On Shamanism: Just How Public is That Horse?

I’m not a shaman.

Let me clarify: I own a bunch of books on practices that some say fall under the shamanic umbrella, so to speak, and I do a lot of stuff that people would consider part of What Shamans Do, but that’s not a label I care to use, because there are a lot of indigenous people out there who feel like the word is capitalizing on stereotypes about their culture, even when it’s not being used by white people to present a bastardized version of their religion.

At the same time, I often enjoy and recommend the work of white people who identify as shamans, like Raven Kaldera, Lupa, and Galina Krasskova1. Do I agree that their choice of terminology is a good one? No, I definitely don’t. But I do think these are people who know their shit, and who put a lot of effort into making it clear their practices are completely distinct from the “Native American Spirituality” bullshit certain clueless white folks like to trot out… so I still buy and recommend their work, while adding relevant disclaimers where necessary.

Sometimes, though, certain things just get under my skin. Like Raven Kaldera’s essay, “Public Horses,” which was written in response to NDN protests over his use of the word “shaman”, and which claims that the word has become public property over time. I’m quoting a bit below, but I strongly recommend you go read the whole thing.

To put it in storytelling form – a typical shaman’s thing to do – let’s say that someone came to your house and gave you a horse, saying, “This looks like it belongs to you.” The next day, someone else comes into your yard and tries to ride the horse. You object, and they say that it isn’t your horse, it’s a public horse. Before you take them to court over it, wouldn’t it be smart to check around and find out if maybe that horse was stolen property?

It bemuses me that many Native Americans, rather than being able to agree on a morally indefensible word from an actual Native language, are arguing over ownership of what is, basically, a white man’s label. (Similar arguments abound over the word “berdache”, another white man’s label whose actual original meaning is so insulting that I am horrified to hear Native people refer to themselves that way. Surely such words as “winkte”, “lhamana”, or “kwe’rhame” would be more respectful?) It seems that after decades of wearing a white man’s word, it begins to feel like it fits. Unfortunately, the label in the shirt printed “shaman” says “Made In Siberia”, and it has become, over many decades, a public shirt. Maybe it looks foolish on some and fits right on others, but we all have as much – or as little – right to try it on as any other person on this continent. It’s become a public horse that all cultures can ride – and fall off of.

Now, I don’t actually have anything against Raven2 — there are plenty of people attacking him already, and usually there’s a lot of gross transphobia and kink-shaming at the root of it — and from what I’ve heard from people who know him, he’s pretty awesome, but that’s always set my teeth on edge. In addition to mixing its metaphors, that story leaves out a few important details. I have another version, and while it’s not a perfect metaphor3, I hope it serves its purpose in illustrating another side of the public horse debate.

You’ve got this horse, see? And you’re proud of your horse. It’s a good horse, a strong horse. It’s been trained from infancy to do exactly what you need it to. It’s your partner and your friend, and you do your best to take care of it. And all your friends and neighbors have horses of their own, likewise trained to meet their own specific needs. Life is pretty good. But one day, some people with guns show up, and they take your horse, and all your friends’ horses, and all your neighbors’ horses. And they tell you they’ll shoot you if you try to take your horses back, because all that horseback riding you’ve been doing is evil, and if you’d just do what they told you, you wouldn’t need horses.

At this point, there are a few things you can do: you and your friends can try and fight back (spoilers: that very rarely ends well for you), you can pretend to play along while trying to steal back your horse, or at least take it out of the paddock for a ride every so often when no one is looking, or you can just give up on having a horse altogether. No matter what you choose, you know your children won’t be able to ride like you used to, and if you try to teach them, you’re putting their lives at risk. Maybe that’s worth it, maybe it’s not. Either way, life is no longer good.

And then a stranger shows up. It’s one of the people with guns, only this one tells you, “Here. This is the horse you were all using, right? You can have it, I guess.” And even if you try to explain that no, your horse was different, and you didn’t share it with all your friends, because they had horses of their own to ride, they just shrug and say, “Well, what’s the difference, really? It’s a horse. Four legs, eats grass, can carry people and supplies on its back. It’ll work out fine.”

You have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you this horse was stolen from someone else, just as your horse was stolen from you. But at least you have a horse, now, and most people won’t even try to shoot you for riding it. You have to share it with all your friends and neighbors, and so the horse never quite knows what you’ll want it to do, and it’ll never suit you as well as the horse that was taken from you, but at least it’s a place to start. When you tell someone you ride horses, sure, they think of one horse in particular, but at least they know what you’re talking about now.

Only some of the people who came with guns and stole your horses in the first place now think this riding you’re doing is awesome. Your horse is awesome. They’d really like to ride your horse. Some of them are quiet, and respectful, and genuinely want to help you get your other horses back, but even more just take your horse. And they ride around dressed up as a parody of you, while mistreating your horse (because after so long with this as the only horse you were allowed to have, yeah, you kind of do think of it as yours), and generally making you look bad, while they tell everyone you taught them everything they know about riding. Maybe someone would like to pay them money to watch them ride this horse? They do it just like you do, after all.

