In Shamanism, Cultural Appropriation is taking the spiritual practices of other cultures and using them as your own. For the term cultural appropriation, we are using the definition of appropriation “take and use without the owner’s permission.”
In many traditions, the power of a spiritual practice (whether shamanic or not) comes through the adherence to what was handed down, and the empowerment of practicing the same rituals the same way for many many years. In some cases, only a well trained individual after years of practice may even be allowed to lead a ceremony or a dance.
The Problems with Copying Spiritual Ceremonies or Practices
An outsider to such traditions will not recognize which aspects of a ceremony are sacred. They may not realized that the way it is performed is considered sacred. They also may not realize that the fact that it has done a specific way is part of what gives it power.
If an outsider sees a practice or ceremony or is taught how to participate in it, then takes that to use in their own spiritual practice it can be a form of stealing. Just because you come from a culture who does not see “rights” in the same way, doesn’t mean that the culture you are emulating or copying would agree with you.
If you can imagine for a moment, that there could be real power in repeating a ceremony in a specific way, you can see how having another untrained person go and do it could be an actual dis-empowerment. Also, there can be safety concerns. Some ceremonies are powerfully transformation, and the ceremony leader was trained how to deal with emotional and physical crises that can occur during the ceremony. Finally, these ceremonies form part of the identity of a specific culture. You can in some sense steal that identity by copying their practice.
In particular, Native American tribes and cultures have been copied in this way. Most tribes are no longer living on the land of their ancestors. They are no longer speaking the language of their ancestors (either not exclusively or not on a regular basis.) These ceremonies are one of the things that connect them to their culture and their history, besides potentially providing the framework of their society. I am not trying to make a blanket statement for all Native American Tribes about how they view their ceremonies. I do not have enough experience to speak for their varied cultures in any way. But I do want to bring to your mind, why it could be a violation to take a ceremony. How it could be similar to how, in an earlier generation, someone took their land.
This is where permission becomes very important in shamanic work, and in spirituality. There are some cultures where they do not consider their practices in this way. It may be OK to use practices when you get permission.
However, in a culture that considered ceremonies to be theirs it is often the case that one individual in that culture does not have permission to give you a ceremony or practice. It is often the property of the community, not one person. This may mean you have no way to gain permission to use a practice. This may mean you have to leave that practice alone.
The Crux of the Matter
One of the problems with the western mind’s ability to understand getting permission, comes in some ways from our materialism. We are used to being able to buy something, or make a story about it, or copy it into a new form and do not think of that as having its own power or that the original object should be honored.
However, I think for shamanic practitioners in the US, a deeper issue is our own feelings of authenticity. For some reason, there are many people who feel that they have to belong to a traditional cultural practice of shamanism to be authentic. It seems to me, the crux of the matter is whether you believe in the power of the spirit world. Do you actually believe it is real? Do you actually believe you can receive valid instruction from it? Are you willing to take the risk of learning directly from the spirit world without the safety blanket of rules from someone else?
The Roots of Feeling Authentic
This difficulty of feeling authentic has a few root sources. Many of which can be worked through if you believe your connection to the spirit world is real.
Our culture finds it easier to understand the idea of a native healer. They don’t have to reconcile what it means for someone to be this type of non-scientific healer if they can put it in a neat box. “Oh that’s a Native American practice.” Or “She trained with an African Shaman.” It can be uncomfortable to not have one of these pre-fab labels to fly our banner under.
Another problem is that we don’t think we have a culture. This is a problem that can only happen to people who are part of the “reference culture.” By reference culture I mean the culture that is considered the norm. When they think of having a culture, they think of it having to be something like Irish, or French or Asian. They will often say, but my family lost touch with my culture… I don’t have one any longer.
This is partly an misunderstanding of culture. Its impossible not to have a culture. However, being part of your own culture, you may not be able to see it clearly and therefore feel that you don’t have one. If you have ever visited another place and felt the difference of that culture… that means that you were visiting a culture that was different than your culture. If someone from that place visited where you live, they would be struck by your culture as well.
This puts me in mind of being from the mid-west United States and listening to National news. Someone told me that national news broadcasters generally emulate a Midwestern accent. When I learned this I realized that there were probably people all over the country who felt like the national news casters did not sound like them. If you visit Boston, you might think ‘what a weird accent.’ But to a Boston-er… they sound normal. Your the one with an accent.
