Yes, White Americans DO Have a Culture!

One of the things I’ve periodically bumped into as a justification for neoshamans and other neopagans to draw from indigenous cultures is that “white Americans don’t have a culture”. By this they generally mean that white American culture is limited to strip malls and fast food and pasty men in suits telling us how the country ought to be run. Somehow this then translates into a dichotomy where everything that seems antithetical to this construct is considered “good”. Hence we end up with a bunch of white people playing African drums, offering rum to lwa, and shoving New Age concepts into oracles based on “Native American spirituality”.

I’m not condemning drumming, white Vodouisants, or non-Native people having good relationships with Native cultures. However, if you look at the “cultural appropriation” category of this blog, I think it’s clear that I have some issues with the way in which a lot of pagan-type folk “borrow” from cultures other than their own. Often it’s a surface treatment of the borrowed culture, with little to no awareness of the power differential between the culture of the borrower and that of the borrowed.

The other issue is that the borrowers often forget that yes, they do have a culture that they’ve been raised with and which, whether they like it or not, permeates their lifelong conditioning and approach to the world. This is why there can be such conflict when they try to insert themselves in another culture–they’re bringing more cultural baggage with them than they want to admit, and if they aren’t admitting they have it at all, then the baggage is just going to sit there and be a big problem. Just because they don’t notice it’s there doesn’t mean others don’t, either.

Let’s look at one of the hallmarks of white American culture (and, admittedly, others, though the U.S. seems to have particularly latched on to it)–individuality. As a culture, white Americans value individuality above collectivity. “Do your own thing”, “the rugged individualist”, “the lone wolf”, “just do it”–these and so many more societal messages encourage us to work independently of others. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Valuing being an individual doesn’t automatically translate to having narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals often display a certain amount of unfettered creativity because they don’t feel held back by group norms. And people in a more individual-based society can still have healthy relationships. It’s just that values and mores may be somewhat different than in a more collective society.

Many indigenous cultures tend toward being more collective. Again, this is not better or worse, objectively speaking. However, there’s a huge difference between being raised in a collective culture, and trying to create community in an individual-based culture. The way one forms relationships, the values that are applied to those relationships, and the balance between self and others are ingrained from birth, and it’s harder to learn new ways of doing these things later in life, especially as an adult. It’s not impossible, of course, but it requires more immersion than what most neoshamans and neopagans who draw from other cultures experience.

Yet time and again I see pagans romanticizing collective cultures and demonizing individuality. In doing so, they ignore the conditioning they have as individuals and try to shoehorn themselves into some artificial community construct, or, alternately, attempt to join up with a more collective culture while approaching it with a largely individualistic mindset (which they often deny they have!) In the former case, all too often these artificial communities end up with short lifespans because no one really has the skills to be able to build their scaffolding from scratch. In the latter, there are numerous examples of well-meaning but clueless white people hanging around the edges of indigenous communities, hoping someone will take them in, or worse yet, inviting themselves into the community and creating quite a mess of things.

Additionally, the conflict between individual and collective ways of being manifest themselves in some of the more arrogant manners of cultural appropriation. These tend to be along the lines of “My spirituality is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, and if the gods/spirits/etc. talk to ME, then I can work out whatever relationship I want with them and no one else matters!” Granted, this is an extreme; I am quite individualistic in my approach to totemism and my insistence that in this culture it’s better to work out individual relationships with the totems. However, I also urge people to be aware of cultural appropriation when looking at any other culture’s totemic system, and to be mindful of where they’re coming from when approaching those other systems.

My point in all this is not to say individuality is bad and collectivity is good. Individuality in and of itself, again, is not a bad thing. What this is meant to be an example of is how ignorance of one’s own culture of origin can seriously affect interactions with other cultures. And it affects the continuing formation of neoshamanism.

See, one of my biggest gripes with core shamanism in particular is that so many people claim it’s “culturally neutral”. Which is bullshit. Core shamanism is white, college-educated, middle-class shamanism. Only people with the greatest amount of privilege would have the audacity to say that what they’re doing has no cultural trappings, because they’re the only ones who have enough privilege to ignore cultural differences. That’s part of what privilege is about: you have the option of ignoring everyone else, while everyone else has to pay attention to you.

And I see this time and again with white neoshamans. “We have no culture, so we can plug our shamanism into other people’s cultures.” It’s racist, and it’s also separating neoshamanism from the possibilities it could have in the culture that produces so many neoshamans. If we’re so busy trying to be like other cultures, is it any wonder that we have an increasingly negative view of our own?

So how do we white American neoshamans change this? Well, first of all, by admitting that we do have a culture, which, yes, does include things like strip malls and suburbs, but includes a whole lot else, too. We need to be exploring our communication styles, our values, our biases, and how this affects our interactions with others. We need to stop looking at our culture as something to be ignored or demonized (but not go the opposite direction and try to elevate it above everyone else–white supremacy is bad, mmmkay?) And we need to understand that even “white culture” is a broad artificial construct, that the concept of “whiteness” was created to try to marginalize racial and ethnic minorities, and that there are a lot of nuanced subcultures under the umbrella of “white culture”. Plus there’s the issue of intersectionality–we are not just our race, but our sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and numerous other things that make up our social location. We can’t ignore these influences and just say we’re “culturally neutral”. It’s impossible.

