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The Case Against "Shamans" In North American
Indigenous Cultures

Shamanism is not the same thing as Native American spirituality.

The word shaman, used internationally, has its origin in manchú-tangu and has reached the ethnologic vocabulary through Russian. The word originated from saman (xaman), derived from the verb scha-, "to know", so shaman means someone who knows, is wise, a sage. Further ethnologic investigations shows that the true origin for the word Shaman can be tracked from the Sanskrit initially, then through Chinese-Buddhist mediation to the manchú-tangu, indicating a much deeper but now overlooked connection between early Buddhism and Shamanism generally. In Pali it is schamana, in Sanskrit sramana translated to something like "buddhist monk, ascetic". The intermediate Chinese term is scha-men (source). It has been adopted into the English speaking world not unlike words such as kayak for example, but when it is used to describe Native American holy men or women it can be offensive to traditional Natives and their Elders.

Below are excerpts from a number of articles I have selected (with links to the originals) clarifying the above paragraph. I have several Shaman related pages that support and link through to my Zen Pages and the following excerpts are presented to ensure all who may be interested where I stand and that what is offered, presented, or linked to is not intended to cross into sacred areas. It should also be clarified that, even though I am in agreement with contents of the articles presented, in no way is their appearance here intended to imply an endorsement by the authors of MY Shaman related links or philosophy.

My Uncle was well accepted by most spiritual members of the indigenous people of the desert southwest he interacted with as a person at one with the Earth. He was married to a Native American of the Little Shell Plains Ojibwe who was a fourth level Midewiwin medicine woman that was held in awe by most that came within her presence. He himself moved with an almost cloak-like and uncanny nearly invisible ability, passing among people and places without disturbing the environment. Some say he was a Cloud Shaman and it may very well be the case. However, for the most part, he felt it was an impropriety to usurp for ones own gain or any other reason the traditional spiritual realms of others. Plain speaking, from a very young age I was, by example, both shown and taught by my father and uncle two very basic concepts: "When walking in the woods, never leave tracks," and "when you depart from a campground, always leave it better than you found it." Both concepts, although worded specifically in context, were meant to be expanded to the world and ones life as a whole, the philosophy meshing perfectly in my later teen years when I began study practice of Zen under the auspices of my Mentor.

It should be brought to the attention of those who may have an interest as well, that the word Shaman is meant to mean in the English language, by definition, that a Shaman so indentified, understands that ALL things have a spirit, which inturn would imply within that definition, that each of our words and thoughts are thus endowed. As I have treated the words of the authors below appropriately, so too, it is hoped the spirits of my words are granted an equal treatment. I bow in deference....

the Wanderling

By Joseph RiverWind (Boriken Taino)

Thanks to the New Age craze that has spread around the world, there are many self-proclaimed "medicine men" and "shamans"—people who claim to follow our spiritual ways, having "learned" everything they know from books bought at the local book store. After the book Black Elk Speaks was published, people thought they could become instant medicine men and women. Little do they know that Black Elk did not tell the whole truth to the book's writer.

Some people go so far as to charge for vision quests or sweat lodge ceremonies. Never get taken in by someone like this, much less by self-proclaimed spiritual leaders who cannot tell you truthfully where they received the permission and training to perform these ceremonies. It is dangerous when these people attempt to perform these ceremonies and involve others who do not know any better. We do not tolerate these people within our Native communities, and lately many of our medicine people have traveled off the reservation to put a stop to these charlatans.

Tori McElroy, October 23, 2000

When you hear the word "shamanism," what images jiffy-pop into your mind's eye? Most folks picture feather head-dresses, buffalo hides, medicine wheels and dream-catchers - all images associated with Native American cultures. But contrary to popular opinion, a "shaman" is not an Indian medicine man, and "shamanism" is not a Native American religion. In fact, many Native Americans find the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" offensive.

