indigenous people

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.