Post-Tribal Shamanism

Modern society has lost touch with the roots of our human experience, in a way that wounds us as individuals and as a culture. These wounds require healers who can weave new bonds between spirit and the ordinary world. We call such healers shamans. And yet traditional shamans, arising from cultures unlike our own, cannot effectively heal us in the ways we need. We require a new breed of shamans, born to this wounded state in which we find ourselves today, who can reawaken the old stories in our souls and remind us who we are. While there are cultures where shamans still operate in their traditional roles today, we in the United States, Canada and Western Europe, among other “first world” nations, do not live in such a place.
There is a popular notion among those who dabble in esoteric knowledge that shamanism is the property of indigenous peoples and that for a modern person to take on the mantle of shaman is to steal that inherited wealth from those folk.1 This notion arrises from the understandable resistance which native people’s feel to the appropriation of their rituals and practices. However, shamanism is not simply the sum total of it’s practices. The practices arise from the context. If the context is a traditional village, the practices will address the spiritual needs of that village. If the context is an individual, living in a post-industrial city, the practices need to address that context. When we borrow the practices that arise from the traditional culture and try to apply them to our current situation, we not only disrespect the traditional culture, but fail to apply shamanism effectively, since we are using a practice that does not address our context. The resulting confusion strengthens the assumption that shamans are only found in traditional, tribal settings and that we, as modern humans, have lost the ability or capacity to use the spiritual technology of the shaman in any meaningful way.
I would like to point out that there is a difference between shamanism and the cultural matrix in which it is found. This difference is often missed by the anthropologists eager to explore the mysteries of “primitives.” A clear example of this is the idea that the shaman offers his services only to his own community and does not receive payment for those services. In the first place, this is a misunderstanding of how tribal people’s “do business.” Just because they operate on a barter economy, doesn’t mean that they don’t “pay” for services. The tribal shaman is paid for their services to the tribe. The means of payment is in the “currency” which the tribe recognizes. This may be in the form of food, livestock or other goods and services23 4. These guidelines clearly apply to any and all members of the tribe, not just the shaman. Thus it is reflective of the tribal context in general rather than shamanism in specific. This is simply the competent and responsible way for a shaman to work in a traditional society. It is neither competent nor responsible to work in this way in a society that does not adhere to tribal values. Even those traditional shamans who work in cities accept money for their services. The Korean shamans who offer a wide range of services, from blessings for new factories to divinations, will even decorate their ritual costumes with the banknotes received as their fee for the work being done.
Further, someone offering workshops to non-natives on “how to live as a Lakota Sioux” is obviously appropriating the culture for their own gain. However, someone teaching the fundamentals of shamanic practice is passing on knowledge that is universal to the human condition. Most shamanic teachers these days fall somewhere in between, often relying on the wisdom of one or more tribal societies, which they pass on with the blessings of their own teachers. When this is done in a way that honors the sources of the wisdom, it can be beneficial. The difficulty can arise in separating out what is universal from what is specific to the cultural context from which it is drawn. The idea behind “Core Shamanism”: That we can determine what practices are universal simply by seeing which practices are common to many systems, is flawed in that there are other commonalities between these tribal settings that do not necessarily have anything to do with shamanism, but which are included in the mix, because of their apparent universality. One example of this is the way that journeying is taught by many students of Core Shamanism. The direction is to “imagine a hole in the ground and when the drumming begins, enter the hole and begin your journey.” This presupposes that the beginning journeyer already has a well developed sense of the three worlds of shamanic practice.
There is also a growing body of practitioners who teach and use techniques informed by the practices of traditional shamans, but rooted in the life experience of the modern world. I refer to this as Post-Tribal Shamanism.
One of the many elements separating Post Tribal Shamanism from its traditional antecedents is social evolution. The most important unit of a traditional culture is the tribe itself. This is not only my own experience but has been noted recently in regard to the tribal groups of Iraq5. It is more than apparent that the most important unit of our Postindustrial culture is the individual, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the United States of America, where the rugged individualist holds iconic status. This shift of social hierarchy necessitates an adaptation of shamanic practice. In the traditional setting, the shaman is expected to operate as one part of a greater whole. He can easily address the needs of members of his tribe even without directly communicating with them. For example, if a member of the tribe is suffering from bad dreams, the shaman may sense this and do what is necessary to eliminate the problem, without consulting the troubled tribesman. The tribesman in turn, recognizes that his dreams have been calmed and may leave a chicken by the shaman’s door in payment for the time and energy expended on his behalf.
