Neo-shamanism as Cultural Appropriation
This essay seeks to explain the emergence and current politics surrounding the neo-shamanism movement; especially the arguments which support and oppose the view that neo-shamanism is a form of cultural appropriation. The arguments supporting the debate that neo-shamanism is a form of cultural appropriation will be explored. These arguments are based upon the differences between shamanism and neo-shamanism, the commercialization and mass consumption of neo-shamanistic practices and beliefs, the homogenization and static representations of shamanism, and the colonial roots and racism embedded within the movement. These arguments will be contextualized using the framework of neo-shamanistic teachings of Michael Harner (1990) and Robert Lawlor (1991). The other side of the debate, that neo-shamanism is not a form of cultural appropriation because it is a universal ability which some people are simply re-discovering, will also be portrayed. This argument will be explored through the theoretical framework of Noll (1985) and Winkelman (1997; 2004). This essay does not seek to side with one argument but to portray the current politics surrounding neo-shamanism in an attempt to portray the urgent need for the establishment of a respectful and mutual dialogue between Native American and Indigenous Australian cultures and the wider American and Australian public.
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw the rise of neo-shamanism within popular cultural trends and Western ideological and academic agendas. Since then there has been a dramatic increase in the belief and practice of neo-shamanism within Western countries, especially that of America and Australia, which will be the focus of this essay (Znamenski 2007:x). ‘Neo’ means new or revived and, when coined with the word shamanism, is categorized as a new-age religion. Neo-shamanism refers to the incorporation of the ecological and spiritual knowledge from past and present Native American and Indigenous Australian cultures, traditions, and beliefs into the modern lives of the wider American and Australian population. This is done in order to resolve modern spiritual problems and so it is seen as a social and spiritual revitalization. Neo-shamanism is considered a contemporary spirituality that speaks to people in this age (Cuthbert and Grossman 1996:25; Mulcock 2001:48-50; Znamenski 2007:vii-viii).
The characteristics pertaining to shamanism will firstly be explored so that we are able to compare and contrast them with neo-shamanism. Traditionally, the word ‘shaman’ is derived from the word ‘šaman’ which is taken from the an indigenous group of Siberia who use the term to refer to their spiritual practitioners of both genders (Znamenski 2007:viii). The practice of shamanism essentially involves the communication and control of spirits by entering into altered states of consciousness (ASC). An ASC is usually achieved within a public space and is ritualized by the accompaniment of dancing, chanting, performing, drumming, symbols and use of certain gestures which are particular to that culture. This ritual component of shamanism ensures social bonding, cohesion, and coordination and ensures the integration of the community across generations (Shaw 2000:201-202; Townsend 1997:431-432; Winkelman 2004:194-195, 198). Shamans enter an ASC to acquire knowledge and to perform certain tasks on behalf of an individual, group, or the wider community in order to provide physical, emotional, and psychological healing. Healing is an essential part of the shamans role within his/her community and he/she is considered a cultural, intellectual and mythological mnemonist; ensuring the survival of the community (Harner 1990:xix; Noll 1985:445; Townsend 1997:450; Winkelman 1997:395; 2004:197).
In quite a different context are the practices and beliefs of neo-shamanism in America and Australia. Neo-shamanism pertains to the belief that there are multiple spiritual pathways and so its practices are generally a collaboration of different techniques, derived from different forms of shamanism, as they pertain to different cultures (Adler 1995:47). Within the Western context, neo-shamanism primarily focuses on ecological restoration, a dedication to psychic phenomena, an obtaining of a holistic thought, spiritual techniques, new understandings of education, decentralist empowerment politics and citizen diplomacy missions (Berger, Leach, and Shaffer 2003:35; York 1995:34; Znamenski 2007:vii-viii). Thus, neo-shamanism inherently has a political orientation, maintains an emphasis on the resacralization of the environment, and focuses on individual salvation instead of that of the community. As neo-shamanism is derived from shamanism, the differences in their primary characteristics lead both Western and Indigenous people to argue that neo-shamanism is simply a form of cultural appropriation (Shaw 2000; 200-201; Smith 1999:213; York 1999:135, 142-143).
