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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

From a book review of The Art of the Shaman:  Rock Art of California in the LA Times, 9/20/00:

"Like the shaman who entered the supernatural to recapture the stolen souls of his patients and thereby rescue them from unconsciousness," Whitley writes of his own work in preserving the rock art of the original Californians, "we too use archeology to resuscitate lost cultures."

As Whitley points out, the Native Americans who resided in what is now California were diverse in language, technology, cuisine and folkways, but they all shared a faith based on shamanism, a religious system in which spiritual practitionersócalled "doctors" or "dreamers" or "men of power"ówere believed to maintain "direct and personal links with the supernatural world."

"Priests talk to gods, the anthropological saying goes," quips Whitley, "whereas the gods talk to shamans."

One of the key concepts of shamanism, according to Whitley, is the belief that the spiritual underworld comes into contact with the "mundane" world at specific points on the terrainócaves, crags, mountain peaks and promontories. And it is in such places that we can still see the remnants of a strong shamanistic tradition in the form of rock carvings and paintingsóPuberty Rock in Riverside, for example, is the site where a rite of passage for adolescent girls was conducted, and the image of a bighorn sheep scratched into a rock in Inscription Canyon in the Mojave Desert is the imagined "spirit helper" of a medicine man.

"Shamans produced rock art at the conclusion of their vision quests to illustrate the spirits they had seen and the supernatural events, such as curing, rainmaking and sorcery, they had participated in during their altered states of consciousness," Whitley explains. "The shaman's rock art site was a sacred place and served as his portal into the supernatural."

Rob's comment
In response to this review, I wrote the following letter to the editor:

I don't know if it's columnist Kirsch's or author Whitley's fault, but the West Words column on The Art of the Shaman indulges in several Native stereotypes. To offer a corrective:

"Shaman," a term borrowed from Siberia, isn't a generic term for Native American religious practitioners. A shaman isn't the same as a medicine man or a healer. Many Native rituals didn't (and don't) require "dreaming" or "altered states of consciousness." The animals depicted on the rocks may be something other than "spirit helpers." Finally, many Indian cultures aren't "lost," and today's Indians can (and do) trace their roots back to the people who produced the art.

Related links
New Age mystics, healers, and ceremonies
Shamans, medicine men, or priests?

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