The word "shaman" actually originates among the natives of Siberia, where it describes a specialized type of holy person. The shamans of Siberia interact with deities and spirits not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but through direct contact with the spirits themselves. With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman enters a very deep or "ecstatic" trance. (In discussions of shamanism, the word "ecstasy" is used in its original sense, from the Greek roots ex and histanai meaning "out of place" or "out of the physical" - in other words an out-of-body mystical state) This trance frees the shaman's consciousness from the body, allowing it to "fly" into the realms the spirits inhabit, and to experience these "Otherworlds" with all the senses of the ordinary physical realm.

Lothar Tuppan, September 29, 2001

One of the most common misunderstandings is the belief that the term 'shaman' is indigenous to Native American culture, usually assumed to be North American. This leads to confusing 'shamanism' with the various religious practices of the North American Indian tribes. Some indigenous Americans did incorporate shamanism as defined above, but many did not soul journey. Subsequently their healing methodologies were very different than those utilized by a shaman.

Even within North American tribal societies some shamans were also medicine men and women but, again, being a medicine person doesn't mean that you are also a shaman.

Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, Professor, Native American Studies, UC Davis

At least until recently, the word "shaman" was one of those terms which would lead most indigenous people to figuratively "reach for their shields" and assume a defensive posture. "Shaman" has been pretty much of a dividing line word: those who use it are non-Native and/or anthropological, or are ignorant of Native Americans' feelings. Indigenous people refer to their own holy people and curers by other terms such as doctor, medicine person, spiritual leader, elder, herbalist or diagnostician, recognizing a wide variety of callings and skills. Of course, before "shaman" became popular in the anthropological literature, indigenous healers and religious persons were often referred to as "witch doctors," "sorcerers" or other derogatory terms, words still used reportedly in right-wing Christian missionary propaganda. But "shaman" is not an innocent term either, because it rises out of a clear misunderstanding of, and denigration of, non-European cultures.

Robert Schmidt, March 8, 2000

"I was under the impression that "medicine man" was a word that was only used by a small percentage of NA tribes, and did not make a good generic term . . ."

This statement is true enough. The point is that "shaman" isn't the best term to use if you need one.

My dictionary gives two definitions of "shamanism": 1. The religious practices of certain native peoples of Northern Asia. 2. Any similar form of primitive spiritualism, such as that practiced among certain North American Indian tribes.

The first definition is the official, correct one. The second definition is a bastardized version of the first one. Anthropologists, ethnographers, and other Western interlopers thought all "primitive" religions were the same, so they lumped them under one umbrella term.

As someone said, it's like calling any carbonated cola drink a "Coke." It may get the point across in casual conversation, but it's not accurate. Same with "Xerox" for photocopy, "Kleenex" for tissue, etc.

What's so bad about using "shamanism" as a general term for Native religions? As the dictionary goes on to state, shamans are priests who can communicate with or even summon the spirits of the world. I believe most practitioners of Native religions wouldn't claim this power. They may worship or pray to various spirits, but they don't enter into direct talks with them. Or summon them to perform magic.

Article excerpts used with the Author's permission.

In the languages of the old ones wisdom meant one word. In Tungus it was `Saman', in Tocharian it was `Samane', in Prakrit it was `Samana' and in Sanskrit it was Sramana.

The word `Shaman' is a cognate to the word `Saman', first used by a Tungus-speaking people, the Evenk, in Siberia. The role of the Shaman in his/her society was/is a vital one. They talked to spirits and animals and saw visions of the future. Born from the reverence early humanity had for their surroundings and the eternal wonderment of the spirit world, Shamanism held a distinction as being different than a magician or healer in early society. For the Shaman would walk the pathway to the spirit world routinely. Through altered states of consciousness induced with or without the aid of a catalyst, the Shaman would converse with the spirits. As a faith, Shamanism fits into many types of belief systems, do to the fact that is independent of dogmatic, institutionalized areligion.

Shamanism is one of the oldest divinatory practices in the world to promote healing and spiritual wellness. By archaeological and anthropological evidence the practice has existed for some 20,000 to 30,000 years. Evidence of Shamanism has been found globally in isolated regions of the Americas, Asia, Africa, regions of Europe and Australia.

It is most prominent in tribal cultures. Today, various tribal peoples in the Republic of Tuva, China, Siberia, Samiland and Australia as well as several Native tribes of North America practice this ancient religion.


