Shamanism and Racism

“Shamanism and racism”. Google that, and you’ll mainly get various pages referencing Shamanism, Racism and Hip-Hop Culture by James Perkinson (which, incidentally, is now on my wish list). There’s more when you do various searches for shamanism and cultural appropriation (without quotes). But it seems like most people don’t want to use the R-word.

And yet there is inherent racism in a lot of non-indigenous shamanic practices and trends. Not overt racism, but racism nonetheless. A few examples:

–White people traveling to far-off lands for the sole purpose of having shamanic “experiences” with “genuine tribal elders”. In many cases, these experiences are completely removed from the reality of their cultures of origin. This is especially pernicious in cases where participants are blind to the fact that members of that culture may be living in poverty, may be subjected to egregious human rights violations at the hands of governments and corporations, may experience daily racism (to include violence) from other residents who don’t go away when the seminar is over, and otherwise are not the mystical, quasi-Atlantean purveyors of super-secret wisdom.
–Core shamans claiming that core shamanism is culturally and racially neutral. There is no such thing as “culturally neutral”. Core shamanism was developed within a particular Western mindset, and its parameters and emphases reflect that. (I wrote more about this in this post a couple of years ago.)
–Shamans who turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the people who are able to afford their pricey weekend seminars and hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour consultations are white, middle class, and college-educated. What about everyone else, to include those who may not be able to afford health insurance but need healing, counseling, etc.? Alternative medical care may be one of the few options for the uninsured, but not if it’s consistently priced out of their range.
–Shamans who profit from the specific cultural teachings of indigenous people, but who give nothing back to those cultures, to include money made from shamanic consultations, workshops, etc. based on the teachings.*
–Shamans who ignore the fact that for the majority of the American population, the concept of going to a “shaman” is alien, offensive, crazy, or otherwise not viable. We do a great disservice to the people we could be serving when we stick within the narrow comfort zone of people who are enough like us to understand what we mean by shamanism. By assuming that, say, a Catholic Hispanic person who may see what we do as devil worship is just “unenlightened”, we refuse the possibility of meeting people where they’re coming from, which is a key component of fighting social injustices.
–Shamans who ignore the complaints of some indigenous people regarding cultural appropriation and plastic shamanism. Yes, it sucks being criticized, especially when it’s not constructive criticism, because we don’t like hearing what is being said. Yet ignoring the complaints because they don’t fit our preferences isn’t a viable solution. One of the most insidious manifestations of racism—and, indeed, social injustice–involves silencing minority voices.

It’s obvious that these examples reflect other social justice issues beyond racism, but let’s stay focused for the purposes of this essay. Nobody wants to talk about racism because nobody wants to be a racist. Here in the 21st century, racists are “bad people”, and to be considered a racist is to invite guilt and shame. (Well, in most cases. You do have those who openly embrace their racism as a positive character trait—but that’s another problem entirely. And there are those who have exchanged their inwardly-directed guilt for more constructive, outwardly-focused responses. But I digress.)

In fact, modern non-indigenous shamanic practitioners have gotten pretty good at dodging the issue of racism entirely. Many of the arguments reflect justifications for racism in society at large. Here are just a few I’ve run across commonly.

–“You’re taking this too seriously; it doesn’t really matter.” But it does matter. To the people bothered by it, it’s very valid. (I could probably turn the starfish story on its head with a different interpretation of “it matters to this one”.) And yes, I’m notorious for meta-meta-meta-analysis of everything. But so was Joseph Campbell, and he came up with some awesome (if sometimes biased) concepts about mythology. If it ends up that I’m overthinking things, so be it. At least I took the time to examine it. And I don’t analyze so much that I don’t also practice; I just practice with that analysis in mind. Unlike many (though not all) academics who are exploring issues of cultural appropriation and shamanism/neopaganism/etc. I am immersed in what I’m exploring. So it is relevant to what I actually do.

–“It’s just some of the Indians [or other indigenous people] complaining/I know Indians [or other indigenous people] who don’t mind sharing.” That may be. But your friends and colleagues do not speak for their entire culture, never mind all indigenous cultures. There are reasons these people are complaining, and those reasons need to be explored, even if it isn’t comfortable to do so. Ignoring them doesn’t help the discussion. Shutting them down because they say things we aren’t comfortable with is also not constructive. If anything, as those who are privileged, we have additional responsibility to listen.

–“White people get mistreated, too. Listen to all the complaining you’re doing about white people. Is that fair?” No, it’s not fair. But this isn’t about fair. It’s about actually paying attention to problems that your privilege lets you ignore on a daily basis. (If you’re unclear about what the concept of privilege is, please read Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.) A white person being called names for being white does not have the same historical and still-existing societal context of, say, a black person being called names for being black. And let’s not even get started on the gross inequalities that Native Americans have been and still are routinely subjected to. There’s a lot more to racism than someone not liking you.

–“Spirituality/shamanism/healing/etc. is for everyone. We should focus on erasing boundaries between cultures and races and other artificial divisions and just focus on being all human.” Well, yes, a world without racism and other social injustices would be ideal. But you don’t get there by ignoring issues of social injustice and pretending they don’t exist, or that you’re not involved. You get there by getting your hands dirty, taking responsibility for your part–intentional or not–in the problem, dealing with your own privileges, and listening to the people who are affected by the injustices. This is basically another iteration of racial colorblindness, which is a lot more counterproductive in deconstructing racism than some would assume.

I’ll say right now that I am most definitely not expecting everyone to agree with me. (In fact, I have my super-secret-shamanic-technology flame-retardant undies on, just as a precaution.) And I’m not perfect, especially when it comes to actions of cultural diversity. Most of this is still me chewing on thoughts, becoming aware of my shortcomings, as I’m immersed in a curriculum that focuses heavily on social justice in counseling. I’m well aware of the fact that my own cultural experiences have been pretty homogenous. I’ve been working to change that with my volunteering and graduate school efforts, which focus heavily on working with the formerly homeless, impoverished, recovering addicts, and other people whose experiences I couldn’t even begin to fathom personally. But that’s a small start, and it doesn’t automatically make me an expert on minority groups.

But I want people to be talking about this, even if some of the commentary ends up changing my perspectives somewhat. Even being “wrong” is better than being silent, and we all stand to learn from this discussion. Not talking about race just promotes racism.

*An excellent example of someone who does give back to the culture he learned from is James Endredy, with his Earth Spirit Foundations charitable programs.

Some Comments on Neoshamanism

I’ve been thinking some about arguments of authenticity and neoshamanism (non-indigenous practices that emulate indigenous shamanisms). And it really seems that we’re stuck in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation.

One of the biggest criticisms is that we aren’t doing things the same way as indigenous cultures. We don’t take long enough to train, or we’re too superficial, or we otherwise have no idea what we’re doing, because we have no animistic/shamanistic tradition inherent in non-indigenous American culture. We are a unique culture in that, more than any other, we have a wide variety of individual cultural influences from around the world, but no older base culture at the core. The indigenous cultures here, of course, were decimated by European colonists, and even if they hadn’t been, one can hardly say there was a monolithic Native American culture from Alaska to Brazil. Looking at what we have now, we don’t so much have a melting pot as we do a soup, sort of, a general broth but with individual bits and pieces of stuff retaining its own character, more or less. We can say we have American culture, but whose is that really? The culture of white middle-class liberals come up with, or working-class African American Baptists, or Hispanic migrants? What the media shows, the formermost of the three examples I mentioned, doesn’t nearly cover what it is to be American, just the most privileged iteration thereof.

