What is an Animal Totem?

The word “totem” is an anglicization of an Ojibwe word “doodem'.”

As I’ve made clear earlier, I do not practice, teach, appropriate or perform Native American spiritual or religious practices. I write this blog post merely because I have had students confused by the word. Totems are not the same thing at all as power animals. It’s important to me to draw a distinction.

While I am not an expert in Native American cultures, I will attempt to shed a tiny bit of light. A totem, in Ojibwe culture, is a spirit or animal being that represents a clan, or extended family.

The words “totem” and “totemism” were later applied to many indigenous cultures by early anthropologists. For example: you might be familiar with the totem poles of the American Pacific Northwest. The actual names for these poles vary according to the culture.

As a practitioner of Core Shamanism, totem animals have nothing to do with my practice. Again, these are specific to Native American traditions.

I do, however, conduct power animal retrievals for many clients, and teach my students how to do the same.

The words we use are important, powerful, magical symbols. It’s important to me that I teach my students and clients to use the correct terminology. This is not simple pedantry, the distinction is an important one.

Should I see a Shamanic Healer Instead of a Doctor?

The short answer to this question is no. No you should not ever forego treatment by a qualified and licensed professional for any health issue.

If you came to me for a healing session with a untreated broken arm, I would immediately send you to the emergency room. I might also do ceremony for you to help the healing process, decrease stress or distress, and to ask helping spirits to give you strength.

It would be unethical for any shamanic practitioner to recommend you not seek professional medical help.

Shamanic healing is meant to help treat the spiritual causes of dis-ease, and can often assist healing. But you have a body and a mind too. You have to attend to the needs of the physical.

The put it in esoteric terms - humans are multidimensional being. You live on the physical, mental, and causal plane simultaneously. Shamanic healing works with the interface of the spiritual plane. The help provided there can certainly affect the other dimensions of your being.

You cannot neglect the physical. In many shamanic cultures, the shaman served also as a medicine man. The shaman would not only provide ceremony for healing, but might be trained in setting bones and mixing and distributing medicines.

I do not have the training or the license to practice medicine. I do know physicians with shamanic training - something I think is great.

Strong ethics should be very important to any practitioner.

Just recently I had someone contact me for a healing session. This person had been to a number of practitioners and not gotten any relief. I told this person that I felt it would be unethical for me to have the session. That the problem, most likely, wasn’t an issue of spirit. I wanted this person to seek professional medical help.

Is Shamanism a Native American Religious Practice?

Recently someone asked me if I had consulted with any indigenous people in regards to teaching shamanism. It’s a valid question meant to respect sacred spiritual practices which are sometimes co-opted by unscrupulous practitioners.

Let me begin by saying that I am no expert in Native American religion or spirituality. I am not Native American myself.

Core Shamanism isn’t a Native American Religion or Sacred Practice

I do not practice, teach, claim to teach, or try to imitate Native American or other indigenous ceremonies. I have participated in ceremonies from a number of cultures as an invited guest, and always do so with as much reverence and respect as I can gather.

I think there is some confusion about modern practitioners of core shamanism. In a way, their role as a healer and teacher does overlap what might have been traditional tribal roles. We might call those people “medicine people” but each language would have their own term. Because core shamanism includes practices which appear in every shamanic culture, some methods might appear to be the same.

I think there is also a bias at work for those in the US. For example, many shamanic practitioners use drums. I sometimes use a hide drum I made under the guidance of a Native American teacher.

When someone who grew up in the US sees a person drumming with a hide drum it might be natural to associate that with Native Americans. That’s our cultural reference. But hide drums are used by cultures all over the world, from the Americas to Scandinavia, to Eastern Europe, to Africa.

People in the US are also very sensitive to cultural appropriation. This can be a good thing to address when other cultures are actually being exploited, denigrated, or lessened. But talking with people who have studied with shamans in Nepal, Mongolia, and Africa, I know that there are cultures that are proud to share their spiritual traditions with those who would respect them.

However, it’s not up to people outside of a culture to decide what’s OK to disseminate. For example, I was led through a Saami ceremony once by someone taught directly by Saami shamans to lead it. I wouldn’t then turn around and “make that ceremony my own.”

Core shamanism includes practices which are common to cultures around the world and belong to everyone.

The word shaman

The word shaman itself can drive a lot of confusion. It is Like so much of the English language, it is a borrowed or loanword. It is not, however, borrowed from any language indigenous to the Americas.

