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.


26 thoughts on “Shamanism and Racism

  1. I don’t disagree with you (I think you’ve hit a number of nails right on the head), but I do think that there’s one thing that’s been forgotten. Shamanism is a universal (that’s certainly my opinion, anyway) – one can be involved with Shamanism without any recourse to or involvement with the Native Americans or any another indigenous people. It’s not being a shaman that is disrespectful / colonizing / racist, but trying to be culturally neutral (as you said, rightly so, there is no such beast) or trying to be part of any indigenous culture in any way. It makes for a more difficult path – 99% of the time, this means you’ll have to be entirely spirit-taught.

    • Except shamanism isn’t universal. There’s the misconception started by Eliade and continued by Harner that shamanism generally resembles Siberian techniques, but if you read more recent studies there’s a lot more variability in practices across cultures.

      The problem is that people try to conflate things to a point where they lose all distinction. Just because a bunch of different practitioners all have something sort of like a world tree or other axis doesn’t mean they have anything in common besides the human visual cortex and how the brain processes the structure of the physical world (we’re vertical land-based creatures, therefore it makes sense for us to orient on a vertical, up-or-down axis). It’s like the problem with soft polytheism, “all gods are one god”–it oversimplifies things and misses out on what are often very important individual distinctions among deities/practices.

      That’s why we can’t take a practice from another culture and just plug it into this one and expect it to work, and it’s why I work so hard to try to create practices that fit the culture I’m a part of. Yes, I can drum to journey, but I have to have a solid understanding of the meaning it has for me vs. the meaning it has for an Evenk shaman, for example, and stopping at “this is universal” isn’t nearly enough, IMO.

      • Your right that Eliade created some serious misnomers… the first of which was by saying that there is a shamanism in the first place. There is no such thing as a shaman”ism” and thats part of the problem. the role or label of shaman that western people place an animist people who they say the label is debatedly suitable for perpetuate this rediculous notion that one can place “ism” behind a role, which is no differant then saying dentistism, counselorism, doctorism or carpenterism.
        I agree too that co-creating practices that work with in this culture (which culture your speaking of is a mystery to me because if you live in america there are tons of cultures, not just one.) or your own culture is very important. the problem I see is that people have disconnected animism from the role or label of shaman, in doing so they perpetuate many misunderstandings and fail to see that what we have labeled as a shaman is a human phenomena that occurs within animist cultures. Just as people with the talents for being a priest occurs within catholic cultures.

        on another subject… you caught me on a bad hair day, and I did not wish to alienate you though I some what disagree with some of your points.

      • Heh–I only take so long to respond because I’m busier than anyone has any business being 😉 Not out of anything personal.

        I agree that the S-word has really complicated things. I mainly hang onto it because it’s familiar, same thing with “totem”. But I also have been enjoying chewing over your thoughts on the matter over time, and I want to continue familiarizing myself with your solutions to the quandary. The fact that people are actually talking about this stuff is enough to get things rolling toward shaking off old, unhealthy and appropriative patterns.

      • Nicely put– I have little to add, other than I am enjoying this article and the ensuing discussions.

        Lupa, your points remind me of what I found in Daniel C. Noel’s “The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities.” Granted, it’s a more anecdotal and less scholarly rigorous than what’s out there (haven’t read Perkinson, but thanks for the recommendation), but has anyone else here had a look at it? Any other titles to recommend, too, since we’re here?

        I think Core Shamanism can be useful– the idea that certain practices are universal to all cultures is an interesting idea, and Noel’s commended Harner for not wanting to “play Indian,” but is it really necessary to strip a practice of its context?

  2. Thanks for writing this – it’s a huge issue for me and I keep wrestling with it. One the one hand, I don’t feel like I have a choice about the work I do; if I deliberately turn my back on it then it intrudes in disruptive ways, and my own physical and mental health are much improved when I actually listen to my otherworld contacts and follow the path that is laid out for me. So I don’t get to say no to it.

