Shamanism 101

“The theft of the sacred is the deprivation of that which is of critical value to a people.”

Scott Momaday

            In 1976, I was a freshman in a small alternative college. I took a course in the Anthropology Department. We read one big book with a pale lavender cover and wrote a research paper. The only text required by our professor was Mircea Eliade’s seminal work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.

We learned that the term, shamanism, was from the language of an indigenous group in Siberia. We learned that Eliade had studied shamanism among Artic, Siberian and Central Asian cultural groups. As a scholar he identified a number of significant patterns. Two that impressed me were the experience of death and dismemberment that precedes shamanic training, and the use of the ‘world tree’ to move up or down into different planes of consciousness in order to access material not readily available to ordinary consciousness. Eliade states, “The shaman is the great specialist in the human soul; he alone “sees” it, for he knows its “form” and its destiny.” (8)

Our course was not experiential. We did not drum drums or rattle rattles. We did not eat mushrooms. We did not chant beside a fire or smudge with sage. We sat inside a windowless classroom in a brick building and discussed the ideas that Eliade presented. Still it was enough to spark my curiosity about other worldviews and healing practices.

Advancing an Ancient Worldview – Neither Future nor Past but Now

“Dis-ease is a “break in relatedness” disharmony or dis-alignment with nature, between people, including ancestors, between body and spirit within the individual, or between individual and universe (reality beyond individual existence), leaving the individual to feel isolated, anxious, tense, confused, frustrated, annihilated .”

Olaniyi Bojuwoye. Traditional Healing Practices in Southern Africa: Ancestral Spirits, Ritual Ceremonies, and Holistic Healing. Integrating Traditional Healing Practices Into Counseling and Psychotherapy

            In March 1979, I was volunteering in an herb store to learn more about plant medicine. My boss invited a Native American woman to lead a weekend herb workshop. Thrilled, I asked to assist. I was assigned to help the medicine woman in any way she needed. That is how I met Keewaydinoquay, Kee for short. She was an Anishinaabeg mashkikikwe. Anishinaabeg is the word in Anishinaabemowin for the people referred to as the Ojibwe, Ojibway, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Ottawa or Odawa. Mashkikikwe is the Anishinaabeg word for a plant medicine woman. Kee was an elder, a culture-bearer, storyteller, herbalist, ceremonial leader and the first person I met who carried the Midewiwin lineage.

Our meeting was fortuitous. She was seeking an oshkibewis, a helper. The U.S. Congress had recently passed The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469 Aug. 11, 1978). Prior to the passage of this federal act, Midewiwin, along with countless other belief systems, was outlawed as an illegal religious practice in this country. What an irony that Europeans seeking religious freedom outlawed the beliefs of the people they found living here. In September 1978, Kee could ‘come out’ of her spiritual closet and practice openly for the first time in her life. She was eager to train others as she had once been trained. And though I was unaware of my need, I was seeking a purposeful life and the kind of teacher who could help me shape one. Our paths converged. I spent the next twenty years as her apprentice.

In 1980, following a four-day Life Vision Quest on a wilderness island, she gave me my spiritual name. That’s when my work with her truly began. She told me it was her goal to ‘assimilate me’ so that the wisdom of her ancestors would live into the future. She believed this knowledge was needed to restore the broken world. At that time there were few young people seeking such a path. She believed this knowledge had to be embodied through experience and could not be acquired through book learning. It required time, commitment and more. It required me to change the life direction my parents and society expected of me. Perhaps this was always meant to be the course of my life.

She often said to those of us who came to learn with her, “Remember to travel safely for you carry within you the seeds of the future. “

I know now she meant the seeds of consciousness she was planting in our psyches. Through learning the songs, stories, prayers, ceremonies and medicines of her ancestors, we were internalizing a lifeway that spoke to the heart of interconnected being. This view of life is larger than the scientific-mechanistic worldview based in rational reductionist logic. It is a quantum worldview beyond the cause and effect of Newtonian science. It embraces all of nature, seen and unseen, galactic and subatomic, cultural and natural, as possibilities co-existing within the sphere of being. Together the miraculous, the mysterious and the mundane co-exist.

Shamanism is rooted in this worldview.

The Supernatural is Natural

“Zulu cosmology is an undivided universe in which plants, animals and humans, including ancestors, earth, sky, and the entire universe coexist. It makes no distinction between living and nonliving, natural and supernatural, material and immaterial, conscious and unconscious.” 

Olaniyi Bojuwoye. Traditional Healing Practices in Southern Africa: Ancestral Spirits, Ritual Ceremonies, and Holistic Healing. Integrating Traditional Healing Practices Into Counseling and Psychotherapy

            With her eyebrows raised and a mischievous glint in her eye, Kee loved to say, “There is no such thing as the supernatural. It’s all natural.”

