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Meeting the New Shamans

Updated: May 1

In 2008, I contacted explorer, Jon Turk after reading his 2008 article in the Shaman’s Drum, “Reaching for Otherworlds: A Healing in Siberia.”  In it, he described a healing he experienced by an old shaman named Moolynaut.  Many years before meeting her, his pelvis was reconstructed with metal bolts and plates after a skiing accident. He was told by doctors he would likely live with chronic and even debilitating pain for the rest of his life.  This fact did not deter him from continuing his lifelong passion for exploring some of the hardest and rarely trekked edges of the world.  On one of 5 expeditions to Siberia, he was once again struck by a bout of intense pain and was told by the villagers to go see Moolynaut.

In the session, she had him strip naked and stand on one leg as she called in Kutcha, the Raven God. He had what he described as an otherworldly experience. Afterwards, the pain never returned despite what in the West would be considered a physical impossibility. He writes, “I scrutinized the healing through the logic of my Western culture and scientific training, but no analysis seemed satisfactory — so I sought understanding by skiing across the frigid tundra where Moolynaut was born and raised. Gradually, the tundra taught me to accept both my injury and healing in the same context that I welcomed spring snowstorms and returning sunshine.”  He returned a year after this event for emotional healing after his wife was tragically killed in an avalanche.

Jon responded immediately and with great warmth to my inquiry. We were off to a good start and eventually planned for him to come to Virginia to offer a workshop and lecture and to come speak to my class taught at the University of Virginia called “Shamanism in a New Age.”  I wanted to meet Jon because I myself was in the throes of trying to let go of my western academic biases to privilege my own spirituality. Like Jon, I also had had many visionary experiences which could not be explained by western thinking.  In my case, however, I had not gone to Siberia to have them.  They happened in my own living room and consisted of images of collective violence and visitations from spirit beings teaching me about peace. When I contacted Jon, I had only just begun to understand the purpose of my habit of contacting men and women like him and bringing them to Virginia.  Jon seemed to be at that excitingly incipient stage where he was only just starting to make sense of what he had learned.  Other new shamans I contacted were well along in their journeys and had long ago relinquished their old ways of thinking to start schools, publish books, and spread the word.

The narratives of western scholars and scientists leaving behind their often successful academic careers to become “shamans” modeled on their indigenous teachers because of extraordinary visionary experiences while in the field fascinated me. They mirrored my own experiences in part.  However, my forays into these alternative realities did not happen as a result of going into the deserts, mountains and wildernesses far from western “civilization.”  They were triggered by seeking relief from chronic pain, depression, anxiety and panic attacks under the hands of healers and also in meditation “on the cushion,” as we Buddhists often put it.

But besides this, I wanted to understand how those of mixed Native American and/or Caucasian ancestry thought about what they did in the context of the controversies around the “sale” or dissemination of these traditions to non-natives.  I wanted to understand more about the cultural phenomenon of this new, emerging spiritual and therapeutic movement not only because of my own spiritual proclivities, but out of scholarly interest, as well. After all, this is what I was teaching about at UVA: I was bringing to students ways of seeing from Buddhism and from my own forays into shamanism and Native American spirituality to questions of how to heal from individual and collective trauma, including racism.

My trail into the world of the new shamans is as follows: A year before contacting Jon, I had similarly emailed Bradford Keeney after voraciously reading his book, Shaking Out the Spirits.  In that book, he describes his search to understand his early experiences of bodily shaking accompanied by ecstatic trance states.  Brad eventually ended up in the Kalahari desert with the San Bushman and discovered that their shamanic healings involve calling up states of ecstasy through sound and dance which then evokes heat and shaking in the body.  Brad was an academic and had many publications to his name in the field of clinical psychology. He is credited with writing one of the seminal books in the field of family systems therapy.  He now travels around the world teaching what he has been taught by the Bushmen.