    On the other hand, the racism, cultural appropriation, arrogance, exploitation and ignorance among the various teachers and systems of “shamanism” that are available to me are so distasteful that I can barely even read books about them, let alone find a teacher to work with. You are one of the very few people I know of who write about this kind of work seriously and thoughtfully – and what hobbles otherwise well-intentioned folks is all in what you talk about here – the refusal to engage in the truly knotty arguments around cultural appropriation and racism. And then there are the not-well-intentioned people, of whom there are far too many, who simply don’t care about these issues and are in it for the cash.

    We have this severely limiting habit when it comes to talking about racism – nobody wants to be a racist (well, nobody worth talking to) but almost everyone in our culture is susceptible to acting like one, not out of outright bigotry but simply as a result of growing up and being formed by a racist culture. But you can’t just say that because the knee-jerk reaction is something like, “but I’m a nice person, I have friends of various colors, I accept everyone, I voted for Obama, I’m not a racist!” Once you’ve decide that you are way too nice to do, say, or think anything racist, you don’t have to examine yourself or be self-critical of the way you engage with other cultures or people who look different from your own family. But “nice” has nothing to do with it.

    • *nods* I’m really hoping I can get more people to blog about this. I want people to be talking about it and thinking about it and hopefully integrating those thoughts into considerations of action.

      I know that approaching my own instances of unintentional but still existent racism has been a really uncomfortable process, and I know how tough it can be to even think about it. It really wasn’t until grad school that I even began to feel like I had a better conceptualization of the problem, enough that I felt I could make it more personal.

      *sigh* There are days where I wish I could just give everyone a copy of The Color of Fear. It would make things so much easier.

  3. An interesting post Lupa and a subject which oft is not dealt with, sometimes even with those we trust. So why not toss it into the fire? I know for myself that this is an issue I have struggled with since growing out of that “innocence” we had as a child. That is not to say a child’s view isn’t influenced by other forces, but it was easier to not see race, religion, creed or the family’s financial circumstances then. I see that as we grow though we all force a degree of self imposed segregation, gravitating towards those who are like us. However this can create a situation which feeds on itself. The culture we adopt further separates us from others, making the division widen more and more.

    I feel that as a society neither side has had the intestinal strength to face these issues and deal with them. The predominant White Christian culture doesn’t wish to believe they have done wrong, after all a root of the religion is proselytizing. Some in fact would argue they did a “favor” to the supplanted cultures. Also to be noted is one of the first directives of the bible (Genesis 1:28) “…Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”. Many take this to be a firm directive and use it to justify horrible actions. On the other side of this coin however are those who entrench themselves in and offer no room for change. “They” were the ones harmed, tied down by the culture and history of it all. Is either side wrong? Arguably not. Is either side productive? My personal opinion is no. There are always good and bad people on all sides of an issue. Some like the status quo, maybe it gives them a sense of “power”, maybe it feeds their own self pity, maybe they are simply blind and do not see any reason for change, is there really an “innocent side” anymore when issues become so drawn out and intractable?

    For me, a good debate is not one which is “won” or “lost”. A debate is not (as politics in particular has skewed it) do you like A or B better, but rather a good discussion between two different views. Those views should be flexible and the discussion should help the debater temper their own ideas. The point is to cast away those ideas which are not productive and strengthen those which are. Finding the grains of truth which reside on each side and helping growth, hopefully towards common ground. This type of debate is what I think needs to be at the heart of truth and reconciliation, something that subjects like this are in dire need of. While it’s not a solution unto itself it does being the discussion, and progress no matter how small, is progress. Fighting the inertia which has been in place for so long is difficult, but required.

    While many of us of Caucasian descent need to look in the mirror and the history we carry with us, everyone must face the mirror and see themselves for the truth as well. While the dominant culture may have started the Genocide the affected cultures continue it. The disinterest of youth, the “us vs. them” mentalities of some, and the hard edged knifes of blood quanta and parental lineage all take their toll. Over time the divisions become so fine that the whole culture and society dies out. I think it should be noted as well that this cultural razing has happened many times before. Even the most European rooted of us need only to travel back a thousand or two years to find “pagan” lineage which was wiped out.