As near as we can tell, the word came into English in the 17th century from the German word Schamane,. It came into German from Russian. From Russian it originated with the Tungus people of Siberia. Before that, linguists are unclear but it may have roots in China originally from India. In Sanskrit, the word for ascetic monk is śramaṇa.

I know other practitioners who will not use the word “shaman” because it is “not our word".” But the word belongs in English as much as any word that came into use during the period of Early Modern English (1500-1800).

We use thousands of words every day like lemon, tattoo, avatar, yoga, kowtow, mosquito, which are loanwords without questioning the ethics of their use.

Perhaps if there were another word coined for shamanism to describe the practice of shamanism in English, we might use it. Regardless, the word is not Native American in origin.

Most Non-Native Shamanic Practitioners are Allies

I cannot think of a shamanic practitioner I know who does not consider him or herself and ally of indigenous people.I know many who travelled to Standing Rock, for example, tp support the people there.

I consider myself an ally,

And I hope to clarify and draw a line so that there isn’t even the appearance that I am irreverently stealing sacred things from cultures to which I have no link.

What is a wounded healer?

You may have heard the term wounded healer before, particularly in relationship to shamanism. It’s fair to wonder what that team means. The following is my own explanation but comes from my experience in shamanic healing of others and myself.

The wounded healer is an archetype, a thoughtform. The idea is that in being wounded, healing capabilities are opened up. I find this to be true for me and many others, and this post will explain how that works.

Traditional Shamans

In many indigenous cultures, where shamanism is still practiced, those fulfilling the role of a shaman are chosen, and not self selected. One thing that is very common is that those selected have been through some kind of serious trauma.

This trauma, might be physical, like a life-threatening illness, or even an emotional trauma. There are cultures where certain mental illnesses, as defined by Western medicine, would be seen as the beginnings of a path as a healer or prophet.

There are even stories of cultures in South America where being struck by lightning is a prerequisite for being chosen as a shaman.

Other cultures put potential shamans through ordeals - like vision quests, exposure to physical extremes, or lengthy and dangerous trials.

All of these things, whether chosen trials or involuntary traumas are initiations. I’ll speak more about initiation in a moment.

Modern Shamanism

There is no governing body of shamans in the modern world. Literally anyone could read a book on shamanism and call themselves a shaman. I’ll note that, in my tradition, one does not call oneself a shaman.

Most people I know who are shamanic healers, have years or decades of training and apprenticeship, however. But people generally self-select roles and aren’t assigned them. Shamanic practitioners choose their path.

Most of the practitioners I know are wounded healers. Most have been through serious illness, near death experiences, or other serious traumas. In my own case, I had a foot amputated, and was diagnosed with PTSD later in life. I believe that the traumas I endured made me well suited for shamanism.

Initiation

To initiate is to begin. In the world of shamanism, all of life, and even death, is a series of initiations. We are always beginning something. When we go through severe difficulty, often it is preparing us psychologically and energetically for what comes next.

My own experience is with trauma. Modern psychology will say that one of the major symptoms of trauma is dissociation. It’s like part of the psyche breaks off to protect itself from what’s happening. This makes sense when experiences are too threatening or intense. Dissociation is a defense mechanism.

In shamanic terms, part of the soul escapes, in order to protect itself. If that piece of the soul does not return there is a splitting, a loss of energy, physical and psychological symptoms. We call that soul loss.

The main practice of a shaman is called a journey. In a journey, a shaman uses tools like drumming or sacred plants to induce trance. Once trance is induced, part of the soul departs to do the work in what we call non-ordinary reality (NOR).

I believe that early dissociative experiences can prepare potential shamanic healers for journeying. It’s like the soul has a looser hold on the parts. That being said, to be effective, a shaman must go through their own healing first.

When I teach journeying, if a student has trouble, often it’s the result of soul loss. A soul-retrieval ceremony can help.

It is in the wounding and healing process that we become energetically prepared for the work to help others.

What does my spirit animal mean?

Quite often, I am asked the meaning of one's "spirit animal" or totem. "I have a wolf spirit animal, what does that mean?" This question is always asked by someone who hasn't trained much as a shaman yet, and it's a natural one.

Often they've had a power animal retrieval by someone or been told they have a specific spirit animal by someone. They may have tried to look up the meaning of an animal they have encountered in a guide, like the book Spirit Animals by Steven D. Farmer.