Before him, in 2006, I had invited Barbara Tedlock, professor of anthropology at the University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of The Woman in the Shaman’s Body and Ronald “Rainbow Eagle” Williston, teacher and author of A Walk in the Woods, to a small seminar sponsored by the Institute on Violence and Survival at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities called “Violence and the Shamanic”  (Report on Seminar on Violence and the Shamanic).  Joining them was my friend and colleague at the University of Virginia, professor of anthropology, Edith Turner, who had done extensive fieldwork among the Inupiat of Point Hope, Alaska and the Ndembu of Zambia. Although her books remain firmly rooted in academic anthropology, she is perhaps most noted for an article she published in 1992 called “The Reality of Spirits” in which she chronicles how she actually saw a spirit exit the body of a woman in a Ndembu healing ritual and discusses how it changed her view of anthropological fieldwork.  Since then, she has become an avid proponent of the reality of the existence of spirits and energies described by native informants to western anthropologists. She challenges the dominant paradigm in her field to discount them as “myths,” “symbols” or serving the merely psychological function of “imagination” and “belief”—code for something that has value for making meaning, but has no reality beyond that.

In 2004, I brought Martin Prechtel, author of several books about his life in the Mayan village of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala in the late 70s and 80s, including Secrets of the Talking Jaguar.  He came to speak with my class at UVA on his work and experiences.  Martin was a colorful and galvanizing figure whose insistence that the dominant, western culture he called “the gray sky culture” is bankrupt of meaning challenged sorely my students’ sensibilities.

I began to piece together a synthesized picture of the work of these thinkers, writers and spiritual seekers within the context of four centuries of violence and oppression against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This story is not black and white: these people are not “frauds” or “thieves,” as Native American writers like Vine Deloria and Ward Churchill would have it.  Nor are they entirely free from responsibility for the sins of their ancestors—also my ancestors. All of us are bound in the web of the legacy of violence that started long before Columbus and Cortez landed on these shores.  The question is not whether we are so bound or whether there are therefore ethical complexities surrounding any choices we make as we engage with indigenous systems of belief and practice, but how we do it why.  It all goes to intention and attention.

Brad writes in Bushman Shaman: “The most powerful experience shared by all shamanic healers is the deep bond and love in their relationships with others.  Ecstatic bliss arises when they throw themselves into spirited shaking and dancing, which serves to open their hearts.  Shamans help bring forth the spirited interactions that open the doors to circular absorptive relations with others.”  Brad should know. In his career, he has trekked all over the world to meet and study with not just the Bushman, but with Ikuko Osume, Sensei, master of Seiki Jutsu in Japan, Guarani Grandfather Shamans from the Lower Basin Amazonia in Paraguay, and healers in Brazil, South Africa, the West Indies, Native North America, and Bali.  Even as a shaman, he maintained his scholarly roots and edited the Profiles in Healing series, committed to “helping the world’s most revered healers, shamans, medicine people, and leaders of complementary medicine tell their stories.”

Brad, Jon and the others named here are doing their best to support and help the healers who have been their guides, teachers, and anthropological informants.  The Koryak people, for instance, have just barely survived an onslaught against their culture and the land on which they live by the Soviet government starting with dictator Josef Stalin in the 1920s-50s.  As Jon writes, “Russian engineers leveled tundra and forest and built endless rows of dank, dark, musty, concrete apartment buildings, equipped with electricity and central heating. Then they called in the army to shoot anyone who attempted to live a traditional lifestyle in skin tents” (forthcoming).  The result was that the reindeer herds with and upon which the Koryak symbiotically lived were either killed or driven off, destroying their main source of sustenance.  In one story Jon tells about his expeditions to Siberia, he and several other members of the village of Vyvenka were setting off across the frozen tundra in search of reindeer herders they had heard rumors of.  Moolynaut asked them to bring her some reindeer meat, lamenting how long it had been since she had tasted a fresh kill.  It is sad to know that this nearly 100-year-old woman who had grown up following reindeer and involved in the elaborate preparations of deer meet and skins, now could only dream of something that was associated with love, nurturance, truth, and bounty in both spirit and body.

The Q’ero shamans who have been the teachers of Alberto Villoldo, one of my teachers, have explicitly stated that the knowledge they carry must be put into the hands of those who hold power in the world—in this case those of us from the western world—in order to preserve the teachings, but also to save the future of mankind from the path of destruction we have wrought over centuries. Chiv, the ancient and powerful shaman who took Martin under his wing, tells his student that the spirits had told him and his shamanic colleagues in and around Santiago Atitlan that the village would be torn apart and that Martin would be the one to “bundle” the teachings to preserve and eventually disseminate them.  Indeed, the war hit Guatemala in the 1980s and Santiago Atitlan was torn apart. Many of the traditional shamans, including Chiv had by then already died or were killed in the violence.

