Shamanism and the World's Indigenous Peoples

Embracing the Endangered Indigenous Peoples and Their Shamans

Copyright © 1999/2006 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

(This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Our Religions' Future: Truths, Trends and Challenges for Old and New Spiritualities. Endnotes are indicated in brackets [].)


In the last twenty years, a significant appreciation has dawned in the developed nations for the tribal, primal people of the world. An intensification of this trend occurred with the United Nations declaring 1993 “The Year of the Indigenous Tribes.” The UN wanted a global celebration of the 250 million indigenous people belonging to some 5,000 traditional, native, non-industrial cultures in 80 countries worldwide. In scholarly circles of religion and the humanities, tribal shamanic spirituality is no longer judged a “superstitious” practice by “primitive” people, but is given considerable attention. Academic journals and a plethora of books have come into being to focus more extensively on the spiritual traditions of these indigenous souls.[1] Their spirituality everywhere can be seen to include the following shared elements:

• Viewing Mother Earth and all her creatures as sacred, endowed with varying levels of consciousness (including stars, planets, mountains and streams, and certainly plants and animals). Everything is alive.

• Cherishing the spirits of all creatures, with whom we are always interconnected, especially honoring the spirits of our departed loved ones, who have not really “died” but continue to live in the subtler planes of light.

• Learning methods to sense “subtle energies” in and around humans, animals, plants and rocks.

• Learning how to induce, via drumming, chanting, fasting, vigils and/or psychedelic plants, the alternate/altered states of consciousness or ASCs (what Michael Harner calls the “shamanic state of consciousness” or SSC) in which one can contact and receive useful information or healing power from one’s guardian spirits, from the spirits of plants and animals, and from the Great Spirit/Mysterious One who is Source of the worlds.

• Embarking upon individual and/or collective, life-transformative vision quests for the purpose of accessing these ASCs.


In India, especially in her hill and mountain regions, a large portion of the world’s indigenous people dwell—over 70 million, belonging to more than 300 different groups. These tribal people—the Bhils, Gonds, Mundas, Santhals, Hos, Khasis, Garos, Naintias, Bodos, Kacharis, Nagas and others—represent some 7% of India’s population and are collectively named by Hindus the adivasi, the “original inhabitants.” Indeed. The forests and hills of central India have hosted these Dravidian people for several hundred thousand years. Despite a famous tradition of tolerance, too many Hindus have echoed the judgment of the British Raj in calling these people “uncivilized” and “primitive,” and the aboriginal adivasi have been assigned the lowest caste position in the social hierarchy. Indian journalist Malti Nagar comments, with words applicable to tribal peoples worldwide:

“The tribal communities are primitive only in respect to technology, economy and material culture. Unless contaminated by contact with the so-called 'civilized people,' the tribal people cherish their own values of life. A pristine tribal society is characterized by the virtues of honesty, truthfulness, dignity of labor, egalitarianism, social cohesiveness, discipline, concern for fellow members of the society, equal status of women and hospitality towards strangers. Evils such as dowry, prostitution, economic and social exploitation are unknown in tribal societies. All this makes the term primitive inept and inapt. The puritanical attitude towards sex, so characteristic of Indian 'civilized society,' is alien to tribal culture. Young men and women are allowed to mix freely.... Tribal women are free to choose their life partners, and there is no stigma attached to divorce, widowhood or remarriage. Crass materialism or acquisitiveness, which is such a distinctive feature of 'civilized society,' is unknown among the tribal peoples. Instead, the emphasis is on sharing of wealth and happiness.... Although tribal languages had traditionally no written literature, they have a rich oral tradition of folk songs and folk tales. In their original habitat, the tribal people live a healthy, happy and carefree life.”[2]

As has happened in so many regions of the globe, the quality of life for India’s tribals has been seriously compromised: their lands have been encroached upon and exploited for manifold resources (timber, minerals, etc.) by British and then Indian industrialists, and by impoverished subsistence farmers desperately seeking new land. Voices of protest have arisen among the adivasi as well as among numerous concerned Hindus, but indifference in too many crucial quarters makes it uncertain as to what these peoples’ fate will be. The situation is especially sad since the worldviews of the adivasi and the Hindus are much more similar than the mindsets of tribal and non-tribal peoples living in proximity elsewhere. In India’s great epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the forest people are considered fellow countrymen of the exiled Pandyas and King Rama, not alien strangers. They, too, are noble bharatiyas, “lovers of God.” But now their happy way of life is in great jeopardy.

