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Toward an Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred | Center for Babaylan Studies

by Gloria Feman Orenstein


Adams, Carol (ed) 1993 Ecofeminism and the Sacred, Continuum Publishing Company, New York. ISBN 0-8264-0586-X
Orenstein, Gloria 1990 The Reflowering of the Goddess, Pergamon Press, New York. ISBN 0-08-035178-6

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.


Gloria Feman Orenstein is Professor in Comparative literature and the Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Theater of the Marvellous. Surrealism and the Contemporary Stage, The Reflower of the Goddess and co-editor of Reweaving the World The Emergence of Ecofeminism. She has published widely on the Women of Surrealism, and she was the cofounder of the Women’s Salon for plants, and animals, as well as with the deities, and can obtain knowledge from them about how to heal life on earth.
We have recently witnessed a growing interest in Shamanism and sacred ceremonies within the ecofeminist movement. As an ecofeminist who was the student of a woman Shaman, from Samiland (Lapland, northern Norway) for four and one-half years, I would like to make a number of observations based upon my experience in the field that will, hopefully, lead to some ethical considerations regarding the reclamation of Shamanism that is taking place today, both within the feminist spirituality and the new age movements.



The reason that ecofeminists have such a deep interest in Shamanism is that Shamanism is practised in a wide variety of indigenous cultures that have an earth-based spirituality. Shamans from Native American and other tribal cultures have kept alive the knowledge that the earth is sacred and that not only are humans and nonhuman nature part of the interconnected web of life, but also that spirit resides in matter, as well as in other dimensions. Shamanism teaches us that everything has spirit and that via a variety of shamanic practices, humans can make contact with the spirits of the living, of the dead, of humans,

Shamanism seems to provide answers for ecofeminists about how we can live in balance on the earth and, at the same tune, develop a means of communication among the many varied species inhabiting the many different realms and dimensions of the universe, both via physical and spiritual methods. Shamanism, because it functions upon the acknowledgment that spirit resides in matter, shatters the patriarchal dualism pervading the Western religions-a dualism that insists upon spirit being separate from matter. Shamanism is neither androcentric nor anthropocentric. In this sense it is ecofeminist, for it neither recognizes one gender to be superior to the other nor places humans outside of or above the cosmic cycles or the natural ecosystems. Because Shamanism was practiced since the dawn of human history and figures of Shamans are found in Paleolithic cave paintings, Shamanism also takes us outside the historical frame of reference of patriarchal history -back to prehistory and even to the civilization of the Goddess, a civilization which, at least in old Europe, according to archeologist Marija Gimbutas (1974, 1989, 1991), accorded women more prestige and equality in society than we do, was earth revering, and did not engage in war. Many native medicine people also consider the earth to be our mother. Some indigenous religions refer to an earth mother or to a mother goddess. Thus, women involved in the feminist spirituality movement may also turn to shamanic practices in order to get in contact with the spirit of the earth mother, both for personal and communal spiritual empowerment. Starhawk, an ecofeminist and wiccan priestess, has, through her rituals and political activism, proved once and for all that in an ecofeminist vision, there is no contradiction between spiritual and political practice. Starhawk also refers to herself as a Shaman, for she uses shamanic techniques in her spiritual work. Indeed, she has also visited the Shamans of Samiland, and was recognized by them to have shamanic powers. The Goddess rituals that Starhawk performs have a strong shamanic element. She uses her rituals to empower her activist community before undertaking protest and cH disobedience activities in order to save the earth from the many threats to our planet’s survival, ranging from pollution to nuclear disaster. Since ecofeminists are becoming more and more interested in Shamanism, it is important that we begin to examine it seriously from precisely this perspective. My comments will identify the following problems that I see surrounding Shamanism as it is practiced today by growing numbers of vision-questers.

To speak about Shamanism as if it were a universal or generic category is to run the risk of constructing an archetype, a stereotype, or an abstraction of a Shaman, and thereby to ignore the specificity of the wide diversity of shamanic practices in a variety of indigenous cultures. It is reductive to speak of Shamanism as if it were the same all over the world. Anthropology teaches us that Shamanism differs from culture to culture. Each culture’s cosmogony, cosmology, and mythology are unique, and since shamanic practices involve symbol systems, deities, and a knowledge of how the many worlds, both visible and invisible, are organized, it is an error to assume that Shamans all over the world do the same things, or that when they do so, they do them in the same way.

Reductive Views of Shamanism in his foreword to anthropologist Ruth-Inge Heinze’s recent book Shamans of the 20th Century, Stanley Krippner (1991) comments that “Dr. Heinze’s research demonstrates that it would be erroneous to claim that shamans represent a single constellation of traits or that there is a typical shamanic personality.” Further on, Ruth-Inge Heinze warns us:

Most of all, we should apply caution when individuals claim to be shamans. “Professional” shamans never make such claims. They need not advertise, because they become known through their work. Their “miraculous” healing of sick minds and bodies, their retrieval of otherwise not accessible information, their beneficial effects on their community become known fast through word of mouth. (Heinze 1991, 6)

