The articles and commentaries over the next four weeks offer a journey into the thorny issue of “white people doing shamanism.” The Society for Shamanic Practitioners (SSP) reached out, inviting perspectives on an issue fraught with passion, vitriol, defensiveness, fear, shame, and misunderstanding. Many declined. As one person said, “What possible upside is there to making myself a target?” I can absolutely understand that perspective.
For me, the upside is two-fold. First, I believe respectful dialogue can solve misunderstanding, and I’d rather try than not. Second, I believe it’s critical for anyone born into the dominant culture (as I was) to wrestle with this issue, because it’s part of working from integrity. I want the SSP to be a place that helps you work in integrity. We want to stand up publicly on this issue.
Human history has seen countless examples of people raging at other peoples’ corruption of Spirit. Yet we know enough history to see that Spiritual Truth, expressed in stories, ideas, and beauty, has always hitched a ride on the tongues of travelers between hills and towns, changing its vocabulary and accent, morphing again and again, yet remaining Truth. Is it not in Spirit’s nature to shift shape and embed itself anew in people? Does Spirit flow willingly between peoples, or is it only stolen? Can Spirit be stolen if it doesn’t want to be? Can Spirit be contained, housed, owned by anyone?
It seems a waste of time and energy to argue over whose beliefs and rituals are more authentic, yet we do it all the time. However, one great key of shamanism—perhaps the key—is that it is not based on belief, but on effectiveness. Shamanic healing boils down to two basic healing practices: 1) take out the misplaced or toxic energy and 2) call in the blessing. There is really only one measure of a shaman’s authenticity: the work works. That which doesn’t belong exits; the life-affirming power that does belong enters. If this is true, arguments over rituals are not really about spiritual authenticity, but about other kinds of stored pain.
Let’s add in some more questions that complicate this issue: Does your relationship with Spirit depend completely on the land you are living on right now, or the land your ancestors lived on, or does Spirit transcend the physical, including the landscape? For example: Can you really have a relationship with the Anaconda Spirit when you live in Helena, Montana, or with the Reindeer Spirit when you live in urban Minneapolis? Can a spirit choose whomever it wants to work through?
So, this forum won’t “solve” the issue of “white people doing shamanism.” There is no solution, no authoritative position. There is only listening with open ears, discerning difficult truths, and then acting in accordance with your understanding, passion, and guidance (which seem to be the core rules of all shamanic practice).
We offer you an array of perspectives on the subject over the coming four weeks, in hopes that they help you wrestle with the issue, or give you an idea you hadn’t thought of before. We hope these ideas support you as you become an ever-more-skilled servant of the Great Mystery.
The words others say in this forum are far wiser than I could say, but I’d like to tell you my personal position.
I’ve spent too much time in fear over whether I’m a “wannabe Indian,” and frozen in shame over what “my people” have done and continue to do to others and to the planet. What did that do for me, and for my people, and for all people, and for the creatures, and for the Mother, and for the spirits? Not a thing. None of them got served, healed, praised or fed while I was spinning in my whiteness. Who did that white guilt and spiritual frozenness actually serve? The forces that want me to just shut the hell up about “spirit” and keep working on behalf of the machine that devours the planet.
Here’s an obvious fact: my people need healing. My people are ill and have been ill for many generations. They are so ill they are delirious with money and fear. They are so ill they have forgotten how to even ask for healing. We don’t need a few healers here and there. We need millions of healers. We need to open the spigot on the fire-hose of healing water, not sit around arguing over who has the right to turn the knob.
If you think you are called into shamanic healing, then please do your work. The deep work of wrestling with your social location and privilege, the difficult work of diving into all of the shame placed on you by ALL of the voices that want to you to stop building your relationship with Spirit. Do the deep work of ego, asking where you are living a lie, where you are living a unicorn fantasy, and beg Spirit to help you pierce and shed it. And be ready to pay the cost of shedding illusion.
Let the spirits and Spirit work on you in private and don’t tell people about most of what happens between you and Spirit. Commit yourself to human teachers who know what they are talking about. Don’t teach shamanism until you have been cooked by the spirits. Ask them if you are cooked enough, and keep asking—never stop asking permission. Trust what every shamanic culture seems to have affirmed: It is Spirit that has called you, and humans don’t get to judge, and Spirit often skips a generation or two.
In my case, it might have been 30 generations because my people fell into a coma and had concrete poured into their ears and couldn’t hear the call. So there’s a lot of work I have to do to learn how to walk and talk and sing and dance again because I’m coming out of a coma. I’m far clumsier than I wish I was, and I beg Spirit every day to help me get my legs back, and my voice back, so I can serve this world. So, I say to you, be honest, and then for the love of all that is beautiful, “bring it. Help heal this screwy, clumsy, sick, unspeakably beautiful world in whatever way you can.