Home > General > Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation and My Path as a Shaman

Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation and My Path as a Shaman

One of the hardest-hit, and most culturally destroyed and exploited peoples on this planet are Native Americans.  I am not an expert on Native American culture, nor have I ever been on a reservation, or even to a Pow-Wow or Native American ceremony, excepting a sweat lodge ceremony facilitated by someone trained in it.  Yet the latest bit of news from the James Arthur Ray case, (link here if you need to get caught up) has made me think pretty hard on cultural appropriation.

I was initiated into my shamanic path from Odin, and others from the Nine Worlds who call to me and teach me.  I take lessons from the books of others on this path, such as Raven Kaldera, and I hope that by my words and actions I honor the hard work he has put into his many Northern Tradition Shamanism books (link here if you are interested in them), as they have informed, enhanced, and pushed my own path harder and further.  In many ways, the books of his that I have, have served as reference guides and workbooks, idea generators and introductions to spirits I may not have otherwise encountered.  Many of my experiences have been reaffirmed by his books, and I owe at least my relationships with the Undines and several Jotun to his books’ introductions.

I say all of this, not only because I owe Raven Kaldera a debt of gratitude, but because I also want to make it abundantly clear that my shamanic practice comes from the Gods, spirits, and Ancestors with whom I work.  I don’t use Native American language, if at all possible, when describing my work.  I don’t use Native American tools, where possible.  I do use smudge sticks on occasion, but I look at it like this: sage grows abundantly here.  If I can grow mugwort, then I use it.  If I can’t get it, or if someone has a sage smudge stick, I will use it.  I work with landvaettir, and sage has been a part of where I live.  I honor the spirit of the plant by treating it with reverence and asking for its help, and use it after my own fashion without, say, ganking a Native American practice or prayer, and have yet to hear an objection from the spirit of sage.  Since taking on the title and role of Shaman, I have been increasingly aware and sensitive to my practice, and whether or not it may seem I am taking from a Native American culture.  Where I can, I learn what may have been practiced by my Germanic and other Ancestors who may have worshiped my Gods.  Where I can, I emulate those practices.  Where I have no information, or it is spotty or sketchy, I ask for guidance from my Gods.  A lot of my spiritual practice is brought together from the spiritual practices I have learned from the spirits.

Why so much in the way of disclaimer?  I want to make it clear to those who read this blog that what I am doing is not Native American shamanism or medicine work, that I am not appropriating Native American pathways for my own use.  Sometimes though, language and my own practices can be seen to blur lines.  Shaman, for instance, is the closest word, concept, for what I do, and I understand that in this, I and anyone who uses it outside of the Tungus people from whom it comes is appropriating a word.  Yet, it is the closest concept I have, and I have to make do.  Sometimes I simply have to make do with the descriptions I have, with the limitations of my words and understanding of my experiences.  That said, there could be said to be many touchstones between what I do and what a medicine man might do, but I don’t feel I’m qualified to make that comparison.  I have had a Native American tell me that what I did was medicine work, and she honored me as her people would a medicine person for help I gave her, but I recognize that one person’s understanding of me does not make me a medicine man, nor would I claim such a title that, in my understanding, a people or tribe bestow on that person.  I claim the title Shaman because that is what my spirits, for the moment, have told me to take up, and it is the definition of what I do as much as what I am, just as Priest describes what I do, as well as what I am.

This entire post was inspired by the situation with James Arthur Ray, a New-Age guru who appropriated a Native American sweat lodge ceremony for his own use.  Charging up to $10,000 for each person.  Each person.  Then managing, through what seems to me like extreme negligence if not a cynical lack of caring, to kill 3 of the “lodge” users and injure 20 others.  He had about 30 people crammed in that “lodge”.  I have taken a sweat lodge ceremony with a Native American who was trained in the facilitation of the lodge, and we had at most about fifteen people in it, and everyone was consistently reminded to take in water when it was passed, and to respect their body’s boundaries.  The facilitator and his helpers were constantly checking to make sure we were secure, sane, and safe, and that at times the lodge ‘breathed’.  None of us paid for the ceremony; we all participated in prayer, and we all participated in cleansing ourselves and our community.  People left as they needed to, drank water as they needed to, and became comfortable as they needed to.  I came out of it feeling profoundly changed, and given the questions I asked during it, much better in terms of how my path relates to the Native American one the facilitator followed.  I touched another culture’s most sacred of rites, and felt, and still feel blessed by it.

