Recently I got into a Twitter conversation with a few awesome folks about the use of the word “shaman” for distinctly non-indigenous (and non-Evenk) practitioners. I’ve also read a couple of recent blog posts talking about the issue, or at least mentioning it.
I do use the term “shaman” self-referentially. I do not see what I do as being the same as what an Evenk shaman does, or what the holy person/medicine person/etc. of another indigenous culture does. Everything I do, I do with the conscious realization that I am a white chick from the Midwest, whose closest cultural appelation might be “neopagan progressive geek urban dweller who escapes to the woods when she can”. What I do is self-created and self-taught, honed by experience, but also by trading notes with other, largely non-indigenous practitioners. I am also aware that using a term that was cultivated in form and context in a largely collective, communal culture a half a world away, with largely male practitioners, and a decidedly not-urban landscape. I am quite familiar with the word’s roots.
But language is fluid. It grows, and it shifts, and it evolves over time. No matter how much we may rage against it, the current of language change can’t be stopped. It’s why I speak modern English, not any of the previous variants used by Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even earlier writers. English is especially notorious for nabbing whatever words it likes–as the infamous quote by James Nicoll goes, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. Which really does speak to the violence that English-speaking populations have done to others, admittedly.
And I do carry that knowledge of how the term “shaman” came to be assimilated into English with a broader set of definitions than the original. We first came by it through the work of anthropologists who were largely working from a Eurocentric perspective, studying people who were being oppressed, and sometimes contributing to that oppression, even if unwittingly at times, through patronizing or otherwise inaccurate portrayals. Later, the word was “borrowed” by neoshamanic practitioners, some of whom misrepresented what they were doing as indigenous. This helped the term “shaman” go from referring to a very specific practitioner in the Evenk culture, to being applied to just about anything that looks primitive (just try searching for “shaman” on Etsy sometime!).
Despite all this, I still use the term “shaman” for myself. In part, it’s because of familiarity. Just like “totem”, a lot of people in this culture have at least some vague idea of what a shaman is (in the broad sense), and it’s just easier than trying to use a new word and then explain it to everyone I talk to about this stuff, who will then most likely go “Oh, you mean like SHAMANISM!”
However, I will admit that I also feel a kinship to shamanic practitioners of various cultures. Note that I am not saying I feel that what I am doing is exactly what they’re doing. Many indigenous practitioners go through trials and training I can’t even imagine. Hell, even the non-shamanic rites of passage of some cultures would have me running hard in the other direction, happy to embrace my cowardice and childishnes (Google “bullet ant ritual” and you’ll see what I mean. Yikes.). But I have gone through my own challenges as well. Anyone who has been through graduate school knows that it’s meant, in part, to weed out those who aren’t quite a good fit for their chosen field. And the program I went through to get my counseling psych degree was both intellectually and emotionally challenging on a regular basis; there’s a reason one of the requirements for completing the program was getting at least ten hours of counseling as a client. All these things also contributed to my own growth as a shaman, parallel to their “mundane” purposes.
I choose the term “shaman” to acknowledge that I have been through these and other passages, even before the grad school process, that I have spent years cultivating relationships with the spirits, and doing work on the behalf of both them and my community (and I have a very broad idea of community, and it’s not all human). I don’t feel that it’s too proud to acknowledge the work I have shown, and to connect that to my efforts to be as close to a shamanic figure in this culture as I can be. We don’t have a single “shaman” role in this culture; it simply was never there. But I have chosen to live out roles that I feel are analogous, as much as they can be. I am doing the very best that I can with what I have on hand–and what I have is fifteen years of experience, reading, practice, mistakes, and a whole host of other day to day factors that have all built up into this path I am continuing to form as I go.
I feel that sometimes refusing to use the term “shaman” is a subtle way of saying–or fearing that someone will say–that what we do in this culture isn’t as good, or as effective, or as spiritually connected, as what indigenous people do. I am tired of the unspoken value judgement that says that non-indigenous shamanisms can’t be as good or as effective for the cultures they are created in because they aren’t as old or as well-traveled as indigenous shamanisms, that a non-indigenous person who goes and trains in Peru or Brazil or Siberia or even here in the states on a reservation is automatically practicing a path that is superior. Maybe that fear started out as a check on those who didn’t think about things like cultural appropriation, or who just read a book or two and called themselves “shamans”.
But I am tired of it being off-limits to people who have put in the work, just because that work may have been from a lot of solo trial and error instead of from a teacher of a long-standing tradition. And so as a way of acknowledging the work I’ve put into this path over the years, I use the term “shaman” in its broader context, with an awareness of its roots, a caution surrounding its weaknesses, and an eye toward its healthier cultivation in relation to a variety of traditions.
I am a shaman.