Despite her success in Western education, nearly completing her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, Kee refused to give up her fundamental reality: All Is. All Is One. One mind. One spirit. One breath. One sun. We are one. Whatever is human is in us, and whatever is not human is also in us. So wake up and pay attention.

Kee taught me that the basic concept for health is balance. In order to diagnose illness one must seek the root cause of imbalance. You need to keenly observe the inter-related experiences of body, mind, soul and heart in relationship to family, community, the land and the Sacred. This is a complex approach different from analyzing blood work or talk therapy. It requires diving deep, traveling down the trunk of the world tree into buried roots to correctly identify the underlying cause. Questions one might ask who is trained in this way: What is out of balance? Where does balance need to be restored? How can that be achieved? What can we do now to restore balance?

Kee trained me in the use of story medicine. This may resemble narrative medicine, but it has its own character. She also used animal, mineral and plant medicines. She taught me many techniques to provide guidance and help regain lost balance. She showed me how to retrieve the soul when it has strayed from the body during a coma. I was taught to clear my head, hear my heart and trust my gut. I had to become a hollow bone and make way for Spirit to do its work. I learned that under all circumstances the goal is to flourish.

Shamanic Practice

“States of awareness are key in shamanic practice. Learning the possible states of awareness forms a large part of shamanic training, while learning how to achieve specific states chosen for a specific task make up the rest. . . . The universe of power is the universe of essence, and while its laws underpin the mundane world modern people inhabit, the ability to use those laws depends on the strength of one’s connection to the fundament. . . . Travel to and in the universe of power thus is more a matter of psychic travel than of physical movement.”

Paula Gunn Allen. Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Source Book

Shamanic practices are widely varied. Dreams might be a source of diagnostic information and also a source of medicine for healing. Both the dreams of the healer and the dreams of the client/patient could be important once they begin to work together. In some traditions, both the shaman and the client/patient enter an altered state of consciousness, perhaps an ecstatic state. Rhythm is key to this shift. Specific breathing patterns, a drumbeat, sometimes combined with chanting or repetitious movement such as rocking or swaying, slow the brainwaves and invite this shift.

My partner was raised by her Great-Grandmother, Caroline Kelly Wright. She was African American/Irish/Blackfoot. She was a midwife and healer. She delivered hundreds of babies in her lifetime. She was born in 1875 and died one hundred and four years later in 1979. She used numerous techniques for healing, including: a black silk scarf, cupping, praying with her pipe, plant medicines, oils and direct contact with ancestors. She could dream for others and provide answers to their suffering through information she received directly from the dream world. She also interpreted other’s dreams. Her descendants continue to be dreamers who receive vital information through their dreams.

The list of potential shamanic practices is quite large. It may include: soul retrieval, energy healing, limpia, smudging, sweat lodge ceremony, fasting, dreaming by the shaman for the client/patient, helping the client/patient undertake their own spiritual journey, the use of special foods or specially prepared plant medicines, special baths, healing touch. Shamans might be trained as sucking doctors. They might bring psychic messages or serve as mediums. They might help the client find their own guardian spirit or power animal. This is not an exhaustive list.

Shamanic tools might include: feathers, incense, salt, crystals, stone, sand, flowers, fire, water, earth, clay, bells, drums, rattles, flutes, whistles, etc. These tools have become increasingly popular items. Many people have acquired these and use them as sacred objects for personal ceremony. However just having and using an item on this list does not make one a shaman.

In a traditional community, there would be many specialists. One medicine person might help through dreams, another might be consulted for fertility and childbirth, another might be sought out to heal physical wounds, etc. One healer might use very specific plants or combinations of plants; another might use only an eagle bone whistle or a gourd rattle. One type of specialist would be the keeper of particular ceremonies and stories that would not be used by any other. Each of these specialists would train for many years under another specialist. In this way the knowledge would be transferred directly from one generation to the next.

The cultural insider would not consider using any of these medicines or ceremonies without proper training. Respect would dictate that misuse of medicine from ignorance could cause harm to all involved. It’s not that different from educational requirements and licensing boards that oversee modern medical practices. To practice medicine without a license has severe consequences, including fines and imprisonment. Shamanism has no system of licensing and thus no legal consequences. Perhaps that is a good thing as it allows traditional cultures to identify their own medicine people according to their own cultural practices.

However, there are cultural outsiders who fail to grasp the significance and seriousness of these kinds of medicine and shamanic practices. They might read or hear about something once and then go off and try it. Sometimes we hear in the news about devastating consequences, such as the popular motivational speaker whose followers died in an ill conceived and inappropriately run sweat lodge in Arizona a few years ago.

