Once upon a time, back when I lived in Korea, my husband-to-be and I took a trip to a very special mountain in Seoul. Korea still has some remnants of Korean indigenous religion, and there are still some holy places knocking around. This mountain was special because it was one of those holy places. It was kind of a cool day when we went up, but after spending the summer going on adventures in the punishing heat and humidity of the dreaded Korean summer, the cool was a welcome change. There was a decorative arch to let you know you’d arrived, and then, as you ascended, some buildings that we could only assume were temples or shrines. As we carried on walking up the mountain and past those buildings, we saw a sack on the deck with the head of a very dead pig sticking out of it, and realized that there was probably going to be some kind of ritual, but as it was none of our business, we’d just keep walking up the mountain. Occasionally, we’d pass people, usually older men and women with their sun visors, hiking gear, and bags of offerings. Below us, the clanging of drums began as the ritual started.
We carried on climbing up, intent on making it to the top to see what was there, the drums fading into the background of our conversations until suddenly, when we were about half way up, we realized that the drumming had stopped.
We also stopped, and then we noticed that even the birds had fallen silent. What was previously a vibrant forest full of all of those little wildlife noises that forests have, was now silent. Well, all except for the sound of rushing wind.
Now, this wasn’t the kind of wind that you experience on a windy day in which it’s all around you. No, this wind seemed to be contained, it seemed to have form, and that form seemed to be making its way down the path that we were on. We moved off the path to stand in the trees and watched as the wind went by as tangible as a train. A few moments after it passed, the drumming began again, this time a different beat, and we continued to walk to the top. The top of the mountain was beautiful, we had a small conversation with an older man who had been worshipping up there at the shrine with our limited Korean, and were treated to a lovely view of the city below. When we came to descend, we made our way back down the same path, but this time when the drumming stopped, we knew what to expect. Moving to the trees at the side of the path we waited for the wall of wind to come by on its way back up the mountain again.
I kind of hate the term ‘Shamanism’, for many reasons, some of which I’ll get into here, but the practice that brought down that wind from the mountain that my now-husband and I experienced so tangibly is often referred to as ‘Shamanism’. Although we didn’t see the ritual itself, research informs me that Korean ‘shamans’, or Mudangs do possessory rituals for various reasons and that that is a likely explanation of what was going on that day on the mountain.
Indigenous Expectations vs (Mostly) White Expectations
Now, that was my only experience of a type of ‘shamanism’ within its own cultural context – albeit from a distance – but it really gave me far higher expectations when it comes to anything bearing the label of ‘Shamanism’. When it comes to a good number of white, western ‘Shamans’, I am unimpressed and if I’m unimpressed after having just that tiny peek into that real, imagine how people from cultures that still have Shamans and Medicine Men feel!
I mean, in 2014 there was an important gathering of Shamans in Siberia from various parts of the world. Per the organizers, they had invited the ‘strongest shamans’ in the world, and yet not one of the invitees was someone rocking up with a dose of Core Shamanism. Now why was that? To put it simply, they only invited people they considered to be peers.
The other day, I came across a documentary called ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’, which I watched with great interest. There have been a few things about much of what passes for ‘Shamanism’ in the Pagan/Heathen/New Age communities that have bugged me for a while now, and I feel this documentary did a really good job of demonstrating the various issues of appropriation, entitlement, selfishness, and economic privilege.
What’s In A Name?
As I mentioned above, I dislike the term ‘Shamanism’. Not because of what it means, after all, it’s just an Evenk word that means ‘excited’, ‘elevated’, ‘ecstatically knowledgeable’, but because of how over-applied the word is to anything that even has a whiff of indigenous practice or what we imagine indigenous practice to be. For the Evenki, the word ‘Shaman’ comes with certain associations that are all rooted in the Evenk worldview (all of which was mostly not understood when Westerners started to take and apply the word ‘Shaman’ to everything else that’s ‘indigenous’). I can’t help but think that when we take a word like ‘Shaman’ and apply it to any indigenous magico-religious practice we come across, we’re not only disrespecting the original culture, but we’re erasing or minimizing the diversity of all the other cultures that still have ritual specialists working within their respective indigenous cultures. Moreover, the word ‘Shaman’ has its own ‘myth’, I mean, we all think we know what a Shaman is/does/looks like, right? But you see, if you approach a culture looking for a ‘Shaman’ and you have in mind all of these associations with the world – this myth of the ‘Shaman’, then how much are you actually looking at that culture vs just looking for the bits that fit your (really quite broad) schema? The minimizing and erasure of diversity that this allows then makes it easy for someone to come along and decide that they all have certain similarities (whether they do or not) that must ergo be indicative of a common human heritage of ‘Shamanism’.
It is here that we begin to enter the murky waters of false entitlement.
