Updated: Sep 28, 2018
The short story is that being effective and efficient with my communication is important to me. I aim to communicate what I do as clearly as possible, with the fewest amount of words. But, of course, there is more to this story.
What "Shaman" Means to Me
I am a spirit-taught shaman. In my practice, I walk the three worlds in a way that is unique to me, by weaving together elements that resonate with my physical body and ancestors, harmonize with the nature spirits native to whatever place I'm in at the moment, align with the teachings of my helpers in the spirit world, and honor the experience of my soul over its many lifetimes here on Earth and elsewhere. I then place these elements in service of the person that needs assistance, incorporating to the best of my ability the beliefs, traditions, and values of the person I'm sitting with and her/his team of spirit helpers. In the modern, multicultural urban environment in which I live and work, this is the only way to practice that makes sense to me.
But Let's Talk About that Word
The native lineage for my Amaya incarnation, my DNA for this lifetime, is from Western Europe: Celtic and Basque. As such, I suppose I could call myself a witch or a sorgina, but no one would understand what I do based on just the word alone. In my mind, as someone who has to translate things that are beyond words into words all the time, the purpose of words is to communicate ideas as efficiently, clearly, and completely as possible. I call myself a shaman for the simple reason that the people around me know what it means, mostly. (Have you ever heard of a sorgina? Didn't think so.)
As I sat down to write this post, I decided to go online to see what others have written about it. The first article I clicked on explained it so well that I'm just going to reproduce it here, with an emphatic, "Me too!" and "Amen!". This was written by Mikki Baloy (all emphasis is her own), and can be found on her website, www.ShamanMikki.com, here.
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, but as you can see by my domain name, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve been very deliberate about this choice, 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. I certainly mean no disrespect to anyone at all, but there simply aren’t any other words that describe the functions and responsibilities of a practicing shaman. The dominator cultures have ensured that all of those words now connote evil (consider witch, witch-doctor, hag, crone, bitch, and other pejoratives that at one time were simple descriptors). If there was a purely American synonym that didn’t carry the weight of all that misconception, I might use it instead, but shaman has become common English parlance.
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 were lost or stifled. So, most people at this point in history are most familiar with the indigenous practices of the Native North and Central American peoples. But there were – and to some extent still are – Celtic, Eastern European, Greek, and Norse shamanic traditions, just to name a few. I’ve read that even the Amish practice folk medicine and energy healing, as they have since settling in the US. So, people of all races and ethnic backgrounds have shamans somewhere in their ancestry. It is our collective birthright to engage in these practices and access this form of healing as we feel called to do so.
I was also taught at one point that calling oneself a shaman is like saying “I’m a virtuoso.” I was told that it’s not really for a healer to judge the extent of their power or efficacy – only the community can do that, and so therefore even the shamans don’t call themselves shamans (unless they have giant egos). Now, if someone is doing healings that consistently fall flat, then they’re probably in the wrong line of work. But to assume that the tribe decides who is a shaman and who is not contradicts one of the core tenets of the shamanic path: self-determination. No one can tell us who we are. We don’t have to look for approval anywhere except within our own hearts and in our relationship with Creator.
The gist of every definition of shaman that I have seen is this: a man or woman who connects deeply with Nature and non-ordinary realities in order to be of service to the community, as a healer, midwife, medium, ceremonialist or other advisor. There is no denotation anywhere (to my knowledge) that points to any kind of clandestine, secret-handshake sort of hierarchy, and no Board gives a stamp of approval to your shaman application. If you enter trance-states in order to gain insight for living in a good way, if you hear Mother Nature speak and honor what you learn from Her, you are practicing shamanism. If you are called to the work and intend to do it in service of your community and your own evolution, you are a shaman.
There seems to be a kind of fetishizing about this word, as though being a shaman is somehow better or more important 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. Being a shaman is no more or less important than being a dentist, a football player, or a housewife. Shamans 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 would correct a client or student who called me shaman instead of “practitioner”, I saw something break, as though it created a moment of distrust. And I get it; I myself need someone I 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.
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’re ready to make a change. 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 the 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 own the work if I cannot own 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 determination.
I am deeply committed to being a healer, to doing what I can in service of my community. I do hear Mother Earth speak. I believe in the power of the elements to help us transform our lives. I journey, study, and work with plant spirit teachers to help me live in a better way. I want to be the hollow bone through which love and healing may flow to those who ask for it.
I am a shaman. Nothing more, nothing less.