There are many shamanisms. This became apparent to me some time ago, when I noticed my teachers and colleagues used the term “shamanism” to describe a vast landscape of beliefs and practices. Infrequently, a teacher would disqualify an activity or technique used by another, saying, “Well, that’s not really something I understand as shamanism.” Very rarely, someone might brand another practitioner as a “plastic shaman.” This usually happened when the branded practitioner was charging too much money for the teachings, was sleeping with too many students, or was advertising themselves in a way that was perceived as inauthentic.
There was another way one could find oneself labeled as “plastic”. That involved sharing stories, traditions, or sacred knowledge one had no right to share. Of course, the temptation to share “sacred knowledge” in the grand international market place of “sacred” ideas is powerful, indeed, as is the temptation to create “sacred knowledge” from thin air, or lift it from other peoples.
In the Americas, Native young people wanting to know about shamanism have often been advised and encouraged to study with practitioners both within, and outside, their tribal nations. With the disruption of tradition and knowledge in Native communities (caused by colonial expansion) particularly here in the East, many tribal people have had little to no access to traditional wisdom. As a result, they may be drawn to the work of non-Native practitioners such as Michael Harner. The knowledge shared by Michael and others is a blessing when there are no teachers in one’s own traditions!
Yet, the glumming together and use of diverse tribal traditions has its drawbacks. Forcing together practices from many traditions works, in the global marketplace of spiritual ideas, to colonize the local sacred. Further, it brings cultures that do not see themselves as practicing shamanism into the fold of the rubric of shamanism. Particularly distressing is its tendency to decontextualize the relationship between shamanism, ancestors, and tribal peoples and their traditional lands. These are all acts, usually unintentional, of cultural genocide. Finally the insistence that all work with the spirits is shamanism is inherently problematic, making any definition of shamanism questionable.
There are a vast number of beliefs and practices that fall under the rubric of shamanism. Yet, get a diverse group of shamans together and, more often than not, they come to some basic agreement about what they are doing. They may have wildly different ethical beliefs, may or may not use substances to alter their perception, and may be urban or live deep in the wilderness. In spite of those differences, they are likely to find common ground, a stance that appreciates the local and recognizes a thread that connects diverse locales and traditions. They are also likely to be acutely aware of the presence of the colonial and the threat of the spiritual marketplace.