    The short is that everyone has a degree of blame. Are some portions of society more to blame then others? Certainly I can agree with that. However the change is not in needed in just one but all to face down issues of this magnitude. Kudos to Lupa for breaching this subject, it is one full of emotion and history which can be as volatile as nitro glycerin.

    • This somewhat borders on the problem of blaming the victim, because the dominant group does have a certain amount of responsibility that the minority does not. Negative responses on the part of minorities are generally brought on by the initial abuses by the dominant group, and even if we as individuals did not participate in those abuses, we need to understand our connection to them by sheer association–as well as the power to change things that our privilege gives us. No, it may not be “right” for a person of color to call me a plastic shaman for what I do, but I understand that there are reasons for what they say based on experiences with other people similar to me.

      • Oh I do not disagree with the responsibility of those in the dominant group, I thought my point of some portions of society being more to blame then others would make that point.

        Part of our culture is to categorize, or to pigeon hole as much as we can (Myers-Briggs a fine example, and very commonly used be it academic, business, sociological, etc…) yet how many of us feel we fit in that nice little box? I cannot, and do not blame others for painting with a single brush at first glance, but do hope that the words I use and actions I take will be taken into account as time progresses to allow an adequate picture to become clear. The fact that some (and often some of the loudest) are not willing to even consider that is where I draw issue.

        Ironically my teacher and I had a rather “uncomfortable” discussion on the Green Grass Proclamation in the past few months. A direct result of it was a deviation from the guilt which I (still) have to a more honed view. Should this have come up 8 weeks ago, I would have not been as critical, but we are here now. Are the scales out of balance? Most certainly, and I carry a portion of that with me every day. However, being honest with oneself, and with others means not only seeing ourselves, and our ancestors for what was and is, but also taking the proper action now, even if it is saying those things which may sound cold. If we hold our tongue we border on (or cross) being patronizing, something which has not worked out well in the past for anyone. If we are to have an honest and open discussion where the wounds of the past will be cleaned and tended to, we can’t well insulate those which may harbor an infection down the road.

      • After some sound council, this may help clarify my original comments. I see less point of how most attempt to use “White Guilt”, finding much of it bordering on the patronizing. My personal belief is that we need to bring forward Truth and Reconciliation as has happened in South Africa, and as IS happening in Canada. It is a time to bear witness to the truth of testimony of those involved (on both sides). The facts of what transpired, not a time for blame, not a time to be interpreted until the truth is witnessed. Upon which reconciliation can come, and the subject view of the (as much as can be) objective facts are spoken to. With that, we may then collectively face history and learn from it.

  4. I think you make some excellent points here, ones I have not heard from other practitioners in the healing arts in Portland.

    (NOTE: It’s worth mentioning that Portland did not accept residency from people of color until after the late 1800’s, and discrimination remained widespread for several generations afterwards. So the dialogue in this post is especially relevant here, where there is a disparity in population, as well as a big focus on wellness and alternative health.)

    The parts that typically make me cringe about these issues are, (1) the relative levels of ignorance and apathy by some practitioners about these issues (ironically, I would like to point out that traditionally, shamans do not call themselves “shamans”- the very word itself is a bastardization devised by white people to describe an activity with which they were unfamiliar)… (2) what you mentioned about simply exploiting these wisdoms to turn a profit, and (3) the “sanitization” of some healing practices to better appeal to White American folks, thus rendering them ineffective or even harmful in some cases.

    By contrast, there have been cases where indigenous experts have been guided to bring their knowledge and tradition to White culture, because they realized that if they did not, the tradition would die out entirely–or that it was necessary for them to serve as a bridge between their culture and the dominant White culture. I remember this as a part of some American Indian prophecy as well as writings by Malidoma Patrice Some’. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    What I hope and what I think desperately needs to happen, is that we must release our death grip on Western Medicine as being the only “true” path towards knowledge and healing.