I believe there are two topics which are being confused here: power animals, and omens. I'd like to break the difference down.

Power Animals

In shamanism, a power animal is the spirit of a deceased animal who has crossed over, but who has agreed to work with you on your behalf. Power animals are retrieved through a ceremony conducted by someone trained as a shamanic practitioner.

Everybody has animal helping spirits. A shamanic practitioner can retrieve them for you when you and they are ready.

When you have a power animal retrieved, for example, a crow, you are beginning a relationship with that one animal spirit. To ask about the meaning of having a crow as a power animal doesn't really make sense. It's like asking, "what does it mean that my brother is a plumber."

With power animals, it is all about establishing an ongoing relationship with an individual spirit.

A note here, that all power animals are absolutely amazing. In non-ordinary reality, a mosquito is as powerful as a blue whale. Power animals always come with a great deal of power. It's important not to place human meaning or value on them. Sometimes a person might get a power animal that is from a species they dislike. It's an opportunity to examine and get past that underlying fear or negative emotion.

Again, it's all about a good relationship.

Animal Omens

This brings me to the topic of animal omens. Shamanic practitioners receive training in reading and interpreting omens. But interpreting omens are not as simple as looking up the meaning of an animal you see in some book.

Omens are a language of their own. Like spoken and written languages, there are aspects like culture and context which can't be ignored. I may see three crows on a wire one day, and you may see three crows on a wire the next day, but because we are different people with different life circumstances, the omens may have completely different messages.

The Sanskrit language has dozens of words for "love" where we really only a few in English. I can love my children, and I can love a cheeseburger. In each case, the word love means something very different, because the context is different.

Omens are the same. To properly make meaning out of an omen, a shaman would first gather a lot of information about the person and the context. And then the shaman would conduct a divination ceremony to receive guidance and information from his or her helping spirits.

Was Santa Claus a Shaman?

Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas all names for an archetypal character almost synonymous with Christmas. As the winter holidays approach, I thought it might be interested in taking a historical look at the shamanic origins of the Santa Claus legend.

First, I believe that the character of Santa, as he is understood in the U.S,, has been shaped by an amalgam of influences including folklore and media. Most of us are at least familiar with the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas written in 1823 by Clement Moore. You know, the one that begins, “Twas the night before Christmas.”Our images of Santa come mostly from modern advertising. Coca-Cola has been using images of St. Nick since the 1920 and helped solidify our modern image of the fellow. Before then Santa was sometimes depicted as an elf, in religious garb, or even in Norse hunter’s skins.

Flying Reindeer

Santa has been so associated with flying reindeer, that they have been the subjects of songs, TV specials, and movies for many years. We even know their names - Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen. But think about how strange that is. What do flying reindeer have to do with Christmas or a sainted Greek bishop?

Well, nothing.

However, both the Tungus shamans of Siberia as well as the Sami shamans from Scandinavia give us a tantalizing clue to the origin of this part of the legend. These shamans fed magic mushrooms to their reindeer. Amanita muscaria mushrooms are red and white and are hallucinogenic.

These shamans collect the urine of the drugged reindeer and drink it. They have discovered that the hallucinogenic properties are enhanced. They go into an altered state and even urinate into bowls which are then consumed by others. It’s been found that the hallucinogenic urine can pass through 7 people without losing potency.

They then perceive that they are flying in a shamanic journey. Returning with spiritual gifts through the smoke-hole (chimney) of the yurt.

Link to Odin and Norse Myths

Odin is a fascinating character from Norse myth. Not only is he the god of war, but he’s also a trickster, traveler, and giver of gifts. He’s often described as a traveler with a long beard in a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. Think of our traditional images of wizards like Merlin or Gandalf or Dumbledore. These are not coincidentally linked to images of Odin.

Odin and Freya, are two Norse gods closely associated with shamanism. The sagas even talk about Odin scandalously dressing as a woman to practice a form of magic closely resembling shamanism.

Yule

The words Yule and Yuletide have come to be synonymous with Christmas in Christianized Western culture, but Yule or Jul was the traditional celebration of the winter solstice. Yule is from the Anglo-Saxon word “geola”, meaning yoke. Yuletide was a 12 day celebration (12 days of Christmas anyone?) starting on the shortest day of the year, welcoming the return of the sun.

So many of our Christmas traditions, from caroling to Christmas trees, to mistletoe are taken directly from European pagan cultures like the Norse and the Celts.