Keeping this in mind, that means that you already have a culture even if your not sure how to perceive it. What that means is you don’t need to find a new culture to practice shamanism. You can practice it from your own. In fact, however you practice shamanism, it will be shaped by the culture you come from in some way
The Romantic Old Time Shaman
The shamans of other cultures may seem more romantic. They have an attractive pull on our imaginations. This reminds me of the movie April In Paris, where Owen Wilson’s character is busy romanticizing the time before him. Then he sees that the people in that time were romanticizing the time before them. This brings him to understanding how to enjoy the time he’s in here and now.
I think there were probably many shamans over the centuries who felt pretty normal. Maybe they felt a little different, like an artist might or anyone who is doing a job that isn’t part of the norm in their society. But I doubt the average shaman found him or herself to be romantic and exciting. They were just doing their job. Maybe the costumes seemed kind of cool, but even so, it was just their life and their job.
However, when we look back to another time, or away to another culture the shamans of that other place or time seem exotic. There is an appeal that isn’t always there with a shaman whose wearing some jeans and typing away at her computer. (Sure I’m wearing a moldavite ring… big deal?) This is another pull that can cause you to want to draw your shamanic practice from another culture. It can feel more shamanismy… or shamany… or well… just more cool.
But the fact is, as we discussed, you do come from a culture. It may turn out that that is the type of shaman your supposed to be.
Avoiding Cultural Appropriation
To avoid cultural appropriation you might have to make some changes. Even though you feel love and great joy when you see the practices of another culture. You need to make sure that you aren’t stealing the practices of that culture you love. If you can’t be sure you have permission, you may have to err on the side of caution. You may need to let go of a practice, even though it can feel like you are losing a connection to something beloved. There will be new things and new connections to take its place.
You also need to avoid giving others the impression that you do come from a culture that you do not. Giving yourself a name that sounds like another culture, or using their images, or claiming you were trained in their ways. (That you are doing their ways, not just that you were inspired by them. You can always specifically mention that you you aren’t referring to that culture to avoid confusion.)
You also want to take a look around and see if there is something in your language or images that needs changing. You need to consider. Just because saying “its like native american practices” makes it easier for the person your talking to to understand, doesn’t mean that your aren’t potentially misrepresenting Native American cultures. What is the most authentic way to describe your work and represent it in images?
The lines that divide this work are not always clear and easy to define. In the end, its your own sense of what is right, respect for other cultures, and knowing of what is needed for your work that must inform you. Any introspection on what you are and what your doing, any work you do to try to understand and represent it more truly, will deepen your connection to your healing work.
Finding Your Own Shamanic Way
I say that all these issues can be resolved by trusting the spirit world. This is because, if you are shaping your practice around the spirit world’s direction, your shamanic practice is not going to look like anyone else’s shamanic practice. This can make it easier to leave behind any issue of cultural appropriation. The spirit world can give you metaphors and stories that may help you explain what you do to other people, without mentioning a culture in a misleading way. In cases where you see something from another culture that inspires you, you can go to the spirit world to ask for something authentic that give you the same inspiration.
There are potential problems that you can avoid by receiving shamanic training. The spirit world doesn’t understand everything about our culture so that it can determine in every case what is appropriate. You are the person who comes from your culture. So it is your job to find out what you need to know, to tell healing stories, to learn the potential pit falls of the healing work your doing. It is important to get training from authentic and experienced teachers.
However, being trained by a traditional culture isn’t going to make you more or less authentic than someone who was not trained by a traditional culture. Authenticity comes from within yourself, and arises from how authentically you connect with and allow through the energy of the spirit world.
People who are studying shamanism as researchers, who don’t believe that the spirit world is real, may believe that you are faking being a shamanic practitioner. That’s pretty understandable. If someone doesn’t believe the spirit world is real, the only way to authentically learn shamanism is to learn from someone who learned from someone who learned from someone. Although who the first person was who learned it was…? Who knows?
I think that if shamanic practitioners or shamans (or whatever title you use) are to become authentic, and steer away from maybe stealing another cultures practice, we need to make peace with that. I know some people are authentically drawn to study within a specific culture. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just think that as practitioners, we need to become conscious of whether we feel drawn to do that from insecurity or because that is truly where the spirit is calling us.
Wikipedia entry on Cultural Appropriation (Has many additional links in the References section.)