An Open Letter To All Shamans, Would-be Shamans, And People Who Think That White People Shouldn't Call Themselves Shamans...
In the early part of this century, a Romanian researcher named Mircea Eliade started doing research into tribal spiritual culture in many countries. Although he was a reprehensible person in many ways, he was an excellent researcher, and he identified a number of similar traits between spiritual practitioners in tribal societies the world over. He chose to refer to people sharing this agglomeration of traits as "shamans", because this was the term most frequently used in his area of the globe.
The word "shaman" did not originate on this continent. It is a slurred form of the word szaman from the language of the Tungus tribe, who live in western Siberia; their culture and language (Tungusi) are related to the Saami (Lapp) people of Finland, part of the Finno-Ugric language tribe. Although its exact meaning is not perfectly documented, some possible translations are "pathfinder" or "lighter than air". Thanks to Mircea Eliade, researchers and writers all over the world began to use the term "shaman" for individuals in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and yes, Native America, who "died" and were reborn with powers which they used to heal and aid a tribe, the Walkers Between Worlds.
So imagine my surprise when I read a letter from an individual of Native American extraction saying, in essence, that since the word "shaman" means something specific to Native Americans - a specific set of cultural teaching, belief, and tribal reputation - that those who are not culturally or genetically Native American and were not trained in those beliefs should not call themselves shamans.
Frankly, I almost fell off my chair. If we are going to justify use of a word by blood, then I, with my Prussian blood, can far more closely claim to be a shaman than any Native American person on this continent. If we are going to justify it by culture, then if you aren't Tungus or some other tribal culture of that area, you have little or no right to it at all. By deciding that only certain Native Americans can claim that word, they are ripping off another tribal people on the other side of the globe.
To put it in storytelling form - a typical shaman's thing to do - let's say that someone came to your house and gave you a horse, saying, "This looks like it belongs to you." The next day, someone else comes into your yard and tries to ride the horse. You object, and they say that it isn't your horse, it's a public horse. Before you take them to court over it, wouldn't it be smart to check around and find out if maybe that horse was stolen property?
It bemuses me that many Native Americans, rather than being able to agree on a morally indefensible word from an actual Native language, are arguing over ownership of what is, basically, a white man's label. (Similar arguments abound over the word "berdache", another white man's label whose actual original meaning is so insulting that I am horrified to hear Native people refer to themselves that way. Surely such words as "winkte", "lhamana", or "kwe'rhame" would be more respectful?) It seems that after decades of wearing a white man's word, it begins to feel like it fits. Unfortunately, the label in the shirt printed "shaman" says "Made In Siberia", and it has become, over many decades, a public shirt. Maybe it looks foolish on some and fits right on others, but we all have as much - or as little - right to try it on as any other person on this continent. It's become a public horse that all cultures can ride - and fall off of.
I don't know what an actual Tungus shaman would have to say about this, and since I barely have the gas money to get to the store, much less the cash to fly around the globe, I probably never will. I suspect that if you gave them enough rubleage, they would gladly talk about it. (There, my wife has just coined the word "rubleage", and all further use of it must be curtailed unless you get explicit written permission from her! No, really, just kidding.)
As a Neo-Pagan northern-tradition shaman, I try very, very hard not to co-opt native American spirituality. (To understand what it is to be a northern-tradition shaman, please see this website: Northern Tradition Shamanism.) I rarely if ever use Native words in my rituals, and I don't wear Native-looking dress. (My Gods and spirits won't let me, anyway.) However, I have had well-meaning but misinformed individuals tell me that it is co-option of Native American practices when I use drums in ritual (I learned ritual drumming from a Ghanaese teacher, who I am certain did not co-opt Native American practices, and my drum is a Saami-style runebom), crow feathers in my hair (my Raven totem was just as important to my own ancestors as it is to those of Native American people), sweats (we are building a sauna/stofa, which the ancient Germanic, Norse, Finnish, and Saami people did use for rituals, along with drumming), build men's or women's lodges on my land (my lodges are Polynesian in style), or invoke the four directions (a practice common to early European paganism). Whether I am "ripping off" these other cultures is a different issue. (Except for the Polynesians, the rest are my ancestors.) The Native Americans do not have sole title to these practices, only their cultural version of them; nor are they the only people in the world who come up with shamans, if we use the word as a public horse.
If someone white told me that they were a "medicine person", I'd be highly skeptical, because as I understand it, that's an English translation of an actual Native American term. (I could be wrong on this; correct me if I am.) Likewise, if someone clearly not raised in that culture called themselves a curandero, a babalao, or a houngan, I'd also be skeptical. Wouldn't it be better to find a word born on this continent to describe the specific Native American rites and beliefs and experiences that make a medicine person, and then defend that word, rather than squabbling over an oppressor's label?
Unfortunately, the English language does not have a single word for "spirit-worker who has been seized by the spirits, died and been reborn to a lifetime dedicated to serving a tribe via their spirit-given abilities". The reasons for that are the fault of our ancestors, but the damage is done. We need a word. This one is already in use, has already become a public horse. How do I deal with the fact that in some sense I am "ripping off" the Tungus people? I pay in increased understanding. Whenever possible, I tell people the origin of this word. Many Westerners don't even know that the Tungus people exist, or that Siberia is anything more than a former Soviet prison camp, and that many other places around the globe have shamanic traditions, each with their own cultural trappings. This article is part of that payment. For everyone who knows this, I do honor to the tribe that gave us their word for such an important concept.
Similarly, I encourage those who use the words or cultural trappings of a culture not of their ancestors to pay that culture back in that way ... ideally with some form of activism that hopefully aids the people in question. I also encourage them to ask permission of the spirits of that culture. If they won't talk to you, you're probably looking in the wrong place. If they do talk to you, and give their approval, then the voices of humans are irrelevant.
Of course, the question of who ought to be called a shaman using other criteria is one that is hotly debated, and it's a whole other issue. There is also that there are different forms of shamans, culture aside. (My rough attempt to outline the two major types is "Classic Shamanism And Core Shamanism: Basic Differences".) I encourage that discussion, but let's base who gets the S-word on such criteria as the calling of the spirits and the service work of the individual.
I use the word "shaman" for myself because its use in modern English is the best description of my own experiences. If I had not found Mircea Eliade's ambivalent book "Shamanism" when I did - in the middle of the spirits ripping me to pieces, killing me and bringing me back - I, as an ordinary white American whose cultural context had no knowledge of such things, would probably not have survived. Just because your culture has been emptied of this knowledge does not mean that the spirits do not sometimes come for you anyway, and this can lead to insanity and death if you don't know where to look. Although the word "shaman" is currently surrounded by a swirl of confusion and controversy, it's a place to start; a beacon to lead those who need it to what they need. The existence of this term as a public horse in our multicultural society saves lives. That's worth paying for.
In hopes of better understanding all around,