Please Don’t Call it Native American Shamanism

I see a lot of people offering spirit medicine who call themselves Native American shaman. As a Native American, I respectfully as you to please stop. I assume that you mean well and have the utmost respect for the Native American culture. If that is true, I ask you to use that same respect to honor the culture and call your tradition something else. It’s not Native American shamanism. Here is why.

Not in the Language

The word “shaman” is not in any mainland U.S. Native American language. Ethnolinguists say the word comes to us from North Asia by way of Russia. Words are a representation of the culture. How can an idea exist in a culture if there is no word for it? If you mean “shaman” in a generic way that is meant to convey the idea of a spiritual healer, again I ask you to not use that term. Many natives find this particular word offensive, inaccurate, and/or misleading.

Not Tribe Specific

The term “Native American” applies to a group of people in the same way that the word “Hispanic” applies to a group of people. While there are similarities in religion, language, food, healing practices, and spiritual practices, there are differences among groups. I have never seen anyone advertising to teach Apache Shamanism or Mattaponi Shamanism, yet if there were such a thing, that is how it would be titled. When a blanket term of shamanism is used, it seems like it’s probably a mishmash of who knows what.

If I said I do Latin dancing, you’d have a general idea of what that means. Maybe you’d get a flavor for the type of music and mood, but your idea of what I do and what I actually do could be miles apart. If you ask me to samba, and I don’t know how, I can’t just pick it up based on what I already know. Samba is wildly different from bachata, mambo, tango, or Argentine tango. If merengue music started playing and I started trying to salsa, it would be a hot mess. These are not the same things. Not even close! Specificity matters.

Tribes have traditions. Tribes want to maintain those traditions. Taking bits and pieces from here and there isn’t evolution. It’s dilution. The Native American culture has been stolen from and watered down so much that the people hardly know themselves. Children were stolen from their parents and beaten for speaking their native language. That was so successful that some tribes have all but lost their native tongue. Christianity was forced on people so that many do not identify with native beliefs. So, naturally, those who are in positions to keep the traditions alive are fighting to do so. They do not generally blend spiritual practices – or anything else – with other tribes. They definitely do not blend with non-native influences.

“First they came to take our land and water. Then they wanted our mineral resources. Now they want to take our religion as well.” ~Janet McCloud, Tulalep Nation

Not Dominated By Women

Most of the people I see calling themselves shaman are women. Native American society is matriarchal. It follows nature’s laws. This means that all people are not equal. All life is honored, but differences are also honored. Outliers (homosexuals, transgenders, mentally retarded, mentally ill, handicapped, etc.) are respected teachers. The people protect and care for elders and children. Women are the creators of life. This role is important to the survival of the clan, tribe, and world. Consequently, there are things that are appropriate for each class of people and things that are not. For this reason, in all but the rarest of circumstances, the role of “shaman” falls to the men. If you understand and follow the law of nature, this only makes sense.

I really admire Northern Traditional and fancy dancers. I love the regalia and would love to experience that, but it just doesn’t make sense for a woman to do that. Native culture is not American culture where roles are gender free. It is not that way in nature. For example, male alligators service many females. After mating season is finished, they are solitary creatures. They don’t just decide to go against the flow and pick one mate, hang around, build the nest, and care for the young because they want to be more egalitarian and civilized. They follow their nature. And so it is among traditional Native Americans.

You Can’t Buy This Education

In native culture, people are chosen for certain roles because of their aptitude and attitude. There is generally one “shaman”, and perhaps an apprentice, who takes care of the needs of the clan. No traditional shaman is going to offer this to an outsider for money. Period. It’s just not going to happen. Those who know, don’t tell. The work serves the tribe, not outsiders. It’s not for sale.

You are not going to be invited into the inner circle where this information could be available to you. Natives can be very distrustful of others outside their own tribe – even other Natives! They have lots of reasons to be. Treaties were broken. The Mexican government offered a reward for Apache and Comanche scalps that Americans gladly collected (because Mexicans were not allowed to own firearms). Natives were exposed to the pox- a disease that killed thousands. The suspicion against outsiders is high. A native who is raised in the traditional way is not likely to interact in any meaningful way with an outsider, much less carry on the intimate business of teaching spirit medicine.

Medicine is not for sale. Spirituality is not for sale. It’s a birthright. It’s linked to you through your blood. You can’t buy it. When you see someone selling sacred ceremonies like the sweat lodge, ask yourself how you would feel about a Christian church that charged you that same fee to come in for a service.

The work of a “shaman” is also requires a cultural understanding that you are not going to get in a weekend workshop, weeklong, or even years of study. If you go to Paris for a week, do you understand the French? If you live in Estonia for a year, can you blend in like a native? No, right? The same is true of Native Americans. You can’t have a full understanding of “shamanism” without the cultural piece. It’s like trying to convert to Islam or Judaism. There is no separation of church, state, family, or person in Islam or Judaism. Culture and religion are inseparable. They are a lifestyle. A weekend warrior cannot understand or teach this.

There Aren’t An Abundance of Teachers

Everyone everywhere is a “shaman.” They are offering instruction to whomever shows up. In reality, as I said above, there is usually one per clan. So, who are these other people offering to teach you how to be a shaman? I have no idea, but they aren’t traditional healers. Traditional healers don’t peddle their services.

We Aren’t Going to Give Authentic Information To You

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you have found someone who really is Native American who made the decision to sell information to you in order to feed his family or to make a better life for himself. I get that. Money is important. Survival is important. Taking money from eager outsiders can seem like taking candy from a baby. So, why not give them some information and take their money?

I am sure some people do that, but probably not real “shaman.” What you are more likely to get is a charlatan with a smattering of knowledge scamming you for money. Or worse yet, someone who read a book and is passing the information along to you at a premium price. Or perhaps it is someone further down the line who learned something from someone who learned something from someone and all parties believe it’s authentic.

