On the Word “Shaman”

I recently came across this article by Peggi Eyers which criticizes the appropriation of Native American culture. It includes all white Shamans in its list of people who appropriate Native American culture. Eyers’ article gets a lot right, but she also makes some faulty assumptions. Speaking for myself, there is no part of my practice, training or relationship with Spirit that appropriates anything from Native American culture, or South American culture for that matter. I’ve learned everything I know about Shamanism from an Igbo ancestor in Spirit, and from my teacher Sarah Petruno, who learned from an Eastern European ancestor of hers in Spirit.

I am very wary of cultural appropriation and would never charge money for specific healings or ceremonies that came from a culture that isn’t my heritage. I am fully on board with the notion that as a white-passing person, charging money for performing a ceremony that I took from another culture would be morally reprehensible and arguably violent.

But then there’s the actual word Shaman. On the one hand, I feel uncomfortable using the word because it is appropriated from a culture that doesn’t belong to me. In Eyers’ words, “The origins of the term “shaman” first appeared in the 1914 reports of American ethnologists to describe the practices of the Evenki-speaking Tungusian and Samoyedic tribes of eastern Siberia, and it can be argued that only practitioners from those specific indigenous societies have the right to use the term.” I complete agree that it can be argued, in fact, I’ve argued it with myself.

On the other hand, it’s the only word that people looking for Shamanic healing would ever know to use to look me up. As Eyers puts it, “Unfortunately, using the title of “Shaman” to describe one’s practice is now so widespread it is probably impossible to send it back to the Pandora’s box from whence it came.” I want to share my knowledge and gifts of healing in conjunction with Spirit, and unfortunately Shamanism is the word that everyone in the West uses to talk about that.

To complicate matters further, my ancestor teacher in Spirit is Igbo, an ethnic group from modern day Nigeria. The Igbo word for Shaman is Dibia, but using that word would feel even more absurd to me because I pass as white and have no connection to any Igbo people alive today (though I’d like to change that.)

On the other hand, the reason that the only connection I have to Igbo spiritual and cultural traditions is through an ancestor Spirit Guide, is that my ancestors were brought here in chains and forcibly removed from their cultural practices. It feels great to reclaim a tradition that was stolen from me by slavery, but at the same time I want to be careful how I use words because of the privilege afforded to me by passing as white.

I also believe that connecting with Shamanism is something that is incredibly healing and transformative for many people and could to even play a role in societal transformation towards a more just world. So the barrier of the word Shaman coming from a history of appropriation is very aggravating in its irony.

I enjoy the way that my decision to italicize Shamanism highlights this contradiction. The MLA says you should italicize a word from a foreign language when it’s likely to be unfamiliar to the audience. I want Shamanism to be familiar to my audience. One of the goals of my practice is to make connecting with Spirit for guidance and healing accessible to more people. But I also want to highlight that the word has been taken from another language and culture. My practice is not appropriated, but the word is and I want to honor that.

You may have noticed I don’t italicize the word Reiki. Like Shaman, it’s a word from another culture that has gained popular use in the West. Western use of the word Reiki however, is not a story of appropriation. Reiki was popularized in the United States by Hawayo Takata, a Japanese American woman who learned Reiki from a student of Reiki’s founder. Takata invited white Americans to learn Reiki and use the word in their practice. It was a word that was shared, not stolen.

So yes, white people appropriating Native American, or any other culture is wrong for all the reasons listed in the article. In fact, if you’re not already on board with this concept, please read the article to educate yourself! But I do challenge the notion that any white person who practices Shamanic healing is automatically appropriating, because we all have a history of Shamanism in our cultural past, including white people. Most people don’t know this, but at a time, there were many vibrant European Shamanic traditions. Unfortunately, many of them were almost completely wiped out during the Inquisition. But European Shamanic traditions exist, and people can and do connect to their ancestors in Spirit as well as the few direct lineages that have survived.

Everyone has the ability and the right to connect to Spirit for guidance and healing. That in and of itself, does not belong to any one culture. In my opinion, it’s quintessentially human.

In conclusion, I don’t have all the answers, but neither does this article. It’s more complicated than the author makes it out to be. Some day, I’d love to find a word that connects me to the people who I’m mean to serve and feels authentic, powerful and just. For now, I’m calling my spiritual healing work Shamanism.

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