I have a strongly negative reaction to the terms ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ as do most Native Americans.  And there are several reasons for that.  The most general is that almost 100% of people who are claiming to be shamans are just trying to get money from people.  They may or may not have any gifts or be able to perform the skills they advertise, but really they are just out for easy money and possibly for fame.  In the Native community and in most indigenous cultures that I have come in contact with or even read about, anyone that would fall into the category ‘shaman’ never uses that word, doesn’t advertise their services, and doesn’t want fame for what they do.  They work hard and are of service to the people and are supported for their efforts.  That’s the way of spirit.

Another reason for this is that the term ‘shaman’ is actually not a generic word, but specific ancient cultures in Turkey and Mongolia.  It’s their word for their healers and spiritual leaders.  It was co-opted by White Western scholars after the 1500’s and applied as a generic term.  Which brings me to reason three that I dislike these terms, which is that they are derogatory to the cultures to which they are applied.  They have been used by dominant, colonizing mindsets to see indigenous spirituality is other and less than and uneducated naiveté and continue to be so today.  Disrespect has been imbedded in the term which is problematic at best even for those who attempt to use it respectfully.

And unfortunately it has now become the term used by those who are searching for ancient teachings, for lost wisdom on how to live and how to authentically be in the world, and how live a fully spiritual and yet embodied life.  And indigenous cultures retain their perspectives on this and their spiritual elders and healers have attempted to retain this knowledge, continue its practice and to pass it on against the odds for the most part.  So for the time being, it is unfortunately part of our language structure, but I urge you to look at the term in a different way.  It’s not generic, it’s not positive, and it doesn’t support and encourage the indigenous cultures it labels.  You can read more about it just by searching for ‘shaman’ on Wikipedia.

What should we use instead?  Well, I try to not use a generic term when referring to an elder of another culture or tribe, I try to find out what term they use or what title they hold and use that as a gesture of respect.  When speaking about the spiritual leaders, elders, and healers of most Native American tribes, the term most widely accepted is ‘medicine’.  Which is a generic term we use to describe a life of service to spirit and our community which is as  varied as the tribe and the individual and not something that person would be called.  It is one part of who they are and only one and as most tribes have no separate word for religion or spirituality as it is not separate from life and living each moment of each day, it would be unusual to call that one part out for any given person.  Best to call them by their title or by a term of respect.  And please, don’t call them a shaman.