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Curious About Shamans? Here’s What You Need to Know.

For starters, anyone shamelessly promoting themself as one probably isn't.

On January 6, a shirtless Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley, a 33-year-old white man from Arizona, stormed the U.S. Capitol carrying a megaphone and a 6-foot spear, calling himself the “QAnon Shaman.” Dressed in a fur hat with horns and American flag face paint, the rioter—who has been charged with disorderly conduct and violent entry—told reporters that being a shaman has been his calling since he was a child; that he always wanted to “know what the Native Americans understood.”

Let’s be clear: Chansley is not a shaman and his spouting of misinformation on the indigenous healing practice is as dangerous as the debunked conspiracy theory he propogates. So we reached out to experts in indigenous healing practices and cultures to set the record straight on what shamanism is, and isn’t. Here’s what they told us.

What is a Shaman? 

Evgenia Fotiou, PhD, is an assistant professor of anthropology at Kent State University who has worked with healing cultures and medicine men and women through her research on ayahuasca tourism. (Ayahuasca is the plant-based psychedelic often used by healers in indigenous South American communities.) 

The word “shaman” actually comes from indigenous Tungusian culture in Siberia, and the Tungusic word šaman, she explains. The word šaman was used to describe practitioners who could talk to spirit, travel to other worlds, and heal in their communities, says Fotiou.

Miguel Angel Vergara Calleros is a teacher of Maya traditions in Yucatan, Mexico, where he learned his skills through a Mayan lineage and his family. He defines the term shaman as a person of power who has magic gifts to heal. In his tradition, though, there is no one word for this role. “These are people who are doing good or positive or bring health, harmony, healing, kindness, and peace for the planet,” says Calleros. “We have different kinds of “shamans”: medicine men, people who interpret visions and dreams, and people who can see the future, for example.”

He adds that if you play this role, you don’t market yourself. The community knows where to find you if they need you. “These people live in a humble way, connected to forces of Mother Nature for the benefit of the community.”  

In academia and elsewhere, there is a debate about whether we should use the word “shaman” to describe other cultures outside of Siberia. “Each culture has its own word for this role,” says Fotiou. “We now use this as an umbrella term for so many things—from divinations, witchcraft, and sorcery to community healing—that we start to lose sight of the diversity of these practices across the world.”

Shamanism and Cultural Appropriation

But, it’s hard to find an alternative word that is widely understood. Fotiou explains that even some of the South American healers she works with have adopted the word “shaman” to describe anyone who is an intermediary between spirit and human worlds. 

This is in part because indigenous cultures are interacting more and more with people outside of their communities who want to partake in their ceremonies and experience shamanism or ayahuasca. 

Enter the conversation on cultural appropriation: “You now have people picking up parts of a tradition, like a specific technique or ceremony, and calling themselves healers or shaman,” says Fotiou. “This adds insult to injury by perpetuating the violence of colonialism.” When people pick a practice and don’t study the entire context and culture of shamanism, or they choose to practice outside of that context, they are appropriating, she says. “The whole reason these practices exist is to uphold specific cultural worldviews.” 

Becoming a Shaman

Another important thing to know, says Fotiou, is that shamans (for lack of a better term) are not self-proclaimed. “You can’t just say you are one,” she explains. “These people train rigorously for years in a lineage and in apprenticeship with older shamans. Then they have to be vetted by their community before they earn the title.” 

There are people who borrow a technique from shamanic culture and then there are people from all over the world who seek out serious training with traditional shamans. For example, Ray Crist. Crist was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2003 and given three months to live. This set him off on a journey from his home country of Greece to Mexico and Peru, where he sought out indigenous healers. He ended up apprenticing for years with several elders before being initiated into the Q’ero lineage by his teacher Don Sebastian Pauccar Flores. 

In 2007, he founded the Jaguar Path to share the teachings he continues to learn. 

Santos Machacca Apaza, based in the Sacred Valley of Peru, has studied Incan healing, meditation, and divination practices with his father, a medicine man, for a long time, and he is still not ready to consider himself a “shaman” in his community. He meets a lot of tourists who want to learn, and reminds them that it’s not a fast process. “It is a step-by-step energy transmission that takes years and years and years.” His continued study is about connecting to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, including reading messages from his ancestors in coca leaves.

What Do Experts Think About the QAnon Shaman?

Crist is concerned about the message Chansley is spreading about shamanism. 

“My humble, yet deeply informed, opinion is that he is not a shaman in any legitimate shape or form of the word and practice. Shamans are healers and share their work in ceremony rather than public events. Nothing I see in this person represents shamanism. Shamans do not have an opinion on politics or religion. They are a safe haven to all regardless of political, ethnic, or religious beliefs. They are men and women who are here to serve and help us find our way back to balance, heal our souls and to help create a balanced chemistry between heart and mind. Neither the colors on his face nor the horns on his helmet and any of his garb represent any singular culture or type of shamanism in history or in the world today.”

Calleros, the teacher of Maya tradition in Yucatan, Mexico, gets the last word: “Silence is the eloquence of wisdom,” he says, emphasizing again that traditional shamans generally do not go around calling themselves shaman. “Being modest is a primary principle of the practice,” he adds. “Love is the main ingredient for healing. If someone is trying to put hate and anger in the minds of people, that’s not right, and against community wellness, brotherhood, and cosmic laws.”