shaman

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.

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,"