The rules of shamanic ethics are the same as for any other professionals, especially in the religious realm. It would be unethical for “enlightened” individuals, for example, to publicly announce their enlightenment. The degree of spiritual development is reflected in an individual’s demeanor, actions, and success. The most successful shamans I met were also the most humble. They would stress that they are only the servants of the sacred and the mediators who continue to learn throughout their life (Heinze 1991, 7). Since the word for Shaman is usually a translation from a foreign language (such as the Sami word noia which also means sorcerer), we must be conscious of whether the person in question is a Shaman, a sorcerer, a trance medium, a psychic, a channeler, or a magician. If we begin by situating the particular Shaman or Shamanism that one reclaims within its own cultural tradition, we can understand why Ruth-Inge Heinze cautions us about people who call themselves Shamans. In the case of the Sami, my Shaman teacher was trained in her culture for thirty-five years before she could practice hearings on people outside of her extended family. When I pondered this, given the fact that she was born into a prestigious lineage of Shamans (she was the daughter of the Great Shaman of Samiland, whose father was also a Shaman), and that her talents were obvious when she was a child, I wondered why she had to study for so long before treating those outside of her kin group. Of course, this baffled me, since in the West we believe we can become professional at anything within four to eight years of training. My Shaman teacher was not only a healer, but she was also a student of folklore. This is important, because she always insisted that the three principal sources of her shamanic knowledge were Sami folklore (tales, legends, and so forth); teachings from the ancestral lineage-from her father, who was her mentor, and from other ancestral spirits, who spoke to her from the spirit world; and teachings from spirit entities (what we might call “spirit aides” or “power animals”). In this category her main guide was an owl that appeared to her in her childhood. A culture’s tales and legends are of extreme importance, for through them one can learn how spirits behave. For example, if a tale speaks about what happens to someone who steals money from a sacred site, the Shaman in training learns that the karmic price of such an act might come ten years later, when that person’s reindeer flock is wiped out. A culture’s tales are often cautionary. They teach strategies for dealing with all kinds of spirits, both good and evil, according to the culture’s beliefs. A Westerner who goes to an indigenous culture in search of shamanic knowledge should read extensively about the culture’s folklore. The serious mistake that we make is to think that folk tales and legends are not true. We have been taught not to believe in the supernatural, but one aspect of an ethical approach to forming a relationship with a shamanic culture would be understanding that the folklore of the culture is not necessarily just “lore,” but that its stories are often based upon real events, and that if you visit that particular area, they might happen to you, even if you don’t believe in such things. Folk tales also show ways in which dreams are interpreted in the culture. My experience in this area was always startling. I would begin to describe a dream I had, and I would give it a sophisticated symbolic explanation. The next thing I knew, I was taken to the house of the Great Shaman and shown a photo of the very person who had appeared in my dream as my spirit guide. I had interpreted this gigantic figure, clad in a reindeer-skin tunic and large boots, to be the symbol of my Amazon self, who had just climbed a high mountain. Instead, I learned that it was not a symbol. It was the exact image of my Shaman’s grandfather-who had been given to me as a spirit guide to help me on my journey. Thus, what I had called a dream was actually a visit from a spirit in the spirit world. To have interpreted that person as a symbol of a giant or any other such figure would have missed the very important and startling point that this person was the spirit of the real grandfather of my Shaman. Because these stories take place in a given geography, they also teach about the natural environment of the particular bio-region. Thus, Sami tales, which deal with winter at the North Pole, are not at all similar to tales told in the Amazon jungle. It is a mistake to assume that similar roles have similar meanings in different cultures-whether they be mothers, fathers, gods, or tricksters. To assume that there is just one universal meaning to a figure in a folktale is to negate the historic, geographic, and cultural specificity of that culture. To do this is also to deny the variability and diversity of species, both on earth and in other dimensions-be they cultures, humans, animals, plants, or spirits. Things simply are not the same all over the world, even though certain aspects of them may make us think they are similar. Folk tales illustrate the workings of the laws of karma, and they are handed down over generations, because-contrary to white Western culture, which believes that all stories should end after three hundred pages or two hours in the cinema-indigenous people have not forgotten that stories continue from generation to generation. Over time, one can begin to see the shape of the agency of other-worldly spirits upon events in this world. One begins to have a feel for the agency of the spirit of a deceased ancestor or community member. This is important information for the Shaman to have in order to assess the nature of the vision she or he might have when treating a particular individual in a certain family. The Shaman must contextualize the origin of the patient’s disease within his or her own family and cultural history, as well as within the context of the patient’s past lives. @ is necessary in order to understand the kind of negativity that has taken over the patient’s life (a curse, an invasion, an attack, and so forth), its origin, and its historicity.

