Teaching Shamanism

My wife, Jennie, and I are scheduled to teach an intensive course on shamanism this summer. The course is offered by Burlington College, a small, progressive Liberal Arts college where we both teach.

The course offers students an opportunity to delve briefly into the world of shamanism as we understand it. Students will not be shamans after completing the five-plus day experience. Rather, they will hopefully be more aware, engaged human beings.

About a decade ago my teachers began urging me to teach. They probably had some inkling of how terribly  difficult such a request was for me. After all, I had been raised in an extended family profoundly committed to being invisible as Native people.  Then, too, I had long been taught never to call myself a shaman, as only one’s community can give one that title. But times change, and the demands of the moment sometimes trump tradition. Over the past ten years I have explored ways to share what I know in a respectful, humble manner. The intensive is another step on that journey.

Teaching is both joyful and challenging, and I am given to imagining I have to go about managing difficult things alone. Maybe that, too, is a residue of Colonialism and occupation. This past week I was reminded we are not alone, as I was visited by the Elders several nights. Truth is, I’ve been fretting a good deal about teaching, and all of the responsibilities that accompany that. I’ve also been grieving the meanness, greed, and real harm done by human beings in the world. Lastly, I’ve been thinking about being in my sixty-fifth year. In all likelihood I am in the last quarter of this life I have been granted by the Creator. This week, in their Dream visits,  the Elders have brought instruction and comfort, and offered their wisdom. Maybe that’s in the air as Walking the Drum also wrote about being visited and gifted.

Although I have grown to identify deeply with my First Nations heritage, there is much about my identity I will simply never know. The specifics of my tribal ancestry seem always in flux. The Elders reminded me that in many ways my experience is the norm, and that the children of the People are called in this, and in generations to come, to return to their traditions. They pointed to what I already know: that Indigenous identity for many people was, and continues to be, fractured by the workings of colonialism.

Warren Petoskey recently wrote a fine, heartfelt piece  about the complexities of identity and tribal membership in a time of  colonialism. He voiced concern about the effects of lost heritage and identity on past and future generations, including those who are now our grandchildren, writing, in part:

There are many of us who are fortunate enough to have stayed connected or reconnected with our people, but there are those who have not and who are drifting through this physical experience trying to find their way home; trying to find their identity; and trying to find their people…..

We believe that when we leave this physical existence and pass into the Spirit World we will meet those Ancestors who prayed for our survival. I wonder how we are going to answer them when they challenged us regarding our behaviors towards their grandchildren?

Challenging identity is one of the ways Colonialism and Racism go about undermining Self in First Nations and other Indigenous people.  The aggressor claims the right to define who is, or is not, Native.   At the same time, the Colonial imagination finds many ways to usurp Indigenous knowledge and identity to sell books, workshops, and a host of other items, including plant medicines. I have thought long about the many teachings that have been stolen, and those that have been made up in order to bring wealth and prestige to the unscrupulous. To teach in these times is a great responsibility.

The Elders reminded me, yet again, that we must value the traditions and ethnicities that sing in our blood. Our world is increasingly a world of Mixed Bloods, and the knowing that comes with such rich heritages points to a way forward for humankind, a way filled with nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. To embrace complexity is to honor Life, the Ancestors, the Spirits, and the Creator. It offers a way Home.

Finally, the Elders stated firmly that, in this time of great upheaval, we must keep our hearts open They reassured me they require only that we each do what we are able, and urged me to remember only work shared by many will heal the Earth and our collective lives. Then they encouraged me to teach what I know. I am grateful for the Elders’ visits and kindness.

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Shamanism

  1. “only work shared by many will heal the Earth and our collective lives.”

    Very true. I struggle with teaching occasionaly myself. The responsibility for passing on the knowledge vs. the responsibility of what might happen if it’s not taken seriously. Ultimately, I think, we must simply put our trust in spirit and share the gifts we’ve been given with those who are ready to honor and respect them. Regardless of what some would have us believe, we ARE a global village. One person’s ailment affects us all, and so together we must find healing (or curing) for the greatest good of everyone…

  2. Michael – i am responding to your query (not that you are asking it, but simply thinking aloud, no doubt) about what makes this simple ageless truth so challenging. I think the response could be that the seeming fragmentation of the human spirit, into so many bits and everyone in the world is only trying to mend his/her own is testimony that we are not seeing our continuity and connection with us in a deeper and profound manner. We are all in our little little corners, or part of the world, overwhelmed by whatever we are dealing with and living through. We have locked ourselves in imaginary frames, from where when we look out we find everyone is suspect and an ‘other’- we have lost the gift of continuity and a unified worldview. By we I mean a majority. The smallest minority still carries the view within and hopes to extend it- you among me, me too.

    • Thank you Prateeksha. Yes, it is difficult to hold a more integrated, inclusive view of others and the world. I don’t do this well either, even though I make an effort to. Sometimes being a minority is just too frustrating and difficult. Of course, we keep walking forward, just not necessarily easily.

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