Alternately, we’re supposedly doing it wrong because we are doing it like indigenous people, just not good enough. We’re only aping indigenous practices, from cultures that aren’t interested in having us participate in any form. But even if we did have more access, I do not think that trying to draw even more deeply from indigenous shamanisms is the answer to our dilemma. For example, I’ve seen what basically amount to shamanic tourist traps, where white people spend thousands of dollars to fly to South America to do ayahuasca intensives with people they’ve never met before in a land they’ll never permanently connect to, and then assume that’s a full-on initiation. Sure, you might learn some interesting techniques, but then you have to figure out how to use them in a different culture and a different landscape. And once you take specific practices out of their original context, they lose their meaning.

To an extent, all American neoshamans—and neopagans—have to adjust to this conundrum. One of the things that really interests me, for example, with reconstructionist paganisms is how the practitioners adjust to living in a land, culture and time that the cultural portions of their religious practices aren’t supposed to be connected to, and the individual interpretations and compromises fascinate me to no end. With neoshamanism being as heavily animistic as it is, and being more of an intensive practice than a religion, it’s especially difficult to introduce it to a culture that never had anything directly analogous to either animism, or the role of a shaman. There’s no convenient niche to fill; we have to chip it out ourselves, either modifying existing roles, or creating something entirely different.

Plus we’re not looking at small, relatively homogenous tribal groups. In a square mile chunk of Portland, for example, you can find people from dozens—or even hundreds—of ethnic backgrounds, religions, political affiliations, etc. Many of them may not have ever met their neighbors. As I blogged about over at the Wild Hunt a while back, most attempts to try to artificially build a tribe out of this sort of environment don’t work particularly well. And shamanism is something that grew primarily out of relatively small, cohesive groups.

Which leads to criticism with American culture itself. There are complaints that shamanisms within this culture reflect specific cultural elements that are often considered to be negative. The reality is that American culture (whatever that is) has a tendency towards individualism, instant gratification, and materialism. That’s part of what we have to work with. Neoshamans and neopagans can’t instantly shift the culture we’re immersed in; even our subcultures are still marked to a great deal by greater, more overarching tendencies. And no matter how much work we do on ourselves, we’re always going to be indelibly marked to some extent by our culture of origin and/or immersion. Additionally, if we’re going to do our work for the people in this culture, we need to meet them where they are instead of expecting them to be “more enlightened” or otherwise vastly different from the state we find them in. And remember—there are human beings involved here, not automatons or perfected higher selves.

So don’t be surprised when the fledgling attempts to try to create a shamanism for this culture end up being marked by individualism, instant gratification, and materialism to some degree or another. We may not want to stay there—but we have to start somewhere. Because we’re so attuned to individualism, for example, it’s no surprise that there are numerous interpretations of what a shamanism for this culture would be. Even within core shamanism, which started with Michael Harner, there are plenty of directions that the basic material has been taken in. This means there’s really no consensus as to what non-indigenous American shamanism is. There may never be, and there may always be disagreements as to what “real” shamanism is, in this culture and otherwise. Maybe we’ll end up with different shamanisms, somewhat though not completely analogous to individual tribal shamanisms, but with 300 million Americans, it’s hard to think that we’d be able to come up with a one size fits all praxis.

Think about it—we’ve really only been trying for a few decades at best to make something of a shamanic tradition in this culture. Even with as many people are interested today, that’s still only a very small portion of the population at large. It’s not like some greater movement such as feminism, where millions upon millions of people got involved as it gained momentum. So we have a relatively small number of people working within a relatively small amount of time to do something that involves not only creating a spiritual praxis more or less from scratch, but also altering the culture in which it is being created, often with conflict from numerous directions. That’s a pretty tall order, if you ask me.

And yes, we’re going to make mistakes and fuck up royally as we learn through trial and error. And that’s okay. At least we’re doing something. At least we’re trying. At least we’re not being armchair critics on the sidelines. The people who do the work have my respect for doing the work, even if I disagree with the details of what they’re doing.

On the Recent Sweat Lodge Deaths

This has been bothering me all day, but I couldn’t really figure out how to articulate it until I was sitting working on some artwork tonight.

In case you haven’t heard, two people are dead and others ill after a sweat lodge held by James A. Ray, a proponent of The Secret, went awry. This is far from the first death caused by improperly constructed lodges; heart problems seem to be a common factor, as is wrapping the lodge in a layer of plastic (which is a bad idea all around, no pun intended). I first read about it at the Wild Hunt, and others have weighed in on angles such as pseudo-psychology and (not) cultural appropriation.

I think the issue that stands out to me the most is that of competency. In counseling, competency means having at least an adequate, if not superior, set of knowledge and skills about a given topic to be able to effectively help a client with a minimum of risk to their psychological health. One thing I’m learning in my classes on practical skills is that no matter who you are, you will always screw up. Therapists are human, and as much as one would like to be the most awesome, helpful, effective therapist ever, there will always be those clients who just don’t work out–and the ones that you really regret because you know you could have acted differently in hindsight.

Competency is an ethical issue designed to make sure that the chances of causing harm are minimized. For example, I’m on the adult track in my program. My classes are tailored toward working with adults, and my internship will be the same. Before I could ostensibly work with children, I would have to take steps to increase my competency through education and reading, at the very least. The same thing goes if I end up having a client referred to me who is of a special population whose unique situation I don’t have experience or knowledge of.

Running a proper sweat requires competency on a couple of levels. I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether indigenous spiritual ceremonies associated with sweats are inherently spiritually better than New Age or otherwise not indigenous ones, and whether these people died because the spirits were displeased. On a physical level, though, there is a definite need for competency–how to safely construct the lodge, how to prepare the correct sort of stone, how to monitor participants for health concerns, and so forth. Psychologically, too, there needs to be competency with any sort of rite of passage or other ritual that has the potential to shake a person out of their usual headspace. I have heard entirely too many horror stories in the neopagan community of ritual leaders who led people through a particularly moving ritual–and then didn’t stick around to pick up the pieces when a participant ended up with some trauma being dredged up by the experience.

What seems to have happened here is a lack of competency on a physical, and potentially psychological, level. Did Ray know about the risks of running a sweat with that many people and that sort of construction, and how to know when something was going wrong? Did he make it clear to people that, no matter how moving an experience they were having, if they felt ill they needed to get out, and they wouldn’t have failed for admitting their limits? Did he receive any sort of training that might have included how to address these and other concerns?

And I think this is something that neoshamans/shamanists/shamanic practitioners in general should be thinking about. Most of us don’t have access to indigenous cultures and their spiritual teachings (nor should we presume we have a right to such things). There’s no shamanism inherent to the culture I am a part of. But there are attempts to try to construct such a thing. The problem is that we’re starting from scratch, whether that means working with core shamanism, gleaning what we can from indigenous contacts, or trying to piece things together on our own.

How can we really gauge competency when there are so many people going in so many directions? There’s not a single non-indigenous shamanic path that doesn’t come under some scrutiny, whether from indigenous practitioners, or from neoshamans themselves. We aren’t going to get everyone to agree to some universal way of doing things. this survey from the Society of Shamanic Practitioners shows a bias toward a very specific, core-based manner of practice that I couldn’t finish because a lot of the questions simply didn’t apply to how I currently do things; same thing goes for others I know.

