LINEAGE, HERITAGE, AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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Anyone who seeks a deeper connection to Spirit can study Shamanism and use these elements in their personal practice.

But as humans existing in a world where privilege, oppression, colonialism, and cultural appropriation still exist, we need to keep these topics at the forefront of any discussion about Shamanism.

I urge anyone bringing Shamanism into their personal practice to do so from a place of respect and humility, with an understanding of how their own personal heritage intersects with the knowledge they are acquiring.

A big question that is important to address is: can non-indigenous people practice Shamanism?

The short answer is yes, but they must do so with proper respect.

Shamanism is not something that should be approached as a fad, fashion statement, or business plan.

To be a shamanic practitioner is to focus on an internal process of transformation.

It is to develop a genuine, ongoing working relationship with our helping spirits, and to properly honor the shamanic practitioners who came before us, and who are still here today.

I have come across teachers and practitioners who handle this question by saying that Shamanism is everyone’s birthright.

While this is not necessarily inaccurate, the reality is that the answer to this question is, and should be, much more complicated.

While Shamanism is a methodology, not a religion, and does not belong to one religious group, culture, race, or country, it has undeniably been brought to us by indigenous groups.

In acknowledging this, we must recognize that many, if not all, indigenous groups these teachings came from have faced discrimination or oppression in some form.

Even in present times, this oppression continues, as sacred native lands are defaced and exploited in the name of capitalism.

As students, we have a duty to approach the study of Shamanism with the appropriate level of respect it deserves.

We must understand where these practices come from and honor the people who brought us these teachings.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona, whose research has focused on the Cherokee and Lakota traditions, has spoken of cultural appropriation and the respectful practice of Shamanism.

He explains that the indigenous communities of North America are upset at those who play at being indigenous.

He uses the example of those who attend one or two workshops and then take it upon themselves to start teaching and leading ceremonies.

As we discussed earlier in this book, developing a shamanic practice does not automatically make one a shaman or healer.

This kind of behavior trivializes the dedicated study and practice, generally spanning several years, that is expected within shamanic traditions.

On the other hand, sincere seekers and students of all backgrounds are generally welcomed.

We all have the ability to forge strong connections with helping spirits, and our intent is what matters the most.

I had the great pleasure of speaking to Alonso del Rio, a Peruvian curandero (healer), regarding the contemporary practice of Shamanism. Alonso spent over a decade as an apprentice in the Peruvian Amazon jungle, learning about the plantas maestras (master plants) from the Shipibo tribe.

I asked him to share his thoughts on how non-indigenous people can develop an appropriate and respectful shamanic practice.

His main message centered around respect, first and foremost, which resonates with the message shared by Lewis MehlMadrona.

We must have respect for the origins of the ceremonies we are using and understand these origins.

If we use ceremonies outside of their cultural context, they lose meaning.

The goal of shamanic practice is the expansion of consciousness, and respect is the necessary first step. Alonso used the example of tourists visiting indigenous tribes in the Amazon and witnessing traditional ceremonies.

It is not uncommon for visitors to record these ceremonies, taking them back to their own homes and mimicking them.

In this sort of practice, we see a fundamental misunderstanding of the origin of ceremony.

When a medicine person develops a sacred song or a ceremony, this is something that came out of close, deep ritual work with both their helping spirits and the spirits of their land.

If one were to witness one of these rites and simply memorize it to use upon return to their own home, the meaning and connection of the rite would be completely lost.

Not only is this behavior disrespectful, but it is also ineffective because the ceremony has been stripped of the elements that give it power.

Alonso also discussed the use of the word shamanism, reminding us that this generalized terminology was brought to us by Western academics.

If we return to the origin of the word shaman, it would be accurate to say there are no shamans on the American continents, as this word was never part of the vocabulary of any American indigenous communities.

Perhaps we should consider a rejection of this word entirely, since it was used by a specific Siberian group and did not apply to the healers of the Americas, Europe, or Oceania.

Alonso encourages us to remember that our ceremonial practices need to exist within the context of our lives and our own communities.

We all have a connection to the land we were born in and the land we live on.

Rather than focusing our energy on learning and co-opting the rites and traditions of other people, we can benefit the most by engaging within our own cultural context.

As we develop our relationships with our own helping spirits, they will teach us the rites, songs, and ceremonies that belong to us.

