Retribing the Planet: Shamanism Repurposed for Modern Times
The notable Sixties in the 20th Century marked history with a time of social change and a veritable explosion of experiments in consciousness. Music, drugs, and new spiritual movements drove the trends. We among the youth cult commonly heard: Do not trust anyone over thirty. Black Power, Gray Power, and Red Power emerged among many new movements that celebrated a tribalism of type or class. Indeed, a college mate once quipped around 1968 that the only thing missing was Ugly People Power. The Sixties milieu did not begin or end with that decade, nor was it all about young people. But an event in 1969 exposed both the dreams and the flaws of that era. We called it Woodstock Nation composed of a “Hippie Tribe” of nearly half a million, mostly college-aged folks that gathered for an extraordinary music and art festival on Yasgur’s farm near Woodstock, NY.[i]
Joni Mitchell, who could not attend, wrote the festival’s now iconic theme song, Woodstock.[ii] It begins: I came upon a child of God, and that child told her, I’m going to try an’ get my soul free. The song’s refrain is at the core of what this essay on neo-shamanism will explore:
We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
I did not attend Woodstock either—I thought of going, but I took my motorcycle and went camping on a beach in Delaware instead. College mates who did attend were totally hyped telling me about it a few weeks later. Well, not all of them were hyped--one spent most of his time in the medical tent being treated for ingesting brown acid, a particularly pure LSD dose that harmed hundreds. The garden for some was a psychotic state of mind.
“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” was Mitchell’s way of saying that we yearn for return to the Garden of Eden or the Aboriginal Dreamtime, that time in human consciousness when all was well, when proto-humans like animals lived naturally off the land and made no moral judgments. Sixties seekers not growing up on Native reservations idealized aboriginals as more noble and somehow more spiritual, more connected to Mother Earth. Many read Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998). Carlos fed us popular fiction disguised as his real experiences with a shaman in his string of best-selling novels starting with The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968. The author claimed that his mentor, don Juan Matus, was a Yaqui Indian “sorcerer,” and that he met him in Albuquerque. Carlos was clever enough to fool top religious scholars including Mircea Eliade who wrote the definitive early book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951). Eliade endorsed Castaneda’s first book.[iii] I relished Castaneda’s first few books before discovering that don Juan was a made-up character and that Yaqui Indians had no such sorcerer tradition. I still find seekers and neo-shaman cult members believing in Castaneda’s books as real reports.
Recently, I saw Embrace of the Serpent, the 2015 award-winning foreign film directed by Ciro Guerra.[iv] The story occurs in the upper Amazon jungle. It portrays two explorations, one in 1909 by German Theodor Koch-Grunberg, the other in 1940 by American Richard Evans Schultes. Both men journeyed upriver with the same Amazonian shaman, Karamakate, the last surviving member of his clan, to look for the rare yakruna, a sacred plant. Schultes in the end convinces the shaman to prepare yakruna brew for him. The primarily black and white film switches in the end to throbbing psychedelic color images purportedly representing Schultes’s soul merging with the cosmos—he and stardust become one in 1940. Without going into the social complexities of this mesmerizing blend of fact and fiction, I want to mention that the actual field work of these two ethnobiologists inadvertently presaged the psychedelic drug experiments of Timothy Leary, the cult fiction of Carlos Castaneda, the subsequent neo-shaman movements, and the lately popular ayahuasca cults.
Ayahuasca or yagé was introduced from South America to northern seekers in recent decades. Ayahuasca sessions led by Amazonian Indians and self-proclaimed shamans are now common around the United States and Canada. This psychoactive, entheogenic brew is traditionally made from a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and the Psychotria veridis (Chacruna) leaf. Caapi alone may produce psychotropic effects, but plants like Chacruna (Yacruna) with DMT (dimethyltryptemine) need a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MOA) in Caapi to release the DMT and thus enhance the psychedelic effects. Yagé varies in intensity and content depending on the preparer’s knowledge and quality of available plants. Health Canada made it illegal to administer ayahuasca in Canada because of questionable harm and lack of information on its effects, though some Native people claim it helps hard core addicts.[v][vi]
A veritable industry of psycho-spiritual tourism has emerged with wealthy white executives among the throngs going to the Amazon for an ayahuasca experience led by a shaman. One of the most popular has been Piero Salazar of Iquitos, Peru. Salazar has come to dread the seekers coming to his retreats. “I believe this source of healing should be available to everyone, but lately it seems like the people I guide toward a vision of cosmic wholeness are all 32-year-old billionaires hoping to gain a deeper insight into their SEO strategy or whatever,” he said, as quoted in the Onion (May 17, 2016).[vii]
Two new movements promoting ayahuasca sessions are Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (or UDV). Two of the more popular neo-shamans not necessarily promoting ayahuasca have been Michael Harner and don Jose Luis Ruiz with their lucrative transformational workshops.[viii]
When I first observed neo-shamanism, I participated in a sweat lodge ceremony in New Mexico around 1980. No drugs were introduced (I had stopped all drug use including psychedelics by 1975), but the idea of connecting with ancestors, spiritual inspiration, and self-healing were themes common with peyote cults and the emerging ayahuasca retreats. The dozen or so folks at the sweat were a mixed bunch, some veterans of many sweats and some seeking relief from addictions or anxieties. There was a definite protocol using a tent made from tarp draped over bent branches, heated rocks in an outside fire pit tended ritually by a fireman, and most participants going in to sweat after sunset sky-clad, although that was optional, as some people wore swim gear. Someone beat on a drum and chanted. The leader’s language was spiced with Native American derivatives and we passed a pipe stoked with burning tobacco. Not everyone chose to inhale. In other words, this was a typically hybridized Indian-style sweat not attended by Natives.
