The term "Shamanism" or Shaman originates from the Tungus (eastern Siberia) language, and refers to a person who makes journeys to non-ordinary reality in an altered state of consciousness. In the West, the term shamanism became useful because people didn't know what it meant, and it could be separated from words such as "witch", "sorcerer" or "witch doctor" which have negative connotations attached to them. Indigenous societies around the world have a specific name for the people in their societies who "could see in the dark" and worked with helping Spirits. In my Plains Cree culture, they are known as onanâtawihowêw, a person female or male, who is considered a healer.
Although the term "shaman" is Siberian, the practice exists in Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America. Shamanism was also the dominant tradition in pre-Christian Europe, and the pre-religious spiritual practice for the world during the Paleolithic era. It is the oldest spiritual practice on Earth. The practice of shamanism allows for the healer to be the intermediary between the Spirit world and the human world. With the assistance of Spirit helpers, the shaman is able to alleviate trauma and illness, as well as guide people with questions they have about their lives.
In North America prior to the arrival of Christianity, the ability for people to connect with Spirit helpers and teachers was the only belief system. Spirits are the intermediaries between the Creator and human beings, because for many tribes "The Great Mystery" was too powerful to be contacted directly and would likely not get involved in the concerns of humans. Therefore, the Spirits that existed in all things became the teachers and helpers to humans.
"...in our culture many consider it avant-garde if a person talks about the mind-body connection, but the fact that the brain is connected to the rest of the body is not the most exciting news. It's been known for hundreds and thousands of years. What's really important about shamanism, in my opinion, is that the shaman knows that we are not alone. By that I mean, when one human being compassionately works to relieve the suffering of another, the helping spirits are interested and become involved." ~ Michael Harner
Shaman call on helping spirits from the-world-that-supports-ours, to heal people by restoring their spiritual power. That power comes from protection of compassionate and divine spirits and power animals, which create a spiritual force field around the person.
Who Becomes a Shamanic Practitioner?
Shamanism is an apprenticeship that begins with "a calling" from Spirit. The apprentice endures suffering throughout their life too build compassion for others. They experience loss, often life-threatening illness, chronic physical pain, or mental illness. Long-term childhood illness is a common factor, as well as visions received during a fever or coma, or later in childhood.
Traditional Indigenous puberty ceremonies and visions or visitations are also a common indicator. Spiritual initiations occur throughout the apprenticing shaman, which they are guided through by a human teacher and their Spirit helpers. These initiation often results in a complete breakdown of the apprentice's previous life. For contemporary apprentices, this can be illness, relationships breaking down, a complete career change, or moving to a new geographic location.
There are those people who are called to the practice who are not Indigenous. Shamanism is a spiritual discipline and practice that is utilitarian. Healers appear where they are needed. Leta Kingfisher trains those who know they are meant to be healers, but do not have connection to an Indigenous culture. Shamanism is not a cultural spiritual practice, it is a human spiritual practice.
My personal journey began with the passing of my mother when I was a year and a half old. My childhood after that was filled with physical and emotion trauma. In my early teens I started to experience the beginnings of my mental illness, depression, losing a week of my life in continuous sleep every year. I began searching for ways to connect with my mother, and began my lifelong learning of spiritual traditions from around the world.
When I was nineteen and doing my first Traditional Fast (4 days without food or water) I was visited by a powerful Spirit which terrified me but was also a wondrous experience of acknowledgement. I started my formal apprenticeship then, joining a Midewiwin Women's circle for teachings, and started my Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies, researching healers and my own Plains Cree ceremonial practices.
I got married and had three children while earning my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Religious Studies. The fearlessness of the healers I found in historical accounts was what I wanted to see in my own community, healers confident and proud of what they were able to do with the help of Spirit Helpers.
My teachers have been the Elder's of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, where I was fortunate enough to be taught by Mike Steinhauer. Mike was part of the group of men and women who were trained by Arapaho Elder Raymond Harris from 1975-2000. These individuals were the first wave of apprentices who became catalysts for reintroducing ceremonies that had been suppressed in their communities. These apprentices in traditional ways also became key figures in transforming the values and practices of Aboriginal organizations and services in Canada. I was also taught by the Elders of the Sturgeon Lake First Nation. I have learned from Elders that guided our Sun Dances, and Elders who named my children in Sweat Lodges and Sun Dances. I have been honoured to learn from powerful women healers, Gizelle Rhyon Berry, Alicia Gates and Amanda Foulger through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. The Foundation is dedicated to Traditional Indigenous Healers around the world and offers support to keep the traditions going through financial support, the building of ceremonial structures for their people or by assisting in recording knowledge of a people's last healer so that it is not lost forever.
My lifelong apprenticeship has involved physical and emotional trauma, chronic back pain that left me often bed-ridden for three years, and debilitating depression that has resulted in three suicide attempts. Depression is a mental illness that affects both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. For me, depression has its gift, for within that darkness, often insight and clarity comes because I am forced to focus on nothing else but my own survival. Depression has been my sacred gift. Of all the spiritual practices I do, depression has kept me the most humble because I must submit to the Divine and pray to save myself each time - and be reminded that life is truly wondrous.