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.

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  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. []