Shamanism and Appropriation

This weekend is the Equinox, a major point in the ceremonial year. Since the summer we have been receiving many requests for shamanic aid and ceremony. Thinking about the work we do has brought me back to considerations of shamanism and appropriation.

My belief is that shamans arise in all cultures.  Skin color simply does not matter to the spirits. They are much more concerned with their own needs, and having people who will work with them. I believe the spirits will continue to call those who are destined to follow the shaman’s path. I also know there are many paths to the Creator, ancestors, and spirits. 

Maybe once there were clear pathways to shamanic training in every culture. The colonial enterprise erased many Indigenous shamanic traditions, and in doing so the opportunities for those called to shamanism to learn from their predecessors and elders. That erasure was intentional and systematic. In my generation, teachers arose who sought to bring the teachings to those of us who had lost our traditions. These teachers were met with scorn from some quarters of Native North America. In the seventies and eighties, the term “Plastic Medicine Person” was freely applied to those teachers.  Among such teachers,  I am grateful to Dhyani Thorner (Yahoo), who generously taught shamanism to me, and several others in the late seventies. Other such teachers, including Michael Harner have had an enormous impact, either indirectly or directly, on my life. I owe them much.

I have been blessed by the support and guidance of many other, less controversial teachers from a variety of tribal cultures. Each has taught me what they could, given the cultural norms of their tradition. I know, and appreciate, they kept culturally specific sacred knowledge to themselves. This is both appropriate and essential to the survival of their cultures. I have also learned from the writings of anthropologists and others with culturally specific knowledge, although I have taken that information with  a large grain of salt. I have tried to decolonize the information, and discover that which I might respectfully learn, without stealing from the culture. I have attempted to shape what I have learned to the needs of the individuals and families with whom I work.

In the present age, there is a flood of information about other cultures. The task, as I see it, is to learn while respecting the private, sacred knowing of others. There are innumerable examples of the colonizing theft of sacred knowledge.  Lynn Andrews, for example, was simply one in a long line of appropriators. A trip to one’s local library or bookstore reveals shelves of books reporting to share sacred Native knowledge. The theft of such knowledge is a form of genocide. Like much colonial activity, it is also immensely profitable.  ( Robert Animikki Horton posted an excellent discussion of this on

So here we are, early in the sixth century of European colonialism in the Americas. Many of us carry the genetic and cultural heritage of both Indigenous America and Europe, and more often than our society would like to admit, Africa. The past 150 years have witnessed the inclusion of genes and knowledge from throughout Asia. We are truly a global people. In the face of this globalizing trend, Indigenous cultures in the Americas hold fast to their unique identities and traditions. Indigenous nationhood is necessary to the Native resistance to the totalizing, homogenizing goals of corporate colonialism. Cultures must have strong boundaries if they are to survive.

Those of us who have Native identities but lack tribal affiliation live, especially if we are light skinned, lives largely free of the fierce racism faced by our kin. Yet we may also lack the grounding and identity that comes from being raised inside a specific Indigenous culture. We frequently find ourselves caught between the needs of tribes to retain their identities, and the colonizers’ rejection of mestize identity.  We have lineage without citizenship or context. This condition can be vexing and painful. It results from the systematic efforts of the colonizers to “kill the Indian” by integrating him or her into mainstream society, and it has been amazingly effective.

Those who practice shamanism utilizing Native knowledge without contextualizing it, and without the permission of Native teachers do real harm. Not all knowledge is free to share. It is crucially important shamanism be understood as a living, sacred tradition in many Indigenous cultures, most of whom face an ongoing assault from colonial enterprises. Shamanism is not value neutral. To appropriate, misinterpret, and sell Indigenous, and Mestize knowledge is to harm.

Tomorrow is the Autumn Equinox, a time of coming into balance. Our world is out of balance. We are taught to consume without thought or insight into the possible consequences of our consumption. We are told that hate speech has no impact on others. We hear, relentlessly, the lie that all knowledge is both owned by all, and available to be commodified and sold. Tomorrow begins a special time of awareness of, and gratitude to, the Creator, the Ancestors and the Spirits. This ceremonial time runs to the Winter Solstice and beyond. As we remember them, let us be humble, and ask for guidance to live good lives in this rapidly changing world. May we remember that our actions carry weight and import, even though we may not see the extent of it. May we resist the urge to take from others that which they hold sacred. We live in challenging times, may we do so with kindness and perseverance.

5 thoughts on “Shamanism and Appropriation

  1. Thank you, Michael, for these wise words! They seem ever so relevant and necessary in this season of hurtful and exploitative politics. I’m putting these words up on the wall so that I can be constantly reminded of them.

  2. Thank you, Michael, for posting this. Harner’s work has had a great impact on my life as well. Not only has it changed (read: saved) my life, but I have seen so many positive changes in the people with whom I have been blessed to walk the path of healing.

    So often at the beginning of my journey I would worry about offending tradition because of my skin color and cultural background…and then I simply decided to listen to my Teachers, trust in my Creator, and go where I was pointed. In the end, it’s really the only thing any of us can do.

    We must never enter where we are not invited…we must not take that which we are not given…and we must never profess to know that of which we are ignorant…

  3. Ben, this road of conflict is 500 years old and mostly we are still trying to find the way to travel together in harmony. There is always the risk someone will judge us by the color of our skin, hair, or eyes. The wise ones look into our hearts. You do your work with an open, grateful heart. That speaks volumes. Sadly, some do not look, nor do they listen. One must do the work anyway. Ultimately, the Creator, Ancestors, and spirits call the ones they chose.

    I am forever surprised by how little I know, and how much I remain unknowing.

    1. Thank you, Michael.

      I always find a great deal of heart and wisdom in your words.

      I agree with you about listening to the Creator. Ultimately, this work is all about “Not MY will but THINE.”

      Knowing little, at times, seems to give us an advantage. If we’re in uncharted territory the Creator tells us to zig, we won’t argue “knowing” we should zag. I’m probably paraphrasing here, but I think Beautiful Painted Arrow said it best when he said, “I just show up, and the work gets done.”

      So often I’ve heard very powerful and humble Elders say, “I dunno…I just work here.” I think it’s that attitude of humility and level of trust in the Creator’s will that allows them to be such pure and hollow bones in the service of their people…

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