Odin goes by many names in Norse myths, but one that sticks out is jólfaðr. This is an old Norse for (Yule Father) - very close to “Father Christmas” in my book. It’s also telling that he is associated with The Wild Hunt, which was a spectral hunt that flew through the air during Yule. Odin rides on an 8-legged horse, Sleipnir. One leg for each of Santa’s reindeer perhaps?

For me, it is fun to read about and speculate how all of these cultural forces came together to shape one of the most recognized characters in our culture. I’d like to think that one of our most beloved folk characters as, in fact, a shaman.

Why is it OK for shamanic practitioners and other healers and teachers to charge money?

A shamanic teacher reported to me recently that there was some feedback from someone angry that she was charging money for teaching something spiritual. I have seen the idea that spiritual things should be free - whether that's healing or classes.

I'd like to examine why that thinking is incorrect and where it might be coming from.

It's impractical to expect anyone to provide a service without some exchange

In a moment I'll talk about the supposed moral argument that spiritual healers and teachers shouldn't get paid, but let's focus on the purely practical aspects.

We live in a modern world. I have a family, a mortgage, and I just had to replace the furnace in my home. I find spiritual work extremely rewarding, but I also have to eat and feed my kids.

I have spent thousands of hours over many years learning my craft. I have to pay for travel, classes, supplies. Most practitioners have to pay for their healing space.

Our hearts are in the right place, but we simply couldn't do the work for people without a valuable exchange. In the times before money, there would be a collective caretaking of the spiritual leaders in the community. Housing and food would be provided communally in many cultures.

We don't live in that world. It's just not practical.

Further, spiritual work is work. It's OK to do it for free, but when there is an exchange of energy it can actually be more powerful. Money is a symbol of work - expended energy. You may find a teacher or practitioner willing to teach for other exchanges, on a sliding scale, etc.

I used to train martial arts at a Buddhist temple. I paid for those classes. There were live-in students, however, and their exchange was labor. They cooked, and cleaned, and gardened, and ran errands, Sitting in meditation all day, doesn't sweep the floor or cook the rice.

To paraphrase Madonna, we are spirits living in a physical world. We have to attend to body, mind, and spirit.

Money is unnecessarily seen as evil

You may have heard the quote from the bible, "money is the root of all evil." But this is probably the most often misquoted line from the Bible. The actual quote is, "For the love of money is the root of all evil."

This passage is talking specifically about greed, and how greed leads people off their spiritual path. It is not condemning money.

There is an argument to be made that money itself is a powerful tool of the patriarchy. The Romans discovered that it was easier to march their armies around with coins to buy wheels of cheese and loaves of bread than to cart huge amounts of food. around.

One belief I hold is that power itself is not good or evil, it's in the application. I can use a hammer to build a house or to club my neighbor. Money is a form of power. I can use it to feed myself and support charity, or I can use it to buy something harmful.

And yes, I recognize that the attachment to money has led many spiritual leaders down the wrong path.

We have weird views about money and spirituality

I recently watched the Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country. This is about the spiritual leader Osho and his commune in the 1980s in Oregon.

His followers did some horrible things, like trying to poison political rivals. There's no argumnt there. But I was struck by how the narrative from the US government, the media, and the people around them focused on two things - sex and money.

Compared to sex and money, we have no worse psychological complexes as human society.

A big deal was made that Osho had a fleet of Rolls Royces and had bought up thousands of acres of land for his commune. This even became the topic of jokes on late-night TV with Johnny Carson.

But not one person who thought this was outrageous would complain that the Roman Catholic Pope sits on a gold throne in his own city and flies on private jets with an armed security force and drives around in a fleet of armored cars. We don't complain about the wealth in the megachurches or gold covered statues in some Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Historically there have always been religious sects which require vows of individual poverty from members. Some of these organizations have wielded extraordinary wealth. The Knights Templar, for example, were rich enough to loan money to countries.

I would argue that it's only our conception, our beliefs about money, that make it bad. There is nothing inherently bad or evil.

Shamans are all about the abundance

Shamans throughout the ages looked after the bodies, minds, and spirits of their community. This meant reading signs and accessing spirit to determine when to plant crops. Shamans would help ensure successful hunts. 

Many ancient spiritual artifacts recovered by archaeologists depict figures associated with fertility.

What are fertility and a successful hunt if not material abundance? In days before money, it was all about the food.

In Japan, one might have a Shinto priest do a blessing for a successful business, and provide a charm to ensure prosperity. Likewise, Taoism is full of charms, rituals, and prescriptions for money.

