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First Nation Shamanism in the United States

This post is part 2 in my series, 'Understanding the Multiple Meanings of Shamanism'. This specific section provides a brief lit review of the different performances of the word Shamanism among First nation peoples. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive documentation of all native healing systems in the US.

Peter Jones (2006) published a comprehensive examination of the historic use of the term shamanism in North America. In it, Jones identifies 1,504 mentions of the word ‘shamanism’ in the literature comprising 740 individual documents. Of those documents, 58% of them dealt specifically with North American Indians or “First Nation peoples” when using the term (p. 9). From the late 1800’s to around the 1940’s the term was used to describe specific individuals within different Native American tribes who claimed (or were perceived by researcher) to have the ability to alter their state of consciousness to perform certain feats that would benefit their community. Shamanism in its historical context, then, can be defined as “A group of culturally specific techniques by which only a select few individuals (the “shamans”) deliberately alter or heighten their conscious awareness to enter the so-called ‘spirit world’, accessing material that they use to help and heal members of the social group that has acknowledged their shamanic status” (Jones, 2006, p.21; Kripper, 2000).

Hans Baer (2001) situates shamanism within a larger Native American healing system that includes a sophisticated knowledge of herbs and drugs, medical interventions, and spiritual healers. Located within the healing cosmology of an indigenous community is the shaman. Baer’s broad overview provides a useful tool to address the similarities and differences between the healing forms of different tribes. The Navajo have a healer hierarchy all of which hold some traits in common with a shaman such as using an altered state of consciousness to diagnoses an illness beginning with hand shaking all the way to bone setting doctors. The Lumbee people are known for their elaborate herbal healing systems. The Lakota use purification ceremonies such as sweat lodges to rid the patient of toxins and prepare them for healing with a shaman. “Healers or shamans in many North American Indian tribes belong to medicine societies. In some tribes, healers are initiated into medicine societies through a series of rituals” (p. 171). These rituals are described at length in the early literature by Halifax (1979) in her anthology Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. Halifax highlights the initiatory nature of shamanism as an important way that the community of a particular tribe would raise an individual to the status of ‘healer’ among the people.

In his 1987 book, Beyond the Vision: Essays on American Indian Culture, William Powers provides a valuable example of the processional model that some indigenous people might take on the path to becoming a shaman. It should be noted that this model only refers to Powers’ observations during his time living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with the Lakota, a fact that Powers acknowledges right away in his description. The emic description of the Lakota initiation as described by Powers will become increasingly important when considering the differences between etic application of shamanism and neo-shamanism.

The first stage in Power’s processional model involves a mystical experience. This usually manifests as a child of 9 or 10 hearing a voice or seeing ghosts. Life proceeds until middle age where misfortune strikes. This triggers another experience which relates back to the initiates’ initial mystical experience. A consultation then occurs with a medicine person to interpret that experience. If the medicine person deems it appropriate, the Hanbleceya, or crying for a vision, is held in a sacred place. If the initiate receives a vision and the vision is approved by an elder, the initiate begins to apprentice with a shaman learning his or her ways. An apprentice gains his full power when Great Spirit decides he or she is ready. The time in-between the end of the apprenticeship is often marked with deep suffering. The path of the medicine person completes its circle with another misfortune or loss of a loved one, which slowly causes them to lose their power, then calling for the training of a new shaman (Powers, 1987).

What the work of Baer, Halifax, and Powers clearly demonstrates is that there was a great deal of diversity in the healing practices of Native Americans. The type of healing that developed in a certain tribe was uniquely suited to meet the needs of the community. Because the needs of each tribe were defined differently, so too were the roles of the ‘shaman’. According to personal communications that I had with Stanley Krippner in November of 2012, this is where all definitions of shamanism should stop; with the unique cultural acknowledgement of a healing system centered around a community appointed facilitator of altered states of consciousness. Any definition beyond that, I remember Krippner clearly stating, describes something other than shamanism.

So how, then, did application of the term move from describing the uniqueness of indigenous medicine ways in North America to the multiple varied meanings shamanism now encompasses? Both Jones (2006) and Krippner (2000) identify the etic model of research as the flawed lens through which researchers constructed meaning around the observed phenomena.

An unforeseen result of developing the study of shamanism into its own field was that the use of the terms became divorced from their own specific sociocultural ontogenies, and were assumed to define a universal phenomenon that all individuals and all cultures theoretically possessed. This required the phenomenon to be reduced to a simple set of operationally circumscribed characteristics (Jones, 2006, p. 11). While the components of shamanism as defined by the early literature discussed in this paper are still practiced, the applications of those practices are limited to the indigenous populations living in the United States.

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