The Authentic White Shaman

Questioning authenticity is both important and useless. I will describe two scenarios in which I have wrestled with the issue. In one of my performance pieces, “Healing Through Water”, I led people on a 6 step water based mediation that encouraged viewers to contemplate water outside of human subservience and understand the cycles and rituals of nature that I claims to embed water with healing properties. I had wanted to use the word shaman to describe myself but was advised against the term. The explanation was prefaced by noting Alberta’s high population of First Nations and supported by calling me out on being a white girl. It was problematic for some. I am continuing the work in a second performance and am heavily (and appreciatively) encouraged to fully “become a shaman”. Notice the scare quotes? That’s because of the issue of authenticity. What would it even mean to fully become a shaman?

This may be boring for some but this is the heart of the issue here. There is no category of Dark Green Shamanism, I know this because I made it up. I research and then create. I took Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion and mashed it up with David Abram’s use of shamanism. DGR is about a reverence to nature that I rephrase to as giving personhood to nature in place of object hood. I have taken what I value from Taylor and turned it into something that’s suits my own needs. I did the same with Abram. He asserts the position of the shaman as an individual on the peripheries of society who mediates the relationship of the human and nonhuman. Artists are weird and easily pushed to the periphery, from there I decided what relationship I wanted to mediate. In putting the two together I became a Dark Green shaman.

That explanation is the basis of my issues with questions about the authenticity of my practice. In my research I made personal connections and created my own definitions. It is the job of the academic to define their own terms as they use them. I hope I have clearly articulated my thoughts and can now explain why I claim authenticity an issue.

Marylin McKay, Susannah Crockford, and Ruth Philips are a few authors I use formally to support my position of there being no authenticity. Their writings are no so extreme but I use them to explain my position to others. McKay and Philips write about First Nations peoples and the attempt to assimilate them into white culture and a Romantic idealized vision of what the category of Indigenous meant and how it was understood and used by Europeans. “The Disappearing Native” is written by McKay and focuses on the representation of First Nations in the visual arts. Not surprisingly it is them at peace with nature, partially clothed, behind in material production, and misplaced values. Juxtaposed against Europeans imposing order on the natural world Canada’s First Nations are painted out or reproduced stereotypical. The long explanation is a round about way of saying – that is not reality. It is a painting, an image, with intent to assimilate Natives into white culture and white values.

I bring in Philips as another voice to First Nations discourse. She wrote about “authentic beadwork”. Let that sink in. She details the display of beadwork in museum(s) and how that in turn represents Native culture. She writes about collectors also who seek out “authentic” pieces of Native art and are disappointed to find that Native artist use contemporary methods. Collectors and museums that Philips discusses are concerned with the image of the authentic Native as being something they weren’t. Like authentic beadwork. Where did the coloured glass beads come from? Please realize that they were from Europe. The idea then that there is any authentic beadwork is misguided and coloured by prejudice of what a culture was like. What struck me about Philips article is that I fell into the same trap. I had an image of what I thought Native culture was and that refused growth or change. It enforced the idea of the disappearing Native. The refusal of growth, change, adaption only accepts the death or extinction of a culture.

It happens to language too. It grows and changes into something we may no longer recognize but those of us who do the research and understand the lineage are not bothered. (I’m super bias as if education/research leads to Enlightenment). I will talk more about what I think and less recaps of awesome articles that everyone should read.

My own problem with the authentic is that I don’t think it exists. When I am called out for being inauthentic because I’m a woman of European descent I get annoyed. I couldn’t find a way to argue out of that. Fortunately, Crockford did. She provides three distinct examples of contemporary shamanism and evaluates their authenticity. She first asks about race and the link between inauthenticity and ethnicity. When I read that I felt link a new avenue had erupted. How is authenticity measured? The use of culture, tradition, language, or whatever to indicate “authenticity” also begs the question must one be born into them in order to authentically practice them?  I think this is the problem I am encountering which is bizarre to me as there is no such thing as being an authentic shaman of Dark Green Religion because it was an academically made up term. It means what I ascribe it. My goal in doing this project is to guide people to finding an inner and outer balance, first with the self and then radiating out to the rest of the world.

There is no way of measuring my authenticity in something I have made up. I live it out. I make it up. I am the measure of authenticity and it will grow and change. It will eventually contradict itself and that is the authentic experience of existing and believing.

When I reflect on my props I realize they mean very little. They are more an artistic signal to say “Hey, I’m performing!” rather than having to do with the actual action or performativity. The struggle for this shaman is how to sustain the work artistically. How do I give value to my work in this field?

I ascribe value and authenticity the same meaning or power in my life. I see neither as authoritative, and I see no grand authority able to speak to what I’m doing. I find criticisms difficult to incorporate because I feel that my research allows me a stronger voice and more convincing opinion.

All this being said I will continue with this practice and set of beliefs because I enjoy it and living this way gives me a sense of wholeness in a place where I feel few connections.

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2 thoughts on “The Authentic White Shaman

  1. So, some will call you out for not being a “First Nation Native”, are these people the Natives which they speak of, Second, and this is most important, The Native Americans do not have Shamans, They have Medicine Men/Women. and yes while it is the same basic thing, it is just a name, just as Druids now are nothing like Druids 5,000 years ago, who were also “Shaman”.

    Your own brand of DGS is in the same park as Native Irish – Shaman Based, but I have had years to research mine, and still doing so. Sod what anyone else thinks, if you want to call yourself Shaman then do so, it is your Path, your Life Journey, only you can believe in what you do, because the Great Spirits and the Divine have led you this way. You are being Guided,led,and you are following, as you should, so call yourself Shaman.

    You are lucky where you live, but Visit the Natives if you get the chance, talk to them, learn from them, and adapt into your own work and your Art, some will be a little weirded out by a young White Girl asking this, but most will understand the work of the Spirits.

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    1. You have some great points that I wish others understood. I thought it was strange that only non-Natives were expressing concern, but it’s as you’ve pointed out. Natives wouldn’t even say shaman. I really appreciate your thoughts though. They are very encouraging! Thank you very much.

      Liked by 1 person

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