The concept of “core shamanism” has been the focus of Michael Harner’s shamanic workshops. His work in this field is of immeasurable value, and I agree with the importance of familiarizing contemporary Westerners with the possibilities provided by experiences of the “shamanic journey” or the spirit flight. However, “core shamanism” stresses the “shamanic journey” induced by drumming as the central feature of all Shamanism, and it teaches students to travel out of the body to the lower, middle, and upper spirit worlds, to meet with their power animals, their spirit guides to learn how to perform soul retrieval, and to do shamanic hearings and counselling. One of the dangers that I see, from the ecofeminist perspective, in focusing on the spirit journey as the dicere” concept of shamanism is that it both reproduces the patriarchal dualism that separates spirit from matter and prioritizes spirit over matter (that is, heaven over earth or the otherworld over this world). While spirit journeys do characterize Shamanism all over the world, and while information fi-om other realms is essential to shamanic work, to prioritize journeys to otherworldly dimensions over the social and political dimensions of the journeys made by Shamans when they are awake and conscious in this world (as opposed to being in an altered state) is to subordinate the ordinary conscious experience to the nonordinary one. Yet Shamans themselves do not necessarily prioritize experience in that way. During my training, I was always looking for these “core experiences,” and instead I found that the “core” experiences of Sami Shamanism often came when spirits visited this realm, or when real animals became spirit messengers. I was “shamanized” by mosquitos that died in my California apartment for what seemed to be no apparent reason, until I received a call from Samiland informing me of the death of my Shaman teacher’s son. The mosquitoes I had encountered in the swamps during the summer had picked up the vibrations of my blood and found me via their spiritual attunement to me. This kind of event, one that illustrates the spiritual inter-connectedness of all living things in the web of life, is as much a “core” concept of Shamanism as is the out-of-the-body ecstatic journey. To prioritize information from the spirit world over information from the spirits of animals, plants, and persons in this world is to perpetuate patriarchal Christianity’s privileging of spiritual beings over human beings. It is as if we believed that an out-of-body journey were more important than those journeys we make daily-and especially those pilgrimages that indigenous and tribal people often make to sacred sites in nature. By stressing the visionary journey out of the body and by omitting the sacred pilgrimage to a real site in nature from our description of so-called core Shamanism, we are deleting the crucial political dimension of the struggles of Shamans in the here and now. The land rights issues of indigenous people always remind Westerners that their land is sacred. They do not consider the earth to be less sacred than other realms. In Samiland the Great Shaman is also the chief political leader of his people. Thus, he had to use his psychic abilities to strategize protest actions against those who wanted to take over the Sami land and rivers. Often shamanic techniques are involved in fighting these battles (returning negative energy and so forth). Shamans that I have met use their powers in the here and now much of the time, and they do not seem to privilege the spirit journey to other dimensions over the many other ways in which their services are performed in the body and on the earth. The shamanic worldview considers all of creation to be both spiritual and sacred. This dimension is as sacred as the spirit world. Thus, what happens to us while alive and awake, although interconnected with what is taking place in the spirit world, is also of great importance shamanically, and, of course, is also sacred. Through the spiritual journey Shamans pick up vital information from other realms, in much the same way that we get our news from abroad via satellite and TV. By the same token, one could not characterize the human experience by the “core” activity of tuning into the news from abroad, even though this is a necessary part of our daily lives. Naturally, when Shamans work in the here and now, they are calling upon forces that reconfigure our ordinary concepts of space an time. Whatever their powers for certain kinds of work, they are not necessarily journeying out of the body, but they are expanding our concept of what a body is and relating to the body as an energy field composed both of spirit and matter.

Naive Ecofeminism

Ruth-Inge Heinze writes:

In the United States, we find a great number of weekend workshops announcing training in shamanism. The quality of such training is seldom put to test. It does not seem to be appropriate to attempt a revival of shamanism by combining “core elements” from different cultures. Such attempts start on the wrong foot, because core elements may be part of shamanic rituals, but do not constitute the essence of the ritual. They are vehicles of expression but not the message itself… Shamanic techniques may be effective means for self-exploration, however, experimenters should be taught the pitfalls of psychic openings which require closing. They have to be convinced of the necessity of properly sending away the energies which they evoke during the process. (Heinze 1991, 155)

At this point I think that a personal story will provide an anecdote that illustrates her point very clearly. I was attending an ecofeminist party, and one of the women wanted to start a spirituality group. I had brought a clairvoyant with me to the party. We talked about doing Goddess rituals, and the clairvoyant asked whether any of us knew how to handle any bad effects that might occur because of what we had called up. One of the women said: “We are all coming from a pure place. We will only call upon the good. I’m sure that nothing harmful can happen.” My friend, the clairvoyant, then explained. “Look, you can be a very good person with very good intentions in ordinary life. But if, when you go to sleep, you leave the door of your house open, anyone can come in. And that has nothing to do with how good your intentions are, or how pure you are. The door happens to be open, and anyone can come in. It is the same thing when you do a ritual. You open the door to other dimensions, and other things can enter along with those that you have invited. You have to learn how to ‘see’ what is happening and to work with the energies, otherwise you should be very careful about getting involved in this work, and make sure to seek protection before you begin.” We have, as I have tried to show, been naive in oversimplifying Shamanism by trying to construct a “core” essence of a Shaman. By being so reductive we actually miss out on some of the important features of Shamanism, particularly ones that involve real animals and life on this planet. There has also been a stress placed on finding one’s “power animal” in neoShamanism. It seems to me that this emphasis also privileges spirit animals over real animals. Once again, from my own experience in Samiland, I know that I was always waiting to meet my “power animal,” and my Shaman teacher was always taking me to the real reindeer, the real birds, the real mosquitos. It wasn’t until she communicated with birds, brought them to us, talked with them, and sent them away, or until she “psyched out” the problem of a lost reindeer, that I began to understand how the neoshamanic narrative from contemporary workshops had actually blinded me to the fact that real animals are also spirit and power, and, at least to my Shaman teacher, they were every bit as important, or even more so, than her owl spirit guide who had appeared to her in childhood. Sometimes I used to feel that I had a more “shamanic” perspective than she did, because I was always coming up with sophisticated symbolic interpretations of dreams and I was always looking for “power animals,” while she seemed to be more interested in the real animals and she understood the figures in dreams to represent the spirits of real people. The truth is that she made less of a distinction than we do between real and spirit people or animals. To her, all was real, all was spirit, and all was sacred, simultaneously. There was no contradiction in that.

