical import. Didn’t you imagine something like this?
I’ve heard many white new age folks try to say that the word ‘shaman’ is universal, but let’s face it: the term “shaman” comes with an implied sense that connects a person using it to the power and authenticity modern people attribute to their idea of indigenous cultures. In fact, that’s largely what draws modern people to wanting to use it. Tribal connotations are exotic for many white people, and carry a nostalgia for a simpler but purer time, much like ideas of Native American people as ‘noble savages.’ So when white people call themselves ‘shamans’, they are generally cashing in on the apparent authenticity other white people associate with Native cultures (and let’s remember, there are hundreds of distinct Native cultures out there, not a generic ‘Native American’ etc.), BUT generally without any real relationship to them, or respect for the current lives and struggles of the peoples within them. Ironically, usually white folks using this term are often not connected to the indigenous practices or ancestral ways of their own peoples, let alone the ones they’re appropriating from.
What does authentic relationship look like? Are you learning from an indigenous person who is connected to their culture? Are you active in local indigenous communities? Have you volunteered, worked with organizations, or otherwise offered your time or money to support the welfare, culture, etc. of indigenous people/s? Have you either read extensively or been taught directly about indigenous culture/s and how to appropriately respect them? Have you spent time on a reservation, or at spiritual gatherings hosted by Native people? Do you have more than one friend who is Native? If the answer is not ‘yes’ to at least a few of these questions, if not all of them, you probably have a ways to go to be in authentic relationship with indigenous peoples.
2. Are you part of an intact tribe?
Another core piece of indigeneity is the presence of a tribe. Even Eliade, who applied the original term widely, spoke only of practitioners living within an intact tribe, with living traditions that were handed down through the generations. These practitioners were recognized by their tribes and held a crucial role in them on behalf of their people. The tribe is an integral part of what it means to be a shaman; without that context, a “shaman” as has been defined in research, literature, and the public imagination simply cannot exist. So, even for those of us who do have Native blood, who are in authentic relationship to one or more indigenous culture/s, and who are connected to our ancestral ways—we were generally not raised in an intact indigenous culture.
What I mean by ‘intact’ is that very few Native cultures on this continent have survived with all their traditional ways preserved as they were once handed down to us by our grandmothers. Most of us are not living in villages as our ancestors were, in an inter-dependent way, in deep daily relationship and service to our people and the natural world. Even if the traditions are completely intact, it’s not the same to practice them in a post-colonial world, living apart in houses that weren’t the way of our people, eating foods that we didn’t evolve to survive on, making money and navigating schools, governments, jobs, etc. that force us to embody and interact with white, Western ways of thinking and being, while speaking a language that is not of our people. It changes our world and it changes our work. Consequently, we cannot be shamans as our ancestors were. We can be shamanic practitioners, but that original tribal context no longer exists.
Some white folks here might try to tell me that they have a ‘tribe’, and mean their friends, hippy community, people that you gather with for festivals (Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man), etc. I have been around all these spaces and have seen that while they can be a powerful way to bring people together, they also often reinforce colonial mindframes in their attempt at romanticizing what people think are tribal ways. As someone who founded a panspiritual community called TRiBE, and who has worked with tribal revitalization both in and out of traditional Native tribes, this is something I think about a lot. It’s not that these ‘neo-tribal’ communities don’t have value, but they’re not an intact tribe with thousands of years of history and culture, and that’s different. So, for most people, especially white people living in the U.S., the answer to this question is going to be an unequivocal, ‘No’. There are some people who are indigenous, and who are still living and working in an intact tribe: those people are shamans. But they’re probably in the rainforests of Brazil, or the Mongolian steppes, or on a Shoshone-Bannock reservation. They’re probably not reading this article. And they’re definitely not you.
3. Are you aware of cultural appropriation, and your privilege as a white person in benefiting from it?
Many people are completely unaware of white privilege, and outraged/in denial/defensive about it. If that’s you, please google white privilege, white fragility, and white tears before reading further. Many white folks are also concerned and confused about what cultural appropriation is, when we live in an increasingly globalized world that gives us access to information about many cultures. While that’s an article in itself, and there are many good ones out there, I often say that the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is in authentic relationship and respect, which goes back to question number one.
In reference to the last question, though, why do you think Native people in this country aren’t living in more tribal ways in accord with our ancestors, in such a way that we could still be considered ‘shamans’? Because for the most part, very little of our cultures have survived the forces of colonization, genocide, disease outbreaks, forced religious conversion, stealing of ancestral lands, boarding schools, reservation life, trauma and daily racism that has been perpetrated by white people against Native peoples and cultures since the time of first contact. Native ceremony and spiritual practices were even outlawed until very recently in many places.
All of this has left many Native tribes with dismally high rates of depression and suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence, disease, and poverty. This is what happens to cultures and families that have been shattered by colonization. If you feel like you’re ‘spiritually One’ with the title of shaman and its mystical tribal connotations, are you also spiritually One with and ready to experience these other, more brutal realities of indigenous peoples alongside your bliss? Do you even know anything about them? And do you think that you get to have one without the other?
