Friday, October 3, 2008

Shamans, Pretenders & Thought Police

For some reason, the topic of shamanism seems to attract very diverse types of people. Not all of them are very pleasant to talk to about it, because most don't seem to bother to find out what it is before they begin spouting opinions and arguing about it. That is why I no longer participate in online shamanism discussion groups.

I have needed to write about this for a long time, and yet I really didn't feel up to it. That's why I neglected this blog for so long: I was avoiding having to write this very post. But it had to be written sometime, so here it is.

Shaman Pretenders

On the one hand, you have a lot of folks who have no idea what shamanism is but have a whole lot of opinions about it. They seem to think the word means something very cool; therefore they must be doing it, because they know that they are very cool---or want to be.

The Prevalence of Ignorance

Most folks have never bothered to read or study anything at all about shamanism. All they know is what they have heard from others like themselves. And apparently that is all they want to know.

Bad Books

Some others, having read a pot-boiler of a book or two, written by someone who was out to make a few bucks without actually doing much work, are sure that they are experts. There are a lot of really bad books out there that purport to be about shamanism.

Such books may be entertaining, and they are generally great ego-strokers. Often the premise is that the reader is already a shaman but just didn't know it yet.

Fluffy Bunnies Bite

These pretenders may sound like harmless fluffy bunnies, but they can turn quite vicious if you tell them that shamanism is, in fact, a specific discipline with well defined and well documented practices. In other words, shamanism is real and not just whatever you want to make up.

Him Heap Big Shaman

The general ignorance leads to the notion that just any indigenous healer or spiritual practitioner is a "shaman." Not so. There are many, many different types of healers, holy people, sorcerors, herbalists, psychics, priests, conjurors, and mediums in many, many cultures.

Some cultures have a wide variety of these different functions. Others combine two or three functions in one or two types of practitioner. Each and every culture has its own name for each of those functions in its own language.

Neopagan Myth-Making

Nowadays we also have many modern neopagans who are being taught that Wicca or whatever brand of neopaganism they subscribe to is, in fact, "The Olde Religion."

In complete defiance (or ignorance) of the archeological and anthropological record, they claim that their modern belief system is the oldest religion. Therefore, in their way of thinking, shamanism derives from their religion, so they must be shamans.

In fact, animism is the oldest spiritual belief system. No gods or goddesses existed until comparatively recent times in the history of human beings. It's OK to believe in whatever mythology you choose, but don't confuse it with historical fact or archeological evidence.

Shaman as Superlative

Then there is the craving of Americans for superlatives. Some people think that shaman signifies some sort of extraordinary degree of ability in any spiritual field, the top of an imaginary hierarchy of spiritual accomplishment. It doesn't.

Shamanism is a particular set of practices of a spiritual specialist of a particular kind within an animist culture. Some shamans are more powerful and accomplished than others. But there is no hierarchy. Either you are practicing shamanism, or you aren't.

Shamanism Thought Police

The shamanism thought police are a political bunch. In the United States, quite often they claim to be Native Americans whose constant assertion is that no NA has ever, in the tens of thousands of years of existence of over 500 NA nations been a shaman. Or even studied shamanism. Period.

That raises several obvious questions:

1. How can they speak for all Native American nations and cultures of all time? Thousands of miles apart, thousands of years apart, and speaking hundreds of different languages and dialects, many of the peoples of the Americas would never have even heard of each other, much less interacted.

Many NA nations were extinct before Columbus arrived, and most of the rest disappeared within the next 200 years. As many as 95 percent of NA people had died of European diseases or were murdered by the Europeans before 1700.

That's right. Archeologists now estimate that 20 million people lived in North America before Columbus arrived. Two hundred years later there may have been only a million left.

How would modern NA people know what every single person and culture in North America believed over the last 20,000 to 50,000 years? They don't. They can't possibly. No one does.

2. If you have never studied a given topic, and therefore do not know what people are talking about when they use the terminology, how could you possibly know even whether or not you are doing it? Much less whether or not others are doing it? Or ever have done it? Or ever have studied it. Naturally you can't.

Their other constant assertion is that any Native American who does study shamanism or agree that it has ever been practiced by an NA, anywhere in time or space, is a "plastic medicine man" (or woman).