Problems with the Concept of the Archetype

The concept of the archetype, which comes from Jungian psychology, although it has validity in many cases, should not be applied to Shamanism, because it renders real cultures and their histories and living inhabitants, whether human or animal, invisible, and because it prevents us from identifying the actual social and political problems of people, especially of women in indigenous cultures. Here I am referring to the glamorizing and stereotyping (that sometimes blurs into archetyping) of the images of women from “exotic” foreign cultures. Recently I came upon a workshop to be given by Jungian psychologist Linda Leonard, entitled “The Lapp Reindeer Woman Archetype.” I did not attend this workshop, so I am only referring to its title. The use of the word Lapp is incorrect. The Sami people were called Lapp by colonizing Westerners. In their struggle for their rights, they insist on the use of the name Sami, and they want Westerners to know that their language is the Sami language (a Finno-Ugritic language), and that their land is caged Samiland, not Lapland. When I came across the title of this workshop, I caged my Shaman teacher in Norway, and I asked her if there is any reference to a reindeer woman (motif or archetype) in their folklore. She said she had never heard of it. Then I concluded that the reindeer woman image, as I have seen it depicted on Christmas and other greeting cards, is a stereotype similar to the ones we have of the Indian princess (from Native-American tribes). It is an image that glamorizes the exotic but also prevents us from seeing the real suffering in the lives of Sami women who are reindeer herders, who are losing their land, and who are losing their role in reindeer herding, as the role of reindeer herder is becoming more and more the occupation of men alone. Those who follow the archetypal and so project their own personal fantasies onto a living culture, and in so doing they deauthenticate the actual lives and lore of a people. They make it into a Disneyworld and perpetuate stereotypes that are pernicious to the culture’s survival. Had I taken a workshop on the “Lapp Reindeer Woman Archetype,” chances are I might have been blinded to some of the brutal realities in the lives of contemporary Sami women who herd reindeer, or who no longer do so, because they have lost this role. Sami women recently held a women’s conference (Summer 1990) precisely in order to speak out about their double oppression as women in Norwegian society and as Sami, who are socialized according to the gender roles defined by Sami culture, where women now occupy the domestic role and have lost their role as reindeer herders to the men.

Trivializing the Spirit World

When Westerners gather in a circle to perform a ceremony that they have teamed either from native people or from reading about their ceremonies, do they actually believe that they are performing something as real as a surgical operation? Do we ever see surgeons gathering in a circle, passing out knives and scalpels to strangers, and asking those gathered with them to explore each other’s brains with these implements and then return to “share the experience”? Shamanism is just as real and as dangerous as surgery. It operates on our psyches. We may not see this operation in a literal, material way, but the results of the operation are evident in the way our vision of “reality” has been altered. Indeed, I would question whether all people who want to study Shamanism should be permitted to do so, given the fact that Shamans learn how to enter other people’s energy fields and bodies. This may explain why in traditional societies not everyone is called to this role. I have also asked myself whether a Nazi should be given shamanic training. Would such a person (or any other, for that matter) not be tempted to abuse the power contacted? Should such a person be able to sign up for a weekend shamanic workshop? Who screens the applicants, and what are the criteria for admission? When I went to the sacred Sami site with my Shaman and her father, they both asked the spirits if I would be granted permission to enter their space. When I was told this, h had never occurred to me that spirits were actually present who might, indeed, have denied me entry. At the time I thought the two Shamans were describing their form of prayer. But they were not praying in the sense we conceive of prayer. They were actually speaking to real (but invisible to me) ancestors. These were experienced Shamans, not commercial entrepreneurs or dabblers. Now that I know about these things, I grow concerned. How do the travellers who sign up for Shaman tours know about the karma of their tour leaders or, for that matter, of the native teachers? In the West we have trivialized the reality and the power of the spirit world. In fact, we have negated it. This is the same as if we were to negate the existence of germs, just because we can’t see them with the naked eye. Although we do not have instruments with which to see the spirit world, just as light waves and gravity are real, just as gamma rays and black holes are real, we should understand that things exist that we cannot necessarily see. Modem physics teaches us that when we study elementary particles, we interact with them We also know that the stars we see might have died many years ago, but since light takes time to travel through space, we are seeing stars that no longer exist. These lessons from modem physics should alert us to the fact that what we observe may no longer exist, that not everything that exists can be observed, and that what we study might be altered by the fact that we are interacting with it (such as elementary particles). It is arrogant of Westerners to think that if we have not identified something with our modem instruments, it does not exist. This also negates the powers and intelligence of native people. By our arrogance, by our insistence on labelling those whose wisdom was acquired without Western technology as “primitive,” we open ourselves to great dangers from elements and entities of other dimensions that we have chosen to ignore. In this way we have trivialized the spirit world and attributed all agency in human affairs to humans alone. Just as people in power in government may abuse that power, Shamans, too, may abuse their power and use it to do harm. Romanticizing and glamorizing Shamanism may, in fact, blind us to the tyranny that some Shamans may exert because of their power. This is because we continue to believe that only the visible is real. In fact, we may be under spiritual attack and not be aware of it because we choose to deny the reality and the power of the spiritual realm.

