Shamanism: Transcendence into Modern Times

It is difficult for most of the Western world to imagine life without prescriptions, hospitals, or medical technology; however there are other styles of healing through other cultures that do not involve any of these terms. This is important because in the modern age in the United States, our society as a whole discredits all other forms of healing other than what is approved by the FDA. To many other cultures, such as North American Indians, this form of healing has not always been the norm. Shamanism, though not as prominent today, focuses on the spiritual well being as well as the physical. At its root, Shaman is “taken from the Tungus of Siberia where it means ‘spirit healer’. Shamanism, or working with the spirits, is found today in many parts of the globe among people who live by… ‘the law of mystical participation,’ that is, the sense of a spiritual connection that exists between everyone and everything in the universe” (Turner 13). Instead of prescriptions or X-ray machines, Shamans will incorporate animal spirit guides, meditation, and local herbs in order to help diagnose problems within their patient.

“Traditional Native healers or shamans draw on a vast body of symbolism passed down through the centuries. These images are stored in the memories of traditional healers and passed from generation to generation. Myths, prayers, songs, chants, sand paintings, and music are used to return the patient symbolically to the source of tribal energy. Indigenous philosophy does not separate healing from art or religion” (Dufrene, et al.:145-152). In Western culture, the use of music, animals, and song can be part of the therapy if chosen by the patient, but is not a standard procedure recommended by doctors. These make up the fundamentals of healing through Shamanism, or thru a medicine man. The value of the soul and mind in stability are seen as part of a physical aliment. Visible pain is created on more than one level of the human make up, but this is not always the case in Western practices.

It does not help that it has only been since the mid 1900s that tribes were permitted to preform their ceremonies and healing rituals once again after decades of oppression in the United States. “As tribal religions reemerge and begin to attract younger Native American Indians, problems of immense magnitude appear. Many people are trapped between tribal values constituting their unconscious behavior responses and the values that they have been taught by the dominant society, which primarily demand conforming to seemingly foreign ideals,” (Dufrene, et al.:145-152). This issue of choosing between custom and the modern way of life still plagues many tribal members, especially the younger generations. This leaves a vastly smaller quantity of willing participants to learn this way of healing.

This loss could lead to the extinction of certain rituals and ceremonies help by the tribes Shaman. This information, while similar as a whole, is very different from tribe to tribe. “In the course of a visit to the Iglulik Inuit in the vicinity of Lyon Inlet in 1922, the explorer and ethnologist Knud Rasmussen managed to elicit several evenings of discussions concerning ‘rules of life and taboo customs’ during which, he observed, he failed to get ‘…At length, however, Aua, an angakkuq (shaman) and chief spokesman for the local group, responded to Rasmussen’s repeated queries of “why” with a telling answer. ‘Our fathers’ Aua explained ‘have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations,” (Stone 129) which explains that not only is the information a variance per tribe, but is strict to only be passed down to those of their tribe and future generations.

Some tribes also believe in an evil being, opposite of a shaman, a witch. “To the Hopis, witches or evil-hearted persons deliberately try to destroy social harmony by sowing discontent, doubt, and criticism through evil gossip as well as by actively combating medicine men… Hopis feel intimidated and powerless by the thought and fear of occult attack by witches or sorcerers,” (Geertz 374). To the Hopis, almost any person with mal intent could be considered a witch, and often, when a person or family experienced a string of bad events, it would be blamed on a witch.

Another example of a difference in Shamanism is in the Cherokee tribe that believe more in the power of a group rather than an individual. “This society was highly structured and consisted of a dominant priestly lineage in association with clan prerogatives. Healing rites were strongly tied to ceremonial performances involving the entire community, often a number of related Cherokee towns, and, on special occasions, the entire Cherokee population, largely centered in northern Georgia. This priestly class had widespread authority in all aspects of Cherokee life and was delineated as the ‘white’ organization of knowledgeable elders representing the seven clans and their hereditary powers of leadership” (Irwin: 237-257). This approach to healing as a group can be much more effective in treatment as they all tend to an individuals needs. As a group, the needs of the patient spiritually, mentally, and physically are addressed by many and helps to aid in a much more speedy recovery in many cases. This is the same concept as prayer. The more people you have working together and praying together, the more energy is put forth towards a greater effort.

