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.