This sort of intervention would be completely inappropriate in our own culture, since it effectively disempowers the individual who receives the work. The Post Tribal shaman must only work in response to requests for his services, and then should include the client as much as is possible in the work to further empower them. This approach honors the personal sovereignty of the individual and engages them in the work directly so that they feel that they have an active role in their own healing. In this way the Post Tribal shaman supports the healthy relationship of the client to their cultural context, just as a tribal shaman does when they operate by the mores of their tribal context.
In further defining my terms, I want to be clear that what I mean by Post Tribal does not include those who are re-creating modern versions of previously existing tribal cultures. This would be a separate and distinct response of the modern world to the call for shamanic practitioners. Finally, there are many in Post Tribal world who take on the role of the role of the shaman without the label. There are, for instance, many psychotherapists, counselors, bodyworkers and other alternative healing practitioners who operate at a similar level. For the purpose of this conversation, I would also refer to them as Post Tribal shamans, to differentiate them from their official titles, which do not address the shamanic role as it is practiced today.
How We Got to Where We Are
The leap from the traditional tribal shaman to modern post tribal shaman did not happen overnight. Over the years since Russian ethnographers “discovered” shamanism in the Tungus region of Siberia, the word “shaman” has been effectively co-opted by the modern West. When we have American Indians and Native Africans referring to healers of their own indigenous traditions as shamans, you know that it has become the modern word for the healer who walks between the worlds. While native people continue to use their own indigenous terms between themselves, “shaman” has become the commonly accepted term when speaking to the broader community.
When the first photographs of Siberian Shamans appeared on the world stage in the late nineteenth century, the response was varied. They were generally considered to be madmen and charlatans, but there was a recognition as well that very similar sorts were to be found throughout indigenous cultures around the world. So the term was adopted to refer to all those who practiced a similar mixture of trance, communicating with spirits and healing.
Gradually there were those who began to see the value of these figures within their own culture, and from there began to consider what value they might hold for our own post-modern world as well. This process was helped along by the work of such notables as Mircea Eliade, who wrote the “bible” of academic shamanism - Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. In addition to cataloging the similarities of practice and initiation in shamanic cultures around the world, this rather ponderous tome lays out what has become the effective definition of shamanism:
"he is believed to cure, like all doctors, and to perform miracles of the fikir type, like all magicians [...] But beyond this, he is a psychopomp, and he may also be a priest, mystic, and poet".6
Eliade goes on to offer a whole list of attributes and practices that define the shaman, and to which we still refer in our own modern definitions. In spite of never having done any field work of his own, Eliade became the foremost expert on “shamanism,” building his thesis upon his compilation and study of other’s field notes on shamanic practices around the globe.
Carlos Casteneda published his first three books, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan, while studying anthropolgy at UCLA. These books sparked interest and contraversy far beyond that of Eliade’s more acedemic work, and seem to lay the ground for breaking down the barrier between the study of and the practice of Shamanism. The quality, validity or even the esthetics of Casteneda’s work is beside the point. He introduced countless modern minds to the subject and was instrumental in moving the conversation beyond the confines of academia, and opened the door to the idea of an anthropologist actively participating in the practices he observed.
Another of those who has worked to bring the practices of shamanism into the modern world is Michael Harner, one of the first of many academic anthropologists who have gone from studying shamanism to actively practicing it. With the publication of his popular book The Way of the Shaman, Harner did a great deal to usher in the current state of post tribal shamanism. However, his attempt lacked the necessary understanding of important differences between tribal and post-tribal culture, ie. personal sovereignty, gender roles, community ethos, et al.
Students of both Casteneda and Harner have gone on to write their own books and bring their own views to this developing field. Others, inspired by these works and by their own direct experience, have explored the shamanic realms and found their own ways to lead others to this experience.
In every case, effective indigenous shamanic practice evolves to meet the needs of the community it serves. This is equally true of the shamanic practices set in our post- modern culture. Shamanism in this setting is taking various paths to reach toward its goals.
