The Case Against "Shamans" In North American Indigenous Cultures
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. 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.
Below are excerpts from a number of articles I have selected (with links to the originals) clarifying the above paragraph.
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.
By Jack D. Forbes
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.
According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1981 edition), the word is from the Tungus language of eastern Asia and refers to "a priest who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events." The dictionary goes on to define "shamanism" as "a religion of the Ural-Altaic peoples of northern Asia and Europe characterized by belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to shamans; also: any similar religion."
Quite obviously the above definitions present a culturally hostile picture since the use of terms such as "magic," "demons," "gods" and "ancestral spirits" will likely be interpreted as backward, evil or even "devilish" by many European readers. Moreover, "shamanistic" religions have usually been regarded as more "primitive" than other religions by cultural evolutionists.
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"--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.
This confusion is reinforced by commercialized pseudo-Indian groups that sprang up in the late 1970's. Focused mainly on New Age alternative healing methods and environmental awareness, these groups misrepresent themselves as genuine teachers of Indian traditions. Exploiting the stereotype of Native Americans as ecological warriors and spiritual healers, they commonly charge high fees for teachings and ceremonies, a practice particularly offensive to traditional Native Americans. Although the teachings of these movements may be valid in their own right, they are neither traditional nor typical of Indian beliefs, nor are they shamanic, as they rarely if ever stress the ecstatic trance-journey as a central practice. Yet the movement continues to misrepresent itself as both Indian and shamanism.
We Do Not Have Shamans
By Joseph RiverWind (Boriken Taino)
Shamans, Medicine Men, and Priests
Naturally, I don't claim any expertise in this area. I'm just reporting what I've seen and read. Which is that shamanism is mainly practiced by West Coast tribes--from Mexico to Alaska--as a legitimate part of their religion.
I don't know if these tribes practice "soul journeys" or only the more general form of shamanism: "curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events." I don't know if they've practiced "shamanism" for ages, or only since Europeans applied the term to their religions. These are things for the experts to determine.
But I think the general points are clear. Shamanism is a specific religious practice, not just any practice that seems "magical" or "supernatural." One shouldn't use the term "shaman" for an Indian healer, priest, or medicine person unless the tribe itself uses the term. Misapplying the word is a way to stereotype Native religions as backward, evil, or "devilish."
For more on the subject, see "Primitive" Indian Religion.
Below: Shaman of Marvel's Alpha Flight--a Native comic-book character who's basically an all-purpose wizard, not a shaman.