The “S” Word

Recently I got into a Twitter conversation with a few awesome folks about the use of the word “shaman” for distinctly non-indigenous (and non-Evenk) practitioners. I’ve also read a couple of recent blog posts talking about the issue, or at least mentioning it.

I do use the term “shaman” self-referentially. I do not see what I do as being the same as what an Evenk shaman does, or what the holy person/medicine person/etc. of another indigenous culture does. Everything I do, I do with the conscious realization that I am a white chick from the Midwest, whose closest cultural appelation might be “neopagan progressive geek urban dweller who escapes to the woods when she can”. What I do is self-created and self-taught, honed by experience, but also by trading notes with other, largely non-indigenous practitioners. I am also aware that using a term that was cultivated in form and context in a largely collective, communal culture a half a world away, with largely male practitioners, and a decidedly not-urban landscape. I am quite familiar with the word’s roots.

But language is fluid. It grows, and it shifts, and it evolves over time. No matter how much we may rage against it, the current of language change can’t be stopped. It’s why I speak modern English, not any of the previous variants used by Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even earlier writers. English is especially notorious for nabbing whatever words it likes–as the infamous quote by James Nicoll goes, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. Which really does speak to the violence that English-speaking populations have done to others, admittedly.

And I do carry that knowledge of how the term “shaman” came to be assimilated into English with a broader set of definitions than the original. We first came by it through the work of anthropologists who were largely working from a Eurocentric perspective, studying people who were being oppressed, and sometimes contributing to that oppression, even if unwittingly at times, through patronizing or otherwise inaccurate portrayals. Later, the word was “borrowed” by neoshamanic practitioners, some of whom misrepresented what they were doing as indigenous. This helped the term “shaman” go from referring to a very specific practitioner in the Evenk culture, to being applied to just about anything that looks primitive (just try searching for “shaman” on Etsy sometime!).

Despite all this, I still use the term “shaman” for myself. In part, it’s because of familiarity. Just like “totem”, a lot of people in this culture have at least some vague idea of what a shaman is (in the broad sense), and it’s just easier than trying to use a new word and then explain it to everyone I talk to about this stuff, who will then most likely go “Oh, you mean like SHAMANISM!”

However, I will admit that I also feel a kinship to shamanic practitioners of various cultures. Note that I am not saying I feel that what I am doing is exactly what they’re doing. Many indigenous practitioners go through trials and training I can’t even imagine. Hell, even the non-shamanic rites of passage of some cultures would have me running hard in the other direction, happy to embrace my cowardice and childishnes (Google “bullet ant ritual” and you’ll see what I mean. Yikes.). But I have gone through my own challenges as well. Anyone who has been through graduate school knows that it’s meant, in part, to weed out those who aren’t quite a good fit for their chosen field. And the program I went through to get my counseling psych degree was both intellectually and emotionally challenging on a regular basis; there’s a reason one of the requirements for completing the program was getting at least ten hours of counseling as a client. All these things also contributed to my own growth as a shaman, parallel to their “mundane” purposes.

I choose the term “shaman” to acknowledge that I have been through these and other passages, even before the grad school process, that I have spent years cultivating relationships with the spirits, and doing work on the behalf of both them and my community (and I have a very broad idea of community, and it’s not all human). I don’t feel that it’s too proud to acknowledge the work I have shown, and to connect that to my efforts to be as close to a shamanic figure in this culture as I can be. We don’t have a single “shaman” role in this culture; it simply was never there. But I have chosen to live out roles that I feel are analogous, as much as they can be. I am doing the very best that I can with what I have on hand–and what I have is fifteen years of experience, reading, practice, mistakes, and a whole host of other day to day factors that have all built up into this path I am continuing to form as I go.

I feel that sometimes refusing to use the term “shaman” is a subtle way of saying–or fearing that someone will say–that what we do in this culture isn’t as good, or as effective, or as spiritually connected, as what indigenous people do. I am tired of the unspoken value judgement that says that non-indigenous shamanisms can’t be as good or as effective for the cultures they are created in because they aren’t as old or as well-traveled as indigenous shamanisms, that a non-indigenous person who goes and trains in Peru or Brazil or Siberia or even here in the states on a reservation is automatically practicing a path that is superior. Maybe that fear started out as a check on those who didn’t think about things like cultural appropriation, or who just read a book or two and called themselves “shamans”.