When white folks try to cash in on the perceived spiritual reputation of what little is still surviving of the very cultures their ancestors tried to decimate, it simply represents a modern form of destructive cultural theft. In that way, white folks using the word ‘shaman’ are carrying on their ancestors’ legacy of colonization, which encourages them to feel free to take whatever they wish, wherever they see something they like, without an awareness of the history, harm, or consequences of doing so. And these days, to further the harm by calling it ‘sharing’ or “spiritual enlightenment amongst the brotherhood of man” without any real understanding or respect for those cultures, or the privilege you have to remain ignorant of what they’ve been through, and are currently dealing with. That’s the epitome of cultural appropriation and white privilege. Think about that before you call yourself a shaman. And while we’re on that note…
4. Are you a shaman or medicine person?
Here’s the other ironic thing: no Native person I know actually calls themselves a shaman. Not even the ones who could perfectly embody that iconic image you have of one, and I know plenty of them. They would be called a medicine person, by others. There are two statements in there. One is about calling yourself anything: humility is a traditional value amongst many Native peoples, and to claim a particular identity, especially a favored one—“shaman”, noun—is seen as arrogant or distasteful. To describe what you do is one thing–“shamanic”, adjective—but to claim to be something is like taking personal credit for the gifts of Spirit, or as if you could possibly decide for your people what you are to them (which shows a communal vs. individual orientation that many indigenous peoples share, which is very different than the way most white people think).
For the traditional shaman, that role was generally something conferred on them by an elder, by well-understood traditions of how one was called by Spirit, and by general consensus of the tribe. They didn’t decide it for themselves or make business cards with ‘shaman’ emblazoned on it to spread the word. This is because in traditional tribal structures, you generally didn’t need to say what you were, everyone knew you and what you’d done since the day you were born, so your reputation preceded you (for better or worse). Your business card was your life, and still is in many communities.
The other thing is that within Native communities, generally what you would call a ‘shaman’, we would call a ‘medicine person’. That’s because, unlike the popular notion that Indian culture/s either completely ended at the time of contact with Europeans or remain in some mystical state, they are, in fact, living, changing organisms that have adapted to survive that contact. ‘Medicine’ was the English word that seemed to best correlate with the sense of power and reverence for something that was healing—which in lots of Native cultures is basically anything connected to Spirit—and thus the use of the word ‘medicine’ was born and is still in use by many modern Native people today.
So these are two additional reasons why the person you would most think of as a shaman would never use that word, and why when a white person does, it’s obvious they aren’t actually in authentic relationship with any living Native peoples. It’s also obvious that they don’t know enough about modern Native culture/s to understand common values like humility and eldership, which makes the act of claiming the role of ‘shaman’ additionally offensive and disrespectful. So, I find that asking someone if they’re a shaman is a pretty good way to find out that they’re not.
5. How do you honor your responsibility to be in right relationship with all beings?
This is a big question, but traditional shamans, of any culture, lived in constant relationship with all the forces and beings in the world around them, striving to maintain that balance in a good way. That was their job on behalf of their tribe: maintaining what we call “right relationship”, in large part because dis-ease occurs when that balance is not in harmony.
But what is right relationship exactly? Let’s think about relationship on the human level. We could start with Mom: if you have a good relationship with her, you probably call her on a regular basis, listen to her advice, spend time with her, and exchange gifts on special occasions. Even if you don’t have a good relationship, you probably feel the obligation to do these things because she’s taken care of you. Now, imagine that everything in the world around you is your mom, even the stones beneath your feet. If you are truly in right relationship with all beings, then you have an obligation to tend to all those relationships, and to mend them if they get out of alignment anywhere in the cosmos—whether anyone is looking admiringly at you and your drum, and whether you get paid for it in a session or not. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of tending, and it’s something I generally don’t see white, Western folks thinking about at all, let alone doing.
In part, I think it’s because this can be a radical shift in worldview for lots of Western people, who are trained into hierarchical models of power based in coercion and dominance, instead of cooperation and reciprocal relationship. I think lots of folks imagine the shaman as an all-powerful figure, able to command all the natural and spiritual worlds to do their bidding, like an Indian Harry Potter. In reality, the shamanic practitioner is really more like a diplomat who lives at the mercy of many forces and beings, whose greatest skill lies in convincing those beings—both big and small—to take pity on and help them, recognizing that they’re all more powerful than the shaman. Thus the traditional shaman is not the all-powerful agent of healing; they are instead a humble recipient of the favors and medicines of many, which puts them in debt to the entire world—hence the necessity for humility and honoring of those relationships.
So if you are not constantly pleading and negotiating with the ancestors, spirits, and various forces for help, propitiating them, making offerings, listening, singing to them, being directed by what they tell you, and assisting them with what they want—in short, if you are not in relationship with all beings, all the time, with all the obligations and joys that entails—then, trust me, you are not anything like a traditional shaman.