Part of the confusion results from a lack of understanding. For example, my laptop dictionary defines a shaman as: “witchdoctor, spiritualist.” Synonyms include: “healer, soothsayer, medium, elder, druid, magician.” This hodge-podge of nouns does not indicate the formal training involved.

Beyond this, shamanism in the U.S. has taken on its own meanings. It has accumulated its own experts and its own practices. A few popular books by a handful of practitioners have defined the field. These popular shamanic practices may not at all resemble what the shamans of Siberia did in the past or do today. A limited approach to what shamanism is could prevail based on a few prevalent shamanic trainers. However, I think even they would agree. Shamanism is not a priesthood with a single liturgy. It is an ever-evolving practice by a trained person making a direct relationship with Spirit on behalf of another who comes in need. It exists with deep roots in many different cultures by many different names.

The Word “Shaman”

I am not a shaman. I don’t know what that is. I was trained as a mashkikikwe, and I do my best to fulfill my role.

Keewaydinoquay Peschel, overheard in conversation on more than one occasion.

            Kee felt it was a strange imposition when people referred to her as a shaman. I would sometimes add probably with a snotty know-it-all attitude, “Shamans are Siberian healers. Kee is not Siberian.”

That was our response. I judged as outrageous the audacity of white men and women who claimed to be shamans. If they had not been trained by Siberian practitioners in that specific bioregion, I felt they had no right to misappropriate that term. I spoke out against the word shamanism as a generalized term for Non-Western healing practices. I considered it to be inaccurate and problematic. I was very sensitive about it. I challenged people who called themselves shamans. I would ask: Who trained you? What is your lineage?

In the Introduction to Integrating Traditional Healing, the editors write that they, “… know full well the fantasies, complexities, and confusions that surround the adoption of methods, models and practices from other cultures.” (xviii) My discomfort stemmed from an understanding of these challenges. I was concerned about the exoticism of ‘the other’ and related issues of unexamined racial stereotyping. I feared the unchecked acquisitiveness of white Americans taught they had a right to whatever they wanted. In the 1990s I worked with the Zuni who clearly articulated that traditional healing constituted a type of sacred knowledge. Sacred knowledge is bound by specific taboos and duties. To know it makes one responsible for it. One did not acquire knowledge just to have it. These are different worldviews.

Additionally, working and living close to ‘Indian Country’ makes one aware of the devastating consequences of colonialism, which is a deliberate attempt to dismantle the material, psychological and cosmological reality of a people in order to weaken and conquer them. The resulting legacy of trauma continues to plague not just Native people but all of us.

Yet part of my judgmental response to white people calling themselves shamans came from my own insecurity. It was difficult to be a fair-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed helper of a Native medicine woman. My biological lineage includes Irish, Scottish, English and German. Often I did not feel worthy of the gift I was receiving. But Kee had chosen me. She defended her choice to people in her own community who criticized her for taking outsiders –a white girl like me – as her helper.

She might say to those who questioned her, “Spirit sees no race.”

I also heard her say to a challenger, “If I cut you, and I cut her, you will both bleed red blood.”

Kee kept a sharp knife close by, sometimes in her big leather purse and sometimes in her laced-up moccasin boots. I shuddered thinking she might carry out that threat and cut us both to prove her point.

Most Native/Aboriginal/Indigenous people do not use the word shaman but some do. No one in Kee’s family or in my partner’s family ever used the term shaman. It is also fairly common that one who shares these gifts does not name themselves at all but is simply known in their community for their special gifts.

Whatever the right word is in that cultural context would be used. Some terms might be: wise woman, medicine man, curandera/o, obeah, conjurer, rootworker, bearwalker, shapeshifter, seer, psychic, mystic, healer, midwife, Mother, Grandmother or Grandfather.

These names may have both positive and negative connotations. Because the work these individuals do is not always understood, people with these gifts might be feared. In traditional societies, they would live at the periphery of the village. They could not do what they did in the center of town. There were certain mysteries or energies at the boundary between human and wild where they could dance in the interplay between.

Someone who is not a shamanic practitioner but follows this worldview might refer to him or herself as a Kiowa friend did on facebook: ‘tradish.’ Tradish means a traditional person, not a Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist or Jew. One who is ‘tradish’ follows a sacred path that does not draw its source from a holy book or any text but rather from the oral tradition. There are many people who follow both at the same time. Within their own lives and families they weave together modern and traditional worldviews, belief systems and medical practices. The blurred boundary of this blended hybridity marks our contemporary terrain. It makes the twenty-first century very interesting.