As a very young boy I was riding as a passenger on the all Pullman-car first-class-only Number 19 Santa Fe Chief out of Chicago on its way to Los Angeles. Somewhere between Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona, near midnight and running behind schedule, the Chief hit a 55 mph marked curve at over 90 mph, derailing with the locomotive sliding off the tracks on its side for over 500 feet. The rest of the 14 car train ended up in various stages of derailment and wreckage on and off the track, some cars remaining upright with two actually staying on the tracks undamaged. Although I escaped unharmed, the fireman and three passengers were killed. 113 fellow passengers along with 13 train employees injured, among them the severely injured engineer.

The adults I was traveling with were among the seriously injured leaving me basically in the middle of the Arizona desert without adult supervision. My uncle, who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was contacted by the railroad, he in turn making arrangements for a close by Native American spiritual elder he knew to watch over me until he could get to the hospital in Arizona where I was being held and pick me up. However, moments before the train crashed the following happened:

"Mid-evening on the night of the-unknown-to-anybody at the time up-coming crash I had gone to bed in the bunk in my compartment and as far as I knew had fallen fast asleep. Sometime during that period, between the time I fell asleep and the crash occurred, I found myself neither asleep nor in my bunk but outside of the train standing barefoot on the desert floor in the middle of the night in my PJs some distance off from a set of railroad tracks, my hand being held by an elderly Native American man."



A few years out of high school and traveling in Mexico with a high school buddy of mine we had made our way south through almost the whole county when we decided to turn east toward the Yucatan to see the ancient Maya temple ruin complex of Chichen Itza. In the process of our travels we went to Oxkintok, one of, at least in those days and may even be so today, most unheard of and seldom visited Mayan ruins. Having done so, unbeknownst to either of us we crossed over the then unknown and yet to be discovered asteroid-caused 65 million year old 112 mile diameter outer rim of the Chicxulub crater, given credit now for the total extinction and demise of the dinosaurs.

On the first night inside the boundary of the impact's dry land portions outer ring onto what would be the crater floor, I had for some reason, become so uneasy and uncomfortable I wasn't able to sleep. We were planning to go to the Maya ruins of Dzibilchaltun, famous now for the Temple of the Seven Dolls and it's importance to the equinox, none of which either my buddy or I knew about at the time, the next day. Thinking I would be up most of the night I unpacked my telescope and set it up primarily to look at the Andromeda galaxy, spending most of my time trying to stay with the spiral's relative movement caused by the Earth's rotation without jiggling the scope so much I couldn't see it. Concentrating all my efforts on doing so, especially after installing a Barlow lens that doubled the scope's power, I completely lost track of time and place. Suddenly a chilling breeze or what was not quite a full wind caused from afar came up out of nowhere snapping me back to reality. Standing up to straighten my back and get the crick out of my neck as well as relax my eyes for a second, just as suddenly right in front of me and just as much out of nowhere as though she had been swept in by the sudden burst of wind, was an old woman. Short in stature with straight, pulled-back, nearly pure white hair and appearing to be of Maya extraction, she carried a gunnysack-like shoulder bag slung across her chest and back and under her arm filled with sticks as though she had been out collecting kindling wood or something. We just stood there looking at each other for what seemed the longest time.

Although what happened next between me, an unworldly just 20 year old boy-man not long out of high school and a little old Maya woman wielding unknown spiritual powers, ended in startling results --- only to repeat themselves again, albeit even harsher in my adult years. See:

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Yurok Medicine Man, The Other Californians, Robert F. Heizer and Alan J. Almquist

Native North American cultures are a distant echo of prehistoric Asian cultures. Tens of thousands of years ago both continents were peopled by societies in harmony with the Way, the people of P’u or the Uncarved Block of Taoist tradition. In northwestern California along the banks of the Klamath river, the Yurok people inhabit the land as they have done for thousands of years. Robert Spott, last full chief of the Yuroks and a friend of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, once told Kroeber’s wife Theodora how the creator gods set about creating the world, teaching its inhabitants the same doctrine as that of Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching, the Way:

”Upon the emergence of the people into their world, these same gods taught them the Way they were to follow, the rules and the customs and beliefs by which the Way should be forever maintained. They taught the people as well the language they were to speak. The Way proved good, the language intrinsic to it.”