And this makes you mad. The same people who stole your horses and gave you a substitute horse are now taking that horse whenever they feel like it, and demanding money for their use of stolen property. They’re telling everyone they’re so special because you let them ride your horse, and now they can give everyone else a ride, too! Really, they say, you said it was okay. And every time they do it, the horse comes back looking a little more worn out, a little more malnourished. It’s having to do so much work for so many people, after all. And this keeps happening, over and over again. You’re getting really tired of watching people abuse this horse. Quietly, you say to yourself, “Never again.”

Only now you’re the selfish one. How dare you deprive everyone of the joy of riding your horse? One of them finds out that it wasn’t even your horse to begin with. “Ha!” they say. “You’ve been mistaken all this time about whose horse it is!”

“No,” you say. “I know that’s not my horse. But for years I’ve seen people like you taking it without asking and pretending to ride it the way I do, telling everyone it’s my horse, and it hurts the horse when they do that, because they’re doing it wrong. It hurts me, because it spreads bad ideas about what my riding actually looks like. You people gave me this horse after you took mine away, and I just want to make sure it’s treated respectfully.”

“Exactly,” they say. “We gave you this horse. You can use your old horses again if you want to, but this horse is everyone’s horse now, because we’ve all been sharing it for this long.” You wonder to yourself how that even makes sense. Is the horse magically unstolen now? What do the original owners have to say about this? But they’re not done talking. “Besides, it  was my cousin’s grandfather’s horse first, and I’m not riding it like you do, I’m riding it more like how Cousin’s Grandpa did. Or close enough, anyway. I’d have to check with my cousin. Not that I’m going to, because my cousin lives far away, but I’m sure we can all agree I have more right to this horse than you do. But you can still ride it, because I’m generous like that.”

They may be right about whose horse it was first. They may be not be ripping off your trademark riding style. They may even be trying to ride that horse to show people like them that there are other ways to ride, and people don’t have to spend all their time either pestering you for free riding lessons or playing pretend in ways that hurt both you and the horse. But after years of people abusing the horse that was left in your keeping, and maliciously ripping you off while they do it, all you want is for you and “your” horse to be left alone for a while, especially when the people trying to ride this one horse have a whole stable full of other horses just waiting to be ridden.

“But everyone recognizes this horse!” they say, and they don’t think too hard about how the reason this horse is the most recognizable is because their fathers and grandfathers and friends and neighbors took away all the other horses and locked them up, hoping they’d die of loneliness and starvation.

“I don’t care,” you tell them. “I am asking you nicely, please give this horse a rest.”

And they listen to what you have to say, nod attentively, and then tell you that’s nice and all, but they don’t have to listen to you when it’s not even your horse.

By this point, you’re probably not feeling up to showing restraint and kindness towards horse thieves and their descendants. But who would?

 

I’m not trying to say that no white person should ever so much as whisper the word “shaman” again for fear of making indigenous people cry. But I am saying that indigenous people have a right to be pissed off, and all the good intentions in the world won’t erase generations of poor treatment. No matter how nicely you try to explain what you’re doing, and how you’re not trying to appropriate anyone’s spirituality, people who’ve been repeatedly lied to and abused where their traditions are concerned may not feel like sticking around to listen: if you walk like an abuser and talk like an abuser, an abuse victim is justified in not wanting to stick around and find out if they’ve misread you — because nine times out of ten, says their experience, that person who looks a lot like an abuser actually is one.

There are parts of Raven’s post I really like, though. For example:

Unfortunately, the English language does not have a single word for “spirit-worker who has been seized by the spirits, died and been reborn to a lifetime dedicated to serving a tribe via their spirit-given abilities”. The reasons for that are the fault of our ancestors, but the damage is done. We need a word. This one is already in use, has already become a public horse. How do I deal with the fact that in some sense I am “ripping off” the Tungus people? I pay in increased understanding. Whenever possible, I tell people the origin of this word. Many Westerners don’t even know that the Tungus people exist, or that Siberia is anything more than a former Soviet prison camp, and that many other places around the globe have shamanic traditions, each with their own cultural trappings. This article is part of that payment. For everyone who knows this, I do honor to the tribe that gave us their word for such an important concept.

Similarly, I encourage those who use the words or cultural trappings of a culture not of their ancestors to pay that culture back in that way … ideally with some form of activism that hopefully aids the people in question. I also encourage them to ask permission of the spirits of that culture. If they won’t talk to you, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. If they do talk to you, and give their approval, then the voices of humans are irrelevant.