Some practitioners have adopted the practices, and sometimes the culture, of existing indigenous people, and apply these to the modern community with little or no interpretation. Examples of this would include the Peruvian shamanism being offered by Alberto Villoldo, Mateyo Empie and many others; Siberian shamans such as Sarangerel Odigan; and, Dagara shamans such as Maladomo Some. Some have followed the teaching of Michael Harner and apply Core Shamanism as a compilation of “universal” shamanic maps. Still others are re-constructing tribal shamanic maps along mytho-poetic lines, creating “Celtic” and “Norse” shamanic traditions by imagining what the shamans of these tribes might have been like. I have met many of those following these paths at conferences and community gatherings, and I have great respect for their work. However, when I speak of Post-Tribal shamanism, I mean something different from these forms. I refer to those who, while drawing on existing maps for inspiration and direction, hold the opinion that shamanism is not simply an archaic form of healing, but a necessary and meaningful response to the spiritual needs of our modern, post- tribal community. It is this group that I refer to as Post-Tribal shamans. Their focus is on how to define, refine and apply a shamanism that meets our needs as a people rooted in the experience of living in this world as we find it. As such, their practices most often arise from their own direct experience of working with those they serve.

A Post-Tribal Shamanic Session
The work of the shaman assumes that there is a deep, supraconscious collective inhabiting each of us, which we call the Soul. The relationship of this Soul to the ego is rather like that of your physical body to your favorite hat. The hat requires the body in order to get around, but the body can get on quite well without the hat. This relationship has also been described as one of the tip of the iceberg to the body of the iceberg that rests below the water. Just as the tip of the iceberg is what is visible from the surface, the ego generally has the illusion that it IS the whole self.
One of the defining factors of the Post Tribal shaman’s role is the level at which he works. As the Psychologist addresses the mind and the Bodyworker addresses the physical body, so the shaman addresses the Soul. As mentioned above, this Soul has more than one part, and so the work of the shaman may look different from one client to the next, and even from one session to the next with the same client. Because the connection is at a Soul level, the shaman needs to be in touch with that level of himself as well, speaking and acting from his own soul directly to the soul of the client. Fortunately, our Souls usually have a strong desire for their own healing, growth and awakening, so the shaman acts as an external ally of the Soul’s process of bringing the ego to greater awareness. In fact, one of the first things I do with a new client is work to establish contact with their Soul and to develop a good working relationship.
A shamanic session begins before the client shows up, because the state of consciousness they are experiencing when they enter my office will determine the quality and depth of the work we can do in that session. My own work also begins before the session. Since the client is very effected by the state of my consciousness and by the dynamic process of my own Soul work, I am obligated to engage in my own on-going healing and awakening. I prepare by extending my Medicine Body into the surrounding space and bringing my awareness into a deeper relationship with my own Soul. I observe the client as they enter the office and sit down, watching their breathing, posture, energy, mood, the clarity of their eyes and the quality of their movement. I listen to the tone and resonance of their voice, taking all this in from a non-thinking place of energetic awareness. Finally I settle deeper into my center, opening to my own Soul from which I offer a connection to their Soul.
From this place of open observation, with the intention of healing and awakening at a soul level, I ask a few questions about what is on their mind; what they have brought with them today. As they answer, I listen for responses from my Soul. Sometimes, I listen for quite awhile without response, as their story reveals itself. Sometimes I will be moved to interrupt them and ask them to respond differently, or to challenge a statement in a way that triggers a movement to a deeper level. Often I find myself speaking words that had not occurred to me consciously, but to which the client responds strongly. The strength of this response is an additional guide to the areas of the deeper self we are seeking – and reveals the area in which the wound lies. What I want to emphasize is that the interaction is not occurring at a psychological level. I am not thinking of what to say, but allowing my Soul to speak directly to their Soul in an unplanned and unexpected way. Often what comes up is surprising to me, but not to the client.
As soon as I have some sense of what direction needs to be explored, I assist the client in moving into a light trance state. This can be done sitting in the chair, lying down on a massage table, or even standing or moving through the room – whichever is most effective for the client. I join the client in this altered state, but remain fully capable of interacting in a “normal” fashion as well. This creates a sense of bi-location, as I often have a sense of being elsewhere with the client, even as I’m sitting beside them in my office.