NOTE: the meaning of the term "Uncarved Block" (P'u):

The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed. This principle applies not only to things, but to people as well.

"Like an Uncarved Block" is living a path of harmony -- simple in its form, but not yet carved by the world around it. This is what one should be, to return to, to find -- the true original inner nature of simplicity. The reality of motion manifests itself in both simplicity and complexity. Balance is nedded with both, yet primal simplicity needs to be kept in order to better deal with complexity. There is nothing wrong with complexity, so long as you aren't swept up in its whirlwind, which will only cause your mind to become congested with impurities. You should see the simple and embrace the primal, so that you are better able to manage the complex. So, the Tao says become like an Uncarved Block, untouched by the shaping of reality's complexities.


As hard core as some of the above sounds, whether anybody likes it or not, there are some notable exceptions to Shamanism from what is offered by the above . In North America for example, Alaska Native people are most certainly Native Americans. Eskimos such as the Aleut, Inupiat, and Yup'ik, and various Indians groups such as the Athabascan tribes, Haida, and Tlingit all fit this description, all of which have or had Shamans. The same can be said about a variety of indigenous tribal people inhabiting what is now called Mexico. For example, Mazatec, the Mexican Indian tribe of Zapotecan linguistic stock occupying the mountain region of north-east Oaxaca, is estimated to number from 18,000 to 20,000. Huantla, their chief town, with its dependent villages, has a population of about 7,000.

Mazatec retain most of their ancient beliefs and many of their ceremonies. By tolerance of the Mexican Government they maintained their tribal autonomy under their hereditary chiefs up to 1857, the last of whom, a descendant of their ancient kings, died in 1869. Their native cult is still kept and based around animal worship; the snake, panther, alligator, and eagle being most venerated. Maria Sabina, curandera and Shaman, is probably the most famous of the Mazatecs.

One of the most formidable practitioner of shamanistic arts, albeit with an evil bent, is the onetime sorceress 'la Catalina.' Although known to be indigenous and thought possibly to be Mesmoamerican or possibly Yaqui, any true tribal affiliation is not known.


In tribal culture the Shaman is a person who can enter an ecstatic state of altered consciousness. While in the state of altered consciousness or trance he communicates with his guardian spirit who gives him information and/or power to heal the sick person. Usually the shaman who enters the trance is said to seek information from another reality.

The Shaman relied on alliances with spirits for their magic. They were believed to have the power to foresee the future, heal the sick and bring success to the hunting or fishing expedition. The Shaman was also thought to control the weather and affect what it does. Because of the close contact with spirits they were feared and lived away from the villages in the forests. The Shaman was responsible for traditional myths of death, rebirth, the connection between human and animals, and the connection between the natural and supernatural.

Most believe that they must have a close connection with nature because their guardian spirit usually is that of a plant or animal. Many say the guardian spirit takes the Shaman to the other reality where he is given his needed knowledge and power through a hole in the world. The Shaman may also seek information to help his people and village. In the various cultures trances are induced by singing, dancing, chanting, and drumming. Some cultures, such as the Mazatec mentioned above, also used psychedelic drugs to actuate trances.(source)

Refelecting on the above, it should be mentioned that it not just the Mazatec of Mexico that incorporate drugs and medicinal plants into various aspects of their tribal culture. Carlos Castaneda, as a young undergraduate student at UCLA taking anthropology classes towards his degree, as a requirement for one of those classes, visited several Indian tribes in the desert southwest, interviewing a variety of tribal members and spiritual elders. In the process of the travels in conjunction with those visits he came across an informant that introduced him to the use of a hallucinogenic plant called Sacred Datura that was used in various ceremonies such as rites of passage, etc., by the Chumash people of California, the Mohave, Yuma, Cahuilla, Zuni and others. It was the results of those travels and interviews that led Castaneda to write his series of books based on the Yaqui Indian shaman-sorcerer Don Juan Matus. The revered Cahuilla spritual elder Salvador Lopez is thought by some to have to have contributed to his knowledge. It is thought as well that the same plant was used by the tribal spiritual elder when the Wanderling, as a young boy, visited the sacred Native American site called the Sun Dagger.

