Native American Shamanism

The relationship between shamanism and Native Americans may seem a little puzzling. After all the word “shaman” is not a Native word, nor does it have its origins within Native American culture. The word “shaman” is obviously a translation. To understand this, we must know what a shaman is.

big head, ca 1905

Big Head, ca. 1905. Library of Congress Edward S. Curtis

What is a Shaman?

According to anthropologists and ethnologists, shamans have been around since before recorded history. The word originates from the language of the Tungus people of Siberia. It can directly be translated literally to “one who works with fire”. In a more practical sense, the word “fire” was always very directly associated with life in ancient times.  (Meadows) Fire is what allowed man to survive; it cooked food, it provided warmth and brought change in so many ways. A man without fire was not a living man. The title of shaman was given to the highest and most respected individuals. A shaman is a warrior, a healer, an explorer, a teacher, an artist and a leader. (Stevens) They have an understanding of the world and how it works, not only in the physical but also the non-physical. A shaman is able to see what other cannot. They can walk beyond the realm of logic that transcends space and time. Shamans believe that man is very privileged and has the power to change and shape the world. (Meadows)

Shamanism is not a Religion

Shamanism is not some new religion or the return of some ancient one. It is a basic fundamental human philosophy. There are no there are no sacred writings or dogma to be bound by, it does not rely on faith but on personal experiences. Knowledge comes from doing and practicing. The philosophy is very natural and holistic. It recognizes that everything is made of energy, that everything is interdependent and mutually supportive in a greater energy system. It has a historical presence in nearly all cultures around the globe. Ancient peoples from different regions not connected by land or language share similar shamanic practices. Shamanism does not oppose religion but can be used as a tool to better your understanding of your own physical, mental and spiritual abilities. It is the most natural of all philosophical and metaphysical systems because it operates within natural laws. (Meadows)

siksika medicine lodge

Siksika medicine lodge in winter. 1912. Photo by Roland Reed. Source – Library of Congress

How does Shamanic Practice relate to Native Americans?

In the modern world, most ancient shamanic knowledge in the world has been lost or diluted by the thousands of years of technological advances and suppressing religious beliefs. Native Americans have maintained a much closer relationship to their traditional beliefs and connection with nature. Their Shamanic practices remain better preserved. (Meadows) The first foreign translation for Native American shamanism was Medicine man. A medicine man is a traditional healer or spiritual leader with a purpose to secure the help of the spirit world. A Native medicine man or woman promotes the harmony between human and nature by bridging the natural and spiritual world. (Wikipedia) The word “medicine” greatly oversimplifies its true meaning. It can usually be synonymously used in place of the words “power” or “knowledge,” much like in the terms medicine bag or medicine wheel. Shamanism incorporates a broader meaning to the practices performed by Native American medicine men or shamans, as it is connected to similar ancient philosophical practices human cultures have performed throughout history.


Meadows, Kenneth. Shamanic Experience, A practical guide to contemporary shamanism. 1991. Element Books liminted. Pages 1-6

Stevens, Jose Luis. Stevens, Lena. The power path training, living the secrets of the inner shaman. Audio Book by Audible Chapters 1-11.

Wikipedia Medicine man