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Native American Shamanism

Native American spirituality is interwoven through every aspect of life, and despite diversity between ritual, ceremony, and details of beliefs between the different groups (e.g. Pueblo Indians, Plains Indians, Northeast Woodland Tribes, etc), all share a core belief in The Great Spirit, animism, and the natural force in everything. For the North American Indians, spirituality is based on nature, ethics, morals, and the intrinsic interrelation between all things. These beliefs are often depicted or honored in Native American jewelry, art, and blanket design.

What is Shamanism?

Shamanism is a spiritual practice and primal belief system which is common to many ancient peoples, including the Celts, the Sami, ancient Tibetans, and Native Americans. It predates established religion, and many modern religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism have ancient roots in shamanism.

The word shaman is a Persian word meaning “pagan” and relates also to the Siberian Tungus word for “medicine man” – which also referred to exorcists in this language and culture. At its core, shamanism represents a deep connection to the Divine through all things.

A shaman is a spiritual practitioner who mediates between the spirit realm and the physical world. He or she interacts directly with the spirit world through altered states of consciousness. The shaman enters a trance to communicate with and direct spiritual energies for healing, information, or other influence in the physical world. Most Native Americans do not traditionally use the term shaman, but rather refer to these gifted individuals as mystics, ritualists, healers, Medicine people, sorcerers, or lore-keepers.

Native American Shamanism

Shamanism is a strong facet of North American Indian life.

Shamanic trance is induced in an array of ways, including via:

  • Self-hypnosis
  • Chanting
  • Drumming
  • Dancing
  • Fasting
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Isolation and solitude
  • Contemplation
  • Use of tobacco or sage
  • Use of Peyote or Ayahuasca
  • Sweat lodge

 Native American Shamanism

Sioux Sweat Lodge

During shamanic trance, shamans communicate with spirit guides (including spirits of the dead) to learn what they need to know so they can help heal the mind, body, or soul of their subject. They may also enter a trance to predict the future or even locate game for hunting. Men and women can both be shamans, though shamans in Native American culture are more often male.

Many tribal shamans were referred to by European settlers as “Medicine Man/Woman”- this suggested a dual capacity as a shaman and a priest/priestess, who used herbal remedies. The shaman acted individually, whereas the priest or priestess acted on behalf of the Nation or Tribe - though some shamans did serve the same functions as a priest.

Shamanic functions include:

  • Healing
  • Weather control
  • Soul retrieval
  • Game charming
  • Game divination
  • War-functions
  • Animal intercession
  • Clairvoyance
  • Foretelling
  • Disease diagnosis
  • Spirit journeying

Different nations had diverse shamanic practices…

Shamans may have a core role as an authoritative tribal leader or live reclusively on the fringe of society.

In the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, including the Tlingit and the Haida, shamans inherited their position and performed the role of a physician, religious leader, and sometimes chief. These shamans entered their trance and were possessed by the spiritual being – they bore its name and dressed accordingly. Shamans never cut their hair. Through this trace-state, the spirit showed the shaman how to locate game, heal illness, pain, or injury, restore a spirit that has split or wandered, and handle bewitchment.

Iroquois shamans, rather than becoming possessed by the spirit guide, controlled the spirit objectively. Kutenai shamans lived in separate lodges from the rest of their tribe, where they prayed and invoked spirits. The Salish were initiated through animals, and animals became the novice shamans’ guardian spirits.

Mojave shamans received their powers directly from chief deity Mastamho through dreaming. Chippewa shamans were split into three groups with three different roles – practising medical magic, being seers and prophets, or taking the role of priests.

 Native American Shamanism

Navajo Shaman by John Hillers, 1879

The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona had the most highly developed priesthoods. Rain shamans prayed and fasted secretly to bring rain. Bow priests held ceremonies after a scalp had been taken to bring about rain. The Zuni had complex esoteric societies. Navajo shamans were the spiritual leaders and healers of their nation, providing medical assistance and spiritual guidance. They used ceremonial sand painting, on which the patient would sit for the healing power to be absorbed. The shaman also channeled animal spirits for healing purposes.

Native American culture and belief are truly fascinating and must be both treasured and preserved.

Indian Traders proudly offers Native American throws, Pendleton blankets, and Native American necklaces and other jewelry handcrafted by local native artisans. Shop with us to support these American Indian communities and enjoy a piece of Navajo, Zuni, or Hopi culture for yourself.