When I lived in New Mexico, I lectured about the cult problem and the effects of occult experimentation several times to Apache and Zuni tribes. I lived around Pueblo Indians and got to know some of the leaders. Indians on reservations struggle to maintain identity and tradition as youth lose the language and appreciation for ritual. The elders were both amused and disturbed by fake Indians and New Agers using Native tradition to further selfish ends. The New Age is all about the “self.” For example, in the mid-1990s I had a case in Florida involving a Navy submarine serviceman who got caught up with an unofficial tribe influenced by a self-proclaimed medicine man. Thunder Horse Harjo was a black man who parlayed his medicine services to a small band of makeshift Seminole Indians who were trying to incorporate as a tribe with the federal government. A gambling casino company was backing them.
I met with perhaps thirty members of the tribe during a powwow—all but one or two looked like a white person and few had significant Indian blood in their backgrounds. Several members of the tribe told me that Thunder Horse (Wayne Bowen) caused havoc among them with his unlicensed counseling services that proved to be little more than manipulative self-awareness trainings and an attempt to grab a leadership position. One of Thunder Horse’s publications was The Thunder Horse Medicine, Volume 1: Becoming Your True Self (1996).[ix] My client’s son, 21, was totally taken in by the ersatz medicine man even after members of the tribe distanced from Bowen. The tribe was willing to adopt the Navy man who was blond haired, blue-eyed, and not of Native heritage. Anyone could become an “Indian” if formally adopted by the tribe. In any case, the Navy brass were very concerned about Thunder Horse’s control over a serviceman with top secret clearance on a nuclear submarine. I did manage to convince the young man that Thunder Horse had run his unauthorized medicine services before in Arizona (where he irritated the Navajo) and in Hawaii and that he was inauthentic. The young man broke away from Bowen’s “medicine.”
Neo-shamans have offered their medicine in the form of drug intensives to First Nations peoples in Canada as well as to Native Americans in the United States. Laura Dutheil, 54, a non-native woman who was for a time adopted into a Haida clan had a damaging experience with a neo-shaman claiming to be of Mayan spirituality. Dutheil is now married to a First Nation Haida man and lives in the Skidegate area of Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) off Canada’s west coast. She contacted me earlier this year to help educate Haida about cults. For the past seven years she and some Haida elders and community leaders have been working among their Haida clans to expose the harm done by neo-shaman Erick Gonzalez who heads Earth Peoples United. Dutheil also participated in a high demand New Age enterprise called Psychology of Vision (PoV)[x] that has affected many Haida members.
Psychology of Vision was founded by Chuck Spezzano who mixes an array of New Age teachings including A Course in Miracles, a manipulative mass training style he learned as a follower of Lifespring, and the Oneness Movement that borrows from Asian religion. Long sessions of emoting and breaking down the purportedly false ego are techniques in nearly all mass therapies including PoV. Ex-members of similar unlicensed mass therapies have complained of seriously debilitating after effects, panic attacks, confusion, and long months of recovery to get back to a sense of a sane self again. Others praise these workshops, claiming to overcome issues like fear of taking on challenges and low-self-esteem.
Dutheil was caught up in PoV from 1995 through 2007. She was recruited from within that group into Earth Peoples United around 2004 by someone who was also a follower of Erick Gonzalez. Gonzalez claims grandiose titles including Tata OmeAkaEhekatl of Mayan Shamanism—the title is an Aztec derivative, not Mayan.[xi] Like Thunder Horse, Erick has managed to gain status among many Haida as a legitimate medicine man. From records kept by the Haida Gwaii Trust, tens of thousands of dollars have been spent since 2004 to pay for workshops with Ngystle Society, a front group connected with Erick Gonzalez. In 2002 the Ngystle Society got over $3000 to teach Reiki Level 1 classes to Haida Residential School Survivors, a vulnerable target for healing scams.[xii] The value of offerings by Ngystle has never been properly vetted. As for Erick Gonzalez and his neo-shamanism, in September, 2012 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued a warning on Gonzalez for the suspected use of drugs like peyote, ayahuasca, and mescaline during alleged religious ceremonies.