Most of all, we need to stop with this whole “All people are one people” thing. Yes, it is good to acknowledge interconnection and universality. However, “all people are one people” is too often used in the same way as “I’m racially colorblind”–a nice-sounding way of absolving one’s self of the hard work of admitting there are still very real inequalities, and saying “we are all one” does jack shit to actually address or do anything about those inequalities. It’s little consolation to people who are stuck on the bad end of those inequalities, and again “we are one” originates uniquely out of a place of privilege.

And “we are one/all people are one people” is too often used to justify cultural appropriation. After all, if we’re all human beings, then we all have the right to use whatever cultural or spiritual trappings we like, right? We’re breaking down the barriers and boundaries between us, aren’t we? Except a lot of the time it’s the people who are more empowered who are busting down the defenses of minorities who use those boundaries to feel more protected. Just read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, for example, and you can get a pretty good idea of why so many Native people are so distrustful of white people–and why walking in saying “We’re all brothers and sisters” just ain’t gonna cut it.

So I challenge you to start thinking about this stuff if you haven’t already. If you’re a white, middle-class, college-educated American neoshaman like me, look at how your culture–and other social factors–affect your shamanism. If you glorify indigenous cultures over your own, look at what you dislike so much about yours and see whether that’s really warranted. Chew on this stuff. See what you make of it.

ETA: 11 September, 2012 – The comments on this blog, to include this post, are screened. If you’re going to just leave vitriolic screeds against one group or another, don’t bother. They’ll just get trashed. If you want to constructively add to the conversation, whether you agree with what I say or not, that’s fine. But ranty bits about how “all members of [group] are [stereotype]” aren’t going to see the light of day here. This is a very sensitive topic, and I don’t want this to devolve into people virtually screaming at each other. It doesn’t do anyone any good, and it won’t help you feel better, either.

Administrata and Self-Forgiveness

First of all, I’ve realized that the FAQ and Bibliography for this blog are wayyyyyyy out of date. I know they’ve been linked to recently; please be aware that I need to overhaul them.

Also, I got a lot of comments on the racism post in particular; thank you so much to those of you who shared your thoughts. I’m mostly reading at this point, but I’ve really appreciated the insights people have provided. This is the sort of thing that makes putting this blog out there even more worth it.

So. On to the main meat of this post.

I recently read Coyote’s Council Fire by Loren Cruden. It’s a collection of interview questions with a variety of contemporary shamans and neoshamans, with each section opened by Cruden’s commentary on such issues as cultural appropriation and gender issues in shamanism and indigenous religions/cultures.

The first portion of the book is Cruden’s discussion on neoshamanism and issues of cultural appropriation. It’s by far one of the most balanced and thoughtful pieces of writing on the matter that I’ve read. While she acknowledges things like the romanticization of the Noble Savage, as well as the concept of privilege, she also makes a sympathetic argument for the need for non-indigenous people to develop shamanic practices that are appropriate for our own culture–not the cultures of our ancestors. A number of things she said resonated deeply; here’s a good example:

Caucasians [who practice non-indigenous shamanism] seem to be struggling in a betweenness. Those trying to transplant traditions from their European roots find their severance from the past frustrating. Those engendering new paths are mostly cobbling piecemeal structures out of eclecticism, and those seeking an integration of their cultural roots with their current life situations are contending with Native reaction and the difficulties inherent to such an evolution. It is an awkward phase needing both more sympathy and more useful questioning than it’s getting. (p. 23)

Yes. Nail. Head. You got it.

It’s no secret that I’m critical of the shortcomings I see in neoshamanisms in general, core and otherwise. Issues of racism and cultural appropriation, downplaying the potential dangers of journeying and other shamanic work, watering shamanism down into a milquetoast New Age pablum, core shamans claiming that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”–these things drive me up the wall, across the ceiling, and out the window. I don’t want people to stop practicing the way they practice, but I want to encourage mindfulness and discussion surrounding these and other issues.

However, I also admit that I can come down harder than I probably need to, not only on other practitioners, but also on myself. And a lot of that is insecurity. Nobody wants to be told they’re wrong. I know that no matter how carefully I tread, someone’s going to take offense to the idea that some white chick is practicing “shamanism”, and no amount of trying to explain what it is I’m trying to do will help. So I think sometimes I spend too much time worrying about whether some person on the internet will think what I’m doing is right, instead of being concerned with what I, anyone I do work for, and the spirits think is right.

I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I think it’s best to just leave other people to whatever’s going to happen, and if someone gets eaten by a grue while they’re out journeying, it’s not my problem. But then I also recognize that by not talking about something, I’m doing less to change it for the better (at least, my idea of “better”). So it’s not always easy to know what to say or do, when to say or do it, and at what point to quit.

