Shamanism as a Valid Academic Practice 6
The Academic Restoration of Shamanism in
the Native Americans of the Southwest
March 11, 2007
Shamans are seen as mystics, medicine men, curers, and witches. They have been revered, feared, and written of for as far back as the late Neolithic Period, approximately 11,000 B.C. In traditional societies, they served many purposes, but among these, the calling of spirits to the aide of the their tribe is agreeably the most recognized. Although most would call these practices hoaxes, or would simply not endow a visit to view such an event, the practice of shamanism is certainly not something that anthropologists can historically deny. But sadly, it is also agreed upon that more and more of the practitioners of this knowledge are disappearing at an incredible rate. Therefore, shamanism in the Indians of the southwest United States, as a field of knowledge, should be academically restored and assimilated before it becomes extinct.
Shamanic practices, in general, are veiled in outmost secrecy. To quite a few, if not most Native American tribes, the intrusion of Anglo-Saxons, specifically, is seen as a threat to their already declining theological system. Since the invasion of the European settlers and even the Spaniards of old, Native Americans have lost many of the established, millennia-old ideas and practices that were once well-known them. Though this may appear to be of little consequence to the average man, what this means in terms of knowledge is that a ritualized, theological field as old as Native American culture itself is swiftly being erased from all existence. It may be as soon as a single generation before thousands of years of information is lost.
Now, the shaman himself (or herself, as seen in most of western Asia) was someone far more intellectual and academic than most of today's society would be led to believe. Only through intense memorization and discipline, not to mention the recognition of his entire society, could he practice freely his trade. This is akin to, if not more pronounced than, the medical doctors and surgeons of today. They performed their practices by calling upon the aide of friendly or neutral spirits- unseen 'airs' that act upon the world in mysterious ways. The shaman, through natural or practiced skill, is able to detect the presence of these spirits, and interact with them in such a way so as to entice them to fulfill whatever task they need assistance with, usually in healing the patient in question either physically, mentally, or energetically.
Needless to say, the arrival at such ability is not attained 'from the ground up', rather, shamanism in general has been a field of knowledge passed down from generation to generation, with more and more techniques added with each transition. Thus, by definition alone, shamanism easily qualifies itself as a valid practice, however poorly it may be viewed by the general public.
It is taught beginning at an early age by another, older shaman, and may take decades before the practitioner is prepared to immerse himself in his art. Often, their entire lifetime is spent in pursuit of this spiritual knowledge, until they are ready to pass on their own wisdom to another. In this manner, the knowledge
has been accrued through many generations, but only in the minds of its practitioners.
Very little recorded data exists of shamanic practices- the shamans themselves, throughout time, have not been known to keep records of their practice. What little is known of ancient times is seen through the eyes of the artist who painted a scene depicting a healing, or even more rarely, the hieroglyphist who revealed the workings of a particular shaman. Thus, knowledge of shamanic practices has been delicately tip-toeing through time. Until the arrival of the Spaniards, and later, the Europeans, the only known widespread extinction of this knowledge was possibly with the fall of the Toltecan culture around approximately 500 A.D. When the settlers came however, they wiped out the Native American peoples in a blind manner, eradicating them before learning much of their culture. Thus before America was even established, the workings of prior settlers had already deteriorated much of the ancient practices, and a spiritual system of knowledge that relied entirely on uniformity and tradition was sent scattering in all directions.
Looking back in history, we can see that this is not the only time that reckless conquering or warring had destroyed knowledge. The Atlanteans, the Amazonians, the Carthaginians, and many more- all civilizations of countless
information in their times -have become only footnotes in history due to the onslaughts of their fellow man.
Although efforts have been made to record shamanic practices, and already success has been seen in many parts of America, in comparison to the amount of knowledge still available but unrecorded we have learned only a small amount. It is sad to say that in the field of anthropology as we know it today, most work is done in the library than in the field. In fact, field work is usually frowned upon!
It is obvious that history is on the verge of repeating itself once again, and yet little effort has been spared to stop this academic calamity from recurring. Unless we intervene immediately, in only a few short years we will be looking back with regret, as historians still do today. Without a formal academic restoration of these peoples' belief structures and practices, then, ironically, some day historians will sigh and look back with this same respite.