Book Review - Shamans and Religions

Cultic Studies Review, 7, (2), 2008, 182-187.

Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking

Alice Beck Kehoe

Waveland Press, Inc., 4180 IL Route 83, Suite 101, Long Grove, IL 60047-9580, 2000. ISBN-10: 1-57766-162-1; ISBN-13: 978-1-57766-162-7 (paperback). $13.50. 125 pages.

Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality

Philip Jenkins

New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN-10: 0195189108; ISBN-13: 978-0195189100. $16.95

Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart

Some books are necessary antidotes to other, incredibly popular books that distort public perception. One such remedy is Shamans and Religion by Alice Beck Kehoe. Another is Dream Catchers by Philip Jenkins. Both authors address popular (if surreptitious) New Age appropriations of Native American religion and misappropriation of traditional shamanism. More than twenty-five years ago when I was searching for a way out of an intellectual morass regarding religious ideas, I turned to Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), whose autobiographies were great reading for errant seekers like me. His densely written studies titled Yoga (1969) and Shamanism (1964, English ed.) popularized two approaches to experiential religion. Eliade was the intellectual seeker’s scholar. He was the head of the Religious Studies department at the University of Chicago. When he gave academic thumbs-up to Carlos Castaneda’s fantastic first novel about an apprenticeship under a Yaqui Indian, we felt justified in believing in Castaneda (1925–1998). Castaneda was one of the most successful New Age hoaxers in the twentieth century. Castaneda’s books, along with Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, helped to usher in a New Age industry of neo-shamans such as Michael Harner and don Jose Luis Ruiz, with their lucrative transformational workshops. Eliade has had his critics (Robert Ellwood lists some of them and the criticisms in Politics of Myth). However, Kehoe’s small book drives criticism of Eliade and the neoshaman movement into a compelling if provocative conclusion: Neoshamanism is “racism.” By this Kehoe means 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 is one that feels justified in appropriating techniques of shamanism and marketing them for personal benefit. Furthermore, the neo-shaman mixes or “syncretes” occult notions from various religions and spiritual philosophies as if shamanism shares a common perennial basis with all religious ideas.

Alice Beck Kehoe (b. 1934) specializes in fieldwork among cultures with ancient roots, especially the traditional healers and seers of North American Plains Indians. She has been a professor of anthropology and archeology at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University. As her book’s subtitle indicates, Shamans and Religion is an “exploration in critical thinking.” Kehoe begins by establishing the actual setting of a shaman culture in Northern hemisphere areas, especially Siberia and North America. She argues that, since the late 19th century, scholars and novelists have misapplied the term shaman to healers and seers of cultures worldwide that bear no relation either to the Siberian Tungus people who produced the term or to their peculiar rituals and philosophy.

Kehoe examines how her predecessors tagged shamans as living “fossils” in the progressive evolution of religious behavior that has culminated in modern European religions. Early anthropologists surmised that shaman culture was a “childish” stage, one in which “primitive” or savage men believed in magic, much as preschool White children might. Kehoe’s intent is to distinguish proper anthropology from both the “armchair” scholarship approach of Eliade and the New Age misappropriation of shamanistic technique for individual embellishment. Shamans proper were servants of their communities, not the psychotherapy seekers that populate neo-shaman workshops in America. Now, I do not disparage the healing or emotional boost any person might experience while “journeying” at a Michael Harner Way of the Shaman workshop, but I applaud Kehoe, who chose Harner’s New Age approach to shamanism as a prime example of misappropriation and racism.

Kehoe’s effort reasserts the science in anthropology. She would ask that we at least respect indigenous religion for what it means to the culture that formed it. She takes Harner to task when he in 1990 wrote “with respect” that “shamanism” survives in “primitive peoples” and “low technology cultures” worldwide. Thus Harner homogenizes what he sees as primitive mysticism and tribal ritual into one word—shamanism. He claims to have distilled the essence of that shamanism, and then he recycles it for eager customers who want a piece of authentic “Indian” experience.

Kehoe’s last chapter, titled “Deafening Silence,” considers what Professor Yolanda Moses (president of the American Anthropological Association) said: “The silence is deafening.” Moses herself has some African ancestry and is labeled a black American. “No one seems to see themselves as racist,” says Kehoe on page 91. Professor Moses noticed that no one was saying anything about this form of academic prejudice against cultures that had no written language, thus could hardly compete in the academy with representatives. There persists a nineteenth-century notion among anthropologists, “a kind of generalized model of Primitive Man. It is an unintended legacy of Progressivism.” Kehoe was quoting William Adams who stated that in The Philosophical Roots of Anthropology. By Progressivism, Adams refers to assumptions that modern man is more evolved; therefore, we have a right to pigeonhole less-evolved cultures in our image as if they were “other” and non-Western.

To clarify Kehoe’s notion of racism further, I worked with a television news reporter in New Mexico in 1987 to produce a series called New Age: Faith, Fad, or Fiction? The reporter was Conroy Chino, a full-blooded Acoma Indian whose culture still resided on a mesa-top Pueblo outside of Albuquerque. Chino’s family males were “medicine men” who still practiced the old ways while also living as modern Americans. He told me that his people were often puzzled by white seekers who wanted to join in their rituals. “We are not doing anything special or better than their religions offer,” he said. Of course, his uncles would politely turn away these errant white folks.

