Teaching “Shamanisms”

Winter_AfternoonTomorrow I begin teaching on campus for the first time this year. I’ve enjoyed time off, and am looking forward to teaching. I’m teaching an upper level seminar on shamanism.

Last night, as I was thinking about, and planning, the course, the rain came down hard and fast for hours. This morning there is an inch or so of very wet snow on the ground. This means we will have black ice, and all that goes with that. (The squirrels and birds at the feeder seem not to mind the weather much.) The storm seemed fitting given the centrality of the Great Weathers, and rain in particular, too much shamanic practice.

I teach the course, entitled Shamanisms, with a combination of specificity and generalization, and draw heavily from my own experience and research. There are many similarities between shamanic cultures, as well as important differences. Adding to the complexity is that many cultures that consider themselves NOT to be shamanic are labeled shamanic by anthropologists and other academics who study shamanism, while some cultures that self-identify as shamanic are disqualified by those same researchers! The subject really is complex!

In order to bring out the diversity of belief and practice that falls under the rubric of shamanism, I invite practicing  shamans and healers from several traditions to present to the class. In any term there may be shamans and medicine people from the Americas and traditional Siberian cultures, Buddhist shamans, Reiki practitioners, and neoshamans. We talk about the complex worlds of belief and practice that are considered in the study of shamanism, and explore some of the titles and activities that may get lumped together under the term: shaman, curandera, medicine person, healer. Usually there is more agreement between presenters than conflict, and sometimes there is intense disagreement. All this can be eye-opening for students.

One of the hot topics is usually the problems inherent in sharing traditional knowledge, and the challenge of appropriation. Some cultures encourage their young shamans to visit and learn from shamans and healers from other cultures and traditions. Others see their teachings as providing a full range of tools, and express concern that cross-cultural study will water down or contaminate the teachings. Neoshamanism tends to borrow from all cultures and often decontextualizes traditional teachings. It is good and enriching to talk about the pros and cons of all these approaches.

Often there are Native students in class. At first they tend to be reticent about sharing their identity, as well as their hunger for skills and information that may not be readily available to them. I try to invite them into the discussion early by sharing the complexity of my heritage and apprenticeships. Other students take the class because they have experienced some form of initiation from the spirit world and are trying to find their way in their new life; still others are simply curious.

Given all this, the course has changed over the years, becoming both much more experiential, and more rigorously academic. After all, the students are mostly in their last few semesters of school, and the college rightly demands they demonstrate a high degree of academic accomplishment. It is my hope that by the end of the term students have a broad grasp of the range of shamanic cultures and practices, as well as the contributions 0f, and challenges inherent in, the academic study of shamanism. I also hope that students will have learned shamanic skills that will help them in their lives, while grasping that a course or some weekend workshops does not a shaman, curandera, or medicine person make.

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9 thoughts on “Teaching “Shamanisms”

  1. I have been reading about several kind of shamanism and find it very interesting. I wished to learn more few years ago, but stopped because there were so much talking about white and black shamanism and about whom was a real shaman wished to teach the right knowledge.
    I do know that all can be used or abused, so I placed my wish about learning at standby until I found a good teacher.
    Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. I find it encouraging that Shamanism is accepted as a legitimate subject in post-secondary institutions. Also that 1/3 chose to drop out…. but that just says, to me at least, that the 2/3 remaining are open-minded and willing to learn. Let’s home that seed you planted in the other third will someday blossom!

    • Della, It is an accepted academic disciple. The challenge is to keep class academic enough and to provide enough elder visits and experiential activities to make it meaningful. It is a huge leap for most students, and many bravely take that leap and, suspending judgement, learn about other ways of understanding the world.

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