… a thought making crooked all that is straight.

Indians [sic] and shamans [neo-sick]

My German family emigrated to America in the 1950s. My Oma (grandmother) became an educator (assessor of children’s learning levels and needs) on the Navajo Reservation, where my family also lived for a while.

In my late teens and early twenties I travelled from the UK to spend time living with my grandmother in an area called the Checkerboard because squares of land belong to the Navajo Nation (a dependent state existing within the independent state of America) and some squares belong to the Federal Government of the US.

While there I took up Navajo language classes and met a Navajo woman who worked for the Navajo Nation Government. Her work involved travelling hundreds of miles daily over the Reservation. She invited me to travel with her for four months and during that time she adopted me as her daughter, introducing me to Navajo or Hopi Native Americans as her daughter.

First point:
Native Americans are NOT Indians
Native Americans are NOT American Indians
Native Americans are NOT North American Indians

They are Native Americans because they are the original people native to that continent; any other name carries with it a shed load of political hegemony and implicit colonial abuse.

I learned a lot from my Navajo mother and her friends about what was considered acceptable to Native Americans, what were sore points, how their history affected them … how thousands were deliberately wiped out by white Europeans distributing plague-ridden blankets among them; how some native peoples have been completely exterminated. Their history is no less painful, political and rife for misunderstanding than the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Holocaust, to name but two.

After my time on the Reservation, I went to Germany where I spent a year beginning my translation career. There I encountered a heavily sunbedded female with a suede, fringed jacket, plaits and feathers in her hair. She “identified” with “Indians” [sic]. I felt sick to my stomach at her ignorance. No. Don’t give me any bullshit about naive enthusiasm: if you are truly interested in a Native Path then do your research, learn the history, the current politics and the current discussions around the misappropriation of native culture and spirituality, which continues to this day, and is felt by so many NAs to be a continuation of the colonial hegemony they have had to suffer for centuries.

Following on from this: the word “shaman” has become a word bandied around as easily as “witch” (I will deal with that another day). Banging a drum, chanting and speaking to imaginary spirits does not make you a shaman. Pretending that you “journey” every time you touch a rock does not make you a shaman, nor does it make your experience “shamanic.” The concept of “journeying” has also been watered down to be meaningless half the time.

There is no documentation of shamanic culture per se in the British Isles. If you refer to Celtic shamanism, the same point applies as there is no documented proof of exactly what the Celts did except for tales told by Roman historians, and the Romans defeated the Celts … we all know what history is like when written by the victors (blood sacrifice, baby-eating, water poisoning, with the odd truth thrown in – who can say what is true and what isn’t?).

I met two shamans/medicine men on the Reservation and they gave me none of the “foot in both worlds” bullshit, none of the “hang on, I’m just speaking to my spirit guide, Jack”.

If you look at shamanism as practised amongst Native peoples in America (there are many different peoples – different languages, different religious practices, although most will have a name for themselves that translates as “The people” – consider the Navajo word for themselves “Diné”), and if you look in particular at the shamanic practices still found in Siberia you will see a very different picture from the neo-Shamanic practices of British/European wannabes.

As a knowledgeable friend concurred, calling yourself a “traditional shaman” is a tautology shouting “fluff” because true shamanism is by definition “traditional”. However, the word “traditional” sells more books, doesn’t it? Kerching! $££$$£

Shamans are known for communicating with spirits, but again, this is not a running conversation with an ancestor sitting on your knee, your hand up its spiritual backside as you channel its wisdom. No. Communication with spirits is usually within the context of an ecstatic ritual, or within a ritual context that will suspend the natural (or more apparent) senses.

Be warned that not all is what it seems. I have met two shamans. One I had more contact with than the other. But they were not bullshitters.

If you are interested in Native American spirituality – remember that there are many, many different Native American peoples and that not all are the same. Have the courtesy to research their history and their current politics. Read authors such as Ward Churchill – academic historians; don’t just read people with fake names like Starhawk (who is a respectable neo-pagan but NOT a Native American).

And if you come across someone calling themselves a “shaman”, add “neo” in front plus a large pinch of salt. Don’t part with money. Trust your gut. And read around the subject.

©StarofSeshat 2011

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2 responses

  1. Very interesting post! I’ve lived all my life in an area that is still (luckily) rich with Native culture, but even here that culture is disappearing in the face of casinos and discount liquor and tobacco stores. You are so right about there being so much ignorance when it comes to Native Americans. And I’ve been long confused by the appropriation of the term “shaman” in other cultures. I was always taught that a “shaman” was something specific to Native Americans, so seeing the word in the titles of books about Celtic paganism, etc. has left me bewildered.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:49 pm

  2. Hey Lovely,
    Seeing it in combination with “Celtic” shouts fluffy …. there is nothing wrong with being a neo-pagan if that is what you want and you are honest about it. It’s when people dress it up to be something it’s not… OR give the bullshit about their “Native American spirit guide” …

    There is still a huge hang-over from Rousseau’s concept of “The Noble Savage” which helped the West in some senses accept that Native peoples were human (before then the debate was whether they had a soul because if they didn’t then it was even more justifiable to kill them), but was still a racist theory stating that They are pure and noble, whereas We are tainted by progress and civilisation. The fact is we are all people; drugs and alcohol are just as much issues for everyone, and there is the chance of knowledge and enlightenment amongst all peoples. So why not call on your spirit guide “Fred the gardner” … same issues are when HOW many white European women claim to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra – give me a break – what’s wrong with finding out you were just a water boy? Delusions of grandeur; fakery; in for a fast buck; let’s-pretend….

    One of my favourite subject areas for reading is Siberian Shamanism. Couple of books you might like:
    Shamanism in Siberia by M.A. Czaplicka (academic/anthropological)
    Books by Olga Kharitidi (entertaining/inspirational)

    August 2, 2011 at 7:50 am

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