On using the word shaman

There is a lot of conversation in certain circles about the use of the word shaman by non-indigenous people, or by anyone at all, really.  I used to avoid using it altogether, I’ve changed my mind despite being warned more than once that “there are some people out there who would rip you a new one for it.” (That is a direct quote, by the way.)

From what I understand, those who dislike the use of shaman consider it an appropriation of specific Tungusic/Russian vocabulary.  In this argument, shaman refers only to a person who is from a north Asian lineage of healers and since I am not of that lineage, I would have no right to that word.  Given the history of domination and oppression of indigenous peoples around the world, I absolutely understand and respect the need to protect a culture, up to and including their vocabulary. 

But there simply aren’t any other words that describe the functions and responsibilities of a practicing shaman, not in English.  The dominator cultures have ensured that all of those words now connote evil (consider witch, witch-doctor, hag, crone and other pejoratives that at one time were simple descriptors).  If there was a purely English synonym that didn’t carry the weight of all that misconception, I would use that instead, but  shaman has become common English parlance. Like so many commonly used words, it has come from somewhere else.

Every culture had their version of shamans.  With the influx of Christianity, modern allopathic science, and later Communism, many of the healing and spiritual traditions in Europe were lost or stifled.  So, most people at this point in history are most familiar with the indigenous practices of the First Nations peoples.  But there were – and to some extent still are – Celtic, Eastern European, Greek, and Norse shamanic traditions, just to name a few. So, people of all races and ethnic backgrounds have shamans somewhere in their ancestry.  

I was also taught at one point that calling oneself a shaman is like saying “I’m a virtuoso;” that it’s an ego word. I was told that it’s not really for a healer to judge the extent of their efficacy – only the community can do that, and so therefore shamans don’t call themselves shamans unless they have giant egos.  

The gist of every definition of shaman that I have seen is this:  a man or woman who can enter into a trance or altered state of consciousness at will to be of service to the community as a healer, ceremonialist, or advisor.  Generally, no Board gives a stamp of approval to your shaman application. You are either doing this work or you aren’t. 

There seems to be a misconception about the word’s importance, as though being a shaman is somehow better than being something else.  One of the fundamental priorities of shamanism is to empower and facilitate the evolution of others; so, thinking in terms of hierarchy or prestige is counterproductive. Shamans help us stay in right relationship with Creation. Being a shaman is no more or less important than being a dentist, a football player, or a housewife.  Shamans– as part of Creation– serve a function in society – nothing more, nothing less.  And just like in other livelihoods, not every shaman has integrity.  Shaman isn’t something to aspire to or to discriminate against.  It just is.

Perhaps part of the apprehension of using the word shaman is a fear of forgetting our humbleness.  Shamans who think too much of themselves or get greedy for power are always toppled eventually, for Spirit and Nature will not be pushed aside.  They will stop assisting those who forget their humanity, regardless of what wording is used.  The admonishment over using shaman might be an effort to keep us humble, to remind us to keep reverence in our hearts and minds for the Spirits of Nature and the Universe that make all things – including our work – possible.

But whenever I used to correct someone who called me shaman instead of “shamanic practitioner,” I saw something break, a moment of distrust. I think what happens then is that we all need someone we can rely on to do good work (for instance, an accountant who is too humble is not allowed to do my taxes).  If I want to develop a trusting relationship with someone who calls me, I’ve learned that it doesn’t serve either of us for me to be self-deprecating. When someone is feeling vulnerable, they don’t need a lecture on the political correctness of my job title.  Better that the conversation goes, “You need a shaman? Ok, that’s me.  Now, how can I help you?” and then we get down to work. I don’t care so much about the word, but they might.

And if they don’t want to call me a shaman, that’s fine, too.  The word is not nearly as important as the understanding that I want to be of service if they need something I can do.  Ultimately, the client’s intentions are what drive the work anyway – not my personality, and most definitely not a vocabulary choice.

On a deeply personal level, my decision to call myself a shaman is a demonstration of my commitment to walking this path, of owning my calling and saying “yes” to Spirit.  I am under no illusions that this is a straightforward road or that I will always do things perfectly.  I am full of foibles and very new to this path in many ways.  I know that there is a whole universe of stuff I don’t know (and when I think otherwise, I am quickly reminded).

But I am also at a loss as to how I can really do and talk about the work if I cannot use the word.  I don’t want to stand on the sidewalk of the path, tacitly refusing to be called a shaman – I want to walk cleanly and with clarity.

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