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.


12 thoughts on “Some Comments on Neoshamanism

  1. You know, this kind of reminds me of a rant I posted in my LJ earlier this week about related things.

    This is one of the reasons why I work within a solitary sphere with my shamanic practice. Yes–although our culture stresses instant gratification and ego-stroking, it doesn’t excuse the behavior. And well, define American culture, to begin with. As you said, America is made up of so many different cultures or subcultures. We all make mistakes, all of us. The point of the matter is, are we willing to admit our mistakes, and grow to be better within our practice? There are too many other people who are willing to continue to stroke their egos, and build a fan-base around their shamanic practice, as well as those who simply pick and choose what fits them best, leaving out the less glamorous parts that add substance and context (like, for example, anime fans claiming they know anything about Japanese culture simply by watching anime).

    The signal-to-noise ratio in this country is pretty epic. And I don’t think the attitude of, “Well you should excuse them, they’re just Americans” is really constructive. I’m more willing to respect those who seek to grow beyond their mistakes, but I am also willing to guide and assist those who are at differing stages of growth. The key here is to differentiate between those who are growing through a stage, and those who seek to stay in a certain stage of development for sake of engorging ego, laziness, or otherwise some other form of willful ignorance which is quite prevalent within neopagan and neoshamanic “communities”. Sadly, for a great many people, taking the easy way out and simply “staying put” is much better than actually moving to a more productive, if difficult, stage of growth.

  2. Addendum:

    That said, sometimes I wonder if it is a bit racist to assume that just because one is white/non-indigenous-tribal/etc., that you cannot be a shamanist or animist, etc. Skin color, ethnicity and growth does not dictate your spiritual path. No one person or path is perfect or “the right one”. So I’m not going to allow, nor should you allow, anyone to tell you that since you don’t have a family history of animistic practice or are non-aboriginal, that you cannot be a shamanist or animist, or will never do it as well as them, never really “get it”. That sort of attitude I tend to strongly resent.

    That and, as I mentioned in one earlier post–technically, cultures have been appropriating since the dawn of time. Not that I don’t think cultural appropriation in a very negative sense doesn’t exist, BUT. To me it’s not a matter of what, it’s a matter of how…if I’m making any sense?

  3. I wrote a post exploring similar frustrations a few months back on my blog, and I came to one basic conclusion – My animism and my shamanism are between me, the spirits and the One. If I dream of or are led to symbols that have been employed by indigenous cultures, then so be it. The opposite also applies. If I’m led to symbols that are not ‘traditionally’ animistic/ shamanistic, then so be it.

    Once upon a time there was a first shaman. He / she did not have a lineage or a culture. They were drawn into this way of being with reality directly. They were initiated, so to speak, by the One. I’m a firm believer that it is the same way today.

    So I do not recognize the epithets that might be tossed my way by those who feel they have authority or authenticity, but that I do not.

    Thanks for writing this. It is an issue that I’ve struggled with and find myself getting a bit miffed over. You’ve expressed my feelings very well in your post. 🙂

    • I tend to think that shamanism developed independently in different cultures, and that some common human element/experience gives some similarity, though not a complete conflation. The general concept that currently is known as shamanism (for lack of better and better-known alternative term) is a human thing, but there are specific cultural trappings that often get taken out of the context and environment they were created in, and that changes them. Like the inipi or sweat lodge ceremony–if you’re going to claim to do it traditionally, it’s not enough to know the physical actions associated with it. It’s also important to understand the cultural context and the why of things.

      I think the problem is a confusion between people like you and me who are just trying to create a practice without claiming to be of a culture we’re not, and those who deliberately misled people as to their indigenous connections because they feel the need the facade of legitimacy (and want more money for it).

  4. Something that I’m drawn back to again and again–it’s a useful reminder–is that the “neo” prefix suggests “new.”

    We neopagans, neoshamen, are making somethin new that adapts to the circumatances–social, cultural, environmental, cosmic, spiritual–that we encounter and live within. Yes, we may turn to resources from the human past, but we utilize them in new ways for present situations.

    There’s a learning process involved here. We do make mistakes. We do go down dead end paths. We do try stuff out that doesn’t work. We do make other folks feel bad and feel put upon.

    But how, really, can we try not to adapt?

    • Exactly. I do have to look to other cultures’ practices just to get an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, but when I sit down to try to achieve the same general goal, the means by which I do it is my own creation, informed by my own practices and the culture I’m a part of. For example, the concept of a shaman being an intermediary between the wilderness/spirit world and their community translates to me, in my culture, partly as psychological (hence my forthcoming work as a counselor) and partly spiritual/metaphorical (my neopagan/neoshamanic ritual work, both for pagans and on a broader level). It’s still intermediary work with the spirits/environment/psyche, but it’s from the perspective I have developed over my lifetime and which I feel would be appropriate for “my people”, as it were.