Some would argue that we have to do more in conjunction with indigenous cultures who have well-established shamanic systems (using the term shamanic loosely). While this certainly would give a person firm grounding in that culture’s shamanism, it A) supposes that a culture would be willing to share such a thing, and B) doesn’t take into account that many, if not most, of the practices and cosmologies found in indigenous shamanism aren’t going to do as well outside of their original cultural context. Nor will many Americans view things like journeying and ceremonies as anything other than “crazy stuff” or “devil worship”–which pretty much eliminates them as potential recipients of shamanic work. (On a side note, I’ve had people tell me I should just look to the religions of my ancestors. Beyond the fact that it’s Catholics way back, I fail to see how 1,000+ year old cultures from a continent away are going to be any more helpful in working with this culture than indigenous ones would be. I am not a circa 700 A.D. Slavic peasant.)

We could also try to come up with some standards and best practices for neoshamans, but who gets to decide what’s what? If we’re going by sheer numbers, core shamans are the most numerous, but most non-core neoshamans have some misgivings with core shamanism. And we’re talking about a bunch of people who are scattered across the country, not all of whom spend as much time on the internet as I do, and are not always particularly accessible or willing to network. It’s a much different context from a more localized, relatively homogenized culture. (I do think that talking more about this stuff, though, is highly recommended, even if nothing truly universal comes out of it. Peer review is a good thing.)

My own personal preference in gaining competency is to interweave aspects of my culture that are most analogous to what I understand shamanism to be, hence my working on a Master’s in counseling psych, since psychology figures heavily in my practice and general worldview. However, I also have the privilege of being able to get loans and go to school in the first place, as well as having enough of an interest and ability with psychology to make it worth my time. And people may disagree with various assessments of what a shaman would be in this culture.

Then, of course, there are those who would be thrilled if all us not-indigenous folks put aside these games of “shamanism” since we don’t have the level of competency indigenous cultures have. Both from a spiritual and psychological perspective, I can see great value in creating structures of meaning, rites of passage, and other things missing from large portions of this culture, and if the means and trappings in which some practitioners try to create these structures is misguided and appropriative, at least the general effort is of value and should be fine-tuned rather than scrapped entirely.

There are times, honestly, when all I want to do is throw my hands up and decide that we’re all arguing over completely subjective psychological meaning-making systems, and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but how you use it and for what purposes. Maybe we’d quit arguing over who believes the right things, and get rid of the red herrings of subjective authenticity, and instead get down to the business of dealing with what’s more objective. Whether I believe animal totems talk with me when I drum is a subjective issue, and again something that I sometimes think is wholly a structure of personal mythology. If I claim that what I’m doing is according to some indigenous culture I’ve never had any contact with, then it veers over into objective territory in that I’m making a verifiably false claim about the beliefs that could potentially affect the people whose legitimacy I’m trying to leech. And if I further use this to justify telling people to, say, drink bleach because Bear said that it’s good for what ails you, then we’re really into the objective, insofar as the actions I am taking extrapolated from my beliefs.

And that’s where I really think competency comes in. You can’t measure the legitimacy of whether the totems talk to me or not; there’s no such thing as spiritual competency in that regard, unless someone has some form of omniscience that I’m not privy to. (Gods know there are lots of neopagans and others who try their damnedest to measure the spiritual competency of others, especially others they dislike.) But you can measure one’s competency in psychological and physical terms. If I integrate shamanism into my counseling practice, no one can say whether, say, a soul retrieval was spiritually successful–but we can look at the client’s progress after that ritual and see whether it helped improve their psychological health. And if I decided to incorporate wilderness therapy in my practice and take clients hiking, my competency could be measured in terms of things like whether I have up-to-date Wilderness First Responder training.

As far as how much competency Ray had? There’s not yet enough information available, unless I’ve missed something. I looked on the bio on his website, and couldn’t really find anything to suggest he has any psychological training, or what sort of spiritual training he may have had (including that which may have shown him how to safely run a sweat). Hopefully more will come out in the wash. In the meantime, I think we need to focus less on things like cultural appropriation and the exact tools (physical and psychological) used in this case, and instead look at the people involved and how they were using these tools. Being a non-indigenous person running a sweat lodge does not automatically make you a potential killer. Being someone who doesn’t possess physical and psychological competency involved with the rite, regardless of the exact cultural trappings, is an entirely different story.

Quick Commercial Break

I try to not talk too much about my professional writing pursuits here, since this is mainly a blog about my shamanic practice, and I figure most folks who are interested in my books/etc. will go check the link list. However, I did want to bring attention to a recent project that’s been published that’s relevant to some of what I’ve talked about here. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation is the first anthology I’ve edited. It came out last month through Immanion Press/Megalithica Books, who have published my other books as well. Talking About the Elephant is a collection of essays from a diversity of authors coming from backgrounds ranging from Celtic Reconstructionism to neoshamanism to ritual magick, and then some. I tried to create a collection of essays that presented numerous perspectives on the issue of cultural appropriation in neopaganism, rather than just a bunch of people saying the same thing different ways.

I figured that since I’ve talked a fair bit about cultural appropriation and shamanism here, that readers may be interested in the anthology. There’s more information at the link above; if you want to order a copy directly from me (it’ll be signed by me as well as my husband Taylor, who was also an essayist), be aware that my first shipment of copies just sold out a couple of days ago; I’m expecting a new shipment around the end of the month, but you can go ahead and get an order in to reserve your copy.

Alright. Back to the usual stuff. Thanks for reading :)

Why I Blog Here

I originally wrote this up on Monday, but wanted to take a little more time to chew on what I was saying. So here, slightly belated, is my post.

Over at the Wild Hunt blog, Jason Pitzl-Waters has been taking a much-deserved vacation. In his place he’s invited a group of other pagan bloggers to guest blog. Monday’s guest blog is by Cat Chapin-Bishop of Quaker Pagan Reflections. She brought up a good point:

So why is nearly everything we write in the form of a recipe book? Why so little in the way of lived experience? For a religion of direct, personal gnosis, we have remarkably little writing about what happens when we set out to practice rather than preach.

Now, let me say this first and foremost. Every person has hir own comfort zone when it comes to talking about spiritual experiences. Even I have things that I won’t talk about publicly, or even to anyone save my husband (and even then there are still things that are for my ears only). So I’m not going to say “YOU MUST ALL TELL EVERYTHING!!!!”

However, I think Ms. Chapin-Bishop makes a really good point in regards to what’s actually been written down, whether in print or online, regarding neopagan and related practices. There’s a lot of protocol, and formality, and “Do this this way because that’s the way it’s supposed to be done”, and there are also scads of pre-crafted spells and rituals. Granted, there are also personal accounts, but they’re not as common. The books and sites I like the most are the ones that have a good balance of theory and practice–they explain the theory in good detail, but then use personal anecdotes to further illustrate the points made, and follow up with exercises (not precrafted spells and rituals) to help the readers put the ideas into action for themselves.

I don’t talk a lot about myself-as-author or myself-as-editor here. I save that mostly for my Livejournal, which is more of a catch-all blog where I share links, keep in touch with people I know scattered around the world, and do the bulk of my promotional stuff. This blog here, on the other hand, is more focused, and with rare exception is meant for recording and sharing what of my shamanic work I’m willing to let others read about.

However, one thing I particularly look for as an editor (and as a reader) is people showing their work. Part of that is on the theoretical end, citing sources, etc. However, I want to see practical work. I want to see anecdotes that show that the writer actually did what they talk about. I want to get some idea of what I may be getting myself into. And as an author, that’s something I try to convey in my own writings. Some of what I write is pure theory, and that’s fine. But that’s also why I tell the stories of what’s happened to me here.

