by Ben Boomer
Shamanism has grown in popularity as an idea and practice in the modern world. Shamanism is defined by the recognition of a common wisdom based on ancient or indigenous spiritual traditions. This broad definition has some advantages and disadvantages that are worth exploring. I am speaking from the perspective of a North American tribal member because I am of the Diné people. I was raised on the Navajo reservation in the American southwest with a mixed cultural background. My mother is Diné (Navajo), and my father is from California of European descent. My childhood was spent on a ranch with sheep, cattle, traditional ceremony and the occasional trip to California for Christmas.
Many Native Americans I know hear the word ‘shamanism’ and take an immediate skeptical stance. Several people I know embrace shamanism with a rich, authentic, and rewarding spiritual life. There is a long history of cultural appropriation and abuse among indigenous peoples that leaves several issues to be sorted out. The issues that wound the indigenous cultural personality range from minor to significant. For example, there are the much publicized conflicts over the names of sports teams like the Redskins, or the gaudy feather costumes of runway models. These are easy to recognize aspects of a much deeper trend that impacts how people and cultures are identified. I am not personally offended by the name of a football team, but become concerned when I recognize the slow erosion of my culture’s significance within the awareness of the dominant social consciousness.
It isn’t as simple as pride in myself or pride in my ancestors, but more of a recognition of the wisdom contained within the teachings of my culture. As I layer mistakes, lessons, and years on top of one another I get better at reflecting in greater depth the wisdom and significance of not only the Diné traditions, but also the traditions of many indigenous peoples. There is a perspective held by many Native Americans that this wisdom has such depth and breadth that you have to grow up with it in order for those teachings to truly resonate in your life experience. I agree to the extent that I may never understand being Diné like my grandmother did, but this does not diminish the value it has in my life. Being Diné is simply who I am.
Because I live my life and nurture my family within the context of the dominant western culture it is important that I have significant points of reference within western culture that allow me to weave the wisdom of the past with present reality. It is the erosion in any capacity of these points of reference that get many indigenous people frustrated and angry, because it interferes with our capacity to preserve the lifeline of cultural wisdom, and maintain a healthy interaction with society as a whole.
There are more significant issues to be considered beyond sport teams, and lingerie, and this brings us to the realm of spirituality. At the core of a culture are the ideas and practices surrounding its spiritual and philosophical understanding of the world. Language, food, art, song, and dance are a few key elements that hold a cultural system together. My mother was forbidden from speaking the Diné language as she attended government funded boarding school on the Navajo reservation. The pressure to convert to one form of Christianity or another has been underway since first contact with Europeans, and has largely been successful. The diet, family structure, and living habits of the Diné have undergone great changes in the past four generations. All of this has left many traumatic imprints on the Diné identity. Despite this, much of the culture and spiritual tradition has survived.
The idea of change and renewal is central to Diné philosophy, and this has contributed to its survival. Not all indigenous spiritual traditions share this fortune and many have disappeared. Those that do survive have done so with much effort and sacrifice. This is one of the key reasons why there can be a guarded and proprietary attitude surrounding indigenous culture in North America, and beyond. There is a kinship among different tribes that has grown from this shared struggle. There is a recognition of many shared values, but also a respect for some very clear differences. This understanding has evolved over generations of people sharing and comparing ideas and traditions for mutual survival in the context of western culture. At the core of this cooperation has grown a recognition of shared spiritual principles and several spiritual practices are now shared by many tribes in North America. This is where there is some commonality with the idea of shamanism.
Shamanism recognizes that many cultures share similar ideas and practices grown out of what is termed a perennial wisdom. Many shamanic practitioners recognize the value and wisdom of these practices. I have wondered what it would be like to never have grown up with my background of culture and tradition, but still recognize the beauty and wisdom in the world around me. I would realize that the study of shamanic practices would seem to bring me closer to an understanding of that truth. I would want to embrace it, and to absorb as much knowledge and wisdom as I could in order to bring me as close as possible to a full understanding.