I also had a wonderful conversation with my friend Liza Fenster, also known as Crow Mother, about respectful practice while preparing for this book.

She teaches Reiki and Shamanism and has a healing practice in Brooklyn, New York. Liza was raised by a single mother from Puerto Rico, and throughout her childhood, her family intertwined their Taino heritage and traditions into their everyday lives.

Today she still leans toward traditional Caribbean indigenous practices, honoring her Taino roots, but continues to study with a variety of teachers.

As an adult, Liza found her father and discovered she has Hopi and Cherokee ancestry.

As we talked about how to approach shamanic practice within a Western context—between her mixed indigenous background and mine as an immigrant—we were able to distill our conversation into one key question:

Are you a steward of the earth?

This is the question we should always hold at our core, and it is a concept worth unpacking further.

In my conversation with Alonso, he said something that really stuck with me:

“Heal yourself first, and then let’s see about everything else.”

We were having a discussion about an upsetting trend of people coming to healing and shamanic work not with the goal of healing themselves, but with the goal of pursuing this as a business practice.

Liza and I also discussed this, and voiced our disappointment in a growing trend of shamanic workshops being offered from a business perspective, promising viable self-employment as the end goal.

This is unfortunate, to say the least, because practitioners are losing sight of the purpose of their practice.

Shamanic ceremonies existed long before the capitalist business model, and they were necessary to ensure the survival of the group.

As I mentioned earlier, a teacher once said that shamans were the original activists, since their goal was to promote harmony among the individual, the community, and the environment.

Part of the shaman’s responsibility was, historically, to communicate with the spirit realm to glean information on the movements of herds, which would provide food for the community.

Today we live in a much different socioeconomic context, and our physical survival no longer depends on such a deep connection with the spirits of the land.

This has created room for a misinterpretation of the goals of shamanic work, and so we see those who have lost their focus, prioritizing financial gain over spiritual healing.

This brings us back to the question of how non-indigenous folks can practice Shamanism from a place of respect.

Liza summarized this as, anyone is welcome in these healing practices if their intent is coming from a genuine place.

If your goal is to heal the earth and all of her people, then you are approaching this work from a place of respect, which is more important than your place of origin.

But while this is a great place to start, it is also important to take this one step further.

Our indigenous communities are hurting.

It is undeniably wrong for nonindigenous people to be profiting financially from shamanic work while indigenous people are struggling.

So as you embark on your journey, always remember to ask yourself what you can do to support indigenous people.

You cannot be in harmony with the earth if you are not advocating for all her people.

It starts with a respectful practice and the basic notion of not taking credit for ideas that aren’t ours. As practitioners with genuine intent, we should not claim the specific ritual rites, tools, or ceremonial dress of any culture or tribe we have not personally learned from.

It is one thing to be handed down a ceremony from a teacher, and another to witness and copy.

For example, rattles are used in many shamanic practices around the world.

This is a common ritual tool, and I do encourage those interested in developing a shamanic practice to invest in one.

However, I would advise against purchasing a rattle covered in symbols that are specific to a tribe or culture that you are unfamiliar with.

Find the ritual rattle that is right for you and makes sense within the context of your practice.

By extension, do not purchase or mimic the ritual garb of practices that aren’t yours; don’t adopt ceremonial jewelry without understanding its significance, and so forth.

Be true and honest about where you came from and where you are going.

Discernment is as important as respect in the development of a spiritual practice.

If you are interested in truly approaching your practice in a way that is in harmony with your surroundings, consider approaching the acquisition of your tools the way our ancestors did: by crafting them yourself.

Alonso del Rio spoke of this issue, using the example of feathers and feather fans that are commonly used in ceremony.

These tools used to be fashioned from birds who had died naturally, their feathers harvested with respect and ceremony to be crafted into ritual items.

Nowadays, many people are buying their tools online or from trendy boutiques, with no knowledge of which birds their feathers are coming from and no information on how they died and how their parts were harvested.

Similarly, we can order animal-hide drums without having any knowledge of their origin.

While it might not be feasible for everyone to return to crafting their own ritual tools, we do have a responsibility to understand where they are coming from.

We can choose to source them from people who are crafting tools with the proper respect, as opposed to mass-produced sources where the ceremony is entirely lost.