Laura has had a difficult recovery for a host of reasons, not the least of which was being poisoned at least twice by Amanita muscaria, a mushroom she was encouraged to ingest in some of Gonzalez’s “intensives.” The Amanita (the classic fairytale, red mushroom with white spots on the cap) was used ritually by ancient shamans in Siberia and is one suggested if false source of the entheogen Soma in the Rig Veda of Hindu lore.[xiii] Back in the early 1970s, after some research on its use and effects I ingested Amanitas twice, once in a small dose (one small mushroom) from which I got a kind of buzz for a few hours. The second time, an artist friend and I ate two or three each. We were poisoned with blurred vision, severe nausea, and distortion in thought processes for many hours. We had a distinct sense that we might die. We did not know at the time that the toxins in Amanita can cause liver damage. We stood under a very cold waterfall for some time, and that seemed to help. I could not stomach any kid of mushroom for over a year after that. Laura reported that her last Amanita intensive with Earth Peoples United left her with panic attacks, a mini-stroke, memory loss, poor comprehension skills, and a severe arthritic condition. When Laura reached out to a nurse associated with EPU to complain about panic attacks, she reports that the nurse said “It was just the medicine working.”[xiv]
Shamanic healing with or without drugs and herbs led to what we call the medicine man in Native tradition. Shamans were governed by tradition and generally under the authority of a chief or tribe leader. But medicine in an unregulated neo-shaman’s hands could be anything including high demand encounter groups in isolated places, peyote parties, LSD, long days of lectures, chanting, drumming, fasting, hypnotic trance inductions, frog venom, Datura, ayahuasca, mescaline, and sleepless nights. Some Haida leaders cautioned tribal members. Tom Greene, Jr who ran for council wrote: “Our ancestors did not use peyote, ayahuasca, frog venom, or amanita to become spiritual.”[xv]
Entheogens, including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline have a varied impact on users. Deep insights tend to fade with repeated use and potential for harm increases. The great scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, observed in his significant study of entheogens in Cleansing the Doors of Perception (2001) that these drugs have a “half-life” as to effective therapeutic value, if any.[xvi] I agree. Things can go very badly.[xvii] Sometime in ancient India, the Vedic culture stopped Soma use and turned to non-drug meditation and yoga to seek the inner bliss in a safer, more measured, and enduring manner.
Overall, mass therapies can be big money-makers for leaders while customers hope for promised breakthrough advances in ‘oneness,’ inner peace, and good fortune. Neo-shamans add a new twist by claiming that drugs can help bring one back to the authentic self, the healed self, and the ancient tribal consciousness that once guided people—in the Garden. All you need to do is sign the waiver, like the one Gonzalez hands out that states he accepts NO responsibility for what happens to you during the “self-transformational journey.” Moreover, the “ceremonial guidelines” state that “Tata Erick is our guide and we need to trust and follow any instructions he may give. One should not make assumptions that the way it has been done in the past or the way it has been done in other ceremonies, is the way it will be done this time. Trust the spiritual leader and the process.” Erick, in other words, is the final word on what your experience will be. And he will collect the profits. There is no reliable tradition.[xviii]
Dutheil noted that she was getting worse emotionally and physically after more than a decade of participation in so-called healing and “medicine” groups. She recalled that the leaders never took responsibility for bad effects, but blamed the participant, shaming her for not getting it or for resisting the process: The process is always right, the drug is sacred even if it is non-traditional frog venom and Amanita, and the neo-shaman is a messenger of sacred tradition whether he is or not. Modern tribal people have lost the sacred path and the neo-shaman will help them gain it back—so goes the pitch from new versions of metaphysical snake oil salesmen. The process has divided the tribe and families that promote Gonzalez from those that do not. A classic us-versus-them cult mentality emerges among followers who feel persecuted when criticized.
There is nothing indigenous about neo-shamanic workshops. In every case, I find advertisements to heal the self and to connect with the universe through some kind of special scheme centered on the purported power and insight of the leader. The neo-shaman becomes an entrepreneur in the spiritual seeker industries, no better than Scientology, the old est, or gurus from India ready to bottle sacred water from the Ganges and sell it for $1000 a pop.
Alice Beck Kehoe, an anthropologist, has been critical of the neo-shaman movement. She wrote that neo-shamanism is racism. By this she meant an intellectual or ivory-tower racism that looks down on and dismisses the achievements of a living ancient culture, as if shamanism represents a lesser evolved human being who needs a more advanced culture to properly interpret it. Thus the neo-shaman feels justified in appropriating techniques of shamanism and marketing them for personal profit. Furthermore, the neo-shaman imposes personal experience on ancient cultures as if he knows that shamanism underlies a common, perennial basis with all religious experience.[xix] In other words, the promise of ancient tribal consciousness comes to those that go along with one shaman’s transformation cult and are committed to sharing that vision with anyone that will submit to it and buy it. And yes, you must sign the liability waiver.[xx]
Philip Jenkins, 2005. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality
(New York, NY: Oxford University Press)
Alice Beck Kehoe, 2000. Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking
(Waveland Press, Inc.)
Huston Smith, 2003. Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (Sentient Publications)
“Psychedelic use spreads in B.C. native community,” (CBC News. August 2, 2011) Betsy Trumpener, Canadian Broadcasting Company
[viii] https://www.shamanism.org/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Miguel_Ruiz
[ix] http://aurorathespirit.com/index_files/Page585.htm; https://www.facebook.com/thunderhorse.bowen
[xx] Blue Morph has good example of liability waiver for ayahuasca tours: https://www.bluemorphotours.com/
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