But I am tired of it being off-limits to people who have put in the work, just because that work may have been from a lot of solo trial and error instead of from a teacher of a long-standing tradition. And so as a way of acknowledging the work I’ve put into this path over the years, I use the term “shaman” in its broader context, with an awareness of its roots, a caution surrounding its weaknesses, and an eye toward its healthier cultivation in relation to a variety of traditions.

I am a shaman.

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12 thoughts on “The “S” Word

  1. I fully admit, I was one of those who took great exception to the term shamanism. That was for a couple of reasons The first reason is that being raised in Indigenous culture and around not only people of your own Nation, but several other Nations as well, you remember what it was like to be NDN (Indian) and it was not something that made you cool. The assertion that I had was, “damn it, each of the Nations has their own word in their own language what our holy people, visionaries and mystics are called. Why is it necessary to use a word from an Indigenous Siberian Nation?” At the time, I felt that like everything else that the First Nations folks had, it was a word that had been wrongfully misappropriated by anthropologists and then borrowed by new age, pagan and other mainstream authors in some sort of marketing ploy. I fully confess, those were my feelings at that time because I grew up in and around some very tumultuous times when Indigenous peoples were finding their voices back. The indignant voices in NDN Country were definitely justified on a number of grievances.

    What truly changed my heart on this topic is that I have also witnessed people who have no connection to Native spirituality, like yourself and others, who are sincere about what they are doing. They don’t treat it merely as a commercial venture and put it in the proper context – which I think is what makes all the goddamned difference in the world. And I also changed my mind for the reason that infighting over this and every other thing within both Indigenous and Spiritual communities is unnecessary and it is unproductive. I saw infighting over who was NDN enough, who was too white, who’s blood quantum meant more bingo bucks and a larger share of whatever pie that was getting divided up and that is just so unnecessary.

    European folks, African folks, Asian folks, every other kind of folks had equivalent mystics at some point or another in their history. In some First Nations cultures it can take as many as thirty years and more to be considered a holy person of that nation – or shaman, to use the “S” word. Those traditions from all of those places may be far in the reaches of non recorded history. However, to make a value judgement about who is better suited to be a visionary in what culture is absurd. We all get called to the places spiritually that our spirits want us to be in.

    Speaking only for myself, I can say that because my father’s own people became one of the civilized tribes and mostly converted to Christianity, we lost a great deal of those spiritual traditions, too. So, hey, more power to you. At least you are being true to yourself and to the very worlds and spirits that you interact with. That in and of itself is a very powerful thing – no matter what word you choose to use to talk about it.

    • *nods* I think you bring up a good point, and a thought–I hate the idea that you’re either indigenous-trained, or you’re a New Age flake, and there’s no in-between point. How do we make something that’s uniquely ours and yet isn’t flaky if we’re told we have to train under someone else, but can’t because we aren’t legitimate enough? Hence my saying “Hell with it, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, in the best conscience I can”.

      • That brings up a whole other set of issues. Truly, my friend, I think it boils down to not everyone within Indigenous communities gets trained to do what you do. Sometimes, I think it can boil down to simple jealousy. It can also boil down to self-righteous indignance and folks being so blasted tired of those New Age Crystal Twinkies who think a weekend vision quest and drum making workshop will make them a healer in the Native American “tradition”.

        I personally think you need to do what you are doing. Which brings me to a topic I am very interested in writng my own book and documentary on called “Excavating Our Souls from the Ruins.” In it I want to talk to those who are doing what you do, with little to go on other than their gut and putting together viable spiritual traditions. How is this differing – if it is at all – from what our akhu or our ancestors did? In the modern age, we tend to discount it a lot more – but how was it done in times past? Do we need to put together new terminology to differentiate or is the common melting-pot of English enough, because it has taken so much from so many other languages? (I hope that makes sense).

        Anyway, would love to chat with you more about that.

  2. Shaman is an interesting word. You have a valid point, that we are starting from scratch and going it alone within our own culture. I never know what anyone means when they say Shaman because there are so many variations of the word in use and not all of them are related. Also it seems to me that white people are the ones who use the term the most and the indigenous (American Indian) people I know don’t use or particularly like the words themselves. In the end I believe it is a personal judgment call on whether we use it and in what context. I personally don’t feel what I do is all that “shamanic” but others seem to think it is. And this is not to mention the question which is another topic entirely but that of the shaman in context with animism.

