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.

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.


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.

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 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,"