Would this blog be as interesting if I didn’t share the stories of myself? If I just rambled on and on about shamanism as a theoretical practice, but without ever sharing anecdotes, either my own or others’? Would you have as good a sense of what’s going on in my corner of the woods? Probably not. I know that for some of you being able to read them has helped you, either by showing you that you aren’t the only one having such experiences, or by inspiring you to do more with your own path. And I know that that’s been true for when I’ve read the works of others, including folks who have commented here.

So while I’ll continue to keep some things to myself, things that are just between the spirits and me, I’ll continue to share the stories I’m willing to tell.

On a little different note, one line in particular from the essay really struck home for me:

Tell me about how hot your sweat lodge was and how thirsty you emerged from it, when you explore whether or not Pagan sweat lodges are cultural appropriation.

I’ve changed a good bit in my perspectives on cultural appropriation, especially since accepting the call to shamanism. When I first started thinking about it, I was more of a hardass than I am now. Not to the extent where I called all white shamans “wannabes”, but I tended to put a lot more emphasis on “doing it right”. My ultimate decision at the time was still “You need to make your own educated choices”, but there was still more judgement on my part than probably was healthy.

I can look at this article from two years ago and see where I was beginning to question the more hardline opinions I had. However, starting shamanic work last September contributed to a further chipping away of my stubbornness that anyone who did X was obviously Y. What really clinched the deal was my experience in Arizona, where going through two of the ecoshamanic initiations with James Endredy, as well as my own personal rite of passage on my “day off”, demonstrated just how overcerebral I was being about the whole situation. I was so concerned about doing it “by the books” and trying so hard not to offend people who might *gasp* assume I was a plastic shaman that I wasn’t really letting myself sink into the experience itself.

And that’s been a really valuable lesson. These days, I still don’t look favorably on people who claim to be of an indigenous culture that they aren’t really affiliated with at all as a way to get money and power. However, I’m less critical of people who may be more on the New Agey end, just because they’re, well, New Agey. I’m learning more and more that what really matters, as far as I can see, is what the person is actually accomplishing with their works.

The way I see it, it’s getting tougher and tougher for people to deny that as a species–hell, as a world–we’re in deep trouble and sinking fast. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, it’s hard to pretend that there aren’t numerous species being negatively affected by our actions. Every day in the news it seems I see articles and reports about some chemical being linked to cancer, or another species on (or over) the edge of extinction, or another wild place devastated by pollution.

And that’s just the environmental end of things. That doesn’t even get into issues that often tie into the environment–famine and wars caused by short resources; crime perpetrated by desperate people raised and living in unhealthy environments, or with serious psychological issues that go untreated due to a lack of health insurance or social support; increasingly poor public education and more expensive higher education, as well as education that continues to promote the division between humanity and the rest of Nature.

I am less inclined to judge someone just because they live in suburbia and call themselves a shaman. In a situation where we can use all the help we can get, healers of all sorts, people who act as intermediaries between the spirit world and this one in part to help find solutions to our problems (as well as placate those we’ve royally pissed off), and those who teach a healthier way of living are all welcome as far as I’m concerned. Sure, there are probably some folks who are more motivated by their egos than anything resembling altruism. But what criteria can Some Random Person On the Internet really use to judge someone they’ve never met in their lives, and whom they’re mainly assessing via personal or professional web site? Just because someone charges for services doesn’t mean they’re in it for the money. Is my mechanic who charges fifty bucks an hour in labor costs in order to pay for rent and other costs an egotist just because s/he doesn’t give it to me free out of the goodness of hir own heart?

Can we really afford time wasted bitching about who’s not doing things in a perfectly acceptable way? One, unless someone is making a claim about themselves that is verifiably false (such as tribal affiliation or Wiccan lineage or some other such thing), in the end it’s really none of my business. Two, even if I think someone’s methods are on the fluffy side, if they’re actually DOING something constructive, then that gets them points in their favor. I’ll be honest; my tolerance for what other people do went way up once I started spending less time fussing around on the internet, and more time actually doing what needs to be done. And as the signal-to-noise ratio continues to get skewed on the ‘net, I’m going to continue putting more weight towards those who are making constructive things happen, even if I don’t happen to agree with them entirely. We may not be in as dire straits as the creator of the Gaia hypothesis recently opined, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be rolling our sleeves up to get the work done.

“An Orthodoxy of Fear”

First off, I have updated the FAQ page; some things have changed since I last poked at it, and it’s worth taking a peek, if you like. Ever growing, ever changing, and all that good stuff.

My dear friend (and all around awesome person) Erynn wrote this wonderfully thought-provoking post on what she terms “an orthodoxy of fear”. She is one of the foundational folks involved in Celtic Reconstructionism, and the above essay details her thoughts on the growing trend in CR (and which can be seen in other recon religions) where certain tight-laced members will essentially bully anyone who is “out of line”, so to speak. Read it before you go on if you haven’t already; it’s a great set of thoughts, and this post is my rumination on what she said.

I’m not a reconstructionist by far, believe me. I know damned well that what I’m doing is my own creation, and not specific to any culture other than modern mainstream American. However, the concept of shamanism has become particularly contentious these days, especially within dialogue about cultural appropriation, and how much borrowing/inspiration is too much. As I wrote last month upon my return from Arizona, one bad habit I’ve worked to break has been worrying overmuch about proving my authenticity. What Erynn described hits home for me in that regard, because I think I really hobbled myself sometimes for fear that the cultural appropriation police would come along and scream “PLASTIC SHAMAN!!! OMG!!!” Now, don’t get me wrong–I do believe strongly that appropriation is something we do need to continue discussing, and taking into account in our thoughts and actions.

However, reading through what Erynn said about people being afraid to talk about what they’re doing for fear of destructive criticism reminds me very much of myself at times. You know why it took me so long to accept the calling to shamanism? It wasn’t because I was afraid of the hardships (though I know those are a very real possibility). It was because I’d heard so many times that because I was white, because I didn’t have any connections to any indigenous culture, and had no one to teach me, that I shouldn’t ever call myself a “shaman”.

And what did that get me? A lot of years where I could have been answering the spirits when they repeatedly asked me to take up this path, but instead got distracted by other things. Now, I don’t think that my time was wasted; I learned and did a lot of neat things in that time. However, I have to wonder what might have been if I’d answered sooner; would I have been able to make more of a difference? I’ll never know for sure; what’s important now is that I am doing what I need to be doing, and learning more about what I can do further.

I understand the need for accuracy, believe me. We don’t need more “Fiftieth generation family tradition witches” and “Atlantean Crystal Loa Celts”. We don’t need more questionable books talking about how nine million Wiccans were burned at the stake at Salem. And we don’t need more people taking New Age beliefs and calling them genuine indigenous practices. However, how far do we really need to go when making sure that good information is put out there?

We need to stop discouraging non-indigenous people who want to practice a form of shamanism. If any culture could use shamanism–as well as the belief infrastructure that comes part and parcel with it–it’s the U.S. We are the most wasteful, destructive, screwed-up society out there. We consume more resources than any other country, and since the current administration came into power, we have alienated more and more countries (though Bush’s predecessors were far from innocent). We are a society stuck in long-term adolescence, lacking in true rebirthing rites of passage (and no, getting drunk on your 21st birthday doesn’t count). The fact that so many Americans are seeking something beyond what we currently have is a good sign; that many of them “steal” indigenous beliefs because they feel those are the most spiritual is usually a matter of ignorance, not deliberate malice. I think sometimes the critics come down too hard on neoshamans as a whole; don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (no matter how dirty that water may be). I may have a personal dislike for core shamanism as a freestanding system, but this is for me alone–I can’t say that others can’t practice it or get anything out of it.

