What is Shamanism?

I’ve recently been in dialogue with an excellent editor. She asked me to address the idea of cultural appropriation and sent me an article where the author was making a case for ceasing the use of the word shaman. I’m sharing my response to her (edited a bit) because first, the issue is important and I think about it often in regard to practicing and teaching; second, it clarifies my position for those who are considering working or studying with me; and third, this conversation has been circulating rather unproductively in many circles for years, and I hope that we can shift our focus, respectfully, to one of unity rather than division.

It is important to note, and I open all my classes and training sessions by mentioning, that “shaman” is a Tuvan or Evenki word that originated in Siberia. Each culture has its own word for the person that fulfills that role. Anthropologists use it as an umbrella term. The history of cultural suppression and domination the author brings up — yes, we know, it’s not news. It’s horrific. But that is not going to be addressed at all satisfactorily by arguing over terminology. The bigger issues are around WHAT are you practicing, WHY is it meaningful (or not), and HOW are you being in integrity while you are doing it. Animism is being floated by some as an alternative word, but it doesn’t encompass enough, in my opinion, to describe what shamanism is. The word “animism” was also coined by anthropologists and applied to a wide array of cultures with some shared beliefs, so it shares some of the imperfections of the term “shamanism.”

My training, motivation and ethos around what we are calling “shamanism” focus on the concept of direct revelation. I share this perspective with many other practitioners from current and past times. Direct revelation is not about the customs of a particular people or a particular time. It is about your own experience in your own place and time. It can’t be appropriated. It is about your relationship with helping spirits, with the spirits of the place you are in, and with your relationship to your own inner divinity, right here, right now.

All of those direct spiritual relationships (and more that I haven’t listed) can be nurtured to serve self, others and community. We can be guided on our path by learning from other people (teachers, mentors, ancestors, etc.), but shamanic teaching comes from the spirit world, not the human world. If we take something from someone else inappropriately (especially from another culture to which we do not belong) it doesn’t have the same power and is not really practicing “shamanism.”

Shamanism survives (with whatever inadequate naming) because it evolves and adapts to its place and time. It stays relevant because it is always happening now, it does not need to shed outdated bureaucracies or power structures. We ALL come from “shamanic” cultures. I acknowledge that the word can’t mean all things and do it perfectly. But I wonder what this author proposes for a practice involving someone who does not know what their cultural background is, or a person brought up cut off from their ancestors’ deep spiritual power and traditions, either because they are not from a culture that we think of as shamanic, or some other reason. Their practice can be as powerful as a person born into an indigenous community.

The issues that need to be addressed are different. Some examples are: taking the ceremony of a specific group to which you do not belong without permission and selling them as your own, not realizing the difference between the rituals and trappings of a thing and the deep work itself, and not understanding that living life in congruence is part of living “shamanically.” These are problems. Banging a drum and going to a workshop is not enough to make you a shaman, or a shamanic practitioner. Westerners need to stop perpetuating the atrocious behavior that has gone on for ages in many realms. We need to stop stealing. Period. But you can’t steal what is your direct spiritual experience.

We all share ancestry. As human beings, we all have a right to bring the wisdom of those collective ancestors, and the compassionate spirits who choose to work with us, to bear to our present time. Urgently. Our problems at this point are global problems. I’m not particularly interested in arguing over a word, and certainly not interested in creating divisiveness between practitioners. I am interested in respectfully engaging with the earth, the spirits, the Divine/universe (call it what you will) in a way that will help us survive and be healthy and joyful…together. 

Wishing you a peaceful heart,


©2019 Mara Bishop

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