Yep. I probably shouldn’t, but I’m going to do it. I am going to talk about cultural appropriation. And, more specifically, I’m going to address this word “shaman,” and its use.
First of all, I’m a white man. I really can’t help that. Believe me, I’ve tried.
I’m very aware I come from a long lineage of colonial assholes who have run entire civilizations in the ground, massacred innocents by the millions and millions, as well as continually disenfranchise the less fortunate even to this day.
Worse yet, I’m a middle class white man from a middle class background. Also, I’m the middle child in my family. I grew up and currently live in the Midwest, as well. Everything about my profile suggests I am destined to be stuck in the middle—between the two extremes of society.
Therefore, I have never had to deal with racial profiling, disenfranchisement or being labelled with a stereotype. I make it sound like a problem (and I will get into that) but really it’s a privilege—one that I do not take advantage of, however I appreciate. I teach my kids that appreciation everyday. I teach them how they will never know what it’s like to be pulled over by a police officer because of the color of their skin, and to understand the injustice of that. I teach them it is their responsibility to use that privilege to help those less fortunate. We need to help solve that problem, I tell them, not be a part of it.
But, my lot in life is a problem for me because of this: I am a very spiritual man, so where can I go find a relationship with God (or whatever you want to call the Big Cheese) that means something to me?
I’m pretty much American. There isn’t much connection to our ancestry on either side of my family, so I have nothing to tie me back to whatever homeland my great-great-great grandfathers came from. At the same time, I was raised your average Protestant Christian, but I have always felt something empty within that system of organized religion.
And unfortunately (as a colleague of mine likes to remind me from time to time) I read Chomksy way too early for my own good so now I have gone down that rabbit hole of awareness and understand I am a citizen of the colonial problem living comfortably on top of a graveyard of genocide that is called the Americas. I don’t want to be a part of the white, colonial system. I don’t want to be a part of the problem.
So, where can I go? What can I do? Just as some of my black friends are stuck with always being identified as “black,” so I am stuck being identified as the generic standard—the colonial output of mediocrity.
I have always been drawn to indigenous ways of life. For every culture on the planet, those ways are the trace root of our first leanings into forming a relationship with the world as something sacred. When one feels lost, the natural human instinct is to go back to the source.
I used to flit from thing to thing, being a seeker and trying to find something with which to identify. After many years of wanderlust, I finally found my heart’s content and have settled into two communities, which are distinct in and of themselves, but overlap consistently: the Heartland Ayllu and the KC Pipe Circle. Here is a breakdown of the two:
The Heartland Ayllu (pronounced EYE-YOU) is a local spiritual community of mesa carriers, affiliates of a global shamanic lineage called the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition (PMT for short). The PMT was founded by don Oscar Miro-Quesada, a curandero (folk healer) from Peru who was tasked by his teachers to bring the work of the mesa (a shamanic altar) to the gringos in the North, in order that it may bridge some understanding between cultures and turn the tides of Western domination for the better. Oscar has always said that the PMT was founded and inspired by his life in Peru, but it most definitely a cross-cultural lineage.
The KC Pipe Circle was inspired by Ojibwe medicine man Sun Bear, who was intent on opening up the sacred teachings of his people to the modern world, including the white man. The KC Pipe Circle meet monthly and share the chanupa, a sacred pipe given to the People via the Native American legend White Buffalo Calf Woman. Currently led by medicine man Lee Stumbling Deer, the KC Pipe Circle is a humble group centered on family values and open acceptance of one’s own spiritual heritage. They meet once a year for a sacred dance which was founded on the goal of being a “giveaway,” a prayer of thanksgiving for the world.
These communities operate within the Kansas City metro and both (despite having a descendency from North and South American native cultures) have their own values, traditions, and belief systems. I am heavily involved in them both, and was initiated by don Oscar to be a Sanctioned Teacher in the PMT in 2012. Both groups are good people, trying to do right by the Earth and all of humankind.
So, here’s the kicker. I (as well as my fellow community members) get a lot of flak for doing what we do. And, surprisingly enough, we do not get that from the conservative Christians in Kansas who (you would think) would be appalled at our fire-pits, tobacco smoke and drumming. Just the other day, an on-line invitation I sent out for a meet-up I was coordinating got bombarded with criticism by a group of individuals that, for lack of a better reference point, might consider themselves “True Natives.” The meetup was for a men’s group that was open to all faiths, called Sun Lodge. It was named that because the sun in the PMT is a symbol for the masculine, and a “lodge” generally denotes a sacred gathering space.