6. What medicines of the earth do you work with, and what shamanic techniques do you use?
It’s also pretty common for traditional shamans to be working directly with medicines from the earth, like plant, stone, and animal people, who, as mentioned, are sometimes willing to lend their powers through right relationship with them. You’ll notice that I, and other Native folks, often refer to what Westerners think of as inanimate objects as ‘people’. This changes the way you think about and interact with these beings. For instance, to honor a stone person in right relationship means you can’t just buy a crystal from a New Age shop, and ‘use’ it to heal someone. Instead, you must sit with that stone person and humbly ask if it will grant you the favor of working with you, and you listen to what it has to offer, then offer its spirit something in return—energies, or sacred substances, or whatever it wants.
Many shamanic practitioners develop unique ways of working with particular medicines because they’ve been directly gifted those ways by the spirits of, say, bear, or devil’s club. Or because they’ve taken the time to observe and listen to those beings in nature, and have learned their ways, which is also a gift. The particular medicines a practitioner works with is part of what makes them unique, and it’s also part of what distinguishes a shamanic practitioner from some other kind of energyworker, medium, or healer in the modern world.
Traditional shamans also used a variety of other skills, rituals, and practices that could vary wildly from tribe to tribe, yet often in pursuit of some similar aims, like the capacity to talk to spirits. I’m fond of saying that if you can talk to the spirits, and learn from them, then you don’t need human teachers. However, if you can’t talk to the spirits, then no amount of money spent on “shaman school” can make you a shamanic practitioner. So, if you don’t have the capacity to get knowledge directly from spirits, sorry, you’re not a shaman. Likewise, on the flip side, just because someone is a medium or an intuitive doesn’t mean they should be using that term either, if they aren’t engaging with other tools and practices of traditional shamanic work, like honoring earth medicines.
7. How were you called to shamanic work?
Traditional shamans were often called into this very intense work through an illness that nearly killed them, or dreams and spirit activity that pursued them relentlessly, or visions that they were being ripped apart: the classic story of shamanic dismemberment. True shamanic practitioners, even in this day and age, are called, and they’re called in a way that will break them apart again and again until they’re weeping on their knees and think they’re losing their minds. No person in their right mind really wants that unless there is no other choice for them.
Because that’s the nature of a calling: it chooses you, and that’s usually because when it comes, it’s so big, and so fierce, any sensible person would run like hell from it. Shamanic work is like the jaguar: if you belong to it, it will pick you up by the scruff of the neck, claim you as its cub, and you won’t have a whole lot of choice in where it decides to drag you. But if you don’t belong to it, if you’re a flashy little bird pretending to be a jaguar, those fierce teeth may decide to make a tasty snack of you.
Shamanic work is intense and it is dangerous; daytrippers who try to take on the name of ‘shaman’ —without the skill, right relationship, dedication, and sacrifice the role truly calls forth—potentially expose themselves and the people they work with to dangerous forces they may not understand or have the experience to deal with. Ironically, they also diminish the very depth and authenticity they’re seeking in that title. Real power doesn’t come without real sacrifice (your life), and very few people in our quick-fix American world have the stamina to understand what that really means, or the courage to offer what it asks of them.
So, if you are truly called to this work, you’ll definitely be feeling what it’s like to be in the jaws of the jaguar, and you won’t need to ask people to vote about it on Facebook to find out.
So, this is all to say that: if you’re not indigenous or you’re not in authentic relationship to one or more indigenous people/s now, if you didn’t grow up living in an intact tribal culture, and you don’t know enough about indigenous values and worldview to truly respect and embody them, if you’re not up for the responsibility of living in a web of complicated right relationship with all beings, along with the obligation to care for the entire seen and unseen world, if you’re not using specific shamanic techniques and honoring medicines of the earth, and if you’re not called by the spirits to sacrifice your life and sanity in service to higher causes, (and your ego, and your sense of self), AND if you’re not willing to dedicate the rest of your life to the hard work of doing this, every day, without any more reward than the work itself—then you are, most definitely, not a shaman. And even if you are all these things, or strive to be, then you’re still not a shaman. You’re a modern-day shamanic practitioner, and I commend you. The path is hard, but it’s worth it for those who walk it in a good way.
And if you realize you’re neither of these things, then stop calling yourself a shaman/ic anything. Take a step back from your work, re-evaluate what you do, and think about how to authentically represent your work and yourself. Take ownership if you’ve been doing something culturally appropriative, apologize, and figure out how to make restitution to the people and culture/s you may have been benefiting from without benefiting them.
If you’re white, learn more about anti-racist work and white privilege and do your best to be an ally to marginalized peoples. Do some research into what indigenous tribes are (or were) in your area, and figure out how to connect with living representatives of them, and how to appropriately honor both the lives and the spirits of Native elders in your area. Do some research into your own ancestry and figure out how to begin connecting with those traditions. Above all, listen more than you speak. To spirits, as well as to living people. Do the work to come into right relationship, humbly. Perhaps then your path will truly begin.