The ambiguity or ambivalence toward shamans held by those near these ancient practices is not surprising. At the root of shamanism is a clear recognition of – What? – Call it Source, Power, Force, Energy, Vibration, Spirit, Mystery, Diety, Creator, Creatrix, the Divine, the Buddha, the Christ, Holy of Holies, God or Goddess. Whatever it is, and by whatever name the practitioner calls it, the shaman must willingly embrace and engage with something that cannot be controlled by the individual ego, though it may be guided by human will.

Shamanic Practice in Ancient Europe

“. . . who through the intensity of longing has made the initiatory journey outside of time and space and come to the heart of reality; who’s found what never ages or dies. . .”

Peter Kingsley, In the Dark Places of Wisdom

            Peter Kingsley and others have researched the shamanic past in Western civilization. From the cave paintings in southern France to the standing stones throughout the British Isles, evidence suggests that Euro-Americans may also claim a shamanic past.

Kingsley states that the European shamanic worldview was, “gradually swamped by intellectualism.” (219) He believes this erased the importance of the soul, completely dismissing the importance of “ . . . a journey to the divine with the help of the divine.” (51)

He accuses Plato and the intellectual and religious traditions that followed as pointing solely to ‘the light’ without understanding the importance of the journey into darkness. Light balanced with dark is closer to the shamanic value of Balance, in which all things exist in relation to each other.

He states, “To heal is to know the limits of healing and also what lies beyond. Ultimately there is no real healing without the ability to face death itself.” (91) In the shamanic worldview, life always exists in relationship to death. To embrace life without embracing death is to live out of balance with reality. Perhaps this is part of the collective amnesia and denial in the dominant culture that drives many into patterns of addiction.

Of profound importance is what happened when the status of women was severely devalued in European societies. In our shamanic past, the Divine expressed itself in both male and female form. Both women and men served as healers. In the ancient Mediterranean, the sick and suffering would go into temples where non-poisonous snakes moved freely among the patients. Trained priestesses served as oracles receiving messages from the unseen realm. Rituals that involved singing, drumming, humming, poetry, music, dance and more were integrated into a seamless whole connecting male and female, body, mind and spirit.

The Eurocentric dualistic worldview associated the female or feminine with darkness and the body and degraded these aspects as inferior to the male or masculine which is associated with light and the intellect. This duality which privileges one above the other has impacted every sphere of activity in the West, including medicine.

Heather Tick, M.D., writes in her book, Holistic Pain Relief, “Descarte’s dualism has kept us from seeing that all conditions affect both mind and body.” She points out that the heart has between 40,000-50,000 nerve cells and puts out an electro-magnetic field that spreads eight feet in all directions. The gut has 100 million neurons – enough for a small brain. The gut produces both melatonin and serotonin. These brain chemicals affect our emotional state. We are not simply a pile of replaceable parts. The whole of who and what we are is so much greater than the sum of the parts.

The re-emergence of a holistic approach to health is connected to the rise of modern shamanism. Yet a trace of the shamanistic roots of modern medicine persists. The symbol of modern medicine is the Rod of Asclepius, a snake twining up a staff. The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation, “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses . . . “ (Wikipedia: The Hippocratic Oath)

There is much more to say on this topic. But even these examples illustrate that the roots of modern medicine involved the intermediary role of a physician or healer working closely with an animal ally (the snake) moving hand in hand with the Sacred (ancestors, gods and goddesses) on behalf of healing the patient.

Thoughts About the Rise in Shamanism

“In counseling and psychotherapy a number of clients and patients appear to be accessing these traditional methods sometimes in parallel with conventional therapy, in the same way people use a multiple range of cure-seeking methods for physical ailments, that is, seeking help from a modern physician as well as using acupuncture, massage, yoga and meditation.”

Roy Moodley & William West, eds. Integrating Traditional Healing Practices Into Psychology and Psychotherapy

            The word shaman is now used by individuals trained in a wide variety of Western healthcare modalities to describe their use of practices outside of that training. Medical doctors, counselors, therapists, spiritual healers, social workers, herbalists, acupuncturists, nurses and many others have added the word shaman to their titles, or replaced their professional titles with the word shaman.

Shamanism is a real phenomenon. There are workshops, certificates, conferences, websites and perhaps thousands of people involved in shamanism in the U.S. Why?

We suffer. Part of our human condition involves physical, mental, spiritual and emotional challenges that cause us stress, confusion and pain. Who can help us? In his article, Shamanic Performances: Healing Through Magic and the Supernatural,” Roy Moodley states” . . . the evolution of religion and magic and later science was part of an attempt to deal with illness and disease.” (3)

Human beings are herd animals. As much as we might enjoy periods of solitude, we need each other to survive. We need to belong and to be loved as much as we need to be fed, clothed, and sheltered. Abraham Maslow offered us that understanding in his conceptual pyramid, A Hierarchy of Needs. Though he did not address this explicitly, I would add that the need to heal and be healed is as old as human community.