Discouraging people from taking indigenous beliefs without understanding their context–or the people they originated from–is a good idea. Telling them “Look to the culture of your ancestors” only does so much good–the ancient Celts, Slavs, and other such folks did not have the same culture that we have today. Encouraging people to create a shamanism for this culture–that’s where I believe the answer is. I think sometimes many seekers distance themselves from American culture because they can’t see past the strip malls, and maybe they’re afraid of the immense amount of work that’s needed. But telling them “You can’t be a shaman” isn’t the solution. Then you just end up with people who A) become sick with despair, or B) take what they want anyway.

Being a rabid critic doesn’t help the situation. Setting yourself up as an uber-authority, telling people what they can and can’t believe or do, just makes you look like an insecure wanker with a chip on your shoulder (whether that’s what you are or not). Destructive criticism just turns people away; one can only handle being told “You’re doing it ALL wrong!” so many times before they stop listening out of self-defense. Cultural appropriation is given birth by a sick society seeking healing; if you want to help put a stop to it, there’s a better way than intimidating people to the point where they take their ball and go home.

For that matter, if you are a modern, nonindigenous shaman, take a good look at your cultural influences. How are you interfacing with the culture you are a part of–not just one halfway around the world in a remote area that has unblemished secrets, but whatever industrial/postindustrial, techno-heavy culture you may or may not enjoy living in? How is your shamanism helping the people around you–not just the pagans and the New Agers, but the folks next door, or the people in the local homeless shelter, or the schoolkids down the street? For that matter, how are the local spirits doing these days? Have you even talked to them? What about the Land you live on?

If someone is criticizing you, how are they doing it? Are they being openly antagonistic and insulting? Then chances are there probably isn’t that much to what they’re saying. Are they being calm (if opinionated) and supporting their claims with various sources and commentary? Read it over, think about it, and draw your own conclusions. Consider the possibility that they may very well have a good point; it’s easy for us to get defensive when we perceive someone criticizing us “for no good reason”. However, the method of conveyance can be a major tip-off in how much you really need to listen to someone. Hurling insults just turns people off; making a measured, calm argument is more likely to get a constructive response (honey and vinegar, folks).

In the end there are more important things, I think, than worrying that someone will attack you for daring to use the “S” word; with all the problems in the world, a label doesn’t seem all that important, especially if you don’t attach someone else’s culture to it (one in which you are not actively involved in any way). And I have to wonder if time spent surfing the internet criticizing anyone who is wrong wouldn’t be better off put to more constructive uses. There are bigger problems out there than making sure people stick to the standard dogma. Yes, we need to be aware when we’re overstepping our bounds when it comes to factual claims, and we do need to be aware of the impact on others. However, those of you who feel the need to terrify anyone who doesn’t do things the way you think they should, perhaps you ought to be more concerned with the impact you are having on others, as well. Because in the process of intimidating others, you may very well be contributing to the hindrance of people who could be very instrumental in improving the lot of us all.


I have learned a lot over the past few days; it’s been an incredibly intense experience. Four days immersed in the Arizona desert, learning how to connect with the land in a deeper manner than I expected, and having some very powerful encounters with the land itself, has done me a world of good. I’ll probably be doing a series of blog posts over the next few days as the words come to me; there’s a lot to digest here. Needless to say, this has been a life-changing time for me.

In my last post, I talked about how there were going to be some major changes in how I do things. (Never fear, I’m not going to delete this blog, though the nature of the posts may change somewhat.) One of the most important realizations I came to was just how strongly neopaganism and the community have impacted how I go about things. Working with someone who is coming from a primarily shamanic background, to include extensive experience with indigenous practitioners, really pinpointed some very neopagan things I’ve been doing. This was further demonstrated when I took the lessons I had learned and put them to practice on my own. When I say “neopagan habits”, I don’t mean that every single pagan does things this way; rather, these are habits and patterns that I picked up from neopaganism in general, and which are an interpretation of my experiences thereof, not neopaganism as a whole. Additionally, they may be found outside of neopaganism as well–but this is where i picked them up, personally.

One of the “neopagan habits” I’ve picked up has been wanting to try to put things in too a structured manner. I look back at the first six months, and while working with the elements on a month-by-month basis did help quite a bit, I can see where I focused too much on expecting things to go in a particular order, and to learn certain things. Not that I didn’t learn a lot; however, from here on out my approach is going to be more holistic—less compartmentalizing, more approaching the All of what I’m doing.

For instance, rather than expecting that the next six months will be spent getting to know my guides better, and then move on to other things, from here on out I’m going to let things be more free-flowing. I think I’ve been trying to direct my progress a little too much, breaking it up into easy-to-digest pieces. However, while it’s useful to be able to break things down, I’m finding that in practice it’s going to be better if I simply allow the lessons to come on their own terms. One very good reason is that, while my former way of doing things was well-intended, it was pretty slow. I would have to learn about each thing separately, and then try and put it all together. The techniques I have learned are valuable if for no other reason than they have a more complete perspective—instead of learning about Earth, then Air, then Fire, then Water, and so forth, I was immersed in the land, and all the elements, entities and components thereof. I found this to be much more effective. Granted, if I were a rank newbie to magic in general, I would probably want to learn some basic correspondences, just to get my bearings. However, I’m well past that point, and though my first six months were a good reminder, I think that the approach I have picked up this weekend will be a lot more effective and efficient going forward. “Let go and let gods.”

The other habit I picked up that I’ll be altering deals with books and expectations. Being in the pagan community since the mid-1990s, I’ve seen the tidal wave of fluffy, poor-researched source material that overran the big box stores, and I’ve seen the subsequent backlash of nonfluffiness. While I do completely support better research where historical and other verifiable information is concerned, I also have seen a rather unpleasant attitude that has arisen in conjunction with the “nonfluffy” movement. It isn’t universal among all “nonfluffy” folk, to be sure, but it exists among a minority.

Essentially, it’s an attitude of superiority, and an attempt to be more-correct-than-thou, no matter what. There’s also an obvious sense that the people get some smug satisfaction out of their destructive criticism, even if it’s couched in Authority and Experience. A healthy attitude, IMO, is one that corrects misinformation and disseminates good information, particularly in factual issues. (It’s not perfect, and may need to vent and bitch now and then.) However, I have seen in a minority of pagans a tendency towards mean-spiritedness and huge chips on shoulders. It’s not enough to offer naïve newbies good information, or to herd people away from known sources of bad information and internet trolls. These people, instead, seem to have taken it on themselves to try to be as right as possible, and anyone whom they disagree with is automatically WRONG. They go the extra mile to prove themselves, even going to the extreme of personal attacks and harassment. I’m not even talking about “bunny hunters” who chase “toxic bunnies” with their horrid misinformation across the internet, though I have my misgivings about that practice. I’m talking about stupid interpersonal politics and going out of your way to attack anyone you disagree with at any chance you get, without even considering the possibility that they might be right, and that you just might be–gasp!–wrong.

A good example is the issue of UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis), a topic I’ve seen a number of good, thoughtful posts on recently. There’s no rule that says everyone has to accept your UPG, or that you have to accept theirs. However, I’ve seen through the joys of the intarwebz a number of occasions where disagreeing with someone’s UPG wasn’t enough—the Righter-Than-Thous went completely Dalek in their attempt to EXTERMINATE! And their targets weren’t ungrounded flakes pulling things out of their asses and accepting it as holy writ; they were fully functional, experienced pagans who could show where the UPG they’d had had a positive impact on their practices, and who displayed a healthy amount of skepticism and reflection with regards to their UPG. For their attackers, though, if it didn’t match something in a book, it couldn’t possibly be real.