Less strident but more thorough than Kehoe, Philip Jenkins offers a clearly written, impressively researched historical survey of the same early conflict with Native religion and controversial modern assimilations of Indian spirituality in white or non-Indian society. Beyond the history, he offers useful sociological insight and criticism. Kehoe’s book covers a mere 125 pages, while Jenkins fills more than 300 with nearly 500 endnotes that contain an average of 5 to 10 references per note! Jenkins’ companion book to Dream Catchers is Mystic and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, published in 2000. Indeed, he covers much of the same territory in Dream Catchers but with his eye keenly on Native American or Indian culture throughout.

Jenkins begins Dream Catchers at the point of early contact between primarily a Protestant Christian culture and American Indians in the east. These Christian missionaries saw proto-Christian tendencies among most Indians, but they also noted superstitions and “diabolical” practices. In their view, Indians worshiped a Great Spirit, but they needed to know who God really was. By the late 19th century, evolutionary theory among American intellectuals implied that Indians were merely “children” in their spiritual awareness and not diabolical. Further developments by the 1920s, inspired by insights from psychology, interest in Asian religions, and the occult renewal ennobled a number of activists to flip the equation: Indian spirituality might be superior and closer to primordial truth than anything the Western religions had to offer. Some would claim that Turtle Island (America) was populated originally by people from “Red” Atlantis.

Jenkins covers this latter period through his focus on the lives and activism of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Alice Corbin Henderson, D. H. Lawrence, and others who settled in the Southwest, especially in New Mexico. Indians did benefit politically from all this positive attention, but the syncretism non-American Indians applied to their religions muddled popular understanding and appreciation. The work and commentaries of Frank Waters, Carl Jung, and Jack Kerouac, for example, helped Westerners to absorb Indian ideas as if they were part of a primal mystical pool shared by all ancient religions. According to Jenkins, it was Frank Waters with his immensely popular The Book of the Hopi (1963) “above all who made the Ganges flow into the Rio Grande.” Waters’ syncretism included his reverence for the pseudo-Sufi teachings of the controversial Gurdjieff, which Mabel Dodge had introduced to him.

Jenkins examines pseudo-Indians such as Sun Bear and neoshamans such as Michael Harner as examples of the next wave of popularization of Indian spirituality, from 1960 to 1980. These New Age entrepreneurs established a workshop industry mainly attended by middle- and upper-class whites seeking the Indian experience. By the late 1960s, red power arose along with black power and the Hippie movement, which combined American and Asian Indian spiritual ideas and costumes into their loose spiritual style. Jenkins notes that while New Age Whites scrambled to claim any drop of Indian blood that flowed through their ancestry and any past life as an Indian, few if any sought black blood or black African lives. Indians were somehow more “spiritual” by nature. I noted this same prejudice in 1976 when I worked as an art instructor at a large penitentiary in New Mexico. Although racial tension existed between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics, they all seemed to leave the Indian prisoners alone. One Hispanic prisoner told me that inmates shared a special reverence for the Indians and their suffering under the dominant society. He noted that Indians have “spiritual power.”

Jenkins addresses the current status of Native spirituality in his last two chapters. He writes that Indians have both absorbed New Age notions that define their culture and reacted against the same, referring to the New Age use of sweat lodges and peyote as “cultural theft.” Some Indians go so far as to call it cultural genocide. In light of such reactions, Jenkins asks how, then, do we define “authentic” religion? What standard prevents a syncretic cult in the New Age movement from claiming authenticity? “They make certain bold assumptions about the nature of religion; about the role of authenticity and historicity, and the potential for change and development over time” (p. 243). He asks whether we are arguing about olives or onions. Do we peel away the surface to find the nugget of truth, or is the truth in the peels themselves, without a solid core?

Jenkins refers to a landmark decision in the US verses Ballard case of 1944 and the statement by Supreme Court Judge Robert Jackson. Ruling on the outcome of the fraud case against the Mighty I AM, Jackson said that the “bogus and deceptive cult” that taught “nothing but humbug, untainted by any trace of truth” offered a “blatant case of deception.” Jackson acknowledged the potential for harm to “over-credulous people,” yet “the price of freedom or of religion or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish. . . . By that standard,” writes Jenkins, “the neo-Native religion of the New Age groups is as valid as any other, and deserves as much respect” (p. 249). He sums up this view on page 254 by noting that the encounter, despite the exploitation, has been overwhelmingly positive, sincere, and respectful for both Indians and Whites. The interaction has drawn Native religion into the mainstream. Jenkins concludes that “there is no sign that this process of influence and adaptation will cease.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading both books and learned a lot from both authors. Inasmuch as some neo-Indian groups and leaders harm and mislead, neither author offers redress. But that might be another topic altogether.


Ellwood, Robert S. 1999. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008, Page