Should Non-Natives Practice Indigenous Religions?

Should Non-Natives Practice Indigenous Religions?

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Seekers in the West hunger to learn from indigenous spiritual teachers, but what are the politics and ethics of taking on and changing the traditions of others?

I am a student and practitioner of the new shamanism in the U.S. and Europe. I say this with some trepidation, as it’s something I would not have openly admitted until recently. This new alternative, therapeutic, and spiritual movement emerged out of First Contact 400 years ago between whites, or non-Natives, and the indigenous, or Native, peoples in the Americas. It literally arose from the ashes of violence, genocide, and oppression. Because of this troubled legacy, shamanism—as practiced by those who do not have direct ancestral roots in a Native culture and religion or as taught to non-Natives by people who claim Native ancestry—is hotly contested in both indigenous and academic circles.

I am guilty in such conversations by virtue of being a white woman of European ancestry. I am also guilty by virtue of being an academic folklorist and anthropologist, who left my tenured university job to follow a spiritual calling using tools of the ancient wisdom traditions of indigenous peoples. Let me explain what I am guilty of—and why.

The Origins of Modern Shamanism

The word “shaman” was coined in the 1950s by Romanian literary writer Mircea Eliade in his book Ancient Techniques of Ecstasy. His work detailed the cross-cultural phenomenon of eccentric individuals entering trance states to journey to an angelic upperworld for help and guidance. He borrowed the word used by the Siberian Tungus to describe their healers and medicine people—“saman.”

Since Eliade’s use of the word, anthropologists, psychologists, and scholars of religious studies have used it to refer to communal leaders, religious practitioners, and practitioners of various therapeutic, spiritual, and cultural movements in the West.

The re-emergence of shamanic practices in the West has its roots in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda earned his doctorate in anthropology at UCLA with his unconventional first-person visionary narrative of his mystical, entheogen-influenced experiences under the tutelage of a Yaqui man named Don Juan. His dissertation, debunked as a work of fiction by academicians and the Yaqui tribe, was nevertheless published as The Teachings of Don Juan, galvanizing a shamanism movement in the U.S. and Europe.

Today, thousands of people go to spiritual hot spots like Machu Picchu, seeking spiritual experiences or training to be certified as shamanic practitioners. There are hundreds of programs run by individuals and organizations of varying backgrounds and training that offer workshops (see box, below). Individuals of indigenous backgrounds call themselves shamans and teach workshops to anyone who will come. Some who do not call themselves shamans disseminate practices and knowledge from indigenous sources. Anyone who calls himself or herself a “shaman” or a practitioner of “shamanism,” whether Native or non-Native, is controversial in some circles.

Understanding the Controversy

Daniel Noel, a scholar of myth and religion, in his book The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities, voices the opinion that the work of Carlos Castaneda and many of today’s popular teachers of shamanism are suspect on the grounds of the ignorance and sense of entitlement of whites to the artifacts of Native cultures: “This work of imaginative construction—never admitted as such—has promoted unconscious Western fantasies of immediate access to indigenous healing wisdom.”

Echoing this, Inés Hernández-Ávila, associate professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, writes:

“Many, if not most, non-Native Americans seem to feel an entitlement regarding Native American ceremonial and cultural traditions, artifacts, and gravesites, including ancestral bones, that can only be understood in the context of the original entitlement the first colonizers felt toward this land by ‘right of conquest’ and soon after, ‘Manifest Destiny.’ This entitlement assumes the right to take what is indigenous, with complete disregard for Native peoples, in a manner in which the perpetrators would not think of doing so easily with other traditions. ... Imagine people wanting to find out what it ‘feels like’ to take part in the Catholic ceremony of the Eucharist, or to wear a priest’s garments, or the dress and hairstyle of the Orthodox Jews, because it seems ‘cool.’”

There are often good reasons for Native people to be angry. Whites partaking of the services of indigenous healers and teachers often reveal their ignorance and prejudice in ways that are insulting. Author and teacher Bradford Keeney, PhD (see box), summarizes it this way: “I’ve talked to so many Native American elders who get peeved when people outside of their culture ask for help and then leave a seashell or a skull. Is that what you would leave a psychotherapist? ” Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D. (see box), echoes this: “The indigenous people say that the white man always comes empty-handed.”

These actions and attitudes reflect the ignorance and racism of whites, which is, as Villoldo puts it, “part of a very unconscious colluding of social forces keeping these traditions marginalized and going back to such events as in 1564 when there was a gathering of the Roman Catholic Church to determine if people of color, women, and animals had souls. They determined they did not so that they could be worked in the fields and households.”

There is also an insidious idealization of indigenous people that ignores their great diversity in cultures, classes, religions, perspectives, and experiences. Indigenous people are in every walk of modern life; living on and off reservations; working as electricians, teachers, police officers, and in other professions. They are Christians, agnostics, and atheists. Yet, as Robert J. Wallis, archaeologist and art historian, notes in his book Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans, some in the Western shamanic movements “see Native Americans and Australian Aborigines in particular to be in harmony with nature. This has a troubling subtext which reifies cultural primitivism.”

Many who partake of Western shamanism are unaware that until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act in 1978, Native Americans could not legally practice their religions. Random usurpation of Native rituals and healing practices for personal profit is considered another manifestation of this cultural destruction. Both Native and non-Native people are doing the dissemination—some Native people offer sweat lodges to non-Natives and charge $400.

So given the complexity of this controversy, everyone who is conscientious must think very carefully about their choices if choosing to adopt a Native tradition.