Most of the examples I’ve seen are less drastic than that. Still, there seems to be an underlying current of sneering at UPG, especially where it deviates from “known quantities”. There’s also a strong adherence to books and established traditions as being superior, to the point where I think sometimes experiential evidence is downplayed to the detriment of all involved. After all, having seen what happens when someone else claimed that, after one meditation, they had determined that the Native Americans actually came from Atlantis, not across the Bering Strait, who wants to chance being seen as equally weird and subject to ridicule? Because it’s not just the Atlantean Native Americans that get attacked–it’s people with things that may deviate a bit from traditional lore, but aren’t completely out of the question.

Where this ties into my recalibration is that the “you must back this up!” attitude has unfortunately rubbed off on me to the point where I think I’ve been a bit afraid to stretch my wings with my own experiences. Modern shamanism in the neopagan community is particularly contentious, because on the one hand you have people who read a few books and declare themselves real-live Native American shamans, and on the other hand you have pagans who opine that if you aren’t a part of a tribe, there’s no way you can call yourself a real shaman or function in that capacity, no matter how you work with the spirits. Scylla and Charybdis, indeed! And I think I’ve been listening to the latter people too much. Not that cultural appropriation isn’t an important topic to discuss, and not that I shouldn’t be aware of what I’m doing and what I’m calling “shamanism”; however, I think I’ve been trying too damned hard to prove that I’m not Fluffy McRunningWolf.

It’s time to stop trying to prove my authenticity. I’ve stated that I’m not a member of indigenous culture, and I’m learning from a variety of sources, from books to personal interaction with the spirits, and now some training in Ecoshamanism. I’m aware of cultural appropriation, and I have made my own decisions regarding my boundaries with that. And you know what? That’s all I need to say. Polite questions can be answered, experiences can be shared and notes can be traded. Constructive criticism is welcome, and I’m open to healthy dialogue. The rest can go stuff itself. What’s more important? Not being wrong on the internet and trying to convince some ass-umptions by people who don’t even take the time to ask what’s up? Or creating a healthy relationship with the land and showing others how to do the same so hopefully we can try to curb the path of environmental and human destruction we’re currently on? Somehow, what someone says on their Livejournal just doesn’t seem so important any more.

And I’m tired of working within the constraints of expectations, either my own or others’. I’ve spent too much time worrying about whether what I’m doing matches what others are doing, and not enough time simply experiencing. (More on that in a later post.) If you study shamanism in indigenous societies worldwide, while there are some common threads, there are also numerous differences and approaches. Shouldn’t this hold true with neoshamanism as well?

I do want to make something clear—I am not saying that structure and scholarship are in and of themselves bad things. However, what I am finding is, that for my own purposes, and the path I am walking, these are two elements that will need to be toned down some in lieu of more experiential and organic growth. It is part of my recalibration of what I’m doing. As always, YMMV.

A Bit of Clarification

A post this week from the Wild Hunt blog dealt with the topic of cultural appropriation. I’ve blogged about it here before, and I wanted to offer some follow-up thoughts.

There’s a rather lively discussion on the comments for the Wild Hunt post (and no, I couldn’t resist jumping into the fray ;) ). It was a good reminder to me that not everybody sees things my way. While rationally/intellectually I’m well aware of that fact, and I tend to be in favor of things like tolerance and free speech, if I get into a discussion on something I’m horribly opinionated passionate about, sometimes my awareness gets a bit blinded by my enthusiasm.

Cultural appropriation seems to largely be a matter of opinion, at least as far as what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”. As was pointed out in the comments, just as not all pagans agree on the issue, neither do all Native Americans (and, one would imagine, members of other cultures that are sometimes borrowed/stolen from). And, while like so many other people, I have an opinion on the matter based on my own perspective, it’s just one among many. While I can sometimes get caught up in the “I’m right, I’m right, dammit I’M RIGHT!” cycle, I do realize in the end that I could just as well be wrong.

However, as I said, “right” and “wrong” are largely subjective. One thing that I have learned (at the tender? ripe old? depends on your perspective? age of 29) is that no matter what choice anyone makes, there will always be someone who disagrees. So I create my own neoshamanic path. No doubt there are people who will A) consider me a plastic shaman as bad as any, B) think that I should have just stuck to neopaganism, or C) think that I, and anyone else who doesn’t do things their way, is going straight to Hell. And those are just three potential criticisms I can come up with off the top of my head. If, say, I converted back to Christianity after over a decade as a pagan, there would be people who A) thought I was “betraying” paganism, B) figured I wasn’t serious in the first place and was just a trendy fluffbunny, or C) chose the wrong denomination to convert back to.

Does this mean I should ignore everyone who criticizes me? Of course not. Part of the reason I have this blog open is so that I can get feedback from other people. I am a “career solitary”. While I like being a part of the pagan community-at-large on a social level, I have no real interest in participating in any existing group or forming one of my own. IF (and that’s a big IF) I someday end up taking on students in this path, then it’s going to be under very specific conditions, one of which will probably be that a large portion of the curriculum, particularly in the beginning, will be self-directed. However, as a solitary, I do understand the need to have “reality checks” with other practitioners. Fortunately for me a large portion of my friends and acquaintances have been pagans and occultists of some flavor or another, so I have had a wide variety of people to bounce ideas off of. This is particularly important since my path has increasingly UPG-based as I’ve developed my own methods of working with totems and other spirits. While they work for me, it’s also nice to see what other people think, and how my methods may compare with how other people do similar things.

And sometimes people I respect have brought up things that I need to pay attention to. (By “people I respect” I’m not talking about internet troll-dom; people I respect may or may not be people I know personally, but who have voiced perspectives that are balanced, intelligent, and otherwise worth listening to, whether I agree with them or not.) In those cases I chew on what they’ve said a while, see if I agree with it, go back for more details when necessary, and *gasp* sometimes even change my opinion on things. While I may be stubborn, I do reserve the right to change my mind at any point. Sometimes people have some really good perspectives that I may not have thought of.

However, there comes a time when I have to say “Okay, this is my decision, and I stand by it”. As I said, just on the issue of cultural appropriation I can think of three different legitimate reasons people can give (legitimate to them, anyway) that I’m doing it wrong. And these are things I’ve considered in the course of what I’m doing. Maybe I would be less offensive if I didn’t use the dreaded “s” word, or if I converted to a more socially acceptable religion. However, I also have to factor in my spiritual needs and wants as well, and what I have found to be true for me. Where would we all be if we all stopped what we were doing any time anyone complained?

This is the balance I have struck on the issue of cultural appropriation: with the nature of the path I am following, it is inevitable that I will be influenced by cultures other than mine, given that the modern non-Native United States lacks a shamanic role outside of neopaganism and New Agers. I am aware of the controversy, and I choose to minimize my impact by being honest about my sources and my personal and cultural context, as well as trying to stay within my own cultural context as much as possible. And while I do sometimes get pretty vehement in trying to get others to be aware of the issue of cultural appropriation, I do in the end realize that each person has to make hir own decision on where s/he stands on it. So I’ve made my decisions, and while I may disagree with the decisions of others, in the end the choices that are most important for me to mind are my own.

YMMV. (Maybe I should just stick that at the end of every post ;) )

This May Be Blasphemous To Some…

…but the more I read about shamanism in general and the more I develop my own practices, the more I realize that I really don’t care for core shamanism.

There. I said it. Let the rotten-tomato-pelting commence!