These examples of how the elders of indigenous cultures have blessed these men and women does not mitigate the realities of ongoing racism, oppression and genocide of thteir peoples. It is also true that many do blithefully co-opt the healing practices of native peoples and promulgate images of them that are often romanticized and unreal. It is not to understate the fact that any contact between with the West changes them forever.  It is also all too-easy to hang up a shingle and call yourself a “shaman” or to give yourself a name that sounds “Indian” but that has no bearing on the reality of your ancestral background or to your relationship to anyone empowered in a truly native culture to bestow it upon you.  As Alberto said to me, the Q’ero complain about whites and others from the U.S. and Europe who partake of their teachings and healings and then leave something like a seashell as a “gift.”  Would someone consider it an appropriate payment for a licensed psychotherapist in the city of New York?

However, if we take the example of the work of Martin Luther King in ending racial apartheid in the U.S., we know that he could not have achieved his goal without allies from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.  In the Civil Rights Movement, there is a rich history of whites joining in the cause.  King and Mahatma Gandhi knew that it takes more than a single race to end oppression.  You must capture the hearts and minds of all people to end the cycle. Both men also drew fully upon the power of their spiritual lives, their faith, and their living connection with God to invoke the best in those who held the role of “enemy” to their causes. Indeed, one of the things that characterizes many of the Nobel Peace Laureates is the fact that their work is grounded in an overtly spiritual worldview—a worldview that is both protective of what is being destroyed, but also radically inclusive of all ways of seeing.

The stories of these men and women whom I have been privileged to meet. study and be in dialogue with are mythic in proportion and, in my opinion, can be made sense of only within a framework that includes spirituality.   Brad writes, “All the Bushman elders I have met express their sadness over how ‘ignorant’ other cultures are. They are fully aware that most people, whom they call ‘the line people’ do not know how to be in the circle of life. We have broken the strings that outline the patterns that connect.  The Bushmen, ‘the circle people,’ wait patiently for us to wake up, join their healing dance, and mend our ways.”  They are partnering with their indigenous teachers to reinvigorate a dying world and to keep alive an ancient spiritual way that can be found globally.

In this spirit, in our practices, we must all do what we can to raise awareness of the ongoing oppression of indigenous people worldwide or to otherwise serve their needs as a way of giving back.  The U.S., Europe and Australia are not the only ones guilty of practices that continue to undermine the well being of indigenous people; China has been engaged in the same campaign against the Tibetan people and Russia continues its longstanding war against the Chechens, among other examples.

On a personal level, the stories told by Jon, Brad and Alberto gave me courage to finally leave my comfortable tenured job and career as an academic to forge into the edgy waters of a movement that is often misunderstood, derided and even downright hated.  I have lost a few friends in the process and nearly lost my home due to hitting rocky financial shales in the transition. I am still in the process of piecing together the story of the emerging shamanism as it rises out of the ashes of violence and friendship.  In the meantime, I consciously use my role as an academic, spiritual teacher and healer to call attention to the racism and remaining cultural superiority lurking in the western rejection of the beautiful lifeways and cosmologies of the Q’ero, Bushman, Koryak and others. This is called “anti-racism” work in the arena of black-white relations and social justice movements.  In this way, my own work is explicitly political, even while I embrace the “Big Love” that is central to my own spiritual life and that, I believe, like Brad, extends throughout all religious and spiritual systems, bar none.  I am not out to convert or proselytize, but to expand everyone’s ability to include other ways of seeing, other beliefs and faiths in the circle of life, especially those of my teachers and their teachers.

Sources Cited

Keeney, Bradford (2005).  Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance.  Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.

Keeney, Bradford (1994).  Shaking Out the Spirits: A Psychotherapist’s Entry into the Healing Mysteries of Global Shamanism. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, Inc.

Prechtel, Martin (1998).  Secrets of the Talking Jaguar.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Tedlock, Barbara (2005). The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine.  New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Turner, Edith (1996).  The Reality of Spirits. Shamanism: A Reader. Graham Harvey, ed. New York, NY: Routledge: 145-152.

Turk, Jon (forthcoming, 2010).  The Raven’s Gift.  New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Turk, Jon (2008).   Reaching for Otherworlds: A Healing in Siberia. Shaman’s Drum, Vol. No. 68.

Williston, Roland Rainbow Eagle (2005). A Walk in the Woods: Native American Spirituality.  Self-published.

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