Pretty harmless, right? Well, or so I thought, until certain individuals began inquiring about what we were doing on the Facebook invite. “What’s a sun Lodge?” they asked. “And what Shaman will be there? It says shamanic gathering?” The initial critic invited his friends, and they began trolling the invite with comments:
“You had me running the other way at the word Shaman.”
“Always tryin[sic] to exploit them ways. Its [sic] not enough they stripped ancestors homes. Tryn [sic] to steal them ways too.”
“People try to steal indigenous ceremonies, use key trendy words, sounds amazing …Spiritual Candy bars, sure taste good … Read a couple ndn Books by Black Elk and become experts…”
Now, I know of the critic who started this conversation. He actually used to be highly involved in both of the communities mentioned above until he got connected with some “authentic” Natives and now sits atop the soapbox of faux legitimacy judging others for spiritual hucksterism. He now travels around the area teaching drum workshops claiming to be a “real” Native American (even though he’s actually a small-town farmboy from Kansas). People love his stuff, getting that “authentic” Native experience because of his darker skin and long, braided hair, and talks the medicine man talk really well too (ever see Smoke Signals?).
After he invited a load of his friends to jump on the trolling bandwagon, I began to wonder, why such a fret over the word “shaman?” What was the big deal?
“You had me running the other way…”
There was a lot to digest in this interaction. They claimed not to be judging, but just trying to warn the world, even though they didn’t know those of us facilitating the event or take a minute to listen to what we had to say. I was clearly being accused of cultural exploitation. They then continued to find websites of white people pretending to be shamans-for-hire, posting them on the invitation, and heckling. “Gud [sic] 1,” they laughed.
The conversation certainly triggered me, but instead of engaging into a full-fledged debate (like I normally do) I just deleted the invitation. Over time, though, it sat with me, curdling in my stomach like bad bourbon. What was truly the issue here? What was I exploiting? It was a free gathering, no money involved (except the 30 dollars I spent out of my own pocket for donuts), so it’s not like I was taking anything away from anyone in the name of spiritual enlightenment. The gathering was truly just a group of men, coming together to pray, to talk, to share their hearts, and that was all.
So, why the controversy? And why am I and others like me being followed by “authentics” who are accusing us of spiritual thievery?
First of all, let’s look at the word “shaman.” Such a scary word, that one…
As noted above, I was accused of using that “trendy” word as a way of stealing indigenous practices, but is that really the case here? In the groups I am involved in (both of which helped sponsor the event) our practices were inherited by spiritual teachers of those particular traditions. I’m not claiming to be a medicine man, but as a sanctioned PMT teacher, I certainly have the right to hold a sacred space for humans to gather and pray within that particular tradition, and should be able to do so without fear of retaliation.
So, the question is, how is “shaman” an indigenous word? Short answer? It isn’t. Well, it is, but it isn’t. Some history:
The word “shaman,” comes from the Siberian group of tribal peoples, the Evenki (formally known as the Tungus), originally recorded as “šamán.” It was a name found in the journals of a 15th Century Russian priest named Avvakum Petrov, describing a witch doctor figure of the Evenki people. According to scholars, it is possibly even a corruption of their southern dialect, stemming from the root of the Arabic word for devil: “shaitan.” That word was later adopted by Dutch statesman Nicolaes Witsen, who brought the term to the West. Overtime it evolved into a generic term to denote a priest, medium, medicine man/woman, or witch doctor within any sort of tribal community the West came into contact with. As anthropology grew over the centuries, and became a more viable science of study due to colonial expansion, the word became a common trope within the field.
As with all language (even indigenous) words evolve, their definitions change. Languages morph and meld into one another. What becomes one word for one group of people becomes another for another (i.e. “condor” and “puma” are not English words, they are strictly from the runasimi language of the Quechua peoples from Peru).