Okay, in seriousness…first off, I don’t want to become one of those people. You know, the armchair scholars who are envious of the success of a particular author/academic/etc.’s successful theories, and who take any opportunity to tear them down. It’s one thing to disagree with someone; it’s another to discredit them altogether when you lack the sufficient background to do so. Now, I have a B.A. in English. Not particularly impressive. I love reading, and that includes academic texts; however, the context I’m coming from when it comes to academia is primarily a layperson’s at this point, especially when you get into psychology, anthropology, and the like. So if you were to put me head to head with, say, Michael Harner in an academic match of wits, I’d lose, trust me.

Also, I don’t discount core shamanism entirely. For some people, it’s the perfect thing. If you thought The Way of the Shaman was the best book ever written, more power to you. Therioshamanism, after all, is what I’m creating for myself. And Harner most obviously knows his stuff as both an academic and as a classically trained shaman. I may not always agree with the presentation of his material, but again–I don’t own anyone’s opinions but my own. (And you know what they say about opinions…)

But with that out of the way, let me elaborate a little more as to why I find core shamanism to be insufficient for my own needs.

One thing that particularly bothers me is the attempt in core shamanism (referred to as CS from here on) to remove all cultural context from shamanism. The exact definition taken from is “Core Shamanism, the near universal methods of shamanism without a specific cultural perspective”. I understand what the point in CS is. CS admits that it is not traditional shamanism, and it tries to strip away the cultural trappings that such practices as sucking shamanism and the spirit canoe were originally derived from.

The problem I see with this is that shamanism, by its very nature, relies on culture for its cosmology. You can see certain practices and motifs that are common in many (though not all) shamanic systems. However, I’ve seen some CS practitioners who literally treat all shamanic systems as alike, except for names and a few other details. This bothers me. If you compare, say, Evenk shamans with Korean shamans, even though they’re on the same continent, you get a wide variety of practices. While Evenk shamans are the classic “soul flight” practitioners (and are largely male), Korean shamans are generally mediumistic in practice (and are overwhelmingly female). Of course, some purists would question whether the latter are shamans at all; however, you could say that for anyone who isn’t Evenk, the culture that the term “shaman” came from.

My point, though, is that while you can find some similarities, I think it’s a bad idea to ignore the differences among various shamanic systems. I’m in the process of reading Mircea Eliade’s classic Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, and between that and other anthropological works it’s apparent that “shamanism” covers a wide range of ideas, practices, observations and beliefs.

In studying the shamanisms of multiple cultures, I have come to believe that culture-specific material, rather than being unimportant enough to simply be brushed to the side, is actually crucial to the practice of shamanism. As I mentioned, culture provides the cosmology that shamanism is practiced within. Cosmology is the study of the Universe, and the understanding of how the Universe is set up and operates. CS basically takes a certain motif found in some, not all, shamanic systems, such as that of the upper world and the lower world (as something other than Heaven and Hell in the Christian paradigm), and tries to plug these ideas into modern post-industrial cultural contexts. It also raises the power animal to superior status among spirit helpers and all but ignores ancestral spirits, as well as spirits of dead shamans, both of whom may be exceptionally important in some shamanic systems.

I’m not saying that you absolutely must work with ancestors and dead shamans as well as power animals to be “correct”. However, this demonstrates the seemingly arbitrary selection of practices integrated into CS. One of my complaints about The Way of the Shaman (you can see my full review here) was that it seemed to present what Harner thought “Westerners” want as far as shamanism goes. Granted, as has been pointed out to me, Harner was writing this at a time when shamans were still considered to be crazy, and shamanism wasn’t a respectable practice for non-Native Americans–and it was the first book of its kind. Still, the motifs that he presented are still central to CS a few decades later. It presents a rather limited view of what shamanism is, or can be.

For example, healing is a big part of CS. Extraction of illnesses and soul retrieval are particularly popular. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; I believe that the spiritual level of our health is sorely neglected in modern medicine, though the interconnection among multiple levels of being are becoming more recognized in Western medicine. However, healing is just one function of shamans, and given that Western medicine can be useful (particularly preventative medicine as opposed to “Let’s throw a pill at it!”) in my opinion it behooves the modern shaman to branch out somewhat.

Most people don’t hunt for their food. So the need to find game, to appease a certain deity or spirit enough to receive game the entity guards, is mostly obsolete. However, those deities and spirits still exist. My work with the food totems is an example of that. There are still spirits who are angry about the treatment of food animals, whether domestic or wild. I seek their aid in improving the situation, as well as attempting to placate them so they’ll hopefully be more willing to give me that aid.

Additionally, most people today would be appalled at the idea of using shamanism to harm others. Yet that’s exactly what happened/happens in indigenous shamanisms worldwide. Rival shamans would attack both each other and their rivals’ communities; magical warfare was/is an everyday occurrence in many of these cultures. While some may attempt to explain away the phenomenon in lieu of nicer, prettier practices, the fact remains that not every culture has the same morals as modern America and other postindustrial cultures where CS is most common.

And this brings me back to the concept of culture. CS is not devoid of culture. Rather, it is primarily mainstream American, with subcultural influences from the New Age community, and the neopagan community to a somewhat smaller extent. While CS acknowledges the existence of cultural appropriation, by implying that indigenous peoples have “culture” while modern Americans do not, not only does it degrade the inherent and vibrant spirituality that can be found in modern America and other postindustrial societies, but it also, very subtly, attaches the “exotic” label to indigenous cultures. It characterizes non-Americans as the “Other”, by implying that they have a certain quality that Americans do not. By denying that Americans have culture, “culture” becomes an exotic trait, something that disillusioned Americans (and others) may try to seek–and have sought, by stereotyping indigenous cultures as being more “spiritual”, closer to the Earth, etc. CS practitioners who separate themselves from American culture still ally themselves with the “Other”, even if they claim they aren’t appropriating any culture-specific trapping. Many people who are attracted to CS probably aren’t attracted to it because it came out of the head of a white guy with a doctorate. They’re more likely going after it because they seek something Other, something exotic, but without the guilt of blatant cultural appropriation. They may not necessarily be taking obvious pieces of cultures other than their own, but they’re still engaged in a form of appropriation by seeking the “wisdom” of other cultures while denying their own. This does, despite the claims of many, result in a lot of cultural appropriation among modern CS practitioners and those influenced by them–not all, of course, but enough to make CS disliked among many traditional cultures who classify it as “plastic shamanism”.

The idea that shamanism can have all cultural trappings erased is a lie. Cosmology is central to shamanism, and it is culture-specific. Without cosmology, the shaman doesn’t have any context for hir experiences or practices. In reading about motifs such as the Upper World/Lower World dichotomy, power animals, and other common things that are treated as “near-universal” by CS, I find it increasingly apparent that in order to truly understand the function and the importance of these motifs, one must be aware of the cultural contexts that birthed them, and why they are important to those peoples. CS, if left to its own devices, offers none of this context. On its own, it is insufficient to give proper context to the practices it has drawn from cultures other than the one that birthed it. In order to make up for this deficiency, CS must be coupled with study of indigenous forms of shamanism–and I don’t just mean the likes of Carlos Castaneda. Otherwise it’s like messing around with Gematria without having any understanding of the context (from several cultures) that Qabalah was developed within. It’s not enough to know that something is important; one must know why it is important and what makes it so.

