The S Word
I had an interesting experience with some Cherokee activists and the issue of appropriation in 2018 (you can read the run down here: https://www.facebook.com/davidlaughingcrow/photos/a.387929711568825/631582710536856). One thing we discussed was that I put up a web page talking about the term “shamanism” with definitions and where I use that word and why. I think this was a great idea and I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of it before.
I often feel challenged on this topic simply because “the S word,” as I call it, is used as a blanket term for many things that it shouldn’t be used for. There are several problems with that. First, it creates cultural problems having to do with survival for some people by diluting the meaning of language. Second, when we dilute the meaning of language, it creates unhelpful changes in the brains and cognition of the people using that language (in this case, English speakers). Third, and this is the challenge relevant for my practice, it becomes very hard to communicate what a person does accurately. That’s a problem for people just getting in to work like mine who are not well-versed in different terms and need the right help within their personal restrictions. It creates a challenge for people in asking for what they need and it creates a barrier with expressing what a practitioner can offer. Those barriers to care might not matter if someone has the privileges of lots of time, ease of transport, and income to burn with false starts (and even false practitioners). However, when someone has a limited amount of any of these things and is looking for support in a time of crisis, the issue of inaccurate language can be lethal.
So what is shamanism? What is a shaman? And am I one?
Shamanism is a practice from populations in Siberia and Mongolia, usually in the context of Tengriism (which is a religion), but not always. I have seen it often stated that “shaman” means “the one who sees in the dark” or “the one who knows” on the internet, but specialists in those cultures and the Evenki language (from which the word originates) who have granted me the kindness of talking to me have never agreed with this. They point out that the word is often used in the context of the forge or fire. I am told it more accurately means “to heat up.” One practitioner told me this has to do with the amount of energy in the exorcism process and in ‘heating up’ the body with a lot of energy to expel what doesn’t belong there. Another explained it’s in reference to the shaking and sweating shamans experience when they are possessed. Another person, totally outside the culture and a specialist in a different field entirely (the history and archeological context of fire) suggested that perhaps the first shaman was the one who brought fire to the people, since it probably came from a lightning strike and forest fire. Perhaps the first shaman was the one crazy enough to run INTO the fire and bring it back for the people.
“Shamanizing” is the act of being possessed by spirits to do a working of some kind. In the correct cultural context, someone who shamanizes and fulfills the culture’s social role of a shaman is a shaman. Depending on the culture and the sort of shaman a person is, they may do workings for people to help with finding resources, winning at warfare, and in medical and healing work. However, a shaman is chosen by spirits and harmful spirits also choose shamans- not just helpful ones. A shaman is also typically skilled in other things such as divination and ritual. From what I’ve seen, they’re sort of a cross between a priest, doctor, psychologist, and sometimes warrior or scavenger. There are also shamans who have only one skill set, but the continuing thread is they are possessed by spirits to do a working AND they are able to control that possession, usually after training from another practitioner.
So, where did this concept that everything nature based is “shamanic” come from, since that is obviously not the case?
A fair amount of it comes from racism and a lack of understanding. The word “shamanism” entered English via Russian scholars using it properly who interacted with British scholars who applied it to anything they deemed to be like shamanism. Therefore trance drumming, divination, entheogen use, healing rituals, etc all became ‘shamanism’ even though cultures had their own unique language for and culture around these things. There is no way to know how much culture and language was destroyed with this oversight, based on the racist concept of “other/ not me.” British scholars never call a Catholic saint a shaman because they are too similar. Only people outside British culture could be those “primitive,” barbaric shamans. This spread to American culture because of the close ties between the two cultures. There’s a lovely little book on this called Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking by Alice Beck Kehoe if you’d like more information. It is required reading for people who study under me, and encouraged reading for the American Shamanism Movement of which I am a board member.
As you can see, the best way to use the s word is for a practitioner from the originating cultures who does certain things in that culture. It’s not just disrespectful and kinda gross to apply it to things that aren’t that, but it can do very real bodily harm to people when we speak that way.