This argument is taken further when considering the ways in which neo-shamanism is permeated throughout the American and Australian culture. Neo-shamanistic practices are culled from a number of different indigenous cultures and learnt through workshops, seminars, and retreats and through a large body of academic and non-academic literature (Berger, Leach, and Shaffer 2003:103; Harner 1990:57; York 1995:33; Shaw 2000:200, 204). This process inherently commodifies, commercializes, and valorizes shamanistic practices, allowing them to be consumed by a wider public. These practices are selectively consumed outside of their sacred, environmental, social, and cultural context and so the holistic quality of shamanism is lost. The practices are also portrayed as being simplistic and static, making them easier to be consumed (Shaw 2000:206). Many Western and Indigenous people see this act as a direct form of cultural appropriation. They argue that American and Australian populations are simply assuming and consuming the resources of indigenous people, as well as treating indigenous people as a resource. It is this viewpoint that argues that neo-shamanism is not only a form of cultural appropriation but also cultural domination through the process of assimilation (Cuthbert and Grossman 1996:21-22, 34).
A well-known example of the commodification and consumption of shamanistic practices within the American neo-shamanism context is the work and publications of Michael Harner (1990). Harner is an American anthropologist turned shaman who underwent shamanic training with the Jivaro and Conibo North American Indians as well as with numerous other North American and Australian shamans. He now teaches shamanistic techniques, derived from the vast array of cultures he has encountered, to the Western world. This is done through his numerous publications such as The Way of the Shaman (1990) and with the establishment of ‘The Foundation of Shamanic Studies: a non-profit organisation’. This foundation seeks to preserve shamanism by reestablishing it as a respected discipline and to offer shamanistic workshops, training programs and seminars to the public (Murphy 2009:715; Walsh and Grob 2005). Harner’s methods of teaching a collaboration of shamanistic practices through workshops and training programs represents the process of commodification and consumption as explained above. The very aim of the foundation seeks to simplify and portray shamanism as static, removing it from its wider sacred, environmental, social, and cultural context. Other examples of the commodification and commercialization of shamanism is evident in the posters, calendars, magazines and cards which ‘New Age’ shops sell (Mulcock 2001:46). There is also the establishment of a ‘Vision Quest Hotline’ whose very name removes this shamanistic practice from its wider context and transforms it into an easily accessible and technological commodity (Shaw 2000:204).
On the other side of the debate is the argument that neo-shamanism is not a form of cultural appropriation because it is a universal ability which some people have simply lost. This argument takes us back to the social circumstances which gave rise to neo-shamanism in the first place. Neo-shamanism has arisen due to a dramatic decrease in the belief of Western core values such as materialism, rationalism, and progress. At the same time there has been an increase in the belief of secularization, the feeling of un-fulfillment from Western religions and lifestyle, and a feeling of detachment from culture, nature, and historical roots (Adler 1995:1; Jacobs 1994:305; Znamenski 2007:x). Thus, many people pursue neo-shamanism in the hope to re-discover their cultural and spiritual heritage which they have lost through their European decent and through the processes of immigration and industrialization (Adler 1995:1; Mulcock 2001:46; Shaw 2000:203). The argument is that we are all indigenous to somewhere and so people search for a perceived universal indigenous self in order to gain spiritual fulfillment (Mulcock 2001:51).
This argument is supported by academic literature which argues that shamanism is a universal phenomenon (Noll 1985; Winkelman 1997: 2004). Shamanism is viewed as the original forbearer of all ecstatic religious behaviour and it has existed in most societies either throughout the past or in the present (Winkelman 1997:393). It is believed that ASC’s, or mental imagery cultivation, is a universal ability of all humans. This is proved by Winkelman’s (2004:193) study of the neurological processes which underlie shamanism. In this light, we all have roots in shamanism, it is simply unfortunate circumstances which have led most people to lose, forget, or replace shamanism with other emerging practices and dominating lifestyles. With this evidence, many Western and Indigenous people do not view neo-shamanism as cultural appropriation but simply a re-discovering of ancient spiritual roots.