Additionally, CS practitioners should, in my opinion, have a thorough understanding of the influences that their culture has on their shamanic practices. CS is not in a bubble. You don’t just step out of the everyday world and into a completely autonomous reality. Otherwise, everyone’s reports of the Otherworld would be the same. As my husband, Taylor, pointed out to me, the astral realms are envisioned as being seven-layered because people expect them to be. Yet this is something that is specific to Western spiritism and the systems it has influenced; it is not in any way universal. This goes for the attitudes CS has towards certain traditional shamanic practices, such as attacking rival shamans. CS often has a white-light approach, whereas in some cultures even your own residents shaman may be someone to be wary of.

To conclude, I don’t want this to be taken as an all-out attack on CS. I think it can be highly effective in its practices, and I know that it’s very fulfilling for a number of people. For myself, though, I find it to be deficient, partly because of its cultural assumptions. This is a big reason why I’m creating therioshamanism from scratch rather than building on core shamanism. Not only do I dislike the claims of cultural neutrality, but I think that if I am to have any real effect on modern mainstream America, particularly in the areas of environmental awareness and awareness of interconnection, I have to embrace that culture rather than pushing it away. I can’t truly engage it if I’m constantly rejecting it and distancing myself from it. When I look at the culture I’m in, I don’t just see the strip malls and the crazy politicians and the pollution; I also see a diversity of people, many of whom are seeking the same sorts of goals that I am, and who may benefit from what I bring back from the spirit world. If I am to make a difference in this culture, I can’t detach myself from it. And, as far as I’m concerned, if any culture could use a few (more) good shamans, it’s this one.

Finally, this is my opinion, formed of thoughts that I’ve only now really found the words to convey, form the perspective of someone who is not traditionally trained, or CS-trained for that matter. It may actually end up being the rough draft for my essay for Talking About the Elephant, so commentary either way is appreciated.

On Cultural Appropriation

I’m surprised with myself. This blog is about six weeks old (though it sometimes feels longer) and I’ve yet to do a post on cultural appropriation. Allow me to remedy this.

Cultural appropriation is a topic which is woefully neglected in neopaganism, and neoshamanism in particular. People ignore it, pretend it isn’t an issue, and it becomes the elephant in the room (hence the title of the cultural appropriation and neopaganism anthology I’m compiling, Talking About the Elephant). Part of the reason is because nobody likes to be told, “You’re doing it wrong!” There’s a strong sentiment throughout the neopagan community that if the spirit moves you, then it must be right–even if it involves taking bits and parts of different traditions and cultures and slapping them together.

Now, it should be pretty obvious from the influences on therioshamanism that I’m not one to throw stones at drawing from multiple wells. However, I exercise honesty in doing so. I make it exceptionally clear that, despite the common association in the U.S. of shamanism with Native Americans, I am a European-mutt-American neopagan with no connection to any indigenous cultures. Additionally, I have a disclaimer for my artwork, which, due to some of its components, is sometimes mistaken for Native American art. (Not that I find the comparison insulting; however, I don’t want to misrepresent my work as something it isn’t.)

Why the caution? Because I believe that there is entirely too much misrepresentation of what “shamanism” is or may be in modern neopaganism. It seems as though anything with beads and rattles, animals and drums, or anything that puts anyone in an altered state of consciousness, is called “shamanic” (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea). I’ve been called a shaman solely for the fact that I work with animal totems and animal parts. While these are components of therioshamanism, they don’t alone make me a shaman. There’s a lot more to it than that.

The other reason is, again, because even in neopaganism, shamanism is very often equated with “Native American”. Yet the bulk of what I find in books on “Native American spirituality/shamanism” isn’t genuine, being mixed with New Age and other non-Native concepts. Meanwhile, numerous unsuspecting readers run around saying that they practice the real deal–the book says so! And so they continue to have an inaccurate perception of what Native American cultures consist of, and the actual Native people end up grossly misrepresented. Often they’re victims of the Noble Savage stereotype, which portrays them all as idealized, amazingly spiritual people who live in perfect harmony with the natural world, exactly as it was done hundreds of years ago (even living in tipis!). The less glamorous aspects of the reality–alcoholism and poverty, among others–as well as the fact that many Natives are quite happily Christian, are glossed over. While it’s not all gloom and doom in reality, there are serious social issues that these books, seminars and people completely turn a blind eye to–probably because they aren’t conducive to “spiritual living”.

Finally, there’s the fact that some (not all) mainstream American neopagans who appropriate from other cultures are doing so out of escapism. All they see in their own culture is the strip malls and consumerism, and none of the potential (or the need) for spirituality in this context. I’ve heard people complaining about the flakiness and shallowness of the neopagan community, taking the worst of the bad scholarship and witch wars, and completely ignoring the creativity and growth. Nothing is flawless; nothing is totally horrible, either. I choose to accentuate the constructive and look askance at the silliness. Perhaps not everything neopagans have come up with is historically accurate or will pass the rigid judgements of mainstream society. And yes, there are some pagans who get squicked by the existence of those of us who are openly queer and genderqueer, who identify as Otherkin, who are openly kinky and combine it with magical and/or spiritual practices,or who otherwise might horrify the status quo. But, to me, this eclectic mix of backgrounds and beliefs just makes it all the better.

So I’m perfectly happy working from a neopagan perspective, while keeping a careful eye on some of the negative tendencies *some* neopagans have demonstrated over the years, particularly poor scholarship–and rampant cultural appropriation. Neopaganism doesn’t automatically include these. In fact, I prefer to be a part of both neopaganism, and mainstream American culture to an extent, because both of these environments could benefit from what I’m doing (or so I like to think). I try to raise awareness of cultural appropriation in articles like this one, and I also support the formation of neopagan-specific practices, such as neopagan totemism. As far as mainstream American society goes, while environmental awareness, including issues involving animals, is growing overall, it could still use some help. There are no shamanic figures in mainstream America; we have psychologists and doctors and priests, but shamans and neoshamans are shunted to the fringes as far as most Americans are concerned.

Working within a cultural framework that I’m familiar with, IMO, is more effective for me as an individual than trying to adopt the cultural practices of someone else. It doesn’t make my culture better than someone else’s; I’m not superior to a reconstructionist, or someone raised in an indigenous society. But I see no need, at this point in my life, to try to alter my worldview that significantly when the cultural and subcultural influences can go both ways–I can help them, and they can help me.

And this is something I encourage people to consider. You’re not wrong or bad for wanting to draw from other cultures. To me, the only crime is in misrepresentation, and in taking things that aren’t supposed to be taken without permission. But be mindful of the impact that you may have in doing so. Do the people you’re taking from really want you taking? Are you admitting that you aren’t an uber-seekrit initiate of their mysteries when all you did was read a book? And how do you feel about your own culture? Have you considered the magic that may be growing within it, or hidden away, waiting for discovery–or even something that may be your own creation?

This is how I handle things. I am completely honest about my source material and where I’m coming from. I feel no need to misrepresent myself. I use the word “shaman”, but in a non-cultural-specific manner; I use it more in an anthropological sense than anything else. (Nobody outside of a few Siberian tribes historically used that term anyway.) I’m open about the fact that I’m self-trained (or, if you’ll allow me to explain, trained by a collaboration of myself and the spirits and other entities I work with). While I read books on both traditional and neo shamanism, I do so mainly to get an idea of practices I may not have considered before. When I have a situation that I want to approach as a shaman, I don’t think “Well, how would such and such culture’s shamans do it?”. Instead, I think “What would *I* do?”–and then proceed to do it.

I may not have a millenia-old system of training behind me; and for sure, I’m the sole adherent of my path. I don’t think old equals better; I think that finding the spirits, symbols and tools that make the magic and connections happen (and being honest about their origins) is what’s important. I choose to work with what I know best, within the culture I am immersed in and will probably remain a part of for the rest of this life. YMMV.