There is a wide spectrum of techniques that come into play, from physical touch and toning to shamanic journeying and soul retrieval. Some of these techniques are derived from or inspired by more traditional forms of shamanic healing, while others have arisen from my own experiences and from the teachings of my spirit allies. The object of this work is to follow the Soul’s direction in moving to wherever the wound is and allow ing it to heal. This will take whatever form the Soul needs it to take, often completely beyond the grasp of the rational mind.
Some of the most common wounds of the Soul lie in the relationship between the client and his ancestors. These wounds are addressed at many levels and include homework for the client to bring him into better relations with his ancestors. Other wounds may show up in the physical Soul, appearing as bodily symptoms which do not respond to medical intervention. Still other wounds may be hidden deep in the client’s energy field and only show up after months of work. But the healing of these wounds always has a beneficial impact on all levels of the client’s life.
The last part of each session focuses on bringing the client back to an ordinary state of consciousness and helping them to integrate the experience. This is especially important considering the way in which the ego likes to ignore or deny the impact of the Soul’s work.
Payment for each session is another way in which the post tribal shaman diverges from the tribal shaman. Tribal culture generally operates on a barter economy and the use of money is often seen as yet another encroachment upon the traditional values of the tribe. Lacking a coherent tribal community, the Post Tribal Shaman depends on the loosely knit “community” of their clients and/or students to provide for them in much the same way as a traditional shaman, though by the means of money rather than barter.
The Future of Shamanism
As the role of the shaman regains its rightful and needful place in our post-tribal society, those who fulfill this role can expect greater recognition and acceptance, but also greater resistance as related fields begin to see us as competition. It may even be necessary at some point in the future to create a professional organization to protect the interests of shamans practicing in this and other modern countries. This will be difficult, since the nature of shamanic work does not lend itself to rational and logical expression. We will need to function in both worlds, bi-locating in order to meet our own needs as well as those of our clients.
In order for this to happen, there must be a greater awareness of this thing we call the Soul; of the wounds it carries and of the positive impact of having these wounds healed.
The process of integrating shamans into the greater healing establishment will inevitably change that community for the better. However, we need to be careful not to loose the essence of the work in the process. It will be important to maintain the diversity of expression currently available, while implementing Professional training and standards. In traditional cultures, there are efficient means of recognizing a competent shaman; means that are consistent with the cultural setting. One of the greatest challenges faced by the Post Tribal Shaman is that there is no such process available to us – other than word of mouth. Perhaps that is enough – for now.
In closing, I would like to be clear that I am not a scholar, and I make no claim to be an objective observer. Since I have operated as a shaman for over 20 years, it would be impossible for me to maintain that degree of separation. My observations are drawn on my own direct experience and my communication with others on this path. The conclusions I have drawn are based upon these observations and they have been proven effective in the treatment of my clients, and yet, I am still very much a student as well. Each and every new client is also a teacher, leading me into territory that I have not yet explored.
It is my hope that in sharing these observations, experiences and conclusions, others will be inspired to make their own explorations of the realm of the shaman, rooted within our Post-Tribal culture, adding to this rich – and still growing – tradition.

G. Hobson, "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." in: Hobson, G., ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978. M. N. Stirling, “Jivaro Shamanism”; Webster. M. Eliade, “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”; Bollingen.
W. Park, “Paviotso Shamanism,” AA, n.s XXXVI, i Jan-Mar., 1934. M. Eliade, “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”; Bollingen. G. Hobson, "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." in: Hobson, G., ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978. John F. Burns, "The Reach of War: The Occupation," The New York Times, October 17, 2004. H. Kalweit, Dreamtime & Inner Space – The World of the Shaman; Shambhala

Author's Bio: 

Kenn Day is a working Shaman and a nationally recognized lecturer with over
20 years of practical experience in the healing arts. He maintains an active pri-
vate practice at the Full Spectrum Health Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and offers
a series of shamanic training seminars for those interested in exploring the
path of post-tribal Shaman.
For more on Kenn, visit his web site at