Shamanism is humanity's oldest form of relationship to Spirit. As such, it is the underpinning beneath all religion. But shamanism is not a religion. It is a complex set of practices, beliefs, values and behaviors that enable the shamanic practicioner to elicit a shift from ordinary consiousness into a trance state with a specific goal in mind, such as for healing, obtaining information, power, vision, divination, contacting the spirit of the deceased, soul retrieval or guidance for right action. Shamanic work is done with the aid of a helping ally of some sorts that the shaman has befriended. They work together as a cooperative team, with the ally being an intermediary between different levels of reality and the shaman, an engineer of altering states of consciousness.

Shamanism is an ancient practice. Shamans throughout the world and throughout time, recognize that the universe is alive, conscious, and filled with spiritual power. Shamans know how to access this web of power and work with it skillfully and effectively to address their, and their community's needs. Shamanism is the use of shamanic practices within a shamanic value system. Traditionally a shaman goes through the experience of a "calling", usually through illness, accident or some unusual quality of being, then through an arduous apprenticeship of teaching, training and testing about shamanism, followed by some sort of passage rite into their new status. Typically shaman do not define themselves as such. Instead they are defined by their community based on what it is that they do.

Becoming a shaman and living as a shaman is a difficult and demanding life path that many indigenous people shy away from because of the formidable requirements of shamanism. Shamanism is not about fun and glamor. Unskillful and uneducated acts can cause harm, or even be life-threatening, to the shamanic practicioner as well as to others. For shamanism deals with power, and power can move in many different ways, like electricity. It is important to move slowly with respect, humility and care when practicing shamanism.

A vitally important aspect of the practice of shamanism is understanding right relationship with power, and the acts and implements of power, such as sage, cedar, feathers, the drum, ceremony, disincarnate spirits, totem animals and allies. In shamanism, the exploration of right relationship also entails indepth ecopsychological, attitudinal healing along with active, social justice involvement in issues affecting the rights of indigenous people in today's world. 

Shamanism has been alive since the first peoples walked and roamed the Earth since the beginning of their time in ancient civilization. These people developed their Shamanistic Practices over the years while living life as is and incorporating what they had all around them on their lands and in their minds with what was available to them right there in the moment .

In Nature, they made connections with the plants, trees, dirt, water sources, heat of the Sun, the wildlife creatures both big and small, the Elements in the air, etc.

As their connections were being made with all of that around them on the Earth, so developed the sense of Spirit amongst them, from experiences from their hearts in love for how they later communed with Nature -- and that had helped guide them in development of their senses and how they could use them in communications with that of the unknown and unseen forces among the Universe within themselves.

Through the deeper development of knowing and working with their own senses in communicating with that both within themselves and with that all around them, it triggered the notion that there were many Mysteries of the body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit that they did not know about -- and therefore as they shared their oral stories amongst other peoples came the myths that we have today from their ancient knowledge and wisdom.

Sensing that these myths had something to say about themselves and how they lived their lives when they did lead to dreams -- both in the mundane, dreaming about the future and what it held for them; and in their nighttime dreams, the signs and thoughts and feelings of the unconscious surfacing, allowing these people to analyze what these dreams meant to them to interpret how they would react in their future upon awakening. This seemed to take them on a journey in finding out what was hidden and how they could go about revealing these truths and mysteries, and I believe that this is when they took upon themselves to meditate on these dreams, which lead to trances and altered states of their minds, and eventually into those 'near -death' experiences when meditating upon something so heavily within their souls.

Using these techniques guided the Shamans on their new path in their lifetimes in their spiritual awareness in the changes and developments of their minds, and had such an ecstatic communication with all the spirits around them which they eventually had turned towards in helping with healings for themselves, others, and the communities they lived in later on in time.

Through all of this, basic approaches of healings developed, and they learned to use it for the good of all in their practices -- but mostly in their living in everyday lives -- , what today is known as Shamanism.
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Shamanism is 'Over tens of thousands of years, our ancient ancestors all over the world discovered how to maximize human abilities of mind and spirit for healing and problem-solving. The remarkable system of methods they developed is today known as "shamanism," a term that comes from a Siberian tribal word for its practitioners: "shaman" (pronounced SHAH-mahn). Shamans are especially distinguished by the use of journeys to hidden worlds otherwise mainly known through myth, dream, and near-death experiences. 

Shamanism is not the same thing as American Indian Spirituality... Please read letters at the end of this page for further understanding of the differences. 
Shamanism is not the same thing as Native American spirituality. 

