To be or not to be ... a shaman
A rambling by J. Higgins-Rosebrook,
June 1999

We need a new word in the language. Modern usage is diluting the effect of some of our most powerful words. Forget the overused -- but great -- four-letter Anglo Saxon words that everyone in the world seems to think they appreciate, I'm working with another word here -- from Siberia.

The Grand Canyon is awesome, your neighbor's Miata is not. The skirling bagpipes in the "Relief of Derry Symphony" resonate emotionally and physically with me, some acquaintance's puling expression of self pity does not. A person whose potential is recognized at a young age by her/his affinity group; who undergoes years of exacting apprenticeship; who dies, goes to the underworld and returns to serve the community gratis as healer and ritualist is a shaman. Anyone else is not.

The world is rampant it seems with people taking training or identifying as shaman. One showed up at our last Winter Solstice celebration. He couldn't wait to collar each and all of the Native American people there and describe -- with great enthusiasm -- the training he was getting from some guy up north.

In my memory, none of the people I've ever known who could legitimately be called shaman ever used that title (or its equivalent in their native language). Usually the term is whispered in fear or awe by other members of the society. Kenny Moses called himself a janitor, Billy Good Voice Elk was unemployed last time I saw him.

In order for a potential shaman to be recognized by his or her social/affinity group, she/he must grow up in a community with a perceivable homogeneity in terms of shared spiritual and cultural values and a mindset that would recognize a potential shaman if one appeared. Community recognition is a crucial point here.

Almost by definition, this would be a phenomenon of a small, probably rural enclave. A tribal community seems most obvious. A given neighborhood in East L.A. or Honolulu might serve. Hollywood does not.

The potential shaman is probably never the cleverest or best looking or most outstanding anything in his or her generation. In fact, there's generally something "strange" about the kid. Maybe he stutters or she has fits or a bum leg. Almost always, the youngster is a loner who spends time doing things other people can't rationalize. I think Sherman Alexie's character Thomas Builds the Fire is a good example of a potential shaman. (Do go see Smoke Signals if it comes to a theater near you.)

A two-week or even three-year course at some retreat center does not a shaman make. Long years, maybe half a lifetime of study with one's predecessor in the role, are required before one earns the title. Studying for a few years with some elderly self-styled medicine woman does not make a shaman. The instructor and the candidate both must be recognized by the same social group.

Comfort is not part of the training. The shamanic journey calls for rigorous physical disciplines. This does not mean simply hiking with a well stocked backpack along a mountain trail or across the Mojave. It means learning to depend on personal inner resources and the gifts of the land. It means being still for days on end. It can mean some sort of self-mutilation. It requires -- and this is the second crucial point -- death, descent into the underworld, a ravaging of the spirit and body, reassembly and rebirth as a shaman. The journey of Inanna gives a good description.

Even the Four Evangelists got this point. They didn't get the community acceptance part but they got the death-descent-rebirth part in as a major selling point.

This qualification must be met. There is no allegory involved here and the requirement is not given figuratively. Surviving a crashing depression may be part of it but it is not sufficient. The candidate must be observed (by qualified observers) to have died and been reborn.

Finally, shamanic services are done with no intent of material gain on the part of the shaman. The societies where the shamanic tradition survives have customary exchange formulas but the shaman does not refuse services to a member of the society with limited resources.

Now, there are a number of people out there -- good-hearted, honorable people -- who mistakenly have taken the appellation for themselves. This usage does a disservice to them and to the communities and people who are qualified to create and be shamans. Charlatans and poseurs be damned but there are people who do make an earnest study of the healing arts and the inner realms. These people share their skills freely and in good faith. Somehow, it seems wrong to paint them all with the same brush as the others.

Regrettably, this is typically the case. Generally lumped under the category "wannabee" by native people whose traditions they've co-opted in some measure, these people are met with derision, disgust, dismissal or indulgent good humor by those people who see very clearly the dangers to the so-called shaman and the tribe and society in general from the misguided use of the title and their traditions.

One does not go to a shaman for warm fuzzies. A shaman is someone to respect, to be held in awe tinged with a little apprehension. To be a shaman, one must be willing always to be held a little apart, maybe subject to ridicule and slightly suspect for a lifetime. A shaman is not a guru. A shaman does not require, indeed would not permit, sycophants -- but might let you go ahead and make a fool of yourself if it seemed you needed that! A shaman is not necessarily a spiritual leader, although some truly spiritual leaders might qualify as shaman. A shaman is not a witch. Frankly, I can't imagine any self-respecting witch permitting herself to be called so. A shaman has a definite place in a social heirarchy and witchcraft admits of no heirarchy. When one is a witch, witch is title enough.

But some of these good-hearted wannabees don't see themselves as witches. So, what to call them? I don't know. We need a new word in the language.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]