[…]

Just because your culture has been emptied of this knowledge does not mean that the spirits do not sometimes come for you anyway, and this can lead to insanity and death if you don’t know where to look. Although the word “shaman” is currently surrounded by a swirl of confusion and controversy, it’s a place to start; a beacon to lead those who need it to what they need. The existence of this term as a public horse in our multicultural society saves lives. That’s worth paying for.

While still problematic, this raises some valid points. From a spirit-worker’s perspective, all these things aren’t just theoretical, or quaint traditions. These are real things that are happening to us, real spirits that are in our faces, demanding things we don’t always understand. We’ll take any horse at all when we’re in danger and can no longer walk, and worry about human opinions when we’re no longer about to die4. And I agree wholeheartedly that when you take something from another culture, even if you have permission, you need to pay them back, rather than just insisting you’re “honoring” that culture by taking something that is theirs.

However, I’ve read (though cannot source) that the Evenks, Tungus, Buryat, and Yakut have requested that the word “shaman” no longer be appropriated. If this is true, then all the education and activism in the world won’t change that, and continuing to use that word spits in the face of the people we took it from. There’s no way around that, no way we can pretty that up and make it look respectful.

So what can we do, really? If that horse isn’t as public as we’d like to think, how can we manage when finding any horse at all may be a matter of life and death?

It’s a thorny issue, to say the least, and there seems to be no clear answer. I was having a conversation with my friend An on the shamanism issue, and se linked me to a post about social justice as cryptolect, which highlights some of the problems with rapidly changing terminology5, and how in some situations, there are really no non-problematic solutions.

Still, even in Raven’s post, there’s a key bit of phrasing: the word “shamanism” as a place to start. Where we finish will, hopefully, be somewhere else entirely. And the white people who call themselves shamans still serve a valuable purpose. Even if I don’t like that they’re using that term, I wouldn’t be where I am, spiritually speaking, without discovering Northern Tradition Shamanism through Raven’s writings, and then learning about the problematic aspects through critiques of those writings. It’s possible I’d still be alive, but I’d be a lot more miserable. As far as terminology goes, shamanism isn’t my horse, and I’m well aware I don’t have the right to ride it, but if not for the people who showed me there were different ways to ride a stolen horse, I wouldn’t have found the horse that is mine.

Right now, I’m at a place where it seems the best way to move on from using “shamanism” as a catch-all is to acknowledge that it’s problematic and find better words, while leaving signs of the path we took to get there — the disagreements and the debates and the social justice arguments, and all the attempts to find a version of shamanism that isn’t inherently appropriative — so that people can follow us and find their own horses, so to speak.

Our horses are out there, no matter where we’re from. Some of them were taken from us, and are still locked away, waiting for us to find them. Some of our horses died alone and forgotten, and so we’re stuck trying to raise brand new wobbly-legged foals with no idea of how well they’ll meet our needs when they grow up. But there will never be a shortage of horses, if we look for them. And eventually, when yet another desperate person goes stumbling toward the only horse they know, that poor overworked beast named Shamanism, they’ll go to pull themselves up on its back only to find that, now that they’ve reached it, there are plenty of other horses available to carry them to safety… including the one that’s uniquely Theirs.

  1. I take issue with a lot of her opinions, but her books are great, and have a lot of useful info. I just don’t read her blog very often, for my own peace of mind. So it goes. []
  2. Quite the contrary: lot of what he’s written started me on the path to a whole new level of understanding and self-acceptance, and I tend to aggressively recommend his writing to people who, like me, have spent much of their lives feeling like monsters. []
  3. I’m Latina with a tiny bit of Apache blood, but I was raised in a mix of Cuban and white American geek culture, so I don’t claim any firsthand experience with this particular oppression. I can’t speak for any members of indigenous North American cultures. I may get stuff wrong. This is metaphor, not gospel. Not to be taken internally. Failure to remove the sliding part from the part that moves may result in product malfunction. In the event of dizziness, blurred vision, blood in the stool, or death-like symptoms, please contact a physician. []
  4. I see you there, rolling your eyes, because how dare we pretend our delusions can kill us, we’re just drama queens, blah blah blah. 1) Fuck you. 2) Just because it’s in your head doesn’t mean it can’t kill you. Or save you, for that matter. We can’t offer scientific proof for spiritual events, but the placebo effect? Yeah, that’s a thing that has evidence to back it up. If you treat your life-threatening illness like shaman sickness and you get better, does it actually matter, in the bigger picture, if it was or not? You’re still better. And I say this as someone with a firm belief in the literal existence of gods and spirits… but even if I’m wrong, what I do works, and that’s the important part. …Though it should go without saying that spiritual practice should be used in conjunction with secular medicine, and not instead of. []
  5. The fact that I’m linking to a skepticism-focused blog to back up points I’m making about spirituality is making me laugh a little, though. I don’t know that the original author would approve of the context in which I’m bringing up his arguments, but the arguments are good food for thought anyway. []
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