I posted this over at the Druid Network’s social site recently. I realised that it was as long as a blog post (sorry, TDN people!) – and I thought it was worth sharing here. This is the reason why I’ll never use the term shamanism. While I don’t expect others to agree with me, I do think it’s important that Druids and other Pagans *think* about the language and techniques they use, and decide in an informed way what they are going to do about issues of social justice relating to their spiritual work. After all, as the Druid’s Prayer says: “Grant, O gods… the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of it, the love of it.”
I am extremely opposed to using the word ‘shamanic’ to describe anything that isn’t happening in a tribal context (and really not even there). As a sociologist, I’m aware that the word is being used less and less in academia, where academics have realised that it is a very poor description of spirit journeying and spirit work. Its use suggests that all tribal spirituality is the same, when it is NOT – different tribes have different kinds of spirit-workers who do different things. The word was initially an imperialistic, Western-context-imposing concept that academics used to present tribal people as Other, exotic and all the same. Eliade, who is no longer popular in academia, did a lot of damage there.
Furthermore, many tribal people have been offended by the Western use of the term. Harner’s ‘Core Shamanism’ has been criticised by indigenous people for stealing their sacred techniques, churning them up and spitting them out in a form that they don’t recognise. Some Native Americans and others have talked about ‘plastic shamans’, arguing that real tribal spirit-workers cannot be separated from their tribal context. They serve communities, and a Westerner journeying on their own rather than for a tribe cannot relate fully to what they do.
Many academics are coming round to this point of view. Alice Kehoe, in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinkingtalks about how our ideas of ‘shamanism’ can reinforce the imperialistic concept of the ‘noble savage’. She describes how courses like Harner’s have misrepresented and mangled stolen techniques from peoples without much social power, who could therefore do little about it. She demonstrates how the techniques we now consider ‘shamanic’ actually show up in almost every religious context, including branches of Christianity. She also shows how these technqiues are used very differently across different tribes and peoples – there is not one ‘shamanism’, but many cultural forms of spirit-work that are tied to the cultures and tribes that they emerge from.
I do a lot of spirit work and journeying, but I call it different things. There are Pagan terms, like ‘technician of the sacred’, ‘spirit-worker’, ‘journeying’, ‘Ovate work’, ‘oracle work’ etc, which I prefer. We are using techniques which are common to every religion, like journeying based on visualisation, that we don’t need to name as ‘shamanism’.
Yeah, I have strong feelings about this! As a Druid, I believe in Justice in all things. Social justice for indigeous people is very important to me. Too many indigenous groups have been mistreated for too many years. I personally won’t have anything to do with practices that indigenous groups have said are misappropriating and misrepresenting their sacred concepts and techniques.