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Shamanism and Shame-ons

For Further Reading:

Oyate: Books to Avoid

Cubbins, Elaine: Native Web Site Evaluation

Smith, Andy: Readings on Cultural Respect

Lisa Aldred: Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality

"Shamanism" as a term used by anthropologists means any tribal or earth-based religion, or any that are not part of the world's "major" religions. But shamanism as used by the New Age is a troubling mix of marketing angles, cultural biases, and outright fraud. That's why anyone calling himself a "shaman" is commonly referred to as a Shame-on by American Indians.

The modern movement of would-be "shamans" got their start in 1980 when Michael Harner published The Way of a Shaman. Harner was seeking to avoid many of the pitfalls the New Age movement had fallen into such as exploitative leaders, unclear and unrealistic goals, incoherent, contradictory, or nonsensical beliefs that were widely mocked by most of the public, blatant abuse and exploitation of tribal peoples and beliefs, and a complete lack of credibility with either academia or the public. In all of these goals, Harner and the rest of the "shamanism" movement have utterly failed. Many of the most disreputable New Age leaders such as Lynn Andrews and Ed McGaa sensed the marketing potential and simply adopted the "shaman" pose. Harner's methods were little different from the New Age in his assumptions that one could easily learn methods that take decades to master among tribal traditionalists in a short time. Even his "advanced" seminars only last three days and he is clearly engaged in a highly profitable enterprise as much as an attempt to form a new spirituality, exactly the same as the New Age.

Harner and the other would-be "shamans" also make the same mistakes of the New Age in trying to homogenize tribal traditions worldwide and deny their diversity and important differences by lumping several thousand belief systems together. Harner pretends one can master elements that are supposedly common or universal ("core" shamanism in his lingo) to all. The supposed commonalities of "shamanism" are largely superficial or even self-delusion. For example, many would-be "shamans" falsely claim the sweat lodges used by some American Indian groups are allegedly a "core universal shamanic" practice. They allege the Romans and Celts also used sweat lodges. In fact, both those groups used saunas with no spiritual aim or practice involved. Not even all American Indian groups use the sweat lodge.

Finally, Harner and the rest of the would-be "shamans" are no different in exploiting both tribal peoples and western seekers of spiritual truths. To the former, shame-ons deceptively misrepresent their traditional beliefs and try to subjugate native community-oriented beliefs to western egoistic individual needs. The latter group, shame-on leaders use for cash, to boost their own egos, and in some cases sex. Anyone seeking to understand the beliefs of tribal peoples would be far better off reading the writings of respected native authors such as Vine Deloria, Jr. and Wilma Mankiller rather than opportunists.

For Further Reading

 

Oyate: Books to Avoid <http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/index.html>

Cubbins, Elaine: Native Web Site Evaluation <http://www.u.arizona.edu/~ecubbins/webcrit.html>

Smith, Andy: Readings on Cultural Respect <http://www.alphacdc.com/treaty/r-explt.html>

Lisa Aldred: Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality <http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/aiq/24.3aldred.html>