The word shaman, used internationally, has its origin in manchú-tangu and has reached the ethnologic vocabulary through Russian. The word originated from saman (xaman), derived from the verb scha-, "to know", so shaman means someone who knows, is wise, a sage. Further ethnologic investigations shows that the true origin for the word Shaman can be tracked from the Sanskrit initially, then through Chinese-Buddhist mediation to the manchú-tangu, indicating a much deeper but now overlooked connection between early Buddhism and Shamanism generally. In Pali it is schamana, in Sanskrit sramana translated to something like "buddhist monk, ascetic". The intermediate Chinese term is scha-men (source). It has been adopted into the English speaking world not unlike words such as kayak for example, but when it is used to describe Native American holy men or women it can be offensive to traditional Natives and their Elders.
By Joseph RiverWind (Boriken Taino)

Thanks to the New Age craze that has spread around the world, there are many self-proclaimed "medicine men" and "shamans"—people who claim to follow our spiritual ways, having "learned" everything they know from books bought at the local book store. After the book Black Elk Speaks was published, people thought they could become instant medicine men and women. Little do they know that Black Elk did not tell the whole truth to the book's writer.

Some people go so far as to charge for vision quests or sweat lodge ceremonies. Never get taken in by someone like this, much less by self-proclaimed spiritual leaders who cannot tell you truthfully where they received the permission and training to perform these ceremonies. It is dangerous when these people attempt to perform these ceremonies and involve others who do not know any better. We do not tolerate these people within our Native communities, and lately many of our medicine people have traveled off the reservation to put a stop to these charlatans.

Tori McElroy, October 23, 2000

When you hear the word "shamanism," what images jiffy-pop into your mind's eye? Most folks picture feather head-dresses, buffalo hides, medicine wheels and dream-catchers - all images associated with Native American cultures. But contrary to popular opinion, a "shaman" is not an Indian medicine man, and "shamanism" is not a Native American religion. In fact, many Native Americans find the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" offensive.

The word "shaman" actually originates among the natives of Siberia, where it describes a specialized type of holy person. The shamans of Siberia interact with deities and spirits not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but through direct contact with the spirits themselves. With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman enters a very deep or "ecstatic" trance. (In discussions of shamanism, the word "ecstasy" is used in its original sense, from the Greek roots ex and histanai meaning "out of place" or "out of the physical" - in other words an out-of-body mystical state) This trance frees the shaman's consciousness from the body, allowing it to "fly" into the realms the spirits inhabit, and to experience these "Otherworlds" with all the senses of the ordinary physical realm.

Lothar Tuppan, September 29, 2001

One of the most common misunderstandings is the belief that the term 'shaman' is indigenous to Native American culture, usually assumed to be North American. This leads to confusing 'shamanism' with the various religious practices of the North American Indian tribes. Some indigenous Americans did incorporate shamanism as defined above, but many did not soul journey. Subsequently their healing methodologies were very different than those utilized by a shaman.

Even within North American tribal societies some shamans were also medicine men and women but, again, being a medicine person doesn't mean that you are also a shaman.

Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, Professor, Native American Studies, UC Davis

At least until recently, the word "shaman" was one of those terms which would lead most indigenous people to figuratively "reach for their shields" and assume a defensive posture. "Shaman" has been pretty much of a dividing line word: those who use it are non-Native and/or anthropological, or are ignorant of Native Americans' feelings. Indigenous people refer to their own holy people and curers by other terms such as doctor, medicine person, spiritual leader, elder, herbalist or diagnostician, recognizing a wide variety of callings and skills. Of course, before "shaman" became popular in the anthropological literature, indigenous healers and religious persons were often referred to as "witch doctors," "sorcerers" or other derogatory terms, words still used reportedly in right-wing Christian missionary propaganda. But "shaman" is not an innocent term either, because it rises out of a clear misunderstanding of, and denigration of, non-European cultures.

Robert Schmidt, March 8, 2000

"I was under the impression that "medicine man" was a word that was only used by a small percentage of NA tribes, and did not make a good generic term . . ."

This statement is true enough. The point is that "shaman" isn't the best term to use if you need one.

My dictionary gives two definitions of "shamanism": 1. The religious practices of certain native peoples of Northern Asia. 2. Any similar form of primitive spiritualism, such as that practiced among certain North American Indian tribes.

The first definition is the official, correct one. The second definition is a bastardized version of the first one. Anthropologists, ethnographers, and other Western interlopers thought all "primitive" religions were the same, so they lumped them under one umbrella term.

As someone said, it's like calling any carbonated cola drink a "Coke." It may get the point across in casual conversation, but it's not accurate. Same with "Xerox" for photocopy, "Kleenex" for tissue, etc.

What's so bad about using "shamanism" as a general term for Native religions? As the dictionary goes on to state, shamans are priests who can communicate with or even summon the spirits of the world. I believe most practitioners of Native religions wouldn't claim this power. They may worship or pray to various spirits, but they don't enter into direct talks with them. Or summon them to perform magic.
Astoria Brown Psychic Readings