When Westerners travel to an “exotic’ foreign country to visit with a local Shaman, do they know anything about the person in whose power they will place themselves, and do they have any means of protection in the event of an abuse of power? I pose these questions in the spirit of raising our consciousness about the complexity of Shamanism and how it works with energies that are invisible to us. I also bring this up in the hopes that the current commodification of packaged Shaman tours will be placed within a perspective that embraces ethics and responsibility, both toward those embarking on the journeys as well as toward the Shamans and the cultures they live in, who must be protected from being ripped off by tourists, just as the tourists must be protected from the abuses of power on the part of native Shamans, who often have political and historical reasons to view rich, white Westerners as their enemies. I have participated in many ceremonies and rituals performed in the feminist spirituality and new age communities, and am now even more aware of the complexity of the invisible dimensions surrounding us. Most people participating in these ceremonies do not see auras, nor do they see into other dimensions. When they conjure up spirits in a ritual, how do they know what kind of energies they are bringing into the circle? It is very important to perform such rituals under the guidance of a @ed spiritual leader, one who is able to witness the nature of the energy exchanges that are taking place, and one whom we have substantial reason to believe does not misuse power. For this reason alone we need to apply a code of ethics to the practice of neo-Shamanism. Until I had first-hand experience of the realm of the spirit world-until I had travelled to the sacred site, heard the voices of the ancestral spirits (the dead, who called me by name); until I had seen for myself that the spirit guide who appeared to me in my dream was not a symbol but was a real spirit; until I had witnessed the spirit of the Great Shaman -as it travelled out of his body, until I had been convinced that the spirit world does exist I had conceived of all discussions about spirituality in terms of poetry and prayer. Shamanism had been a powerful metaphor to me, connoting visionary and poetic creations. The spirit world was, before my own experience with it, something akin to the dream world. The reason I stress this is that 1, too, had trivialized the spirit world. As a modem (or even postmortem) educated Westerner, I did not believe in the existence of spirits or of the spirit world. Moreover, the Carlos Castaneda and Lynn Andrews books all have a narrative line to them, which led me to conceive of shamanic experience in terms of a kind of novel that either developed to a climax or partook of the literary genre of the “picaresque.” There was a literary form to Shamanism that also did not tally with what I actually lived and led me to discredit my experience. I expected spirit guides to resemble Jimminy Cricket rather than a real cricket. I expected everything to be larger than life, something like a Disneyworld rendition of nature. Instead, what I learned was that real mosquitos are actual spirit guides. Our Western accounts of “reality” and our literary narratives fail to encompass a diversity of other narrative modes whose features capture the realities of shamanic experience. One example of a figure. from a nonwhite Western tradition is that of the trickster. We look upon the trickster as a literary or folk figure. However, once you become involved in shamanic practice, you begin to observe how the spirits play tricks upon you. These tricks may be humorous, or they may be dangerous. Shamans do not often tell about their experiences in the spirit world. Have we ever wondered why? The answers are sobering, to say the least, Spirits, in fact, do observe us and listen to us. If we are planning to protect ourselves, they will take note of this and plan their strategy accordingly. One must remain silent about one’s interaction with the spirit world, not only because conventional Westerners will dismiss these discussions as absurd, but also because one may run risks and court dangers with the spirits if one speaks of these things. The spirit world is no more benign than the material world, and we would do well to consider this when embarking on vision quests. Moreover, it is to trivialize the spirit world, to demean and negate its authenticity, to think that if you concentrate on white light, what you get will be beneficent. This is so naive as to be sheer folly. You must have enough power to call upon enough white light to protect you. Whenever I discuss these ideas with new agers, I try to explain myself in the following way. I do not deny that white light is protective. I simply maintain that Shamans channel what I call “heavy voltage.” Ordinary people may not have the power to draw upon sufficient voltage to produce the desired effect. From an ecofeminist perspective, trivializing the spirit world also renders invalid the wisdom of women, for we can see how my communication with this powerful woman Shaman was blocked by the fact that I did not, at first, grant legitimacy to her description of reality. And I had been caged by, as she put it, “The Great Spirit”! In my culture I was always considered to be one of the people most open to spirituality. Yet, because of my Western scientific education, I could not actually believe in the existence of the spirit world. I don’t think that we in the West can ever truly communicate with people of indigenous and tribal cultures until we open ourselves up to bestowing legitimacy on their descriptions of reality. Thus, not only do national, linguistic, and cultural barriers interfere with the communication among women around the world, but beyond all this, the parameters of what we consider to be “real” separate us still further from one another.

