Shamans, Race, and Story In Our Time of Occupation

Sunday evening we held our annual Ancestors’ Ceremony. This year we celebrated a few days later than usual. We try to hold ceremony on or close to November 2nd, in keeping with the Days of the Dead. Those gathered represented a wide spectrum of nationalities and lineages, and shared much over the course of the early evening. Through that sharing, we became aware at least some of the ancestors of most of those present had come to North America seeking refuge from  harm.

Yesterday, a dear friend who is an Abenaki healer, came to my Shamanisms class and spent a couple of hours in conversation with the college students. The discussion was wide-ranging. At some point, she began to speak about all the problems she faces as she goes about the day-to-day work of being a medicine woman, many stemming from the lack of understanding of her neighbors.

My friend lives in the suburbs, and being the person she is, much wildlife is drawn to her home: crows, other birds, deer, raccoons, feral cats, opossum, skunks, to name a few. Her neighbors do not appreciate the constant intrusion of the Natural World into the life of their street. Nor do they seem to care much for the humans who visit her in search of aid and companionship.

Last year one of our neighbors also asked us to stop feeding the crows and we did so. Usually, our neighbors take the many animal visitors who come through our neighborhood in stride. The crows were noisy and a threat to their gardens. They messed with our garden, too. I still have mixed feelings about no longer feeding the crows. I miss their wisdom, willingness to engage in social exchange, and trickster spirits. I also have a strong sense that the Native people of India are correct: crows are ancestors.

The friend and I live in very different neighborhoods. People on my street choose the street, in part, for the proximity to woodlands and wildlife. I imagine my friend’s problems with her neighbors run deeper though. She looks Native, dark complected and with very long, partially braided black hair. I don’t,  being of very light skin and brown hair and eyes. Only rarely does someone look at my nose and cheeks and ask.  Still, most of my neighbors actually seem to appreciate have a couple of partially Native families on the street, although neither of us look particularly Native.

I had stopped thinking about race and prejudice by the time I went to our weekly get together of friends at the synagogue this morning. The topic came back with some force when one of my dear friends began talking about hunter-gatherers as greedy hoarders. The gist of the argument was that greed is a gift of genetic inheritance, was we are all hard-wired from our hunting and gathering days to take all we can and not share it. My friend said he had heard this information from an imminent anthropologist several years ago.

Of course, this view of hunter-gatherers, at least in the Americas, is inaccurate. Indeed, with exceptions, Native people historically limited our take of fish and game, used all parts of plants and animals taken, and honored the deaths of others so we might live. Beyond that, we fed and sheltered everyone, even the earliest European immigrants/colonists.

The other side of this colonial discourse about Native people is that we are all traditional, were always ecologically sophisticated, and live in tepees on reserves. This view disqualifies anyone who has light skin, works as a professional, or is urban from being a “Real Indian”.

Johnny Hawke, in a long blog post about Decolonizing Traditionalism, notes even Medicine people get caught in the colonizing net:

Our Medicine Societies and Ceremonies entrap non-natives and even our own people in a small box believing that this romanticized “spiritual” world view is all there is to our Indigenous Identity. Sometimes the “Traditional Healing Movement” is a barrier itself to healing and Decolonization.

Each of these stories about Native people undermines and discounts core Native identities and values that nurture Self. They also leave very little room for the lived experiences of real people. These notions also fail to protect subsistence and religious practices. Thinking about all this, I found myself wondering how it came to pass that so many people who came to our shore from Europe, seeking refuge from harm, failed and continue to fail, to acknowledge and understand the struggles of Native people for individual and collective sovereignty, reparation, and Self.

Oddly, even the growing discussion regarding wealth and power inequality in North America seems to overlook the realities of Native life, as well as the lived experience of Hispanics, recent immigrants, and lower-income individuals and families. Largely absent is any meaningful analysis of the workings of colonialism in the lives of the 99%, nor the psychological and spiritual costs of the colonial enterprise.  There is little discussion concerning the profound suffering created  by the diminishment of community, the production of loneliness, and the cult of individuality, all of which can be understood as technologies of the colonial state. Also lacking in these discussions are rigorous evaluations of the construction of race as a tool of distraction and violence.

Of course, these problems are not confined to the somewhat awkwardly named” Occupy” Movement (The original peoples of North America have been under occupation for centuries). This refusal to examine the social and personal consequences of 500 years of the colonial enterprise extends to the psychotherapy consulting room, where the focus of much therapy remains on the individual outside social and environmental context.

Shamanism and, more recently,  Narrative Therapy seek to challenge the authority of colonialism and its allies in the lives of those who seek healing. They use differing tools and strategies to do so, yet often their territories overlap. Together they provide evolving maps of the technologies, visions, and behaviors of colonial practice. They challenge the workings of class, race, and gender as constructs of domineering ideologies, and offer avenues of resistance that encourage individuals, families, and communities to become reconnected to ancestors, spirits, and ecosystems, while reclaiming the authorship of their lives. Together, they re-story lives and world.

4 thoughts on “Shamans, Race, and Story In Our Time of Occupation

  1. thank you! for connecting these pieces, seeing the overlapping of position/privilege and traditional models of psychotherapy. How necessary it is to rethink, re-vision our history of this continent and offer avenues of resistance.

    1. Michael, I am pleased to be mentioned in your post. One of the great challenges of our time is making space in professional practice for First Nations ideas about the world. As you note in your essay, many of the basic tenants of Psychology in the West run counter to Native culture and beliefs. Yet professional boards often seen to be dedicated to those very concepts and behaviors that undermine Self in Native persons and communities. I hope this is changing, and look forward to hearing more of your thoughts about this work.

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