Please stop using the term shamanism. The word “shamanism” makes it seem like there is only one type or one process. It’s confusing, meaningless, and waters down something wonderful and complex that is steeped in tradition and culture.
Consider cakes. Cake is everything from a three tiered wedding cake with pounds of buttercream frosting and a couple on top to a tiny box cake made in an Ez-Bake oven. They are all called cakes, but they aren’t the same thing. If you’re dreaming of a handmade sheet carrot cake and I bring you a two layer German chocolate Betty Crocker cake, we would not be communicating accurately, wouldn’t you agree? It’s all cake, but not the same thing. That’s what happens when we throw around the term “shamanism.”
Shamanism is the word that the Tungus people use for their spirit walkers. They are animists. They wear certain regalia that is specific to their culture. Their practices, spirit helpers, plant helpers, and customs are different from the spirit walking animists of North or South America, Asia, or Africa. They are different from the neo-shamanic practices of the non-indigenous peoples.
When we call them all “shaman”, what are we really communicating? I would say that we are perpetrating confusion because what we are talking about is generally NOT the culture or practices of the Evenk people. When the voices of ignorance is louder than their voices of knowing, the distortion becomes the truth. This is why we call the indigenous people of the United States “Indians.”
There are times when generalizing is good. Since generalizing about spirit medicine is eroding the culture of many different people, I don’t believe this is one of them. For example, people talk about Native American shamanism but this word is not in any of the languages. Every tribe has different traditions and practices.
While all engage in healing rituals, how would an observer know that the medicine person is walking in the spirit world when doing healing? Honestly, he wouldn’t. It’s an internal process that can take hours or even days. All the observer knows is what is happening on the outside. What can be seen is what is being taught to people as the whole process. It’s all being called “shamanism” whether there is any spirit walking going on at all.
Worse still, what’s been taught in a very wide spread way is that shamanism can be distilled down to the common elements. That’s what makes it work. So, lot of people think that if all cultures heal by going into trance via the drum, then entering the spirit world, then visualizing something, doing that makes one a shaman.
Wow! That’s not at all what it’s all about. That’s the Ez Bake oven recipe! It’s a very poor and rudimentary representation! It totally ignores the years of living in an indigenous culture that teaches connection with the plants, animals, minerals, and humans. It completely discounts the need for being a whole and balanced person who is healthy and wise enough to serve others. Culture, maturity, spirituality, wisdom, and knowledge are completely ignored. The whole process of becoming is discounted. This is being sold as a way to cut the line to the top, and I find it incredibly disturbing.
Indigenous cultures are holistic. Western culture compartmentalizes. We isolate chemicals from plants, say “this is the active ingredient” and use that as medicine. This is what is happening with shamanism. It’s stealing native wisdom, then “improving” it in the name of efficiency and accessibility. We tell ourselves it’s a way to respect the traditions and avoid appropriation when in fact it is destroying it by ignoring all the nuances that make it what it is.
If you agree, please stop using the term “shamanism” and call whatever you’re looking at by what the people using that practice call it. If it’s western style core shamanism (which is what we’re talking about in most cases), please call it that.
Speaking specifically helps us to communicate clearly. If we are talking about the work of an Apache medicine person, please be specific. Their work isn’t the same as a Paqo. If you aren’t sure what it’s are called in their language, use something like “Mayan shaman.” It’s not accurate, but it does distinguish that practice from neo-shamanism, which indicates that things have been taken out or added that make it work for westerners.
If you are doing energy medicine or trance work, please call it that. Most of what I see being offered is energy medicine or trance work, not shamanism. I do both of these practices and can tell you that they are incredibly effective. There are many, many different ways to do this that anyone can learn. Shamanism is something else entirely.
If shamanism is not part of your culture, please don’t make yourself its representative. Talking about it from a western lens distorts it. Someone on Wikipedia is even calling shamanism a religion!
If you’re interested in shamanism, I invite you to explore animism. Give your practice roots. Make your practice holistic. I think it will make it far more effective and meaningful.
Disclaimer: As with all articles, the words above reflect the opinion of the author and not the official position of Pan Society. Pan Society has no official position on any issue and welcomes all points of view.