This can show up in learning partial information or information that is harmful. For example, I know someone who provides shamanic services for money. This person is offering services to women that, if done in a traditional setting, would not be available to women. This person has helped many people heal from physical and emotional issues, but is not well. This person has visible (to someone who knows about energy) energy disruptions that manifest physically that are explained as being a part of being more “highly evolved,” when in actuality, it’s a result of being taught incorrectly.

So, you see being taught incorrectly can have negative consequences for you, but it can also have negative consequences for those you intend to help. Take for example James Arthur Ray, a spiritual leader and best selling author from Arizona who held a sweat where three people were killed. The results of ignorance can be deadly.

So don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you can’t be taught something that is useful. It’s just not Native American. And it may well be dangerous to you and others.

You’re Not Native American

Culture counts. Part of what makes Native American healing work comes from the culture. If you are born in a patriarchal culture, you are not going to necessarily see or understand the matriarchal system- even if it is explained to you. There are many nuances and traditions, such as the flow of time, family dynamics, and simple differences in how values are expressed, that won’t make sense to you. These things are relevant in understanding and delivering spiritual medicine. Even if you learn the correct ways of doing things, it’s not like following a recipe. Intention, spirit, and understanding of the interconnectedness of life matters.

For example, I once attended a traditional counseling training that had elements that borrowed from Native American traditions. I thought, “Oh, great. I will be able to flow easily with this.” No. It felt like I was being dragged through a squeeze box backwards to end up where I already was. The instruction actually made sense for westerners because it was viewed through a western lens. It made no sense from an indigenous perspective. The outcome would be useful for westerners, but doesn’t really reflect the Native experience because it was devoid of cultural understanding. I’m not one to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s still useful, just not Native American.

Don’t Call It Native American Shamanism

Most Native Americans find the association of the word shamanism with the native culture offensive. It’s inaccurate. It destroys the cultural integrity of a people. (Think about it. If you were Wiccan or Voudon, would you want Christians defining you?) The Native American culture, history, and traditions have long been distorted by the mainstream culture, and this is just another way that this continues. While you may see the term shaman as a blanket term for holy person or spiritual healer, it has no place in the Native American tradition. God bless you if you are doing good work. Lots of people are. It’s not about the quality or effectiveness of the work, but the name. Please don’t call it Native American shamanism.

What It’s Not

Here’s a quick list of what Native American healers generally do not do so that you can know how to spot a fake. We:

    • don’t use the term “shaman”
    • don’t use crystals
    • don’t charge for services
    • don’t take outsiders on drug induced journeys disguised as spirit quests
    • don’t teach outsiders much less huge groups of them
    • don’t share sacred items or practices with outsiders
    • don’t offer all services to women at all times
    • are separate from the New Age
    • identify first with our tribe (Pamunkey, Hopi, Pima, Cherokee, etc.). We are from a specific tribe with specific traditions.
    • don’t evangelize or recruit people to our beliefs or way of life

I’ve seen people who think that this does not apply to them. The say they were “adopted” by a Native. Or maybe spirituality belongs to everyone and you can’t segregate it to just one culture or one lineage. Or some say that they were called to this by the Great Spirit or some variation of that. It’s about more than just what your heart says. There is no way to remove the patriarchal world view from your western upbringing and faithfully reproduce a matriarchal belief system. There is no way to divorce the values of family, clan, land, property, and life from the practice of Native American spirituality. It’s not a western view where it’s okay to take the bits that you like, leave the parts you don’t like behind, and mix it with other stuff to make it fit into your life. In Native spirituality, you fit into nature. Nature doesn’t conform to you.


A Bit of Advice

If you are looking for spirituality, please seek it in a church or through some other spiritual outlet that fits within your ancestral traditions. There is only one Creator, and we’re all One people, but your ancestral heritage matters. Don’t reject that. Visit, appreciate and honor other traditions, but work within your own. That is where your power and your work lies.

If you have Native American ancestry and want to get in touch with your roots, go to a pow wow. Meet other natives. Learn about the culture. Be a student. Don’t try to help others through spiritual practices that require cultural emersion to understand. I believe that as you become more in touch with your culture and your ancestors, you will understand and come to respect and embrace the reasons why this is not open to you and also begin to embrace your own people’s wisdom and ways.

If you are already an established healer, learn more about what you are doing, where it comes from, and why it works. There are many wonderful things out there that help people. If you don’t know why it works, you can blend things in such a way that the results are actually harmful to you or someone else. (For example, two herbs may have great healing properties, but when used together they can cancel each other out, create a toxic reaction, or maybe work even better).

Offer truth in advertising. Your credibility is stronger when you call a spade a spade. We call that ethics. You create distrust with false advertisement and perpetrate misunderstanding.

If you are someone who admires Native culture, be culturally sensitive. So much has been taken away from Natives through conquest and prejudice. Please don’t contribute to the misconceptions by referring to our spirit medicine as shamanism. When you take something that you don’t understand and present it as the real thing, you steal its soul. Eventually, in the minds of the public, that fake thing becomes the real thing and the real thing is lost. Also, when you make the sacred commonplace, it is no longer sacred. Don’t steal our culture. To steal culture is to steal the essence of a people whom you seem to want to honor. It’s not cool when Rachel Dolezal does it. It’s not cool when you do it.

You can also help by adopting the practice of honoring all life. Natives aren’t “special” because we’re Native. We’re all children of the Creator. We are brothers and sisters. You can honor us by honoring yourself and your traditions. There is wisdom in all cultures. We all have our place in the world, and you were born into your culture for a reason. Love that and you may find that the best expression for your energy lies there – not in seeking wisdom elsewhere.

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