But after reading that book, I do think I need to be more forgiving–most of all, of myself. This all stems from my own insecurity and projecting it outward. And that’s not good for anyone. So I think in addition to being honest about my potential shortcomings and flaws, I also need to be honest about my efforts and successes. And I need to be okay with where I’m coming from in all this, which is:

I’m a white American. I am not German, Czech, Austrian, Alsatian (woof!) or any of a number of other nationalities of my ancestors. I have never been in contact with any of these cultures or been to any of these lands, nor do I intend to change that. I have to start from the place where I am, the Pacific Northwest U.S. I intend to stay here. Which means that I need to work on creating and improving my relationships with the land and its denizens, physically and spiritually. This includes the human community as well as what people commonly think of as “nature”. Since I am not indigenous, I cannot assume that indigenous ways of relating to the land will work for me. So I’m on my own to a large degree.

I’m also convinced, by various experiences in my thirty-one years on this planet, that the world is alive in a way that most white Americans don’t see–I am an animist. And there are spirits who need me to do things for them, and also people in my community who need me to do things for them, and the manner in which these things are done often necessitates things like me going into the spirit realm (not physically, obviously) and certain ritualized practices designed to facilitate the necessary suspension of disbelief that will trigger appropriate psychological (and spiritual) states to get the job done.

But I am of a culture that does not have a set method of relating to the land other than as a commodity, and in which Christianity is the dominant method of engaging with spirituality, and other people are often competitors for resources. None of these suit me, and I will not shoehorn myself into something uncomfortable simply to be more culturally appropriate. So I find ways to recreate a “shamanic” role that fits this culture, but also answers my needs and the needs of those I work for.

Becoming a licensed counselor is one strategy, because it’s intermediary work and can integrate spirituality in some cases, but is acceptable in this culture for the most part. But that can’t be all of it. The need I have for mythos and ritual can’t only be limited to the carefully balanced parameters of ethics, competency and professional boundaries of counseling, even if I were to integrate a certain amount of core/neo-shamanism into it at some point down the line.

And that’s where a lot of the problem is. I work with animal and other nature spirits. I have been doing so for over a decade. But white American culture, however you want to define it, doesn’t have a set way of dealing with such animistic tendencies other than outmoded psychological diagnoses (“you’re all schizotypal!”) or a Christian (not THE Christian, mind you) opinion of “that’s evil”. There’s neopaganism, but that’s a huge umbrella, and there are plenty of controversies there, too. And, of course, there’s the plethora of animal totem dictionaries and related core/neo-shamanic material out there that shamelessly imitates indigenous practices without context or apology.

Those are my only choices? Unacceptable.

But I can’t just sit here and do nothing. Not when I know what needs to be done. Not when I have spirits (or, fine, figments of my psyche, if you want to see them that way) poking at me for attention as they have for over a decade. Not when I and others who are similarly rootless have a strong need for connection and ritual and mythos and meaning. Not when I am in a good place to facilitate these things for all of us, which can help heal the wounds and insanities of our culture which helped bring about a lot of the problems we (not just white Americans) are facing in the first place.

So I’m doing my best to find a particularly meaningful way to engage with the natural world (physically and spiritually), coming out of a culture that doesn’t possess existing ways to do so that satisfy me. It’s guaranteed that I’ll screw up sometimes, and that at some point I will always be doing something that will offend someone somewhere. So I do my best to educate myself about potential pitfalls, and act according to my conscience.

And that’s the best I can offer, which I think is pretty darn good, all told.

On Going to Your Ancestors

I will be writing about this more soon, along with some other thoughts, but just wanted to get a quick vent out:

I am well tired of naysayers against nonindigenous shamanisms telling white people (or anyone nonindigenous, for that matter) that we should automatically look to our ancestors’ traditions for our shamanisms.

It doesn’t always work that way.

I am not European. Yes, my ancestors however many generations back (depending on the side of the family) were. But I am culturally American (with a bunch of subcultural nuances), and I live in the Pacific Northwest U.S. What good would it do me, when I am trying to connect to the land I live on and the people I am surrounded by, to try to connect with lands an ocean away, and people I’ve never met? Never mind the spirits poking at me, which are even more an influence.

I would rather continue to stumble along an unbeaten track, learning through falling on my face, and developing something that is genuinely mine, than appropriate practices from people whom I am only connected to through DNA strands. And as far as traditions go, it’s Catholics (and other Christians) a far way back anyway.

This is not to say that I disapprove of European and other pagan reconstructionist movements, or see them as less appropriate for the American here and now. Quite the contrary; I’ve been really damned impressed at modern pagan reconstructionism, syncreticism, and the like. For me, though, that’s not a good fit for what it is I need to be doing. So, no. “Go to your own ancestors” is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the neoshamanism conundrum.

(Also, on a totally different note, I am wayyyyyy behind on answering comments on this blog. Now that the semester is winding to a close, I hope to fix that. Thanks for your patience!)

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 :)