Shaman: Misuse of a Word for Intensity Without Intimacy.
“Essentially, you and I are going to be non-shamans: not spiritual elite with special, secret powers, but everyday people willing to work for their spirituality.” ~ Choctaw Elder Steven Charleston
Let’s consider this word deeply. Who are these shamans running their programs and offering certifications?
Do they have something of value?
I cannot say they don’t offer something that makes people feel better.
Regardless, they fetishize Indigenous spirituality.
Fetishize: to have an excessive and irrational commitment to or obsession with (something).
In my experience, people are starving for something absolutely ordinary but they are seduced by the flash of intensity that marketed “shamanism” offers because intensity without intimacy is actually the way trauma so often expresses and replicates. It’s familiar.
People are starving for meaning. But the meaning we all seek cannot be found in the careless use of something that has so much unspoken, unexamined violence in it. That unspoken, unexamined context is screaming out from this word, “shaman”, as the voices of a perilous history demanding to be heard.
Who is screaming?
Native people were prohibited from practicing their own spirituality as a part of US colonization efforts. This prohibition often resulted in Native people being murdered for the simple acts of worshipping, praying, and participating in ceremonies or dances. Just look up the story of the Wovoka and the Ghost Dance if you don’t believe me.
Follow the story all the way through to Wounded Knee and up to 1978 when The American Indian Religious Freedom Act finally removed the legal prohibitions for good. I was five years old in 1978.
The US unjustly murdered Native people in a genocidal bid to control all the land from coast to coast. Likewise, they pursued a policy of assimilation saying they aimed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” A horrifying legacy unfolded as many learned when the bodies of so many murdered children were raised from the grounds of the boarding schools in the US and Canada this very year.
We hear in this word, “shaman”, the screams of those who physically died and those whose souls were targeted in the name of control.
With all that in mind, can we find the meaning we are looking for in this word, “shaman”?
Sure! More meaning than we bargained for!
When we become truly sensitive to the screams that run through it, we will find its true meaning. When our healing becomes about the ordinary and horrifying reality of this blood-drenched word, we will be on the right track! By ordinary, I mean, “commonplace”, “real”, “concrete” as compared to “supernatural” or “sensationalized”.
Very simply put, it happened! It has never really stopped happening.
My life’s work is about ending this at the root, by upending trauma and traumatic systems (because any form of personal development that does not touch these historical and systemic realities as the root of what ails us is meaningless).
The work I do with people is as ordinary as you can imagine. Sure, I love color and metaphor. I adore symbolism and theatre and poetry and art.
But in order to break free of trauma, people must let go of the extraordinary and grab hold of the most ordinary of things: constancy, principles, devotion, presence, holding, commitment, consideration, love.
These ordinary things exist outside of the colonial myth of the I-ndividual. Colonialism could not exist but for the use of trauma to shut down the social engagement system within the bodies of White and Native people alike. Colonialism relies on disconnection and fragmentation. It thrives when we constantly recycle our trauma responses (fight, flight, freeze, and fawn).
And so, I have to ask…
How can “shamanism” be healing when the use of the word itself is laced with genocidal overtones?
It’s replete with unheeded and unexamined realities to which the “shaman” must remain cold in order to go on using the word.
To me, this represents a lost opportunity for real healing that takes the full context of our lives into consideration. It holds the central bypass of colonization in place. That bypass seeks to feel better without working at the deeper level of truth that envelopes all that is operating. It seeks to use people, ideas, land, and words in intense, consumptive ways that do not create real intimacy.
“Shamanism” (as practiced by people who have not taken the time to parse the genocidal context in which they practice) cannot break down trauma, but actually insists that traumatic realities remain in place. The practice of “shamanism” upholds trauma by refusing to face the traumatic truth contained in the word itself.
The “shaman” is then left with a hollow shell. Looking for meaning, the “shaman” is only able to possess the false sense of the sensational power that is the only inheritance a false “shamanism” can bestow. When “shamanism” fails to challenge the genocidal context within which it operates, it is not medicine. Likewise, it cannot actually challenge the context without undoing itself as a marketed phenomenon.
Without honoring the Spirit and the people of these American lands and without addressing the underlying horrors, what is “shamanism”? Once those things are addressed, what further meaning could it have in any commercial or non-Indigenous context?
The use of the word, “shaman”, in this way represents a tremendous lost opportunity. The loss arises out of the detachment from pain that is inherent in the use of the word itself. Rather than facing the truth as the medicine, it erases the genocide against Native people and denies their continued existence and autonomy all at once.
To go on using this word represents the ongoing erasure of an ongoing genocide that will only end when we become present to its consequences and its origins and when we address them in the most ordinary ways.
The mass marketing of “shamanism” represents an obsession with Native spirituality as vile and as ravenous as the original hunger for land. The genocide will only end when we care deeply about the pain fetishization and appropriation cause and then act accordingly.
We must all find the courage to market the inherent power of our work, not the sensational, evocative impact of a word that does not belong in the commercial context at all.
I propose we let this word rest in peace.
Let’s leave it to its origins (look them up), which really don’t have much to do with the role of medicine people in Native nations and communities anyway — which is the real point of what I am saying.
People using this word, “shaman”, are attempting to draw life from something the word doesn’t even touch or concern. It’s no different, at its core, from taking land by disregarding the humanity of its inhabitants (by failing to touch and concern the humanity of all involved).
Let’s extract the real healing from the word by not using it at all, but especially not to sell our wares.
That’s a good starting place for the true healing we all hunger to experience but don’t know how to face.
Be a non-shaman. Be ordinary.
By facing the pain in the use of “shaman” head-on and owning it, we can open the door to healing our own pain together. I know a little about this healing we seek. Both the blood of the colonizers and the blood of my Choctaw ancestors run through my blood. I grapple with both sides all the time!
Part of the pain is actually the need to wrap our work in word masks that make us feel more powerful than we would feel without them. Likewise, it is futile for any non-Native person to wrap themselves in words that make them feel more connected to land that belongs in Native hands and to traditions and nations the US government tried to snuff out.
Look up the reality surrounding the broken treaties and broken promises that gave rise to just this one event: the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Multiply your findings by hundreds of years and hundreds of Nations.
Truly touching the ground of our collective un-belonging and working from there would be a fabulous starting place.
So, what if we just let the mask of the shaman drop and reveal our own true depth? And the depth of our own displacement as human beings, which cannot be overcome with false faces? It must be addressed as the groundlessness with which we are all living in these perilous days.
Besides, it’s the right thing to do. It’s a good start on the path to the immense healing that needs to happen before any of us can really be free of the malady unleashed by colonialism… on all sides. The trauma of occupation has marked us all — some as settlers, some as the colonized, and some as both.
The mark is a cancer that is growing and threatening to take down the nation, and maybe it should. The nation is consuming itself from the inside out.
But We could also transform the nation with simple acts that dare to reckon practically with what is.
The word We, as used in this critique, refers to all people who are not medicine people in Indigenous nations or communities.