My Choices

In the mid-90s, I went to a workshop given by Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo, author of Voices of Our Ancestors, the twenty-seventh generation lineage holder of the ancestral Ywahoo lineage in the Tsalagi/Cherokee tradition, and chief of the Green Mountain Band of the Aniyunwiwa (Cherokee) ( Dhyani is also a teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist Drikung Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. I grew up with Buddhism and wanted to learn more. So began a search, in the course of which I was catapulted, unbidden, into extraordinary and troubling visionary experiences. Under the hands of bodyworkers and in meditation, I entered into what I can only describe as the ancestral and collective violence and creativity of humanity—the violent lives and deaths of men, women, and children came to me through sensations, visions, and feelings.

Unlike my anthropological predecessors, however, I did not enter these experiences under the guidance of wise elders. I lived in the comfortable enclaves of polite, middle-class society, where such things are relegated to the “imagination” or, in psychological circles, “compensation” or “sublimation.”

My own interpretation is that these experiences imbued me with embodied knowledge of how multigenerational legacies of violence throughout human history have affected all of us, no matter what our race, creed, nation, or religion. Paradoxically, I came to this with the help of shamanic healing practices that also left me keenly aware of the pain engendered by the Western conquest of the Americas.

Because of the bias in academic circles against anything “New Age,” I did not share the experiences or my spiritual beliefs with others. I longed for connection with an intact indigenous spiritual tradition, but I could not fully embrace one due to my self-judgments. Eventually, I compromised by expanding my academic research on cultural trauma to Native American cultures and religions and, in so doing, I came to better understand Indian perspectives on their history, religions, spiritual lives, and cultures.

How to Teach ... How to Study

“It’s very important for anyone who is going to teach about a tradition to respect the way in which that tradition has specified the anointing of the teaching,” says Bradford Keeney. “There are cultures that want their teachings to be secret; there are others who are so open, they want anyone to know anything.”

Deciding where and how to study can be complicated when, as Lee Irwin, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston, pointed out to me, “The Western search for spiritual identity and new techniques for healing are being adapted in the present day. Anyone who teaches in the area of Native religions knows that it is impossible to demonstrate that traditions are unchanged. It is very difficult to draw the line between tradition, innovation, and New Age adaptations.”

On the other hand, these issues are handled differently between North, Central, and South America due to differences in the historical trajectory of First Contact. Villoldo notes, “In North America, the pilgrims came looking for religious freedom—their own. They were completely intolerant of others’ religions. In Central and South America, the Europeans came to plunder and pillage, but initially, they left the religious traditions alone. Therefore, in Central and South America, they are very welcome to outsiders because there is not the same stain as in North America. In North America, there is so much residual trauma because of the ferocity of the conquest that it spills over into the argument [over questions of legitimacy].”

If we trace our ancestry back far enough, we have all come from both perpetrators and victims. While the fact of transgenerational cycles of violence does not excuse the ongoing oppression of and theft from the indigenous peoples, it both frees and binds those of us who choose this path. It leads us directly into the fire of compassion, which calls us to embrace complexity as part of the spiritual path.

Finding My Way

I now choose to see the word “shamanism” as a way to describe something vast and ineffable. I see the work of alleviating suffering and developing compassion as a spiritual task that transcends culture, race, nation, and religion. Part of this work is honoring our ancestors for the gifts and challenges they have given us. It is important for those of us who hold such lineages, from whatever culture they come, to be responsible not only to ourselves but to our teachers. We must give due credit. We must give back to those who have suffered the most and still suffer from the blight of human ignorance and greed.

As part of a generation of academics who have been drawn to indigenous practices, I believe my task is to engage others in the thorny moral and political questions surrounding the practices and to awaken them to the unconscious patterns of racism still staining our thoughts, no matter how enlightened we may think we are. As I do this work, I take comfort in the truth that there is no place at the intersection of cultures and religions between the post-Enlightenment West and the indigenous where there is easy ground to stand on. We are all struggling with these problems—whether we are of Native or European ancestry or some mixture thereof.

Finally, I have come to understand that regardless of our messy human histories, we must, in the end, follow our hearts. I love what I have been taught by these indigenous and Western teachers. And paradoxically, my engagement with the terror of violence as a scholar, teacher, and spiritual practitioner has shown me that the work of the spiritual is always the path to a radical, powerful love—a love that heals.

Shamanism Teachers

Some of the most well-known and influential teachers of shamanism in the U.S. are three former academics :

Michael Harner, PhD, author of Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth and Empowerment, founded the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in 1985 around what he calls “core shamanism.” His foundation offers a three-year training program presented as “the most advanced training in shamanism and shamanic healing ... recognized as unparalleled in the world.” After Eliade, Harner’s work is cited as arguably among the most influential in establishing shamanism in the West. (

Alberto Villoldo, PhD, author of Dance of the Four Winds and Shaman, Healer, Sage, among many other titles, founded the Four Winds Society, “an international research and training organization preserving a thousand-year-old tradition of knowledge to achieve personal and planetary healing.” Villoldo is a psychologist and medical anthropologist who asserts that he “was the first North American anthropologist to have extensive contact with the Q’ero nation, the last remaining Inka, who live in isolated mountaintops in the Andes.” Students in his school can learn the techniques he calls “healing the light body” through a basic certification of seven trainings taking place around the U.S. and Western Europe. (

Bradford Keeney, PhD, pioneer in the field of family therapy; author of many books on shamanism, including Bushman Shaman; editor of the Profiles in Healing book and digital recording series about the world’s traditional healers; professor of Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies; and founding director of the Bushman (San) N/om-Kxaosi Ethnographic Project at the Institute for Religion and Health, Texas Medical Center, Houston. He offers trainings that involve “learning how shaking medicine can awaken the original mysteries of spirit.” (; see also “Shaking Medicine,” S&H May/June 2007)

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