There’s still a problem. Namely, English appropriates words. We have the word “shamanism” in our language. It’s been there for more than 200 years. We don’t have another word for “a person working for the good of a community who does ritual possession work in order to create what appears to be miracles.” That puts people who do those practices in a tricky position.
I have decided to handle it this way: First, I seek to use language that is accurate and try to avoid the use of the s word in general. The activists who originally questioned my work didn’t really do their research and claimed that I used terms like “shamanic drumming,” “shamanic meetup,” “shamanic healing,” and others. These words have never appeared on any of my work and unless I completely lose my mind they won’t. There isn’t a thing that’s accurately called “shamanic drumming.” Drumming can not be shamanic. It can assist shamanic work, that’s for sure, but the drumming in itself can not be referred to accurately as shamanic. I have opted to use “ceremonial drumming,” “ritual drumming,” and “trance drumming,” but I mostly just use “drumming,” because that’s what it is and if you do a good job you don’t need to appropriate a word inaccurately to try to make it sexy. To me, inaccurate descriptions are lazy and indicate a poor quality of work.
Do you see what I mean about using accurate language? I encourage my students to call things what they are- if you’re helping someone walk into death, call it death walking. If you’re helping someone heal, call it healing. Honesty and quality are what matters, not sexy words in marketing. When we call things something they’re not and use language from cultures other than English, we suggest that what we’re doing is somehow less powerful and valid so we have to dress it up and that English is not a sacred language. We perpetuate the need for an ‘other’ and create inequalities between two cultures that don’t need to be there.
There is still a problem though. The problem is we don’t have an English word for “to shamanize” when applied to ritual possession work. When the American Shamanism Movement was trying to decide on a name for itself, we members spent a whole two full solid years trying to come up with a way to avoid using the S word. We hammered out the specific practices that made our work different from what was already out there. One of those was ritual possession in the context of helping the community. That, in English, is correctly called shamanism. The movement, however, follows the same guidelines I do and discourages people calling themselves “shaman” and encourages the use of more accurate language. As a group, we hold fast that English is as valid and sacred of a language as any other language and look to use the commonest English words possible. We do not accept shame or guilt over being what we are regardless of race or first language, which is quite a statement in today’s political climate.
For myself, I do not think of myself as a shaman. I do look to some shamans and concepts in shamanism proper to create a standard to hold myself to, and I own shamans armor made specifically for me by the elders of the Darkhad people in Mongolia, but that’s about it. The reality is that ritual possession is a very small part of my practice, certainly not the center of it. I have many clients who have religious objections to possession or spirit involvement of any kind in their care and I’m militant on respecting those choices (which means that for at least a portion of my clients, they will never experience me working with spirits at all let alone in the context of possession). I use the term “holistic practitioner” for myself in my health and healing practice, but also point out that I do spiritual work that is not in the blanket of holism. I chose this because in my state, a holistic practitioner has at least a four year federally accredited degree in holistic health or medicine and I wanted to distinguish myself from the myriad of supposed practitioners out there who read blogs on the internet or go to a few weekend workshops and think they know what they’re doing (hear a hint of judgment in my tone? It’s cuz that’s crazy dangerous and I’ll be the first person to say so).
Holism is another word that is used inappropriately much to the damage of the people. It is not a catch-all phrase meaning ‘natural,’ or even ‘treats the whole being.’ It is a specific theory of care with a specific history. Because much of the spiritual work I do does not qualify as holism, I also point out that I do spiritual work along with that title. As I am ordained in several places of worship, I generally use whatever spiritual title is appropriate in context of the people for whom and setting in which I’m working. When I travel to other countries and work with indigenous people, some of them use tribal titles in their language for me. Generally this is done out of trying to express respect for me, and I don’t stop them. Still, I wouldn’t dream of using those titles with English speaking people, especially as I’ve chosen not to represent any of those cultures (I use “chosen” because some have extended the invitation for me to do so and I have felt that is not my path at this time).
I hope this page has cleared some things up for you. Obviously I’m open to thoughts, questions, even objections, because I get so many good ideas on how things can be done better (such as this page itself!). My company can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they forward anything relevant to me.
Thank you for taking the time to read this page. An educated world is a better world.