I have asked myself a lot of questions since this situation first came to light: should I charge for shamanic services?  Is it right of me to do magic on others’ behalves?  Is it right of me to sell products linked to my spiritual path?  For me, I am actually being pushed toward doing all of the above by my Gods.  Now you could say “Well, isn’t that convenient for you!” but the reality is, it isn’t.  Opening up a business is risky, and it can be tough, especially in times like these, to keep one’s head above water, even out of the gate.  Further, I am putting myself out there as a healer, a risky proposition in the first place.  I am opening myself to energies, spirits, and peoples’ internal crap, that I am probably going to be largely unacquainted with, and will have to trust the client to be honest with me, and trust in myself enough to handle all the pressures of working with people through probably their hardest times.  Since, largely, America has gone away from being a collectivist society, my role as a Shaman has to help supplement my life somehow.  People probably aren’t going to be bringing me a bit of stew or a chicken or something, so I have to make due with as I can, and in this case, that is money.  I simply don’t have a taboo against people paying me money for the valuable services I bring to them, or they come to me for because the Gods, spirits and Ancestors are giving me the go-ahead.  It is as much about others valuing the hard work I put into cultivating these abilities, resources, and knowledge, as it is my own valuing of that process, those experiences, that have made me into who and what I am.  This is something that has taken me a long time to come to in being comfortable with.  When I first became a Pagan, I encountered a wave of opposition against such ideas, and while that has lessened, it is an attitude that is still there.  My take on this is, then if we are to ask people to give as much of their lives as they can to others’ spiritual health, wellbeing, growth, and advancement, than we are cutting ourselves off at the kneecaps.  It is an art and a trial, oftentimes, to put together a powerful, involving ritual.  There is training behind nearly everything I do for my spiritual community, or some trial or something I have gone through to learn a technique I can share.  I have put a lot of time and energy into what I do, and in the spirit of , I ask for people to share with me theirs.

I look to the situation with James Arthur Ray and the 3 people whose lives he destroyed with pity, and a bit of worry.  My worry is that people like myself, who are either reconstructing practices or learning them from Gods and spirits on their shamanic journeys will be smeared with the brush that is tarring Ray now.  That those of us who are reverent, responsible, and more often than not, white, will be tarred as being ‘plastic shamans’ or ‘plastic medicine men’, disingenuous or dangerous.  I pray that people see the difference between what I do, and the disgusting display of hubris and lack of care that James Ray has shown.  I pray that people see what I do is spiritually valuable, not corrupting or defiling.  I pray that the souls of those who died won’t be in vain, that those who take rites and ceremonies out of hand without training will take this as a highly painful, harsh warning.  I pray that the souls of those who died will be at rest, and that James Ray in some way, shape or form, offers  for the lives he has taken, that he pays his weregild. I pray that anyone who does spiritual work understands the dangers, and takes every precaution they can.  I pray that the Gods, Ancestors, spirits and landvaettir bless those who do the work of a shaman, seidhkona or seidhmadhr, galdr-worker, godhi gydhia,or or those who otherwise serve or work with Them.

Categories: General
  1. Dana
    October 22, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Came upon this post as I was looking for ideas on how to frame burning herbs for purification in a way that doesn’t appropriate NA culture. I like your thoughts on balancing modern realities with respect for the native nations of the US. Its a challenge to work openly with our racist reality while still reclaiming a spiritual grounding that is nourishing for white Americans. Its a sad reality that we don’t have much in the way of ceremony that has been handed down to us to help us with needs like claiming the role of healer. And yet we do have a need for healers, as well as people who fill this role in our society everyday – but we have to do it without the social sanctification and support that ceremony could bring.

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