    • You’re right in that there are multiple, often conflicting, definitions. Admittedly I feel some kneejerk reaction when the wrong one gets applied in my direction; I can only imagine a little of what that may be like for indigenous people.

  3. Another insightful and thoughtful post–as usual! And I agree with your conclusions–but in the funny way my brain works, it led me to other questions that I struggle with. Such as, are we white folk just romanticizing indigenous cultures and overlooking our own? You’ve touched on this before, but I guess my point is that in some cases we’re almost hypersensitive about appropriation and all that–when, in reality, is anything in the world not appropriated from somewhere? Sure, I understand all the dangers and reasons why this is bad. But I also think it’s bad to elevate indigenous-anything to such a level that it becomes unapproachable to those with the “misfortune” to be born in the “wrong” place or time.

    And when does one become indigenous? What does that word mean, really? Even Native Americans came from somewhere and were, at one point, not indigenous to North America, for example. Is there a time cut-off? For example, if I’m not indigenous, then what am I exactly? Both sides of my family have been in North America since the early 1700s, going on almost 300 years. Yes, my roots are European but I feel deeply attached to the land (and spirits) of what is called North Carolina, and I think it has to do with the fact that my ancestors settled here so long ago and never left. I understand they took land that belonged to others, and I’m not condoning that–but that has happened everywhere on Earth stretching back to the beginning of time. So, would it take another 200 years for me to be considered “indigenous?” Maybe 1,000? Just curious, for I’m guessing at some point in the distant future, archaeologists will look back on our time and possibly identify us with that term.

    Last, I’m frustrated with the white-guilt thing. Awareness of what came before is important, but if we believe that we are authentically working in the spirit world and the spirits are responding–well, then, what function does all the flogging serve? If the spirits respond–regardless of whether it’s a “superior” oral tradition passed down through the ages or an “inferior” practice learned through personal experience and books–then isn’t that enough? Aren’t the spirits able to go where they will and choose how to interact? It would seem that if us white folk were treading on forbidden spiritual territory as culturally appropriating interlopers, then wouldn’t the spirits be powerful and aware enough to deny us an audience? Maybe it’s just my Christian guilt peeking through. I chose to leave Christianity because I realized groveling at the foot of some god and lamenting how unworthy I was had run its course. But with so many pagans and modern “shamans,” I see us doing the same thing–flogging ourselves before the gods of superior indigenous DNA that we shall never possess and begging to be part of the family.

    • The problem isn’t just what came before–it’s that the cultural, financial, and sometimes even physical genocide is still occurring. Reservations are among the most poverty-stricken areas in the country, with rampant addiction, crime, and other social injustices. Often they’re on places that have very little in the way of natural resources–or if they do have them, they’re seized by nonindigenous companies, or even the government. Racism is still very rampant, with indigenous people at the receiving end of discrimination and violence on a daily basis. Cultural appropriation is just the icing on this poisoned cake–in addition to everything else that’s been taken, now the spiritualities and other cultural hallmarks of indigenous peoples are being taken as well, and often profited from.

      Your comment feels as though you want to move past the genocide and oppression. Yet that can’t happen until these things actually stop. What is happening to many Native Americans today is an unbroken thread to what’s been happening for the past five centuries.

      Guilt is not the answer. Guilt still turns our attention back inward upon ourselves, which perpetuates the invisibility of indigenous problems in the larger society. The answer is to start with awareness of the problems that others face, to ask what we can do to help, and to move forward from there.

  4. What do you see as the difference between “witch” and “shaman” in Europe and the US either currently or historically?

    Personally, I think witch (or cunning man, wise woman, etc) is my culture’s (white midwestern guy) word for what shaman has come to mean in anthropology/cross-culturally.

    I know that there are a lot of folks out there who identify as a shaman and who reject the label witch and thus (I imagine) would disagree with me on that.

    Would you mind commenting on what you see as the difference between them? Or why you chose shaman over witch?

    • From my experience, witchcraft may have remnants of shamanism attached to it, but it is an incomplete shamanism, if anything. You can certainly see echoes of shamanic traditions in witchcraft, but it’s fragmented.

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