Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Politics of Appropriation

Annie Oakley & Tagg Paperdolls

Before we leave the ice age to further explore contemporary American shamanism let me say a word about contemporary shamanism as it relates to Native American traditions. According to the website, New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans, created by an activist group of Native Americans and their supporters “No traditional Native American or First Nations group calls their spiritual teachers, leaders or elders "shamans", which is a term native only to Siberia.” And, “Contemporary, New Age, "global" shamanism is characterized by cultural appropriation, eclecticism and personal spiritual connections.” *

Cultural appropriation when employed by a would-be shaman is legitimately viewed with skepticism. Considering the context of our blood soaked history it is easy to see why Native Americans take offense when they see non-natives blithely adopt the outward trappings of sacred native traditions. This is true especially when commercial gain or fraud is involved.

That is not to say a person of European descent cannot successfully undertake training in a Native American tradition. Nor is it to say that just because someone is of Native American heritage they are automatically qualified to teach tribal traditions. However, out of respect for traditional native American spiritual practices we should not confuse them with contemporary "global" shamanism.

* Since posting this I have noticed a few respected Native American voices using the term shaman in relation to Native spiritual tradition, The respected author and historian Vine Deloria Jr. in The World We Used to Live In and activist, poet and visionary John Trudell on his album AKA Graffitti Man in the song Shaman (Make a Chant). I believe the key to the complaint is not so much use of the word shaman but is about having respect for the traditions of others.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Shamanisn, Traditional or On My ipod?

Siberian Shaman ~ Christina Pratt

We get the word Shaman from the Tungus word saman associated with the hunting tribes of Siberia and central Asia that are genetically linked to primary groups of Native Americans. While a few remnants of these early hunting societies survive, shamanism itself is alive and well and downloadable off the Internet.

I have just started listening to Christina Pratt’s podcasts, Why Shamanism Now? as broadcast on Seventh Wave Radio. They are a free download on itunes. She makes a distinction between the terms "authentic" and "traditional". Because shamanic practice is a technology used to attain direct revelation from the spirit world, according to Pratt the criteria for authentic shamanism is success in connecting to the spirit world. Because shamanism is the proto religion of the human race these technologies come to us through many different cultural traditions some with more formalized training than others. Being trained in traditional methods is of course going to be helpful in achieving the sought for connection to the spirit world. The traditions alone however are not as critical as actually making the spiritual connection.

The ancient hunters purpose for using shamanism was survival. They relied on direct revelation to guide them toward a successful hunt. My own interest is just as practical. Can shamanic techniques of connecting to the spirit world or the life force help me make a living, pay my bills, live in good health and contribute to my community? And yes, find my spirit animal? This remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Flight of the Shaman

Flight of the Shaman
Jessie Oonark, Stone cut and stencil, 1970
The Winnipeg Art Gallery

The story of Ice Age Shamanism in America is written into the archeological record. This record has been buried and folded into the land of this continent over thousands of years making it a challenge to read. What we know from the archeological record is augmented by observations of contemporary, or more recent peoples, who practice what is believed to be a similar shamanic spirituality. In Canada, Alaska and Siberia the traditions of the ancient northern hunters persist today.

One critical skill of the Shaman is the Shamanic journey or flight. In the book, The Coming and Going of the Shaman: Eskimo Shamanism and Art, by The Winnipeg Art Gallery, Jean Blodgett, the Curator of Eskimo Art describes shamanic flight.

“Shamans could fly to the moon, to the sun, to the heavens, and to the underworld. They visited deities above the earth and below the sea. They flew or descended to the bottom of lakes and to the lands of the dead, both in the sky and underground. They might fly through space or around the earth. They were transported by spirit helpers and benign deities. They also traveled from one earthly local to another; from Canada to Point Barrow, from the Diomede Islands to St Lawrence, or even from Alaska to San Francisco and back.”

The Coming and Going of the Shaman: Eskimo Shamanism and Art

by The Winnipeg Art Gallery, Jean Blodgett, the Curator of Eskimo Art

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sacred Drum Vision

My Goatskin Hoop Drum

I have a beautiful deep toned heartbeat goatskin hoop drum made by a woman named White Bear on Lopez Island. All this reading about Shamanism has me thinking maybe it is about time to paint it.
These painted drums photographed in the book Sacred Drumming by Steven Ash inspire me. Under the heading, Painting Your Drum, Ash advises… “In the painting of your drum, you will imprint your spirit based on your personal dreams and visions that are coming to you from Spirit. There is no rush – it may be years until you get around to painting your drum and that is fine. Wait until you feel totally right about doing it.”