That level of enthusiasm makes it easy to see the common thread that ties many ancient beliefs together, but also makes it easy to overlook the qualities that make each culture unique. There is a haste and material preoccupation inherent in western culture that drives many people to reject it in search of a slower more natural wisdom. This drive brings many to explore shamanism. There are several examples of people bringing the haste and preoccupation to shamanism instead of escaping it. Fraud, delusion, greed and exploitation have plagued the shamanic community from its inception. This is why many indigenous people react with wary caution to the mention of “shamanism.” It is really a natural response to those who may practice “taking” wisdom from a culture, and it happens enough to create a protective attitude. Ideas of monetizing, commodifying, marketing and trading these spiritual practices gets rejected out of hand by Natives because they are all clear markers of western thought and culture.
I have come to understand that this rejection out of hand is a mistake. It is true that shamanism as a word carries with it the legacy of those who have abused it, but it also has brought attention to ideas and principles that are vital to the survival of our species. There are very good reasons that drove the tribal people of North America to preserve their traditions. Many indigenous people recognize that these traditions share a common resonance with the world, and with life as it is lived. The ceremony and practice of these traditions brings a wealth of practical knowledge to the way we live life, and honor our surroundings. We recognize that we would not have survived if it were not for these teachings. There is also a recognition that many of the world’s ills would be healed by the application of that wisdom. Native Americans are not alone in this recognition by any means. There is a struggle worldwide to preserve not only our physical environment, but also our mental and spiritual environment.
Shamanism has a great capacity to contribute to this collective effort simply due to the nature of its popularity and perspective on common threads of wisdom. It is not by divining what practice can be collected, or gem of wisdom recorded, but reaching into our own experience and offering forth what resonates, what contributes. In this way a spirit of cooperation and understanding will be fostered. This is the foundation of a true exchange. The knowledge passed from one culture to another can be received with reciprocity. There is no need to abandon our personal culture or past experience and co-opt the identity of another. By way of example, the value is lost if you try to perform an authentic Diné sweat lodge ceremony when you are not Diné , but there is tremendous value in learning to sweat with a Diné . By intentionally fostering reciprocity, and with a great deal of humility, patience, dedication and effort a real level of understanding can take place. From this place it is possible to foster new traditions for ourselves and community.
I have learned this by interacting and observing many shamanic practitioners, and concluding that there are at least two distinct approaches. One approach is to collect and commodify spiritual practices and pass them along as “authentic indigenous teachings.” Without the appropriate cultural background, and lacking reciprocity and humility, these practices only offer a veneer of wisdom, and lack a depth of understanding. In the end they only serve to diminish the spiritual practice in the larger context of the world, and in many cases damage the culture they derive from. The other approach is marked by the active participation of the originating culture. There is an obvious reciprocity that doesn’t just involve a few isolated people claiming to be bearers of indigenous wisdom, but instead entire families, or villages. It is rare for any group of people to reach 100% consensus, but the involvement of increasingly larger groups is powerful. This approach helps to nurture not only the preservation and exchange of indigenous wisdom, but lays the groundwork for new traditions to emerge that allow people from different cultures to grow together. This is how the tribes of North America have been coming together for the past several generations.
I have learned that there are many shamanic practitioners in the world who may have begun in a self-centered way, but learned that there is a more nurturing way that leads to a deeper, richer understanding of life and the spiritual practices that shamanism recognizes. I struggled with the term “shamanism” because of all this confusion both within the indigenous community and within the shamanic community, about its value and purpose. I now recognize that shamanism has a large following consisting of many people who do not want to participate in cultural appropriation in their quest for a deeper relationship with life, but instead would welcome a healthy exchange based on reciprocity, respect, honor, and gratitude. There are a growing number of opportunities to practice shamanism through education and exchange, and I intend to contribute with caution and hope. I welcome you to join me in this pursuit and direct your interest in shamanism into a contribution to the preservation of indigenous wisdom.