    Additionally, I’d like to see the U.S. encourage and sponsor indigenous practitioners to be able to make a living here, where practical, and to properly teach apprentices. I think that those who are interested in indigenous practice should either make a real effort to study and to honor their teaching culture, restrict themselves to those practices that were intended for broad distribution (such as Reiki), or construct their own practices as White Americans living in 2010 within this culture, from their own heritage.

    Word to the wise: there will always be quacks out there who want to make a quick buck or turn their skills for less than ethical reasons. This is just as true in indigenous lands as it is here. If it walks like a duck (or a racist), chances are…! This should not reflect on those who are trying to do right by indigenous teachings. Those who do practice ethically, let’s not allow the posers and the charlatans to speak for who we are. They’re polluting our cultural atmospheres and we need for that to stop.

  5. Huh. Interesting trivia about Portland; thank you.

    The apathy drives me nuts, because it’s not as though we’re unaware of the issues–anyone who has encountered the NAFPS folks can’t be ignorant of the complaints. Yet it’s the whole “It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t go along with what I want to do” thing that bothers me so much.

    And yes, to the sanitization–which is one of my main qualms with core shamanism’s stripping-down of shamanism to what are erroneously assumed to be base components. So much gets lost in that process, and little is added back beyond random New Agery.

    As to promoting indigenous practitioners, the problem is that once you take a lot of these practices out of their original contexts, they lose their meaning. It’s like taking a coal away from the fire–putting it in water changes it, but it won’t be what it was before.

  6. LupaBitch, i enjoyed this post. As far as both sides (as though it were simple enough to be a binary situation) having work to do in the reconciliation i think that’s true in an idealistic fashion. I’ve been conversing with BlueWolf about this and i told him:

    Consider that i might bite your tail, draw blood and you might be angry about it. Perhaps you were angry for a few days and felt bitter about it. However, my then saying “Well, i did bite your tail, yes but then you got angry and growled at me. So, really we both have responsibility here” is besides the point. Yes, were you an advanced Buddhist monk you might not have growled at me all things being ideal. However you are not and i bare the responsibility in this situation. I need to apologise to *you* and then and only then can we progress to you apology for your growling. [edited slightly for typos over IM]

    What i find strange is the apparent need for people (especially modern non-indigenous raised people) to apply labels like “Shaman” to themselves or worse claim that their teachings come from “ancient traditions” as though it validated the teachings. If your technique brings the results that you wish to have in your life and it works for others as well why place a label on it? Can’t it stand on it’s own instead of being propped up by the culture of another?


  7. I think this is an important issue, but I’m not exactly sure of my thoughts on the matter or even how to articulate them.

    On one hand, it’s important to understand the issues you bring up, but then I fear we can get trapped in a cycle of constantly addressing an endless stream of issues without ever getting anywhere. Maybe that’s a worthy goal, I don’t know. But just because we happen to live in a Western culture, must we live our lives in never-ending atonement? In some ways, this feels like reverse racism, if you will (white people “bad,” native people “victim”).

    And, practically, what can we do? Dialogue is good, but that takes at least two people. If certain tribes or people are not willing to engage in dialogue, must we then relinquish any use of practices inspired by these cultures? If our very use of them is racist, then the only “right” thing to do is to let it go. If calling it “shamanism” is part of the problem, well, then let’s invent something new to call it. That’s a start. I know much of what modern Western shamans do isn’t authentic to those original cultures, but I also believe that we are creating something brand new, something particular to our culture. All religions and practices come from somewhere, if you go back far enough. Since I believe humans borrow from one another naturally and then transform it into something new, in a sense everyone is a racist and a cultural thief. Even those “pure” native cultures which we Westerners plunder. It’s the chicken-and-the-egg paradox.

    Also, I have to say that I believe spirit is pure, regardless of the form it takes or the person inhabited. If I’m drawn to certain practices, then how can one cultural claim ownership? Does anyone own spirit? I think we should honor all traditions, but I see those native cultures who insist Westerners cannot participate as just as racist as we can be. If Christians went around forbidding others to pray to Jesus or enjoy Christmas, wouldn’t that be racism/xenophobic? To say any spiritual practice is reserved only for a select group strikes me as completely anti-spiritual. In fact, it makes me question the very validity of that practice.

