Shamanism and Cultural Context, Kenn Day

I have been making a living as a professional shaman since 1989, over 25 years now, and during this time I have encountered a wide spectrum of responses to my job title. Mostly this has been, “what is a shaman?”, but often enough it is, “you can’t be a shaman; No real shaman charges money for their work”, or the ever popular, “you can’t be a shaman, because you aren’t an Native American.” So every so often I just have to take a deep breath and set the story straight.

Shamanism is a universally human practice that is found in historical and contemporary indigenous communities, as well as post-tribal settings like urban communities in the US, Canada, UK and Europe. In many cases, those studying these practices from outside the culture have mistaken bits of tribal culture for shamanic practice.

This is understandable, particularly when looking at tribal cultures, since these groups have much in common. All tribal groups experience tribal consciousness to some degree and this deeply communal sense of ‘self’ makes for a very different outlook from that of a modern, individualistic American. Because of this, tribes all over the globe share some fundamental similarities. These similarities include: a dependence on the land they live on; bonds of kinship and a shared ancestry; and homogeneous customs, rites, rituals and ceremonies which provide a communal experience that is very difficult for someone from the ‘first world’ to truly understand.

The problem with the idea of restricting shamanism to tribal and indigenous communities is that post-tribal peoples, people living in the urban communities of America and Western Europe, are greatly in need of shamanic healing especially tuned to their needs and situation. It is clear to me that shamanism is a universal practice, akin to agriculture, architecture, eating or breathing. Just because these are practiced by an indigenous culture does not mean that it is appropriation for a post-tribal culture to develop its own culturally appropriate version of this practice. The post-tribal cultures of the ‘first world’ are in dire need of many shamanic practices. What that means is that we, as a culture, have become disconnected with a great many things that have been an essential part of what it means to be ‘human’. We have lost touch with our ancestors, with the earth, with spirit – even with our own souls. Individuals in the USA are born into a society that so values the individual, that we have lost touch with the communal part of the human experience. Considering that for some 70,000 years, humans have been raised almost entirely in tribal groups, with an emphasis on the communal identity, this is clearly a shock to the deeper parts of the self that we might call ‘soul’. This ‘culture shock’ leaves our souls reeling and starved for connection; hungering for a sense of identity that reaches beyond our own skins. This hunger often appears as alcoholism, drug addiction or other forms of addiction – all attempts to reach out to fill the mysterious inner hunger that so many of us feel. Shamanic practices, specifically targeted at this Invisible Wound of disconnection may be one way to bring our society back into balance.

There is an important side issue to this: that when the practice of shamanism is not extracted from its cultural setting, what is passed on often does represent cultural appropriation, not in the practice of shamanism but in those elements of the culture that are still attached to it.

One excellent example of this is found in the persistent argument among those interested in shamanism that a ‘real shaman’ does not accept money in payment for his or her services. This is based on the observation of certain forms of shamanism as practiced in tribal settings where money is not used. For instance, some of the Native American tribal nations like the Lakota. Within the context of the reservation, money is understandably seen as an element of the invasive European culture, which has so devastated their indigenous society. Prior to the coming of the European colonists, the Native American nations did sometimes use money of a sort, when trading between different groups but most inter-tribal exchange was based on barter. This made sense for the culture and is inherent in that cultural context. It is not, however, ‘shamanic’ in any sense of the word and it does not need to be followed in order to practice shamanism.

When the practice of shamanism is effectively extracted from culture, it is not inherently attached to any one group but becomes available to all – to the human condition which we all experience. Michael Harner did some excellent work in this direction with his concept of ‘core shamanism’, without which there would be much less awareness of shamanism at any level in our culture. However, he was strongly influenced by his academic background and he surgically removed shamanic practices without really grasping their fundamental nature. What he wound up with was a rather pale and superficial form of shamanism. It was a good first step, but more steps need to be taken toward a form of shamanism which respects its indigenous roots, addresses the needs of post-tribal individuals and communities and still has blood and soul and depth – that is the challenge set before those called to this work in the here and now.

The tendency to define shamanism as an inherently ‘indigenous’ practice has a deeper problem as well. In proclaiming that shamanism cannot exist separate from a tribal setting, we assume that it is dependent upon its cultural context, with no validity in a larger world. In effect, this invalidates it as an effective and spiritually rooted practice. The fact that it clearly does function effectively beyond the confines of indigenous culture proves the point that it is not a product of these cultures alone but of the shared human condition.

Consider how agriculture fills a need for sustenance in human cultures. It has evolved and developed throughout the centuries, always adapting to the specific needs, technology, climate and capacity of each society. The claim that the similar updating, adaptation and use of shamanism to address our needs in the ‘first world’ is cultural appropriation makes as much sense as claiming that planting corn with combine harvesters in Indiana today, is appropriating the culture of the Native American nations because they introduced Europeans to corn.

This leads to another popular argument around the use of the term shaman. There are those who insist that it be used only to define the practitioners of Mongolian shamanism, known as Tengerism. The problem with this is that the term shaman has been in the European lexicon for hundreds of years. It was introduced by Dutch traders in the 1600s. Like most of the words in the English language it came from a different source. But this is true of most modern languages. Any etymological dictionary will offer the ethnic and linguistic origins of a word in their definition. For instance:

shaman (n.) 1690s, “priest of the Ural-Altaic peoples,” probably via German Schamane,
from Russian sha’man, from Tungus saman, which is perhaps from Chinese sha men
“Buddhist monk,” from Prakrit samaya-, from Sanskrit sramana-s “Buddhist ascetic”
[OED]. Related: Shamanic.

Clearly, most of the words used in most modern languages have a history that includes influences beyond their own ethnic origins. This is not cultural appropriation; it is simply how languages evolve.

Once we understand that shamanism is a universal practice, which naturally evolves to meet the needs of human beings in their varied ways of life, we can see that it can be adapted to our own complex lives as well.

Author’s Bio
Kenn Day is a professional shaman, working and teaching in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA – a place not known for its esoteric nature. With 30 years of experience as a shaman, ritualist, healer and teacher, Kenn also passes on the Post-Tribal Shamanic teachings through workshops anywhere there is interest. The ancestors have blessed Kenn with a lovely wife and daughter and a thriving practice. To connect with him please visit his website at www.shamanstouch.com.

This article first appeared in Issue 31 of Indie Shaman magazine.

 

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