Furthermore, the quest for health and well-being has moved beyond just being free of pain. How can I live fully? How do I express my truth? How do I fulfill my purpose? These driving questions motivate many to participate in the human potential movement.

I think the current passionate interest in shamanism marries the ancient need for healing with the modern quest to achieve one’s fullest potential. When Western-educated people encountered the abilities of non-Western shamans, they were stunned. Talents and skills demonstrated by non-Western healers appeared to be beyond anything achieved by Western-educated healthcare practitioners. It raised uncomfortable questions. What have we lost in the rush toward modernity? What human abilities have been discarded in the industrial and post-industrial preference for advanced technology? What suffering are we causing by our sole reliance on the Western medical model of health and illness?

Shamanism offers alternate worldviews within which to view oneself, one’s relationships and one’s place and way of being in the world. Shamanism suggests that we are spiritual beings temporarily embodied in this earthly plane with each other. We may be made of neurons and chemicals, but we are also made of thoughts, perceptions and feelings. We are flesh and not-flesh. We are fields of electro-magnetic energy. We are made from relationship and exist inside relationship, or we do not exist. We are patterns and frequencies of consciousness. What we are in one moment can be changed in another. This is our dance with health and illness.

Shamanism teaches that we learn best through experience, and that life and death are our greatest teachers. It suggests that we have abiding and profound connections with the other-than-human world, with other states of being and other ways of knowing. Shamanism is an invitation to pay even more attention to all that is within and all that is around us.

I predict the popularity of what is now commonly called Shamanism will continue to grow and develop because it addresses our desire to thrive. It offers opportunities outside of the existing paradigm and points to failures in the existing paradigm.

How will it grow? Who will become involved? How long can it exist as a healing modality outside of the current medical model, outside of licensing boards, insurance agencies, pharmaceutical companies and the technical-industrial complex? Time will tell. Or perhaps the persistence of human engagement with these realms-beyond-naming will transform our current healthcare system. Perhaps the shamanic worldview can help put healing back into the center of health care.

How to Find a Shaman to Help You

It is important in any interaction with a healthcare provider to be your own advocate. Whether you are speaking to a highly trained brain surgeon, a nurse practitioner or a shaman, you have a right to understand as fully as you can what you are about to experience. It is okay to ask questions in order to better determine if the treatment or procedure they recommend is what you want and need.

Do not assume that because someone is native or indigenous they know anything about traditional healing. Within indigenous communities, healers are a highly specialized group.

Since there is no commonly recognized training for shamans, there will be a tremendous range of skills and abilities among practitioners. Just like with any healthcare provider, it is generally better if someone you know makes a recommendation for you. Anyone can create a website and print business cards claiming to be a shaman. Protect yourself with good information.

I offer eleven questions to guide you. I believe these questions are appropriate to ask any healthcare professional before you enter a relationship with them

  1. Where and from whom did you receive your training?
  2. How would you describe your lineage?
  3. How do you give back to the community or to your teacher’s community?
  4. How long have you been a practicing shaman?
  5. What is your basic philosophy of health and well-being?

This is a great question for mainstream doctors as well as shamans! Among many different traditions and lineages, a shared notion of Balance is often core to the idea of health. If Balance is a good state of health, then imbalance is the source of dis-ease. This is worth exploring as you are the one suffering from imbalance.

  1. What are your practices?
  2. How will you diagnose what I need?
  3. What will you/we be doing?

This question may help you understand the underlying reality system. Answers could be: I am seeking to restore a lost part of your soul or spirit that fled when you experienced trauma. Or : Your excessive sorrow indicates you are out of balance, so we will create a ceremony for you to release your grief. Or: Because of your cancer we will use chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. (Yes, I slipped in a mainstream medicine example here as it is also based on a reality system.)

  1. What kinds of side effects should I expect, if any?
  2. What do you recommend I do following the treatment, procedure or experience in order to have the best results?
  3. What are your costs?

Reciprocity upholds the concept of Balance. The idea is that you give in direct relationship to what you receive. Kee often gave the example of the liver of the beaver that was given to her teacher by a family whose son she saved. This was a gift of immensely high regard. That is how highly he prized the life of his son. The medicine woman did not set the price. The receiver of the healing determined its value. This system does not work well in our current monetized economy. Now the cost of a service might be fixed and not negotiable. This is even more common with white shamans who are accustomed to fixed prices for fixed services. Most traditional practitioners today will expect you to pay a fee at the time of services. Be wary if you are asked to pay ahead of receiving services. A Navajo friend of mine paid a Medicine man in her community ahead of the healing, and he never showed up. He was a charlatan, and she was out two hundred dollars. So don’t be afraid to ask.

