I’m a Yankee Doodle Plastic Shaman

shamanism story

It seems like every couple of months someone props up a two-dimensional placard of Michael Harner and core shamanism to pin a few ills of the world on (latest example here). The phrase ‘plastic shaman’ rings out to self-satisfied applause. To be sure, there are more than a few people running around in the world claiming great shamanic powers that prove instead to be white fluff. To be sure indigenous stereotypes have tainted many shamanic workshops over the years. This is born of ignorance, the same ignorance Michael Harner and the FSS work every day to dispel. As I read the link above the critique rests largely on this idea that we perform ceremony or other such activities (like sweats), rather than the reality that we are attempting to re-introduce basic spiritual healing practices into our culture that we have lost.

“I don’t know what you mean by shaman”, I’ve heard this a number of times from politically active people who see what I do from afar and are deeply offended. Its their polite way of saying you’ve bought into an idea that at its heart is false and ultimately harmful. There is no such thing as shamanism they say, just the many layered cultural expressions of pre-enlightenment cultures. In their view, shamanism is a tidy idea created by a privileged, narcissistic, exploitative culture. Its a projection, not a reality. Sadly this leads many to reduce something genuinely revolutionary, the notion that the compassionate helping spirits are accessible to all peoples beyond race, religion or culture, to a trivial insult.
Intrinsic to these critiques is a vision of spirituality as exclusively a function of culture. In an effort to understand and respect a peoples way of life they wind up fetishizing their cultures, turning them into lifeless golden cows and unfortunately, political ping pong balls. The idea that journeying and healing with the spirits is not the property of select cultures flies in the face of this well meaning, if spiritually blind, defense of indigenous peoples.
Sadly, many of these critics are ignorant of their own ability to connect with the very real presence of the spirits. Its from this ignorance their critique comes. Imagine a world view that included the helping spirits of all peoples as a given. How would that change their perspective?
     The suffering that our western culture has wrought in this world is due in part, I believe, to the oppression of our own innate ability to access the spiritual dimension of our world. We perpetuate that distortion of ourselves every day, by denying the presence of the spirits. We use words like ‘projection’ or ‘imagination’ to describe experiences of consciousness that are transcendent and transformative. If we accept that we may have some kind of faculty that engages life in this incredible way, we make it the domain of unique beings that are somehow more elevated than us. We deny the presence of our own souls because to do so would be primitive (which we could never authentically be), or superhuman (which only a handful of us can be), or just plain irrational. We may feel these to be progressive values, but they are simply pre-programmed self-flagellation tumbling down the generations.
The tragedy I want to avoid (and its incredibly ironic), is that people will perpetuate this form of spiritual self-oppression under the guise of political correctness. The patriarchs of another age gave us this yoke of ignorance by silencing our healers and stamping out our own indigenous spirituality, the revolutionaries of this age will make sure we never take it off in an effort not to insult the indigenous peoples we have so horrifically devastated.
The FSS has taken the path of sharing their knowledge with as many people as they reasonably and ethically can. They don’t do this so ignorant, overzealous westerners will perpetuate ignorance and add insult to injury. They do this so that we will lose our ignorance of the spiritual nature of the world, and will finally be able to stop abusing indigenous peoples in the same way we abuse the earth. That is a genuinely felt, hard won perspective that many people I know have devoted their lives to.
Here is my promise to those of you who think shamanism is bunk but care about respecting the Earth and indigenous peoples and their way of life: as I help to restore journeying and an awareness of the spiritual dimension of the natural world to our modern way of life, I will carefully outline to those I teach how this work does not make you indigenous. It does not give you the right to claim you’re a shaman, or that your experience of the spirits is identical to those of people living in traditions with unbroken relationships to the spirits for eons.
I will tell them that when we take on stereotypes of indigenous peoples, mimicking their practices, we are acting as if their way of life is dead. For in truth, you only take on the behavior of another peoples if those peoples are not present in your life. I will remind them that indigenous people are not gone, they are always here. In many ways when I see their activists in North America, they are stronger, clearer and more effective than they have been for some time. They are here more than ever.
In exchange I ask you to try core shamanism before you level a completely one sided critique of it. You may find that the concerted effort of many highly intelligent, well educated people (not all male and white), over the last forty plus years has yielded some useful results. Rest assured, if you follow instructions correctly, no indigenous people will be harmed in your experiences.
When you journey a unicorn does not die, nor does an indigenous person suffer. Quite to the contrary, when we awaken to the spirits of this world we invite the opportunity to become better citizens of the world. We should never ask permission to journey or seek the help of the spirits from anyone, regardless of the color of their skin or their ancestry. Our ability to connect with the spirits is our birthright. It can save lives and ease the suffering of all beings. There is no reason to deny our abilities, to do so is to continue a crime against humanity.
Sadly there is a certain amount of idiocy we seem to have to go through in reclaiming this awareness we so desperately need. Critiques of core shamanism often seem based not in experience, but on people who it has superficially inspired who subsequently engage in foolish and misleading practices. This is more an indictment of our character as a people, than of core shamanism. Unlike the author of the article mentioned above I don’t blame Michael Harner or the FSS for my pre-existing ignorance or penchant for stupidity, or that of my fellow practitioners. Perhaps we need better screening techniques, but then I might never have made it through that screening!
If being called and even occasionally acting like a Yankee Doodle Plastic Shaman is the price we have to pay in doing this work, so be it –  though I hope the deaths of people following a charlatan into a sweat lodge in the desert won’t be blamed on me (see article above). These are but steps down a road that I feel confident will only grow and mature with passing generations. Besides, the elders in my life who I admire the most are those who learn to take themselves less seriously over time. As anyone who’s trained with Michael Harner knows, there are few of us who can laugh at ourselves as well as he can. Its a good time to play the fool.


  • Anonymous
    August 27, 2012 - 6:52 pm · Reply

    You know when people say that shamanism is westerners ripping off indigenous cultures it also shows how effectively shamanic traditions in the west are either ignored or how they have been forcefully terminated, in fact it’s not even acknowledged or mentioned..

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