In the US, we have the primarily African American syncretic practices of Hoodoo or Conjure. These practices have mane cures, spells, charms, even scents for attracting money.

In this respect, Shamanic practitioners who help clients are not different in not considering money evil. We all think differently. but I honestly think we should be helping our clients with issues from health to finances.

In my view, everything in this world has a spiritual component. Money is no different, it has a spiritual template and a mental and physical presence. 

Shamanic healing may actually help with issues of financial prosperity. The toolbag of shamanism includes psychological wound-healing, clearing ancestral issues, and addressing the shadow. All of these are places where money blocks might occur.

So, for spiritual practitioners. money really isn't an issue, unless it's an issue. There's nothing inherently un-spiritual about an exchange or using money for that exchange. It is only rigid thinking that makes it so.

Is shamanism cultural appropriation?

Sometimes a question of cultural appropriation arises in talking about shamanism.

Cultural appropriation is an idea that comes from sociology and is when a dominant culture takes items from a minority culture and incorporates them. This is seen as a negative when items from the minority culture are reduced in meaning - like when they are made into toys or mascots

I do not believe that the vast majority of people practicing shamanism today are, in any way, participating in cultural appropriation.

Let's start with the word shaman. In English, "shaman" was borrowed from the German, which was borrowed from the Russian, which was borrowed from the Tungus people of Siberia. But the word has origins beyond the Tungus as well. We don't know if it was borrowed originally from Chinese or Pali. It may have come from Sanskrit before that, and who knows beyond that?

It has come to mean, in the West, a set of spiritual practices that have been practiced by nearly every culture on the planet at some point.

Core Shamanism bridges cultures

Most People practicing a form shamanism that hasn't been inherited from their own indigenous culture, practice something referred to as Core Shamanism. Core Shamanism is a set of spiritual practices, assembled by people doing anthropological and ethnographic research.

What these researchers found is that cultures around the world did a number of the exact practices. For example - shamans in every culture use sound - such as percussive rhythm - to drive trance. Shamans travel to spiritual worlds and form relationships with spiritual allies.

Cave art, thousands of years old, depicts shamanic states and practices. No one culture in existence today is the source of Core Shamanism.

Shamanism is everyone's birthright

The practices we know as shamanic appear to have been practiced in some form in every culture. From ancient Egypt to the Norse, to African, Celtic, Native American, and Asian cultures. No matter what your Ancestry.com DNA test tells you-you came from a shamanic culture. Perhaps you came from numerous shamanic cultures.

The spiritual technologies of shamanism are inherent in your makeup.

Some cultural practices and tools are universal

Think of the bow and arrow and the drum. They exist in different forms across almost all cultures. From the most isolated tribes of the Amazon to the Greeks and Romans to the Japanese - almost everybody has these same tools.

Trance is a tool of mind/body/spirit practiced across cultures as well. It can take different forms - from Buddhist meditation to Ayahuasca journeys in Peru. But altering the state of mind for spiritual practice is universal.

It's easy, in the US, to see people gathered in a drum circle, beating hide drums, and think that they are stealing a Native American ceremony. This is an image you may have been exposed to and linked with Native American culture. But, again, drumming and drum circles cross many cultures.

Shamanism is done with a sense of honor towards the sacred

The main argument about cultural appropriation centers on reducing the value of cultural items. Shamanism, as I have witnessed it, holds every practice sacred. 

I have practiced a Japanese martial art for decades. When we train, we wear kimono and obi. We bow in a traditional way, Japanese terms of respect are used, instructions are sometimes given. Before and after practice we bow to the kamiza - seat of the spirits. All of these practices are done with honor for the culture they come from.

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of training with and observing a number of masters who traveled from the Budokon in Japan for an exhibition. One very senior teacher was very excited to see that I held a practice sword correctly. Some of the archers gave arrows they had shot as gifts to visitors. These teachers were so happy to share a bit of their culture with those who respect it.

I think, when it's done with knowledge, permission, guidance, and honor, there are sacred practices that can be adopted. There are indigenous teachers out there who are happy to share their practices. And, I think, this makes the world better. 

Likewise, I will always honor taboos about sharing certain things with outsiders.

I will end with the first principle of Huna, as elucidated by Serge Kahili King:
A'ohe pau ka 'ike i ka halau ho'okahi ,
"All knowledge is not taught in one school,"