Parting Thoughts

We are all part of the changes that are happening around and within us. Certainly my life is all about transformation. It is no accident that the mission of Southwestern College, where I work now, is: Transforming consciousness through education.

To become a healer is a calling that often results from tragedy. The road to becoming a practitioner in the service of Spirit to help heal human suffering is not a straight road. It has treacherous curves and steep climbs. My own apprenticeship was not easy. I can be stubborn and willful, and there were times I fought it. But that is another story.

Today I am a healer no matter what my context. I use my training with Kee in every role I find myself in: as daughter, sister, friend, mother, grandmother, spouse; as college professor and higher education administrator; as speaker, writer, workshop leader, activist, poet and spiritual teacher. Balance matters to me. Restoring right relations to the fullest extent possible matters. Being alive means both dreaming and staying awake. It means being a student of life and death, learning from Source directly. My purpose is the practice of bringing greater awareness and supporting transformational healing through loving connection. I may never perfect this practice, but there are endless opportunities to engage in it. After all, the goal is to flourish.

I worked with Kee for twenty years until she passed in July 1999. I don’t think she ever softened on her total rejection of the word ‘shaman.’ However, I have softened. I live in Santa Fe now and am friends and acquaintances with a number of self-defined shamans. I respect the healing work they do, and the risks they take to do it. I do not call myself a shaman though others may. And if they do, it’s okay.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Source Book. Beacon Press 1992.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press 1972.

Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Press 1999.

Momaday, N. Scott. The Magazine, Santa Fe, August 2010, vol IX, #1, pg. 22

Moodley, Roy and William West, eds. Integrating Traditional Healing Practices Into Psychology and Psychotherapy, Multicultural Aspects of Counseling and Psychotherapy, series 22. Sage Publications 2005.

Featured Image photograph by Kate Filemyr

Make New Friends But Keep the Old

I did not realize that my weekend intensive, “Wisdom of the Earth Medical Phyto-Aromatherapy Certificate Level I” (March 14-15), was to be an initiation. When the instructor, Dr. Sam Berne, mentioned this, I became immediately more alert. I am an initiate and have been trained to initiate others. I stand in the lineage of the late Keewaydinoquay, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) mashkikikwe (plant medicine woman), with whom I studied for twenty years. I served as her personal helper or oshkibewis, learning the songs, prayers, ceremonies, plant medicines, oral traditions and sacred stories. I studied the language. I made a commitment to carry this lineage in my body for it cannot be written down. I am now a leader and a spiritual teacher/healer in this tradition.

For me initiation is “to find out how you’re related to the world of the divine, know how you belong, how you’re at home there just as much as here. It is to become adopted, a child of the gods . . . making a connection between this world and that . . . [as a] matter of being prepared before you die. Otherwise, it’s too late.” (Kingsley p. 64) Initiation is therefore vital to one’s ability to live consciously and deliberately with death as partner. For as every healer knows, death is the partner of life.

The plant essences I met over the weekend want to work with us as partners in healing, as partners in our deepening relationship with the divine, and therefore they help us fully partner with both our lives and our deaths. I bow to the plants for their sacred wisdom. I open myself to learn directly from them as they are our elder brothers and sisters, our sacred teachers.

The first to speak to me in a clear unique voice was Cypress, Emerald. Interesting. I have no specific relationship to this tree or its place of origin. Australia? Never been there. Who is she to me? Is our relationship strictly vibrational? It seems something in her quivering nano-realm speaks directly to the throbbing need in me to live my life as fully awake and aware as I can be.

I look up Cypress Emerald in the reference guide and read: “Deeply spiritual friend for the times we are living in.“ I also see that she is a newcomer to the fold, and her gifts are being revealed. Here is my contribution: She wants to partner with those of us already on a spiritual path to help us grow stronger and clearer. She wants to support us to fulfill our true purpose.

The second to invite my joy was Violet. I know her well. I know her heart-shaped green leaves in the wet woods of southern Ohio, and the intense pleasure I always feel to see her purple-bright soft face turn to the sun. At the close of the first day, Violet greets me back to my childhood of running barefoot and free. Violet was one of the first to invite me to study herbal healing as a teenager, to connect the wildness outside to the wildness within. This began a lifelong journey that continues to bring new surprises, including this weekend initiation into the plant medicines of Wisdom of the Earth. On the second day my chakra meditation partner and I immediately agree that Violet will be our contribution for the 6th chakra. It is perfect.

