Shamanism and Shamanic Healing
Simply put, shamanism is the oldest form of spirituality practiced on the planet throughout human history (and prehistory), and transcending time and space. The term 'shaman' was originally used by Western anthropologists to describe Siberian cultural practices, and has been extrapolated to refer to similar practices observed in traditional cultures around the world. Given the universal nature of these practices, cultural anthropologists believe that elements of these traditions are intrinsic aspects of human nature.
Throughout human evolution, the role of the shaman in traditional cultures likely played an essential role in survival. For example, by observing animal movements and weather patterns, the shaman could provide information to help with a successful hunt. Other roles include storytelling and maintaining oral culture to pass along to future generations, performing ceremony and rite of passage rituals, healing with plant medicines and other techniques, and aiding in dispute resolution and diplomacy between groups. In this traditional context, the shaman was a community leader, priest, healer, and sage. However in many shamanistic cultures, the entire community engaged in shamanic practices which were not exclusively the domain of a single person. Vitalism, or engagement with the living qualities of nature, is a way of life for all members in shamanic cultures.
My teachers and my teachers' teachers
As a young undergraduate student in anthropology, I was privileged to study under the late Roy Rappaport at the University of Michigan, attending the final class he taught in Ecology, Meaning and Religion before his retirement and passing in 1997. Rappaport was known for his work in ecological anthropology, the study of human interaction with the environment. As chair of the anthropology department, his leaning toward 'engaged anthropology' was deeply influential to my training. Also referred to as 'applied' or 'practical' anthropology, this approach was a departure from early work in the field known as 'armchair' anthropology in which the observer retains a distance from the subject and believes herself objective. Engaged anthropology encouraged involvement in shaping policies of social and environmental justice. This deeply resonated with me, as did the field of medical anthropology, which opened my eyes to the notion that health, disease, and medicine are cultural constructs. This background, along with a love of botanical medicine and ethnobotany, led me to the field of naturopathic medicine.
In 2005, I returned to Ann Arbor after completing my naturopathic training and studied for ten years under ShuNahSii Rose of In Sacred Balance. ShuNahSii is a feminist educator, healer and community organizer who for 27 years has facilitated spiritual community for girls and women. Her primary teacher was Keewaydinoquay Pakawakuk Peschel. Keewaydinoquay was a scholar, ethnobotanist, herbalist, medicine woman, teacher and author. She was an Anishinaabeg Elder of the Crane Clan. ShuNahSii also studied under Rosita Arvigo, a Naprapath of Mayan descent.
In 2016, I began a one-year shamanic practitioner intensive training with Jose and Lena Stevens of the Power Path. Lena and Jose have been practitioners for over 25 years. Their shamanic roots were established through a ten year apprenticeship with a Huichol Mara'akame (shaman) in the Sierras of Central Mexico. In addition they were students of Shipibo healers of Peruvian Amazon for many years and continue to return annually to work with these communities. Lena and Jose, along with their daughter Anna Harrington Stevens, teach and facilitate ceremony around the world and at their home base in New Mexico. In 2017, my training as a shamanic practitioner deepened with further intensive training with the Stevens. I continue to train with the Stevens, and in spring of 2018 made a pilgrimage to Wirikuta, a Huichol sacred site. As a second-generation Xicana with ancestral roots in Central Mexico, reconnecting with the traditional healing ways of my lineage has been deeply meaningful and transformative.
on appropriation & who can practice shamanism
One of the greatest criticisms of contemporary shamanic practice is that it is appropriative. The problems of indigenous suppression and disenfranchisement within a historical context of genocide of indigenous populations, colonialism, and land theft creates a climate where living indigenous communities are treated as museum pieces of a dead culture, while non-Natives appropriate indigenous dress and customs. The problem of cultural appropriation, insensitivity and flat-out racism is endemic in Western society. Just think of ‘cowboy & Indian’ Halloween costumes, mascots of sports teams, and representations of indigenous people in mainstream culture as lazy, slow, or tokenized. These problems are very real and require awareness, attention, amends and reparations.
There are certainly examples of non-Native appropriation of shamanic practices along similar lines, whereby through ignorance and greed individuals seek to capitalize on the use of cultural traditions not their own. In other instances, individuals suffer from a lack of authentic spirituality and connection to the Earth, and in seeking to remedy these, insensitively ‘borrow’ from other cultures. In both cases the insensitivity and entitlement is problematic, regardless of intent, due to the cultural context in which these actions take place.
And yet, what we call ‘shamanism’ is quite simply the oldest spiritual path on the planet, and is in essence a deep relationship with the living qualities of all things and participation with the sacred in all things. At its root, a vitalistic way of life is our birthright as human beings. This does not mean that it is at all acceptable to force one’s way into a culture that has been disenfranchised, take what one likes, and walk off with it. There are ways to find one’s steps on a shamanic path that are not appropriative or violent. At its heart, no single culture ‘owns’ shamanism - yet each culture owns their specific traditions, practices, regalia, rituals and rites that codify their specific version of what Westerners call shamanism. These cultural traditions must be regarded with respect and not appropriated or borrowed, unless under the explicit instruction of a member of that community.
Grappling with the issues of modernity, globalization and history can leave one at a bit of a loss as to how to maintain an authentic nature-based spirituality. I am grateful to have learned from teachers who maintain the highest integrity in respecting the indigenous teachers from whom they've learned, and who distill the essence of what is universal in shamanic traditions worldwide, and engage in rigorous reciprocity. I would go so far as to say that the survival of the human race depends upon restoring a deep reverence for the planet and all of life, and I strive to live by these principles in our contemporary times.