Shamanism Divorced from Culture: A Story of Privilege and Entitlement
You see, when an outsider to a culture, starts picking bits that look the same as things seen in other cultures (but that may be the products of very different worldviews), and then start declaring them to be ‘universal, near-universal, and common features of Shamanism’, it makes it possible to pull those practices from their cultural contexts. Because if you believe yourself to be the goddamn inheritor of this *human* heritage, isn’t it already ‘yours’ to take?
And what of the *years* of training the ritual specialists in those cultures typically undergo, or the fact that these ritual specialists only make up a small percentage of the population in an indigenous culture? Don’t worry, westerners, that doesn’t matter when it comes to you; per Core Shamanism originator Michael Harner in ‘The Way of the Shaman’ (p. xviii):
“In my training workshops in shamanic power and healing in North America and Europe, students have demonstrated again and again that most westerners can easily become initiated into the fundamentals of shamanic practice.”
Even better, you don’t even need to enter into a traditional apprenticeship:
“In Western culture, most people will never know a shaman, let alone train with one. Yet since ours is a literate culture, you do not have to be in an apprenticeship situation to learn; a written guide can provide the essential methodological information.”
Because that’s how shit-hot we Westerners are, we can learn and be just as good as ritual specialists from indigenous cultures without the years of training, apprenticeships, or even choosing process that are a feature of those cultures. That right there is some fucking arrogance. In the documentary, two white women and a white man sit outside a sweat lodge and are later shown drumming, rattling, and chanting something that sounded either indigenous or created to sound so. Despite this obvious appropriation, they still talked about how they wished people could understand that what they did wasn’t ripping anything off and was somehow different. Some of them also talked about how they just wanted to help humanity and how necessary ‘Shamanism’ was for the world and its people. But to me, there are some huge issues with this line of thinking too. For starters, you have this ‘one true way’ mentality, and when has that ever been good for the world? I mean, how many of you reading this blog right now have issues in your daily lives because you have to deal with folks who subscribe to a ‘one true way’ worldview? How many of you hide who you are to avoid those issues?
Secondly, there’s a huge aspect of economic privilege here. This ‘universal’ shamanism can only be universal for the people who are making enough to have a high enough level of disposable income to afford these workshops – and I don’t think that’s a small thing nowadays.
Now the cynic in me looks at all of this – the creation of a universal shamanism divorced from culture, something that *anyone* has a right to and can do – and I can’t help but think that not only is it a perfect product, but it will never be anything other than a repackaged product among the majority of Westerners unless it somehow becomes rooted in culture. But again, which culture would be acceptable here?
A Quest For Whole-Making, A Story Of Need And Exploitation
When I first posted that I was going to write this blog on my Facebook, a friend involved in Core Shamanism techniques replied saying that they don’t feel that what they’re doing is appropriation because they are trying to seat these techniques in a historical culture that no longer exists in that form in the modern world. While it is true that there are no living oppressed groups that are being harmed in this, I do still question the application of a so-called ‘universal shamanism’ to a culture we only meet through archaeological finds and on the page. If these ‘universal’ things aren’t really that universal among living groups (as plenty of indigenous groups have pointed out over the years), then how can we believe them to be applicable with any degree of accuracy to a historical culture? Although I may never agree with my friends on this though, I do recognize that they are coming from both a place of service and find their practices whole-making. I really don’t envy them the complexity of negotiating their chosen paths in an ethical manner, especially as people who are aware of the myriad issues.
But that’s the thing that really complicates this issue. Because for all the inherent shittiness of shamanism as practiced outside of indigenous cultural contexts, there are a lot of very caring, genuine, and good people involved. I don’t want to make it sound like I think every single person engaged in these activities is a culturally appropriating dickwad that just wants to make bank while giving the middle finger to indigenous populations – because I don’t. We live in ‘interesting times’, in communities that can barely be called such, and most of us are without tribes in any kind of a meaningful sense. I don’t think that is good for human beings, and I think it’s an absence that we feel very deeply when we find it in our lives. How many people get involved in things like this ‘universal shamanism’ because they want to feel whole, and want that whole-making? How many people get involved because they want to help others and believe that these practices hold the key to helping them do so? How many others are looking for tools to help them deal with the Other in their lives?
There are a whole lot of stories here, a lot of humans doing what humans do: some seeking, some predating, and some mourning the losses of their cultures. Now, two of those things are wrong, two of those things shouldn’t be happening. For me, the best illustration of ‘how to not be’ comes in the form of another story. A story told by a Mongolian shaman by the name of Sarangerel, who related the tale of what happened when the Golomt Center of Mongolian shamans organized in Ulaanbaatar in 1997 and reached out to Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies to basically say ‘Hi, we’re here now!’. The response from the Foundation? A package with membership application forms and a workshop schedule.
If you haven’t already seen it, give ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’ a watch, you can find it here.