We can engage in gathering and find feathers naturally left behind by the birds that live on our land.

All this said, there is always more that can be done.

Not taking credit for work that isn’t yours and treating the tools and customs of indigenous folks with proper respect is a first step, but I encourage each of us to go farther.

Supporting indigenous communities goes beyond avoiding active disrespect.

We can instead become active participants in supporting and advocating for communities in need.

If you are benefiting from indigenous knowledge and ceremonies, be sure to find ways you can circle back and support these communities.

As part of your studies, develop an understanding of sacred native lands, and do your part to protect them.

Get involved in efforts that support their needs, but do this with one caveat—never approach this outreach with the assumption that indigenous communities need to be taught different ways to live.

To do so in this manner is to approach the communities that are benefitting you from a place of ego, with an assumption that your culture knows better.

Always check in with your genuine intent and humility as you travel along your path.

Be willing to listen and be an ally from a place of understanding. I have had many conversations with another good friend who is an American shamanic practitioner of European descent.

She has discussed her discomfort with workshops where the rites of a specific indigenous culture are taught without the appropriate cultural context.

I have noted previously that a lack of context for ceremony is disrespectful and harmful, and that as teachers and students, we should strive to do better.

In her studies, she has chosen to practice respect by focusing her education on looking at near-universal ritual practices rather than pursuing a Native American tradition.

Beyond this, she has been studying in a Druidry program to reconnect with her own ancient Celtic roots.

As she explains it, she is striving to understand what it means to be a modern, European-descended female shamanic practitioner in the twenty-first-century United States.

We must all practice Shamanism within the context of ourselves and our lives and understand how we fit into the larger picture of our communities.

As you further your studies and connect with shamanic teachers, understand their lineage and heritage.

I define the distinction between lineage and heritage as the people we have learned from, as opposed to those who are our blood ancestors.

Be ready to ask questions and develop an understanding of where you will fit into this lineage.

Before you embark on an ongoing apprenticeship with a teacher, do your due diligence in understanding if they are coming to this work from a place of genuine intent.

For the sake of transparency, I will share my lineage.

I was born in Brazil, where I spent most of my formative years before moving to North America. I also spent part of my childhood in Europe and Asia.

My ceremonial studies started in Brazil in the 1990s.

In 2000, I joined a group and became an apprentice under a matriarch leading a ritual practice rooted in shamanic ceremonies.

This matriarch is my oldest teacher, and I continue to work with and learn from her to this day, despite our living on different continents.

She encourages me to study as much as possible and learn from many different teachers, which I continue to actively pursue.

For the sake of transparency, I will share my lineage. I was born in Brazil, where I spent most of my formative years before moving to North America.

I also spent part of my childhood in Europe and Asia.

My ceremonial studies started in Brazil in the 1990s. In 2000, I joined a group and became an apprentice under Gwyndha, a High Priestess and matriarch leading a ritual practice rooted in shamanic ceremonies.

Gwyndha is my oldest teacher, and I continue to work with and learn from her to this day, despite our living on different continents.

She encourages me to study as much as possible and learn from many different teachers, which I continue to actively pursue.

Since moving to the United States, I have studied with various shamanic teachers, through individual workshops and more prolonged apprenticeships.

My teachers have come from a variety of backgrounds, including indigenous ancestry within the North American continent.

Under Grace Walsh, I have studied ceremony and Reiki Shamanism, exploring the intersection of different cultural approaches to non-ordinary reality.

I have also taken workshops through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which is the work of the late Michael Harner, whom I discussed earlier in this book.

While this is not an exhaustive list of every teacher I have studied with, both within Shamanism and other metaphysical disciplines, I am honored by and grateful to all the teachers who have been willing to share their wisdom with me.

One final caveat: Everything presented in this book reflects my personal experience and learning. It is important to remember that. Shamanism is not a spectator practice, and if you pursue this path, you will develop your own relationship with Spirit and your guides, as well as your own understanding of ceremonial work.

It will overlap with my experiences in some instances and differ in others. There is no correct or prescribed shamanic experience or practice, and therefore, there is no incorrect shamanic experience.

The key to your practice is to be in a working relationship with your helping spirits and to approach your practice from a place of authenticity. Always keep this in mind and remember that discernment and respect are your most important tools.