    I’m sure these opinions are shaped by my own background and experiences. For example, as a Christian, I once looked to the Bible story of how Christ appeared to the Jewish Saul with a vision that he should carry the gospel to the Gentiles. Here is an example, often overlooked I think, of a member of an indigenous group who took certain elements of his spiritual practice, then transformed it for a new group outside that culture. Naturally, the “real” Jews were horrified and said it was a corruption. And it may be. But because Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus and spread his vision, Christianity grew up–and, for better or worse, it has now transformed way beyond its Jewish origins (I know there were other influences but indulge me for brevity’s sake). And Christianity is mostly seen now as a completely separate and unique religion, as is Islam.

    And yet debates still rage in some circles about whether these “new” offshoots of Judaism are “true.” Do Easter celebrations corrupt the Jewish tradition of Passover? Well, it’s been roughly 2,000 years and that debate will never end satisfactorily. And neither will some of these debates you mention, unfortunately.

  8. Super-secret-shamanic-technology flame-retardant undies?!
    Sigh. I totally missed that ebay auction apparently- I am screwed, I say.

    This post touched on something I have really worried about a great deal. I have been really concerned with issues- particularly involving cultural appropriation when it comes to shamanism. My understanding is also that the teacher I have- well, you can’t exactly pay the guy. But, also, I DO want to learn more- and it feels weird saying it, because in the back of my head, there’s always this sorta voice going, “But’re a it offensive to kinda barge in on others’ traditions? Is it right?”

    To me, inside, it does feel right- so I don’t know.

    I mean, if you read, I do not know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t want to be a quack or a charlatan- but honestly thus far, that’s the sort of things I’ve seen. It’s really, really difficult to find people to talk to, people to learn from who aren’t out to make a quick buck. I mean= see, this makes me feel like a rotter for offering the readings and such- and to tell you the truth, this post hit me at a weird time, anyway. I really enjoyed this post because it has helped me sort of gnaw on something I’d been considering for a while. I hope nobody flames the crap out of me, I honestly have been looking around, trying to find similar sentiments, or those more advanced in thought than my own to think about.

  9. I guess for me, the cultural appropriation argument pushes me further in my practice in regards to research. It also makes me ask on something as simple as cleansing practices, like using sage. I’ve used sage as a cleanser for so long that I didn’t think to question where it comes from, and though the research I’ve done agrees that the use of it is largely Native American, several sources also agree that it was used in European traditions as well.

    So what do I do? Well, I try not to pilfer from Native American practices while still keeping with the ways that still work for me. I honestly don’t know the particulars of Native American smudging rituals. What I do know is that I can readily grow it, I like the smell, it is native to where I live, and in the past I’ve used it as a cleanser and purifier. So, I have little issue with using sage in my rites, given that I’ve taken to simply spreading some sage on hot charcoal tablets in my censer more than using the ‘sage wands’. I may occasionally, but I tend toward the former.

    I agree that rites are not universal; certainly the rites of Native American tribes differ tribe to tribe. They certainly aren’t like seidr from Norse practice either. There may be touchstones, even archetypes to plug into, but the archetype that I use of the [Neo]Shaman, is one that more echoes what I have been taught that the Shaman did as a function of society: that shi would use hir gifts to better their community, bring prosperity, healing, resolution, etc. But is this also a caricature of shamans, medicine men, (or indigenous practices generally)? Good question. I’m not sure I have a good answer to this. I like to think that I am not, and that my work at the least is done with forethought. Given I’m a young, poor white boy with a deep love of learning, experiencing, and researching, I am trying to find my own path and staying off the toes of indigenous cultures.