Any NA who disagrees with them is, by their definition (and who made them the judges?) not a real NA. Very circular logic, that.

AIM Attacks

In the old days the thought police on the Internet were mainly self-proclaimed members of the Florida chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM). They constantly trolled the shamanism newsgroups and Yahoo groups.

They lurked, waiting to pounce on any poor soul who used the terms shaman and Native American in the same post. And if anyone claimed to be part Native American, the thought police tended to quickly become abusive.

One of their declarations was that no NA had ever called himself (or herself) a shaman, because the word did not exist in any NA language. Well, duh. Of course not. But that does not mean that the function and practices of shamanism never existed in any NA culture.

Apparently, according to anthropologists, they did. Furthermore, some NA groups today do accept and use the term shaman when describing their spiritual practitioners to outsiders.

According to anthropologists, some NA ceremonies, especially those relating to bears, are so similar to shamanic ceremonies in Europe and Asia that they must be related. Reading the descriptions of eye witnesses, you can hardly tell them apart.

That does not mean that the ceremonies were spread by diffusion (a politically charged term that simply means spreading from one culture to another by contact). But if one ceremony and set of practices is almost exactly identical to another, and has the same purpose, and one is shamanism, then so is the other one.

Siberian Chauvinism

Nowadays there is a new twist. Because of a woman who called herself Sarangarel, who claimed to have been initiated as a Siberian shaman, there is now a whole new group of thought police. They vociferously object to anyone using the term shaman for anyone outside Siberia.

They claim that because shaman is a Siberian word, it is disrespectful to Siberians and is stealing from indigenous people to use the word shaman to describe anyone but a Siberian, because "shaman is a Siberian word."

The flaw in that faulty logic is that Siberia is not a culture. It is not a country. Siberia is a huge geographical region, made up of many countries. Most important, it is made up of many language groups that are not even related to each other.

Only one small tribe in Siberia used the term shaman. Their sister tribes, descended from the same original tribe, used different words. And those were people in the same language group, speaking different dialects of the same language.

Across the huge Siberian region, there are many cultures who have (or had) shamans (people who practiced shamanism). Every single culture had a different name (or several names) for those practitioners.

The reason that anthropologists use the term shamanism is that they first learned about shamanism by studying the tribe that created the term shaman. In describing the practices of those shamans and publishing descriptions worldwide in anthropology journals, anthropologists coined the term shamanism to describe what shamans do.

So the term shaman is not used throughout Siberia. It is used by one tribe. By the logic of the new shamanism thought police, the terms shaman and shamanism should be used only to describe that one tribe's shamanic practitioners.

The thought police do not make that distinction. What they are demanding is not logical. It is simply the new political correctness.

There is also an element of elitism about it. The author they consider to be the sole authority on Siberian shamanism, Sarangarel, also started a school and organization, which you can join, too, if you are willing to pay them.

The Irony

The irony of all this was brought home to me when I started Shamanista, a website on animism and shamanism, for my shamanism Meetup group. I put a link to the site in my email signature and used it when posting to shamanism groups on line.

One day I got an email from someone who told me to change the terminology on my web site and in this blog. He said I must not use the words shaman and shamanism to describe any practices outside of Siberia, especially since obviously (he assumed) I had never bothered to study anything about Siberia.

In response, I explained the origins of the words shaman and shamanism, named various books and resources I had studied, including most recently the work of a folklorist who had lived in Siberia and returned there for years, documenting the different words used for shamans and their work in the various (often unrelated) language groups across that vast and diverse region. It was a pretty long email.

So the guy responds that I clearly have no respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, and he should know, because he himself (the major proponent of "Siberian shamanism"), is Native American.

What can you say to a statement like that?! In other words, he is no more Siberian than I am, and he is basing all his "knowledge" on one teacher, Sarangarel. (It seems to me that he must be, because I've read a good bit of anthropology, as well as his teacher's book, and I've never seen any other author claim what his teacher does, or did.)

So the obvious question is, why isn't he studying his own people's indigenous ways? Why isn't he practicing the spirituality of his own NA culture, a large NA nation with a still-living language and tradition?

Why All This Weirdness?

Over and over, across the years, I've wondered how it is that whenever the topic of shamanism enters the picture, for most people logic flies right out the window.

Why is that, do you think?