  5. This is a great post Lupa! Not only do we need to keep in mind that Americans have been removed from a connection to nature – our European ancestors had theirs ripped off by so-called Christianization, in which any nature relationship or shamanic practice was forbidden. Converting to the Church/Government instead of nature for your spiritual needs was forced upon them way before they ever arrived on this soil. Many Americans now have a good ethnic mix of DNA in them, which helps with connecting to a variety of ancestral roots, and if even a small amount is Native blood, a connection to the land. However, maybe the Druids were right to not write anything down, so that everything would evolve and information would never grow archaic or old. Maybe we ARE supposed to reinvent the modern shamanic “wheel,” if you will – as a spiritual growth experience for individuals who are indeed ready for it before the larger populations. We as a people due to this past conditioning are still quite reliant on either Church or Government – and both of these artificial institutions which claim to take care of us, and now along with technology are going to discourage the natural connection. While individuals can do their work, and we may struggle to get it right within ourselves as well as outside of ourselves, we as a people will likely not have an entire culture devoted to shamanism and nature until we can put Church and Government in their proper place (which if you ask me is as far away as possible).

    • I think you’ve hit on two particular slices of culture that could be changed, but even so there’s a greater, overarching structure that needs revamping. I see pagans get hung up on the role of Christianity in this culture in the same way I see anarchists get hung up on government. and I see efforts to change The Way Things Are–yet these are still being done by people whose basic cultural background and conditioning are based in the same thing as the people and institutions they want to change. One need only to look at the concept of herding cats to see that no matter how “neotribal” an American subculture may want to be, we’re still rooted in an individualistic background, and that would take more than a revolution to change.

  6. Solo–Yup, this is partly a response to that because of my misunderstanding of the “no more commentary, please!” thing.

    I do agree that we shouldn’t sit around and let excuses be excuses. However, I also really hesitate to judge someone else’s progress, especially judging it against my own experiences. You know pretty well that I rant and rave against the dictionary-style approach to totemism. However, just because someone uses that approach doesn’t mean that they’re being ineffective. That may be one element of their path that’s a bit stagnant, but they could be accomplishing other things. Or the dictionary structure could be helping them figure some things out. And I also keep in mind that while I have my opinion about dictionaries and my reasons for that opinion, ultimately it’s still just that–my opinion. If others deem that it has some weight because I’ve been practicing for a while, or I write a lot of stuff, or they agree with me, or whatever reason they may give, that’s their prerogative. But I also try to keep in perspective that I really can’t judge someone’s subjective experiences beyond a certain point, any more than they can judge mine. (In the area in between, though, it’s no-holds-barred debate and discussion!)

    with regards to appropriation, I’m right with you on that one. I know that I necessarily have to at least look at what other cultures’ practitioners do–and I’m even appropriating terms like totem and shaman which have been dragged way out of their original cultural and linguistic contexts and applied to much broader concepts, first by anthropologists, then non-indigenous practitioners. To an extent, there needs to be some common ground just for communication; globalization and the internet have brought about unprecedented levels of cross-cultural communication, though that has been largely dominated by the Western world to a great degree. Still some awareness of what we’re doing is important, just so we take care to tread lightly.

  7. I like what Pitch said about this whole thing being “new.” I think those of us who practice these sorts of things are doing something new–and something that is needed now in our specific culture. I look at all religious/spiritual traditions as springing from the same well. Others may disagree, but I don’t think symbols or practices are owned as such. Many cultures pray or meditate but they do it in a variety of ways. But no one really has a corner on either (despite what they say). Ultimately, if I feel drawn to something, I must respond. To do so would be to deny a part of myself. Who benefits from that?

    If it’s been said America is a melting pot, well then maybe those of us who are acknowledging the truths and practices of other cultures are, in effect, practicing a truly American shamanism. Americans borrow and blend, and produce something completely new which, over time, takes on an even greater American-ness. And what’s wrong with that? And I suppose I’m growing tired of apologizing for being an American. Every culture and religion, indigenous or otherwise, has its faults and failings. Yet we Americans continually lash ourselves while romanticizing anything “indigenous.” As someone else noted, every culture borrows. Everyone indigneous ultimately came from somewhere else and supplanted whomever was there beforehand. For better or worse, i see us all as indigenous—original to this planet as humans. At least that makes sense to me.

    • My only qualm with the argument that we’re honoring the practices of others that we see is true is that too often we only take away part of the story, which necessarily changes what it is we take. It’s like pulling the heart out of a living being–it is no longer a part of that being, and doesn’t function in the same way. And that’s where it gets tough to determine how best to approach neoshamanism and related practices, especially when we’re essentially starting from scratch.

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