    It is a challenging road to go, given I’m going at this from a former-Catholic-now-Neopagan neoshaman-perspective. For me, as I’ve watched you, I’m having to research what I can, and build a lot of what I don’t have while not nabbing from Native American culture and rites. Mercifully you’ve come before me and I’ve been able to learn from your successes and mistakes. Hopefully, alongside you and other neoshamans, I can help a generation of similarly-minded neoshamans have the confidence to move forward in their spirituality, with an eye to respect and due diligence paid to indigenous practices.

  10. Well, this has just been a fantastic post. And thanks to everyone who commented before I did. What a stimulating read.

    I totally agree with you. This really does matter and it is important to talk about it. I majored in postcolonialism and indigenous writing back home in Australia. How cultural technologies move from indigenous cultures into dominant ones is critical in shaping their role, visibility and identity.

    It’s something that needs to be approached in a considerate way. I have my own rule of thumb when it comes to playing with indigenous cultural technology that I based on guidelines we learned about Aboriginal spirituality:

    Don’t go any further than a layperson within that culture would go (usually this is just charms, chants, etc) without seeking out some kind of ‘authenticity/approval’ signals.

    Granted this gets complicated if you don’t live up the Amazon or in Siberia but that’s exactly why I think these discussions are so important.

    Thanks again, everyone.

  11. I have only read this blog today, but wow. I am so opposed to racism of all kinds but your knowledge of it amazes me. It is great that some people have the passion to stand for their beliefs. I am not a great writer or reader but with all I have read I do understand where racism comes from, my biggest concern is what can we do to change things before it is too late for our children to keep their innocence? My children are of mixed race and I have a fear of them feeling like less of people because of it. They are Native American, black, and white. I am white American and Native American, by husband is black. Never in my life did I view my family as racist, then I married my husband and we had our children. Nobody outright says anything racist, but I feel like my children are treated differently than other children in our family. Even the way I see aunts and uncle look at them. I have a brother- in-law (whom I don’t consider as family) who has on occasion used very offensive language in front of my son. When angered by this, his excuse to me is that he would hear it eventually and might as well be now. I feel like them being around their family is taking away a part of their innocence. It’s almost as if letting them be a part of their family is going to hurt them later. I am only writing you this because when I read your blog it seemed as if you were educated enough to give advice, and I guess I am just looking for advice untainted by relationship. Isn’t there a way they can just be kids and not a color to be looked at and judged? These are my children, I want them to keep their innocence as long as possible, but I can’t just pretend the racism doesn’t exist. You said yourself in the blog ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. What can I do?

    • What can you do? Be aware of how your actions and approaches affect others, as well as yourself. Listen to others’ perspectives and weigh them carefully with your own needs. It’s a tough balance to maintain, and as I’ll be posting in a bit, where the line is shifts constantly.

    • I know your comment is years old now and you’ve likely long ago resolved the issue but I wanted to share that growing up mixed in a small very racist Southern farm town I was influenced far more by my Mother’s attitude, understanding and actions than by the constant “1 drop means your a n*****” comments. She always told us that racists are just ignorant people who live in fear, and she never let them get away with it around her. Even tho you can’t control what idiots say around your children, they will watch your response and your dignity and respect for them and they will internalize your self respect and respect for them more than the idiotic comments. Children are often more able to ascertain which adults are plain fools than the adults are;-)The people who judge based on colour, or clothes or religion are pretty pointless and I think/hope that your children living with the love you and your husband give them will be able to see that and remain innocent and happy.

  12. (I realize the above artcile is an old post)

    I thought I should post some comments by Annette Host about Michael Harner’s CS which I think concurs what others have said here.


    Core shamanism
    When I was more innocent and less experienced in shamanism, in the new age scene, and in the academic disputes, I used to call what I did for Core shamanism, as I had learned from Michael Harner (of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in USA). Then once I went to Holland to teach a course, and they called what I did for Harner Shamanism. That gave me something to think about.
    Literally core shamanism means the core, the essence of shamanism, stripped of cultural form or clothing, stripped to that part which is timeless, cross cultural, and plain human. The elements of this cross cultural essence are the change of consciousness, the soul flight/journey, the relationship with spirit helpers and powers of nature, the tasks of healing, divination, and mediating between the spirit world and the community.