When we speak of Shamanism in the abstract, we also speak of it as gender neutral. However, male and female Shamans in different cultures also embody different gender roles. These roles, as they are defined in each culture, also affect the perception we may form of Shamanism. As a feminist, I have reacted to various examples of Shamanism that I have both witnessed and read about as “macho Shamanism.” Indeed, it does take a lot of physical and mental (psychic/spiritual) effort to make contact with the spirit world. When I was in Samiland, I had to walk some ten or more miles to the sacred site, and I had to climb a ten-kilometer mountain in order to be able to dream of my spirit guide. In other traditions one’s consciousness is altered by hallucinogens, by sensory deprivation, by drumming (the Sami’s shaman drums were seized by the Christians when they were colonized, and so they no longer use them), and by other means. When considering the strenuous physical tests from the perspective of Western gender roles, the shamanic training and tests seem to be macho. In Western cultures, most women do not trek many miles into nature to erect shelters by themselves in a “survival wilderness” mode. Ibis is culturally constructed to be “masculine” as a gender role. However, as we know, gender roles vary from culture to culture. In Sami culture, women are very strong. They are said to dominate. Some think the Sami may have once been a matriarchy, for in the past when a man wanted to marry a woman, he had to serve her mother for an entire year. Then the girl’s mother would determine whether he was a good enough worker and whether he would serve her daughter well enough-whether he could take orders from his wife in a submissive way. The Sami are also matrilineal and matrilocal, but that doesn’t preclude the existence of sexism in their culture. Whether their sexism came with the “white man,” who brought liquor and colonization, or not, it currently exists, and women suffer from rape, battery, and violent crime in Samiland. Also, the gender roles are distributed so as to keep women at home. When the Great Shaman went out to do healings, he came home to a meal cooked by his wife or his daughters. When his daughter, my Shaman, came home from her work, she had to cook and clean for the others. She developed incredible physical strength from doing the work of men plus the work of women. Yet, on some level, it was the pressure to live up to and surpass the extremes of “macho” shamanic prowess that competed with her need to rest when she was ill, in order to heal. When she went home from the hospital after her mastectomy, the first thing she did was climb a mountain. She did this in order to test the strength of her constitution and to see if she was still as capable of difficult feats of physical endurance as she had been before the operation. Because a female Shaman may have to live up to the standards of “macho” Shamanism and learn to handle anything that crosses her path, she may choose to handle sexual assaults such as rape and battery through physical prowess or psychic means, but she may then fail to name and identify the oppression of women in her culture. She may, indeed, consider her own encounters with male violence to be part of the repertoire of shamanic tests that she has to pass. ‘thus her physical prowess and her spiritual powers may blind her to feminist issues that may need to be addressed on a larger scale by women who are not Shamans. In Native-American cultures, the Berdache is a male person who assumes a feminine gender role, dresses as a female, marries a male, and is often also a highly respected Shaman. To speak of Shamanism in the abstract renders the richness of the Berdache role invisible, for it ignores the sex and gender role complexity of the Shaman, and thereby returns us to archetypal and core concepts, which have stereotypically gendered images embedded in them. In referring to such a Shaman in the abstract, we tend to overlook, and therefore to erase, the importance of the shape-shifting that the Berdache role, in fact, embodies. Gender crossings and blendings seem to be common among Shamans cross culturally. As we previously mentioned, most Shamanism today is practiced in indigenous, non-western, not necessarily patriarchal cultures. When we, as Westerners from a patriarchal culture, encounter a woman Shaman, we should not expect her to behave in ways that have anything to do with the white Western cultural construction of “the feminine.” Yet, if this woman has participated in Western culture, as had my Shaman teacher, she has also adopted some of the ways of the West. In relating to such women of power, we may become confused by the gender-role transitions and the shape-shiftings these women undergo in order to pass from one culture to the other. However, I would like to suggest that we not abdicate our Western feminist perspective when we observe their lives, for they themselves are often treated in ways that are extremely sexist (partially because their cultures have been colonized by Westerners), and since they are trained to handle everything and be stronger than most males and females, they may not identify with the other women of their culture or participate in feminist activities. Ellen Maret often told me that the Sami do not need feminism, because Sami women are so strong. Ultimately, Sami women held a conference to discuss their problems from the perspective of indigenous women within the framework of the issues identified by the United Nations’ International Decade on Women.


The obvious points about Westerners appropriating and commodifying native practices or commercializing sacred objects do not need to be restated. Not only do we exploit indigenous people when we appropriate their shamanic knowledge, but we also tend to lump them all into one single entity, when they are, in fact, plural and diverse. Each Native American tribe or nation is an individual entity with a specific history and specific practices and languages that differ from one group to another. When I was in Samiland, if men would harass me sexually, I would not retaliate physically, even if it were warranted in order to save myself from injury. Why? Because I reasoned that “the white man” had done enough damage to indigenous people, and I did not want to perpetuate that pattern. I did not want to bring physical harm to male members of the Sami community or family, even if, on the occasion that they were drunk and I was sober, I might have been able to. I did not defend myself, but I was fortunate in that I escaped every encounter unscathed. (Perhaps the Great Spirit was looking out for me?) When I would speak about this with my Shaman teacher, she would always say: “A Shaman has to handle all things, even drunk men.” I was never satisfied by this answer. I wanted her to realize that I would not bring physical harm to any Sami people. This was respected neither by the Sami nor by her. They simply had no respect for someone who did not defend herself when attacked. On the other hand, had I done so, I am not sure whether a blow I might have dealt in self-defense might not have been misinterpreted. Indeed, now I might add, from another perspective, that what my Shaman teacher probably wanted me to learn is that a far greater harm can come to one via the spirit world. I think that now I might say that if I were to have hit a Sami man, she knew that even if he were to have been hurt by me, he could have sought to retaliate via shamanic means (he could have had energies sent to harm me). What I had to learn was that an important level of any encounter always takes place on the plane of spirit world. Today I believe that shamanically my Shaman teacher wanted me to understand that physical brutality was not exclusively “where it was at shamanically.” There are spirit wars, spirit attacks, spells, and so forth. There are other ways of responding besides physical violence. Perhaps this test also had to do with my teaming about these other methods. But I was so focused on not doing harm that I simply ignored the many other dimensions to this problem that spoke, more specifically, to my role as a student of Shamanism In any event, I was in a quandary about all this until I spoke about it with Paula Gunn Allen, who mentioned to me that the reason I did not fight back probably had to do with my racism. At first, I did not understand what she was getting at. Then it occurred to me that if I had been sexually accosted in my own culture (pinned to the ground against my will by a drunk man), I would have fought back Of course, I would have defended myself even if it meant that I might have harmed an American man. But I refused to harm a Sami man. Wasn’t this a sign of my white Westerners guilt? Suddenly I realized that I was not treating the Sami as equals. I was treating them as a superior racist would treat an inferior group. The Great Shaman used to say that I represented “the white man’s culture,” and I always objected. I specifically objected to his not understanding that I was a woman and that I was an ecofeminist who had, in fact, given a conference about saving the earth, to which I had invited his daughter. I could not conceive of myself as “the white man,” and I really felt that he did not understand anything at all about me as an individual until the day I made hamburger meat for the Sami children. The Sami are definitely not vegetarians. They eat a lot of reindeer meat and fish. On that day, the Great Shaman wandered into the kitchen and, smelling a foreign odor, sniffed the meat I had prepared. Then he asked me: “What animal does this come from?” I stood there, perplexed. I couldn’t really understand the question, and I’m sure I must have said to him: “It doesn’t come from an animal. It comes from the supermarket!” It was at that moment that I realized how I was, indeed, “the white Westernee’ that he took me for. It was a good fifteen minutes before I could come up with the answer “cow.” I had totally forgotten about the animal whose body I was consuming. Even in our ideological purism, we may still behave as racists, and, in fact, it is part of our white Western racism to see ourselves as ideologically “purer than thou” because we are ecofeminists or any other. We must never forget, even when we are bending over backward to make amends, that there is a haughtiness and a racially superior attitude in being “purer than thou,” even when the very people we are bending over backward toward maintain that they are “purer than us” because they do not destroy the earth, and we do. Even if the others exhibit a racist attitude toward us, and even if we try not to reply in kind, the very fact that we conceive of ourselves as superior because we “know better” is, in itself, a form of racism.