“Shaman,” you see, is essentially a white man’s word, a word the Western world was using to describe a specific type of holy man they were encountering in indigenous settings. In fact, its definition has become very precise, and is not attributed to any one tradition or religious institution at all. As in most of my writings, I commonly refer to my favorite interpretation of the definition of shamanism, from Dr. Roger Walsh, a professor of psychiatry and anthropology at the University of California:
“Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other entities, often by traveling to other realms, in order to serve their community.” (The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition, p. 15-16.)
A shaman does not necessarily even have to be tribal. You can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan or Buddhist, and be a shaman. It is a type of spiritual practice within a tradition that allows the hierarchy of priesthood to step aside, and facilitates direct interaction with world of spirit.
Nobody owns the word “shaman,” and it is a nebulous term at that, which has only found its definition through centuries of linguistic evolution. So, somehow claiming it to be a Native term that been stolen from North Native American spiritual traditions and used for exploitation for a free gathering could be what is known in circles of logic as reductio ad absurdum.
Furthermore, calling something “shamanic” doesn’t have to mean a “shaman” will be present. One does not beget the other. Shamanism is a school of thought, a spiritual practice. Does Plato need to be present in order to engage in a discussion of Platonic philosophy? Does a priest need to be present to host a Christian meet-up?
A friend of mine (who I will call Billy) is a drum-maker who was taught a specific drum-making technique by the Hopi, of which only five people in the United States have knowledge of (well, six, since our critic-buddy above co-opted the method without permission). Billy made the drum you see in the picture above. Beautiful work!
In any case, Billy and I have had this discussion many times, whether I, as a white man, should even use the word “shaman” or “shamanism” when describing my own religious practice. Billy could care less, but if it bothered me so much he suggested using the term “shamanist,” which denotes being a student of the shamanic arts. It’s a good term, and I use it sometimes, with a major emphasis on the “student of.” We are all students of life. We are all learning how to be on the Earth. Some of us are more passionate about it than other white folk, and it seems to me it would benefit humanity by all of us embracing the idea of working together rather than trying to claim ownership over this practice or that one.
Being who I am, I still needed resolution, and sought out more opinion. I was fortunate enough recently to have a conversation with Thana Redhawk, poet, activist, and singer/songwriter, who is a Board member of the Native American Entertainment Coalition of California, as well as known for being the youngest Grandmother on the Grandmother’s Circle the Earth Council. She caught my eye through her work with John Trudell, one of my heroes who was another poet and activist, though also a chairman of the American Indian Movement, as well as one of the facilitators for the takeover of Alcatraz in ’69. So, I thought speaking with one of his colleagues, I could get some clarity on the issue.
Generously, Ms. Redhawk lent me her ear, and listened to my woes over my colonial heritage, living on a land tainted by genocide and exploitation. “People are so quick to judge each other,” she told me. “That was not the original tribes’ way.”
She spoke of her own experiences encountering those that take advantage of what they learn from traditional wisdom teachings: “However, I do understand all that is occurring with what’s being called the New Age movement, we should talk about what is culturally appropriate and what is not. The only thing you can do, when you are in a territory (and this goes for anyone) is to talk with the elders of that territory and the ancestors of that territory, by putting your tobacco down and asking them for permission to be there. Then, talk with the elders about what your heart is seeking. Because when someone comes to them in that way, then they know that Creator sent you, that you are not there to misappropriate anything. You’re there because that is where your heart and spirit have guided you.”
She affirmed that I seemed to have been taught appropriately by own teachers, though there will always be those who are on guard about their traditions.
“Because where we stand in protecting our traditional ways,” she continued, “Some are more open to it than others. My personal point of view is that we all gather in one circle, because we are all one nationality, one race. The human race. And when we understand what inspires us, and where our hearts and spirits are, and create dialogue from that, that’s where the healing begins.”
I don’t know about others. I don’t know about New Agers who use unicorn energy to sell chakra crystals, because I’m not one of them. And I’ve criticized them many, many times. I know my communities. I know the Heartland Ayllu and the KC Pipe Circle. I know the local elders who humbly lead (they would grimace at the use of that term “lead”) those communities.
We honor the land, we honor the ancestors and we honor all relations. If we throw around the term “shaman” every once in a while it needs to be remembered we know where it comes from, what that term means, and we don’t use it lightly.
In essence, fellow critics, we put down our tobacco. Get to know us, and you just may agree.