On the second day Davana totally surprises me when my partner anoints me with a touch of Davana on my crown chakra. I am on my back when she applies it to the top of my head. I feel it travel immediately down from my crown to the base of my spine. I feel that it connects directly with the serpent power that resides in the spinal column bringing light energy from above to below in seconds.

Later I notice in my notes that Sam had mentioned Davana for skin repair. I have highly sensitive skin, an Irish fair complexion. My pale face has a tendency toward rosaceae, and recently I have had two treatments by the dermatologist burning a spot on my face he says has pre-cancer cells. Sam through Christy had recommended help from frankincense, cistus (rockrose) and cedarwood (atlas). I began using all three in layers, but my skin became more aggravated. I experimented and settled on morning and evening applications of cedarwood atlas. The raw red spot seems to be vanishing. But perhaps Davana has a contribution to make to my sensitive skin? This is a relationship I need to explore.

The Guide informs me that Davana belongs to the family Asteraceae. I have a long relationship with this family. According to my training, it is connected to the moon cycle, especially the beginning of menses and menopause. Members of this plant family are part of women’s ceremonies in my spiritual lifeway. Davana is helping me connect these new plant medicines with what I already know and use. The old Girl Scout song rings in my mind: “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.”

I enjoy noticing plants from my healing tradition that are important among your plant essences: Balsam Fir, (who we refer to as Nimisse, Elder Sister) Birch, (who we know as NiMishomis or Grandfather), White Pine, Calamus, Peppermint (who we call Ombendam, which means: to open the mind powerfully), among others. When Sam anoints me at the altar, he brings Tamarack from the table, calling it, “The Alchemist.” In my lineage, Tamarack is Mashki Autig, Medicine Tree, for a bit of Tamarack can be put into any oil, lotion, cream, salve, balm, tea or related herbal plant medicine that we make. It potentizes (is that a word?). Tamarack amplifies as your materials say of Helichrysum.

I learn new ways to know some of my old friends. For example, I have had some vertigo when I am falling asleep or waking up. It is disconcerting. I am lying in bed on my side and suddenly the room swirls. Then everything is right again. Sam tells us that Calamus can be used for dizziness. I am happy. An old friend has a new trick to share with me! I have used Calamus for sore throat. Typically, it is part of our all-night ceremonies. We chew the root during all-night sings. It is both a mild stimulate (so we can keep going until the sun comes up and the ceremony ends) and it coats the throat to keep us from getting hoarse as we sing.

I was adopted by the Native elder, Kee, when I was twenty, so most of my adult life has been in this world into which she ‘assimilated’ me. Though I worked with her for two decades, I was aware that even then I did not learn everything she knew. I was also made aware that even with all of her knowledge so much had been lost. I know specific songs and stories for specific plants. I know our kinship relationships. But I also know that once every plant had its song, story, and medicine. Whoever it was that lived nearby and worked with that plant knew the spiritual and material properties of that plant. All cultures, all peoples, all of our ancestors were once embedded in the land and knew how to relate with all the beings of that specific land. This is our birth rite. We must reclaim it for the generations that will follow us. I feel that Emerald Cypress serves to support this purpose.

We have in our hands today the torn-up bits of the once whole cloth of our inter-related and inter-dependent lifeway. That unity has been destroyed by modernity, and yet it can be restored. We can recover the lost material through dreaming, through listening, through loving dedication to our wholeness. We can re-member and we must. We have the opportunity now to bring together the intense scientific specialization perfected by the Western intellectual tradition with the holistic understanding of ancient peoples. The two ends of this spectrum are being brought together. The denigration of indigenous knowledge systems is coming to an end. And the future of life on this planet depends on those of us today willing to be part of the great transformation. This change has started, and though we will not live to see it come full circle, we must not give up our vision of what will be. Cypress Emerald speaks to this clearly.

In 1992, I was completing my doctoral research and was invited to witness the First World Parliament of Indigenous Peoples in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They had gathered to convene their own dialogue simultaneous to the United Nations Earth Summit, to which they were systematically excluded. Most indigenous groups exist as internal colonies inside nation states, and only the nation states are recognized by the U.N. So I went to listen and learn from the contemporary representatives of these diverse ancient land-based cultural groups gathered from Canada, Ecuador, Africa, Peru, the U.S. and Mexico to discuss their relationship to the Earth and what is being threatened right now. The preface to their powerful Kari-Oca Declaration is this:

                        We cannot heal the Earth until we heal ourselves.

                        We cannot heal ourselves until we heal the Earth.