In rebuttal to this argument is the view that the concept of a universal shamanism and a universal indigenous self purports that all indigenous people are the same. This leads to a denial of cultural difference through the unification of cultural diversity which Campbell (1972) has coined ‘cultic milieu’ (Campbell 1972; Cuthbert and Grossman 1996:19; Mulcock 2001:50-51). Many argue that this view is simply a revival of racist and imperialist thought which is a direct result of the dominant colonial history of Western people (Cuthbert and Grossman 1996:22; Shaw 2000:205). Common romanticized representations of Native American and Indigenous Australian people are derived from these colonial roots where romanticized discourses first emerged from seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings and writings (Mulcock 2001:47). The persistence of the romanticized view of spiritual and ecological indigenous people represents a Western nostalgia for traditional ways and can be viewed as part of a neo-colonialist thought, racists discourse, and part of a wider spiritual genocide (Mulcock 2001:46; Shaw 2000:206). This is evident in the spiritual and ecological image of ‘indigenous’ shamans in the posters, calendars, magazines and cards which ‘New Age’ shops sell but also in some very popular publications such as Robert Lawlor’s Voices of the First Day (Lawlor 1991; Mulcock 2001:26).
Lawlor’s (1991) book invites the wider public of Australia to put aside our Western religions and lifestyle and to take up the eco-spiritual mentality of the oldest culture on earth; the Australian Aborigines. He explores Aboriginal cosmology, the mythology of the Dreamtime and the way it is communicated and embedded in the every-day lives of Aboriginal people (Lawlor 1991). Lawlor’s (1991) work is a perfect example of the intersection of Western nostalgia and colonial discourse with sacred Indigenous knowledges and practices. He explicitly argues for a universal indigene within all of us and creates an image of spiritual and ecological indigenous people. In so doing, Lawlor (1991) creates a static image of Aboriginal culture and beliefs, denies cultural difference, and denies the events of the colonial domination which Aboriginal Australians have been subjected to (Jacobs 1994:307). This is particularly evident in his statement “the Dreaming has no religious, racial, or cultural boundaries, no governments or social castes” (Lawlor 1991:xvi). It is works such as Lawlor’s (1991) which many people argue is a form of cultural appropriate as there is no recognition of the cultural and historical factors which have shaped the ideologies and practices of shamanism within Australian Aboriginal culture.
After examining the arguments for and against neo-shamanism as a form of cultural appropriation it is evident that not one side is correct. Both sides express the true sentiments of a wide range of people who are affected by the neo-shamanism movement. In highlighting these arguments, this essay hopes to bring attention to the inherent need for the establishment for a reciprocal relationship and collaboration between Native American and Indigenous Australians cultures with the wider American and Australian public. The American and Australian public should begin to question their personal constructions of indigenous cultures and their shamanistic practices in order to better understand their nature and the difficult situation in which indigenous cultures now face (Shaw 2000:207). There also needs to be recognition of how beliefs and practices are shaped by an individual’s upbringing, culture, and history. By allowing this recognition, Westerns can gain a holistic respect for the beliefs and practices of Indigenous cultures. It will also allow them to create a spirituality which meets the needs and suits the context of the Western world, which still pertains to the fundamentals of shamanism but not at the expense of indigenous cultures (Shaw 2000:201; Znamenski 2007:x).
This essay has sought to enlighten the reader about the different arguments surrounding the notion that neo-shamanism is a form of cultural appropriation. Arguments from both sides have been equally presented so as to not favour one side over the other. This essay has tried to portray these arguments within a holistic context so that the reader may determine his own view. However, it should be remembered that these arguments pertain to the true and real sentiments felt by Indigenous and non-indigenous people. So in conclusion, this essay argues that in order to accommodate for both sides, a reciprocal relationship should be established in order to allow for mutual recognition and respect for the various types of shamanism and neo-shamanism throughout the world.
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