Through our education in the scientific worldview of the Enlightenment, we have become alienated from the earth and have forgotten that the earth is also a heavenly body. We have ceased to take into consideration the powers of the forces and the knowledge of the cycles that govern our lives. We hardly ever give a second thought to gravity, for example, without which we would all be floating off into space, and we certainly never think about the real magnetic force of the North and South poles. We also take for granted the amount of light and dark we experience each day. But what if an that were to change? What if we were suddenly plunged into a world in which the sun never set or never rose? What if we were to go to live at the magnetic North Pole? Then we would begin to experience syndromes similar to jet lag, and we would take seriously the implications of the revolutions of the earth on its axis around the sun. In Samiland during most of the fall and winter, the sun sets very early in the morning. During the summer, the sun doesn’t set until wen after midnight. The rituals women have begun to perform in the feminist spirituality (Goddess) movement have begun to put us back in touch with an awareness of the solstices, the equinoxes, and the lunar cycles. But how does this all relate to ecofeminist ethics and to Shamanism? Because of our geo-cosmic ignorance and amnesia, we fail to take into consideration the fact that certain powers can only be obtained and put into practice in certain places on the earth and at certain times during the year or during the larger cosmic cycles. It is interesting that when it comes to sacred herbs, we recognize that they grow in certain places and that people who cannot obtain certain herbs cannot experience their effects. However, herbs are portable, and this suits our purposes, for we can transport the products of the Amazon jungle to California via plane. However, we can never transport the magnetism of the North Pole to California. Nor can we manifest the effects of the Arctic midnight sun in Los Angeles. When I travelled to Samiland, I became aware of the effect that the magnetic North Pole was having upon me. It was causing me to enter a deep trance state when I slept, and it was when I was in such a deep trance that I was able to hear the voices of the ancestral spirits. As I ate Sami food, I noticed that my hair and skin began to take on other characteristics. This might have been due to the purity of the air, the water, and the food, as well as to the intensity of the earth’s magnetic field in which the food was grown. We have noted that people are sensitive to light deprivation and that they become depressed when they do not receive enough light. Have we thought about what an overabundance of light might do to a person or how light might affect one’s consciousness? In Samiland in the summer, when the sun sets well after midnight, sometimes as late as 3:00 Am., one enters altered states, highs, and expansive states of consciousness. Westerners always want to bring Shamans to the United States, put them on American TV talk shows, and have them perform miracles on our turf to prove their powers. When a Shaman from Samiland insists that you must travel to the North Pole in order to study Sami Shamanism, an American may tend to balk and dismiss the Shaman as a phoney. I brought my Shaman teacher to the United States to participate in a number of conferences (such as Ecofeminist Perspectives: Culture, Nature, Theory-held at U.S.C. in the Spring of 1987), but she always insisted that my real teaming would not take place in the United States, but in Samiland. She was right, because my progress was intensified as soon as I came into the magnetic field of the North Pole. The results of culture shock and jet lag, when combined with the magnetism of the North Pole and the surplus of light in summer, catapulted me immediately into a shamanic state that was intensified by the presence of two powerful Shamans. It is important for us to honor the geo-cosmic realities of shamanic cultures and to realize that certain things cannot be transported elsewhere. One of the main features of summer in Samiland is that suddenly the marshes become swamped with mosquitos. The Sami love their mosquitos, because they realize that “the white man” cannot stand them, and so the mosquitos have, in some sense, kept their land from being taken by outsiders. Most people cannot bear to live with those mosquitos. As I mentioned before, Sami Shamans communicate with their mosquitos, and they understand that they can be messengers, guides, and protectors. Ultimately, as we come to respect the geo-cosmic specificities of particular cultures and as we realize that there are things that cannot be bought, sold, commercialized, and commodified, such as magnetic fields and sunsets, (whereas people have already commercialized sacred waters and herbs), we must develop an ethics and a politics that will protect the earth and the cultures that reside not only in “places of power” or in places where we can obtain special products, but everywhere on our planet, for we must remember that the specificity of each location has its own potency. In this way, by raising our consciousness about the geo-cosmic specificities of gravity, light, magnetism, solstices, equinoxes, lunar cycles, indigenous plants, animals, climate, and so forth, we may come to value the variety of diverse cultures and regions whose multiple knowledges all serve to enhance life everywhere on our planet in an astonishing number of ways. Most of these geocosmic teachings can only be acquired in the particular region in which they originated. Finally, if we are to awaken our own shamanic abilities, then we must attune ourselves to precisely those same forces as they manifest in our own bioregions. In some cases this may require us to learn about our region from the indigenous tribes in our area; in other cases we must set about discovering the power of the places in which we live on our own. This is our challenge, if we want to save the earth. We must not run away to other “exotic’ cultures, but we must begin by exploring our own backyards.