In keeping with the general "We Do Not Have Shamans" theme and applying it in relation to Carlos Castaneda, when Castaneda was an undergraduate student at UCLA he took a class taught by Dr. William A. Lessa. In that class Castaneda wrote a paper on halluncinogenic plants, and, although Castaneda was still an undergraduate, Lessa was so favorably impressed with what he presented in his paper he requested that Castaneda give a report on his findings in his graduate-level seminar titled "Myth and Ritual." C. Scott Littleton, a now retired professor of anthropology at Occidental College, who was a graduate student of Lessa's at the time, was asked by Lessa to sit in on the seminar --- telling Littleton "he had this Peruvian guy in his class who'd collected the best information from a shaman he'd ever seen, bar none."

Some people have suggested that the statement attributed to Lessa "...he had this Peruvian guy in his class who'd collected the best information from a SHAMAN he'd ever seen, bar none," could not be true in that a professor of Lessa's status would NEVER use the word "shaman." In so saying, the idea is to undermine the statement so it could never have been said. However, that the word "shaman" would NOT be used by Lessa and others of his ilk is basically not much more than an outsider's view. When individuals or closed groups of insiders such as Lessa and Littleton get together political correctness drops by the wayside. It is not unlike Blacks, for example. Within their own circles or amongst their close friends they can and do use the N-word. If an outsider or White person were to join the group and start throwing the word around there would be hell to pay.[1]

Castaneda himself was caught in a quandry when he tried to present his works to a much broader audience than just those close to him in anthropological circles. In his ninth book Art of Dreaming (1993) he tried to explain his position thus:

"Following Don Juan's suggestion, I have refrained from using the term shamanism, a category proper to anthropology, to classify his knowledge. I have called it all along what he himself called it: sorcery. On examination, however, I realized that calling it sorcery obscures even more the already obscure phenomena he presented to me in his teachings.

In anthropological works, shamanism is described as a belief system of some native people of northern Asia, prevailing also among certain native North American Indian tribes, which maintains that an unseen world of ancestral spiritual forces, good and evil, is pervasive around us; and that these spiritual forces can be summoned or controlled through the acts of practitioners who are the intermediaries between the natural and supernatural realms.

Don Juan was indeed an intermediary between the natural world of everyday life and an unseen world, which he called not the supernatural but the second attention.

So, Castaneda says, "Following Don Juan's suggestion, I have refrained from using the term shamanism, a category proper to anthropology." Here is Castaneda, with a PhD in anthropology, saying only under Don Juan's suggestion does he refrain from using the term. He goes on to say the term shamanism is a catagory proper to anthropology. Now, certain groups may not like it when applied to them, but, in the vast litany of universal knowledge called Anthropology shamanism IS a term, and thus then by inference the word shaman, proper to anthropology. Hence the use by both Lessa and Lttleton.

"Unlike the medicine man, the Shaman's adoption of his profession is in many cases not voluntary. The future Shaman's experience of being called seems frequently to consist in a compulsive state from which he sees no other means of escape than to 'Shamanize'. It is often clear that the man who is to become a Shaman consciously does not wish to do so at all, but is driven and forced to it by the 'spirits', and finally, in order not to perish, takes the only path open to him and becomes a Shaman. The future Shaman, the young man suited for Shamanizing, cannot escape the demands of the spirits, which drive him deeper and deeper into the illness, although he very often tries to resist. He gets into a situation, into a mental illness, from which he can find no way out but death or the assumption of the office of Shaman."

LOMMEL, ANDREAS, "The World of the Early Hunter" (1967)

OK, we are all now pretty sure about not having Shamans, but what about Shamans? What are Shamans and just what IS Shamanism if is not part of any of the Native American cultures above? See:








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Tori McElroy's article SHAMANISM: IT AIN'T NATIVE AMERICAN RELIGION! is no longer available online nor is it archived.