A Column By Jack D. Forbes
Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

Shamanism, New and Old

At least until recently, the word "shaman" was one of those terms which would lead most indigenous people to figuratively "reach for their shields" and assume a defensive posture. "Shaman" has been pretty much of a dividing line word: those who use it are non-Native and/or anthropological, or are ignorant of Native Americans' feelings. Indigenous people refer to their own holy people and curers by other terms such as doctor, medicine person, spiritual leader, elder, herbalist or diagnostician, recognizing a wide variety of callings and skills.

Of course, before "shaman" became popular in the anthropological literature, indigenous healers and religious persons were often referred to as "witch doctors," "sorcerers" or other derogatory terms, words still used reportedly in right-wing Christian missionary propaganda. But "shaman" is not an innocent term either, because it rises out of a clear misunderstanding of, and denigration of, non-European cultures.

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1981 edition), the word is from the Tungus language of eastern Asia and refers to "a priest who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events." The dictionary goes on to define "shamanism" as "a religion of the Ural-Altaic peoples of northern Asia and Europe characterized by belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to shamans; also: any similar religion."

Quite obviously the above definitions present a culturally hostile picture since the use of terms such as "magic," "demons," "gods" and "ancestral spirits" will likely be interpreted as backward, evil or even "devilish" by many European readers. Moreover, "shamanistic" religions have usually been regarded as more "primitive" than other religions by cultural evolutionists.

Now all of this is complicated today by a new generation of European-Americans and Europeans who not only are promoting the idea of Native American "shamanism" but who wish to become "shamans" themselves or study under "shamans," mostly white but a few of Native background.

Magazines, such as Shaman's Drum and Wildfire to name two, promote "shamanism" while others promote witchcraft and various "pagan" revivals.

All of a sudden, as it were, "shamanism" has become fashionable with the yuppies and cross-culture crowds, so long as the form of "shamanism" draws upon non-European symbols and rituals (especially Native American and Tibetan, but with concepts also liberally borrowed from Hindu philosophy and from other "appropriatable" non-Western traditions).

But if we back off and take a look at so-called shamanism from a multi-cultural perspective, instead of a Eurocentric one, we find that the most famous "shamans" of the 20th century have been people like Amy Semple McPherson (founder of the Foursquare Church), Oral Roberts, Billy Joe Hargis, and the legendary Billy Sunday. Moreover, the day-to-day work of "shamanism" in North America is carried mostly by Roman Catholic and other priests who daily enact "shamanistic" rituals (such as Mass, a "magic" ritual where wine becomes blood and wafers become flesh) or by charismatic Protestant preachers (healers) who attempt to cure by the laying on of the hands and other techniques of "faith-healing," or by religious figures (preachers or priests) who attempt to "control" events, obtain wealth, drive away death, or determine who gets into "Heaven" by means of prayers, incantations or ritual. Millions of Catholics recite a ritual incantation on their rosary beads every day while the church actively sells (or has sold) "relics," medals, and other items which are thought to possess "magic" powers. The Bible has apparently been used as a "talisman" by fervent Protestants, and the cross is viewed as a potent object by many Christians of different denominations. Being "born again," spirit possession and other acts of "ecstasy" are regular features of some Protestant sects.

The fact of the matter is that there is no such religion as "shamanism," since all of the religions of the world make use -- perhaps equally -- of the tools of the "shaman" including liturgy (ritual), songs, incantations (recited prayers or formulas) and direct contact with the spiritual world (visions, ecstasy) in order to bring about changes on the physical plane.

But what about the idea that the "shaman" believes in "an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits..."? Roman Catholics believe in "an unseen world" of Mother Mary, Father God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the Devil, many angels and a pantheon of saints (ancestral spirits), plus various demons which can be exorcised. Most Protestants believe in Father God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the Devil, numerous angels and a certain number of saints. All of these non-human, non-physical beings would be called "gods" or "lesser gods" if we were being objective, that is, not talking about supposedly "monotheistic" Christianity.

Modern anthropologists were originally all of European descent. Their self-defined our mission was to look at "exotic" peoples and to ignore European traditions, by and large. Thus Christian cults and practices have often escaped being the focus of anthropological theories. Roman Catholic priests and pentecostal preachers have been spared being the objects of close study (except for a few off-beat sects such as the rattlesnake handlers of the Appalachians).

We should continue to object to the use of the term "shaman" as applied to our indigenous traditional doctors, holy people, herbalists, wise people, vision-seekers and diagnosticians. Most Native groups have a wide range of individuals who participate, in some way, in the realms of healing and curing, and virtually the entire community participates in the spiritual life (praying, seeking visions, dreaming, helping others, organizing ceremonies, feeding people at ceremonies, etc.). As White Buffalo Woman told the Lakota people a thousand years ago, "every dawn as it comes is a holy event, every day is holy, for the light comes from your father Wakan-Tanka...." The entire world is "magic," all around us, all of the time!

"Shamanism" is a new European game. Shouldn't they play it by themselves, without stealing the symbols of indigenous cultures?


[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans and other books.]

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