By universaIizing and essentializing a “core” concept of Shamanism, we tend to ignore the practical and political use to which shamanic powers can also be put. When Ellen Maret Gaup-Dungeld led a contingent of women from the reindeer ranches of Samiland to stage a sit-in in the Norwegian Parliament in order to protest the hydroelectric power plant that the Norwegians were planning to erect over the Alta-Kautokeino River on the day that Prime Minister Gro Bruntland stepped into office, she used visions to create her political itinerary. When the new prime minister did not return to hear the Sami women (after twenty-four hours, as she had promised), Ellen Maret asked the women present to relate their dreams. Some had dreamed of flying to Rome, so she requested an audience with the Pope at the Vatican (in order to obtain publicity for their cause); another dreamed of flying over large cities, so she planned a strategic visit to the United Nations in New York. Ellen Maret did not make the kind of separation that we, in the West, would make between those dream-inspired journeys to Rome and New York and other dream-inspired journeys to the spirit world. Nor did she consider the dream to be an inferior means of establishing a poLItical itinerary. Being a political leader was being a spiritual leader, and vice versa. Because Shamans from indigenous peoples do not separate spirit from matter and do not privilege a “core” shamanic experience over a this-worldly journey, knowing that both are sacred, both are real, and both are spiritual, focusing exclusively on lower, middle, and upper world shamanic cosmology in our courses excludes the important political function that shamanic vision often serves. Furthermore, she took the visions of women to be as relevant as those of a Shaman. She did not establish a hierarchy among women as visionaries. These women from the reindeer ranches were considered to be the very people whose dreams (spirit-world contacts) would help the Sami to save their land and protect the earth. Here is ecofeminism in action.


In conclusion, I would LIke to suggest that we begin to take the shamanic means of obtaining knowledge seriously in our culture. First we must begin to return the various shamanic practices to their specific cultures. We must not be reductive, but must see the complexities posed by the diversity of shamanic practices around the world. This will be enriching to our understanding of what Shamanism is, in the long run. Then we must set about creating a shamanic practice that is indigenous to our part of the world and our culture. However, we must revise many of our own cultural assumptions from an ecofeminist perspective. White Westerners must cease to project their white Western fantasies of the exotic, the glamorous, and the romantic onto other cultures. We must always assume diversity, and not make assumptions about being the same all over the world just because some aspects of them may appear similar to us. We must also resist thinking in a dualistic manner. We must remember that in Shamanism, spirit resides in matter, and all that exists is sacred. We must also resist thinking in hierarchies, privileging the spirit world and its entities over the material world and its inhabitants. Nor must we engage in elitist assumptions about whose visions have the most wisdom. We must respect the folk of every culture, remembering that their experience contains wisdom, and we must seek out women teachers whenever possible, for they have generally been the guardians of earth wisdom (because of women’s socially constructed roles, and not because of any inherent or “essential” characteristics). We must also learn the folklore of the cultures we visit and remember that what we consider to be “lore” and “legend” may have actually taken place in that culture and that these stories often contain real lessons for us that we would do well to heed. We must remember to seek spiritual protection, and we must become aware of the risks involved in shamanic practices, as well as the dangers incurred when working with people of power. They are also very human, and like non-Shamans, they may be tempted to abuse their power. Above all, we must cease to trivialize the spirit world. We must begin to take seriously the reality of spirit-especially those of us who engage in spirituality rituals. We should practice these rituals believing that the rituals we engage in are real events that do communicate with the spirit world. As we are taught in anthropology and folklore courses, we must not exploit the sacred ways or appropriate the sacred objects of other people-especially not for commercial purposes. One of the first things I was taught was that you must replace everything you take. Rather than stripping a foreign culture of its material and spiritual possessions, we should begin to contribute to its survival. We must begin to set standards for the practice of Shamanism, in order to protect the population from charlatans and new age dilettantes who know nothing about the spirit world and less about human consciousness and psychology. New agers do not necessarily revere the earth (they pillage the earth for crystals for their new age enterprises); nor do they necessarily respect women, either. A new age neo-Shaman might easily jettison an ardent Shaman student into a state of severe mental or physical injury, simply due to the kind of ignorance, arrogance, and lack of responsibility that typifies much of the dabbling that takes place in this movement. We must remember that Shamanism is just as serious as surgery. Would we like to have our brains operated on by someone who had not been trained in medical school? From the ecofeminist perspective on ethics, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is the misogyny and dualism at the root of white Western civilization that have caused the exploitation of both women and nature. On the other hand, we must not guilt-trip ourselves to the point of endangering our lives. Somehow we must come up with a balance in which we honor both non-Western cultures and ourselves for all that is beneficent, while constantly maintaining a critical position toward all forms of abuse of power. If we take the lessons of Shamanism seriously, and if we revise our cosmology in time, if we practice ecofeminist ethics while honoring both the material and the spiritual realms, then, I believe, there is real hope for us to heal the earth, our homeland, now.

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