Shamans incorporate an array of tools to aid them in the healing process, including herbs, visions, spirit guides, music, chant, and even dance. Each item is used for a specific purpose in the healing process. For instance, “[t]he rattle often was the critical implement for administering medicines to the s ick or to those seeking purification (e.g., Black Drink). Equally important is the recognized relationship between gourds as rattles with shamanic practices. Specific examples come from ethno historic accounts as early as Cabeza de Vaca’s sixteenth-century southeastern trek, when he received presents of gourds from shamans as symbols of authority. The rattle was considered so emblematic of the shaman that it was occasionally substituted as a symbol for them and served as a badge of office. Among the Powhatan priests in Pamunkey country, the ‘faces of all their priests are painted so ugly as they can devise; in their hands they carry every one his rattle, for the most part as a symbol of his place and professions’” (Emerson 142). Sometimes the Shaman could also experience a vision from their spirit guides. Spirit guides were often an animal spirit and each animal carried a specific meaning to the clan and to the Shaman. Herbs could be used to treat physical wounds, as well as serve as a cleansing for the mind and soul. Tobacco and peyote are key herbs in distinct tribal ceremonies to specific North American Indian clans. Sage was another important herb in the Southwest regions. It is used to cleanse the body and mind through the use of burning the herb near the patient.

Shamans also see illness in a different light than many Western cultures. Mental illness, for example, is a serious concern for most of the world, however using drugs to cure it is more like trying to put a Band-Aid over a nine inch cut, it only does so much. Most shamans view mental illness as a contact from the spirit world. This contact can be trying to urge the person into the next phase in life, a phase that will help others in some way. It can also be a sign of become a shaman. Overall, it means there is an imbalance with the person on a spiritual level as well as mental and that it is more than just a chemical imbalance. “This model of healing is gaining some momentum in current western mental health practice. For example, recent emphasis by therapists on finding out how the individual views his mental illness, what it means to him, and what he thinks can be done to heal him suggests that the individual’s worldview or context is seen as a critical aspect of mental health treatment… Like the shamans, who view healing as coming from within the individual and treatment from external sources, modern mental health professionals are acutely aware that long-term mental health gains can only be sustained by building on the individual’s instrumental and spiritual strengths rather than by externally imposed treatments that focus solely on a disease or disorder,” (Singh 134).

Overall, Shamanism is one of the main holistic approaches to healing by other cultures, specifically in the case of North American Indians. This method incorporates some not well-known tools by the United States as a whole, but should be assimilated into future usage. This study reveals that Americans standards and practices are only a small drop in a vast ocean of views in the world. It would be wise for us as a society to consider healing on multiple levels other than just the one obvious level with the affliction. Healing is about caring for another person and helping them to overcome an obstacle in their lives. With America being the ‘Melting Pot’ of the world, it seems odd to have one standardized method of healing, when a vast array of knowledge is at our fingertips from one another. Shamans are here to teach and heal the people; so let their spirit guides guide you to wholesome life.






Work Cited


Turner, Edith. 2004 Shamanism and Spirit. Expedition 46, no. 1:12-15. Bibliography of Native North Americans, EBSCOhost(accessed December 2, 2014).

Dufrene, Phoebe M., and Victoria D. Coleman. 1994 Art and Healing for Native American Indians. Journal Of Multicultural Counseling & Development 22, (3):145-152. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost(accessed December 2, 2014).

Stone, Thomas. 2010 Making Law for the Spirits: Angakkuit, Revelation and Rulemaking in the Canadian Arctic. Numen: International Review For The History Of Religions 57, (2): 127-153. Bibliography of Native North Americans, EBSCOhost (accessed December 2, 2014).

Irwin, Lee. 1992 Cherokee Healing: Myth, Dreams, and Medicine. American Indian Quarterly 16, (2): 237-257. Bibliography of Native North Americans, EBSCOhost (accessed December 4, 2014).

Emerson, Thomas E. 2003 MATERIALIZING CAHOKIA SHAMANS. Southeastern Archaeology 22, (2): 135-154. Bibliography of Native North Americans, EBSCOhost (accessed December 4, 2014).

Singh, Ashvind N. 1999 Shamans, healing, and mental health. Journal of Child and Family Studies 8, (2) (06): 131-134, (accessed December 4, 2014).


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