This insight has become the mantra of my life. I have been dedicated to the path of education to make change. I began by teaching troubled youth in alternative inner city schools. Then for fifteen years, I was a leader at Antioch College developing and delivering an undergraduate education based on personal empowerment for social and ecological justice. For the next nine years I served as the Academic Dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Last summer I joined Southwestern College as Vice President. Their mission is: transforming consciousness through education.

This is where we are now. We are partnering with the sacred plants, soils, waters, animals and ancestors as equally important members of a spiritual and physical interdependence. As healers and teachers, we are part of this change. Specifically, Cypress Emerald and Davana want to help us now. They both spoke to me with such clarity.

I feel connected to the work you are doing at WOTE as it is part of the work I am doing. Thank you. I am so happy to feel this connection to these plant essences.

I would like to close with a poem that came to me as I was driving into the workshop. I arrived early and found a spot to settle in and wrote fragments of the poem. Then over lunch I walked away to a quiet place beneath the cottonwood trees beside the pond of recycled wastewater and completed the poem. I shared it with the group after lunch.

Animal Divine

In the warming light

Spring’s green steps

begin to mark the land:

furred, hoofed, horned

feathered, humming, cloven,

singing, howling, silent,

buried, sleeping, slow ones –

The hungry, the wanting

the wild unbidden

stir in me.

In the waking light

early iris opens

mud softens

ice breaks in the river

flows to the throat of the sea.

A voice rises in me.

Beast, Buffalo, Bear,

Gods of cave and prairie,

Forgive me for fear,

the false wall I keep

between you and me,

brick by brick

I take it down

Yielding to Holy Ground


Kapp, Barry B. Wisdom of the Earth, Medicinal Grade Plant & Tree Essence for Phyto-Aromatherapy. Essential Essences (oils) Book & Reference Guide. 2008

 Kari-Oca Declaration, Rio De Janeiro, World Parliament of Indigenous Peoples, 1992. Personal copy.

Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Press, 1999.

Peschel, Keewaydinoquay. Translations of plant names and information about these plants learned from personal conversations, classes, workshops and trainings 1979-1999.

Ceremony & Workshop Protocols

Ceremony & Workshop Protocols

Helpful guidelines for participants joining Ann Megisikwe Filemyr or other teacher-leaders sharing traditional practices for the School of Embodied Spirit (SES).

How to Prepare

Each of us is ultimately responsible for ourselves.

We will each hold ourselves accountable for our own participation.

Expectations for participants include:

  • Open-heartedness
  • Willingness to engage honestly with self and others
  • Willingness to engage deeply with the other-than-human world
  • Willingness to enter silence
  • Willingness to participate in the community we will create together, including keeping confidentiality
  • Ability to listen carefully and learn experientially
  • Commitment to sobriety

 What to Bring

  • Pack a simple daypack for light items you might want to carry with you during outdoor activity, including any snacks or foods you need.
  • A journal and pens/pencils as we might sketch or write or if it serves your memory, there will be opportunities for you to take notes.
  • Wear comfortable weather-appropriate clothing, including sturdy shoes for walking or other outdoor activity.
  • Bring layers for cooler weather or sudden rain.
  • Watershoes are always helpful to have with you so we can walk/be in the water if the opportunity arises.
  • Sunhat, sunscreen, sunglasses. Remember we live in the desert!
  • If you have sacred tobacco, cornmeal, or kinnickinnic for the offering, bring it with you.
  • Bring something special to place on the altar throughout the Ceremony, something that you will take home with you when you go.
  • If you have a sacred and/or ordinary object that you use regularly that you would like cleansed and/or blessed as part of the Ceremony, bring it with you.
  • If you have a Pendleton blanket, bring it with you to sit on, wrap up in, or it may be used in other ways during the Ceremony.
  • If you prefer to sit on a sit-upon or something that you can carry that is easy and lightweight, bring it with you. Otherwise, it is fine to just sit on the ground!

What to Leave Behind

  1. Cameras and recording devices – nothing can be recorded from these teachings unless prior arrangements have been made as we are deeply engaged in strengthening and keeping alive the oral/aural cultural practices of this lineage.
  2. Cell phones – turn them off during activities.
  3. Any mind-altering substances – absolutely no alcohol!
  4. As much as possible, leave other commitments, duties and responsibilities at home or at work. This is a time to come together and be rejuvenated through traditional practices of reconnecting with ourselves, each other and the land.

Please inform the teacher/leader:

  • If you are currently dealing with any health issues and/or you are taking any prescription drugs. Please share this information prior to your decision to participate.
  • If you have any concerns regarding your own well-being at any time during the teaching or the ceremony.

For any questions regarding these protocols, please email:

Migwetch! Thank you!