    This idea – to practise just the essence – is a beautiful thought, and maybe partly true as well. But we fool ourselves if we are not aware that as soon as we have stripped the shamanic practice of Lakota, or Nepalese or Yakut clothing, we don our own. We clothe it inevitably in our own cultural form, outlooks, habits, and biases. Even if we could learn just the core, as soon as we practise it, it grows roots in and is flavoured by our own culture, time, and spiritual outlook- as it should. And then it is not core anymore.

    However, for most people the term core shamanism is synonymous with Michael Harner’s and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies’ way of shamanism, and that Way is not “core” in the literal sense of the word. It is Michael Harner’s “own personal distillation and interpretation of some of the millennia-old shamanic methods.” adapted to Western people, as Michael himself writes in his book The Way of the Shaman. Which is to say, it is chosen and presented in a form, which is Western enough for Western people to accept and handle. Of course! Why not? We are many who have benefited from this. However, seen now with my Nordic and somewhat shamanically experienced eyes, Harner’s way of shamanism seems rather, well, American. That is, it is adapted to the American Christian, spiritual-fast-food culture. In addition, it shares with present-day European shamanism the predicaments of urbanity, superficiality and the tendency to psychologize the spirits.

    All in all, the way I see it, “Core” is a beautiful sounding name. But used as a term it is a product of wishful thinking rather than a description of content of the Foundation’s particular trend of modern Western shamanism.


  13. Reblogged this on 2012 Spirit In Action and commented:
    I know this post is older, but I am so inspired to see other bloggers are opening this discussion and working on these ideas, that I have to reblog it;-) I was raised with the remnants of my family traditions of spirituality from different parts of the world and cultures-all of whom had been colonized, and all of whom had kept important traditions and found ways to pass down that knowledge, even if it was in fragments that needed decoding and study to understand. So, being autistic and not really ever feeling a part of any culture, I learned my own relationship with nature, and Universe-then I tried to fit it into words, cultures etc to communicate with others. I always thought the word shaman was like the word rollerblade, or fast food-one of those hybrid Americanizations that tell you something, but not really. I’ve always felt that anyone on Earth can learn to trust their own internal awareness without any teachers except the trees, the stones and the sky-it’s just hard for westerners trained to look for a teacher, to look for approval and acceptance and directions to do that. Everything is alive, even built things, and none of us ever needs to co-opt or steal from anyone to learn or grow-just open ourselves and communicate with our own world(which means to listen deeply to it as well as sharing of yourself). Even tho I have ancestors who are Native American, Irish/Scottish, French-I can not claim to BE any of those things-because what I am is a combination of all of them plus the dirt, the air, the trees,plants, food and water as well as the culture and people around me where I live now. I live far from anywhere any of my ancestors lived, and even the cultures they were part of are no longer the same. There is a difference between sharing tools like sage, and co-optation. Respect, and listening are important. Instead of giving up certain spiritual ideas to avoid co-optation, truly listening and respecting the cultures they come from in real solid ways-*giving back* make all the difference imho. Derrick Jensen talks about how if he wants to eat salmon then he is responsible for taking out dams. Perhaps non-native people who burn sage and sweetgrass could stand up for Native issues, sign petitions, show up at protests, help educate others? The plastic shaman problem is more about those making money stealing from those who have no money and are suffering while the plastic shamans give nothing to the communities whose children suffer the caricatures of their culture as a self definition reflected to them from TV etc. Most Native people are happy to share with those who are part of their community no matter what “race”, the thieves are not part of the community-they give nothing back., they don’t live there. Emma Restall Orr writes about a native British “shamanism” or more accurately animist religion Druidry from her own lived experience. All life is reciprocal, we are all part of the Circle of life, no matter where we are born or what our genetic history. To co-create our positive future we have to learn to listen, to respect one another, to heal one another and ourselves and to heal the circle of all living beings together. Much thanks to Therioshamanism for this post!!

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