Good thing there is no rush. I have had my drum for years, always intending to paint it one day. All I need now is a sacred drum vision.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Mojo of a Red Tipped Spearhead

The First American Religion: Shamanic Hunting Magic, cont…

At an archeology site in Colorado, the site of an ancient bison kill, Smithsonian archaeologist Dr. Dennis Stanford observed that the material used by one group of hunters for spear points came from over 180 miles away when excellent material for points could be found within 50 miles of the site. Again and again he observed evidence that supreme effort was taken to procure only the highest quality materials. “We see that over and over again, they were selecting for specific rocks. They have to be the highest quality. Now why that is, I'm not sure. I think it probably goes back to some of the ideas about respect for the game. These people are hunting mammoths and probably having to fend off saber-toothed tigers and cave bears. They've got some pretty wild critters out there that they're dealing with. And one way to deal with it of course is through magic - through more power - and you can get more power if you select the right rock, particularly colored rocks, it shows respect for your animals.” Dr. Stanford described the importance of color in a Clovis style spear point, “It was chosen for these colors, it was flaked to incorporate this red here at the tip. It has a prominent white stripe coming all the way across the center section.”

The ice age craftsperson would not have had a term, let alone concept, of art as we think of it today but clearly color was of great importance not only as visual symbolism but also as a potent ingredient of magic.

People of Faith for Obama

Obama in Church ~ Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

What got me started writing about American religion was my participation in, People of Faith for Obama, during the Obama presidential campaign. As participants, we were asked to respond to weekly “values questions”. The purpose was to generate interfaith dialog and of course convince conservative Christians who may be more inclined to vote republican to support Obama.

It is not likely my participation convinced any conservative Christians to vote for Obama. In my life I have formally belonged to three different religions. I was raised as a Disciple of Christ, participated in a Wicca circle for twenty years and am now a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve have also had the honor of participating in Native American ceremonies, I've been a student of Zen, through yoga have learned and practiced Hindu chants and have celebrated the Mexican Day of the Dead. The American right to freedom of religion is not wasted on me.

As diverse as my religious explorations have been I have come to see my path as uniquely American. Religious freedom itself, the availability of information and teachers, a society that values religious tolerance and even my Protestant upbringing all contribute to my identity as an American seeker. I discovered through writing short essays for the Obama campaign that American religion was a topic I wanted to explore further both as an intellectual pursuit and as my own spiritual quest.

My People of Faith for Obama Houseparty
transforms into an Om for Obama Drum Circle.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I'm Your Spirit Animal

"I'm Your Spirit Animal."
The New Yorker

Religion in America - Ice Age Shamanism

My new blog, American Seeker, will follow the progress of my book, American Seeker: Exploring the Spiritual Landscape of America. It will include excerpts from my book-in-progress, plus other material and images that I find in my research that will not be in the book.

Woolly mammoth replica the Royal British Columbia Museum
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
~ photo: Jonathan Blair/Corbis

The First American Religion: Shamanic Hunting Magic

What remain of America’s ice age hunters are their bones, their spear points and the blood red ocher used to mark their burials and sacred sites. Human beings did not evolve on the American continents. No one knows precisely when or from where the first migrants arrived but evidence shows that successive waves of hunters and gatherers came into North America from Eurasia during the last ice age, possibly 40,000 to 10,000 years ago.

With huge masses of the earth’s water bound up in glaciers, stone-age hunting groups followed their prey; mammoth, bison and deer, across a land bridge called Beringia where the Bering Strait now separates Siberia from Alaska. Many seem to have traveled through a corridor between two ice sheets as they migrated into North America along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

What they found here was a hunter’s paradise of verdant grasslands, lush forests and plenty of big game. And I do mean big, their prey included woolly mammoths as tall as a house, giant moose, bison a third larger than today’s breed and beavers the size of a modern bear. But their world also included grave risk. These hunters were competing for their meat with packs of wolves and saber-toothed tigers. It was the shamans both male and female who warned the people of danger, defined their place in the universe and guided them with visions.

Clovis Points ~ Tool of Ice Age Hunters in North America