In other regions of the world, primal religion and culture were diminished or displaced by the spread of the great missionary religions of Buddhism and Islam centuries ago. (Buddhism has been far more tolerant than Islam in this regard.) But it is with the great waves of Christian Europe’s colonial expansion, beginning in mid-15th century, that the most damage has been done. As a result, 69 countries have seen their tribal peoples become minorities in their native lands. The only regions of the world where native people and their religions still hold majority position are half a dozen countries of western Africa and in Mozambique. Scholars will sometimes also include here certain Chinese-speaking regions of Asia (China, Taiwan, Singapore), where traditional forms of popular “folk-religion” Taoism prevail among the masses.

UN consultants Geoffrey Lean and Don Hinrichsen outline tragic worldwide losses of tribals: “The original inhabitants of their lands, they uniquely know how to live in harmony with their environment. But everywhere they are now ruled by newcomers.... As lands were ‘discovered’ and ‘civilization’ advanced, they were massacred, perished from diseases to which they had no immunity, or were absorbed, partly or wholly, into the alien cultures, as the poorest of the poor.” Lean and Hinrichsen speak of the situation in certain regions of the New World:

“In the century after the Spanish Conquistadores ... landed in Central and South America, the population of the Aztec empire was reduced by two thirds; 20 million men, women and children perished. Of the 6 to 9 million Indians who originally lived in the Amazonian rainforest, only about 200,000 now survive. [Some authorities estimate 300,000 Amazonian tribal people, living in some 270 tribes, of which 55 have yet to be contacted.]”[3]

An estimated 300,000 Aborigines flourished in Australia when “the First Fleet” landed in Botany Bay in 1788. By the 1920s, only 60,000 remained. In Australia today, due to general population growth, better healthcare opportunities, and less animosity toward tribal peoples, the numbers of Aborigines are slightly over 240,000. Yet this is still a mere 1.5% of the country’s total population. Moreover, a 1999 government study tells that Aborigines suffer levels of trauma usually found only among people who are systematically tortured, subjected to genocide or sent to concentration camps.[4] Adding injury to injury, from 1900 to the 1960s, some 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their mothers, with lighter-skinned children given up for adoption and darker-skinned peers put into orphanages. Only in 1999 did the government finally express its “regret” for this heinous crime.

In Africa, an estimated 60 to 100 million blacks perished as a result of imperialist colonization by Europeans and the horrific slave trade. This trade in human lives was exploited by the Portuguese, Spanish and New World Spanish colonies in the 16th century, and then, in terribly accelerated form, by the British and their North American colonies (and, to a lesser extent, by the French, Dutch and Danish) from the late 17th century onward until the slave trade and then slavery itself was finally banned in the 19th century. The slaves were brought en masse to the Americas because huge numbers of Native Americans who had been captured and exploited as slave-laborers had been decimated through disease and exhaustion.

Columbus’ arrival on the shores of North America in 1492 ushered in a nightmarish 500-year holocaust of murder, communicable disease, lies, betrayal, land seizures, exploitation, prejudice, degradation and cultural extinctions for the people of the 600 Indian nations who had been living here as the descendants of people who settled North America 40,000 years earlier. By 1860, the Native American population had been reduced by half to two thirds. From a population of about 200,000 in 1900, the numbers have grown to about 2.4 million souls in 1999 (Indians are the youngest and fastest-growing minority in the U.S.). Some scholars think this is about the same number of Native American tribals who lived at the time of Columbus. Other researchers believe that well over ten million tribals flourished here then. Of the 2.4 million Indians alive today, 1.3 million live on reservations. There are 557 Native American tribes in 33 states; Alaska alone hosts 226 of them. Of 175 tribal languages, 50 are spoken by two or more generations; 70 are spoken only by elders; and 55 are spoken by fewer than ten persons.[5]

For many decades until 1979, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was finally (!) passed, the U.S. government had actually made it illegal for Native Americans to practice their religion in their own land, what Anglo-Americans so proudly call “the Land of the Free”—a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom. With this long overdue turn of events, numerous male and female elders among the different surviving Native American nations—the Iroquois nations, the Tsalagi/Cherokee, the Lakota, Chippewa, Winnebago, Hopi, Navajo, Paiute, Yurok, Arapaho and many others—along with Native Americans representing a generic pan-Indian religiosity, have come forth to openly teach their children and grandchildren the “ways of the ancestors.” The oral traditions and spiritual “medicine power” had been secretly preserved and handed down for generations through select disciples, and could now begin to flourish again. …

Right now, in economic terms, most of the indigenous people around the world aren’t faring well at all. “As the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues (ICIHI) noted back in 1987—and the situation is much worse today—indigenous peoples are always ‘the poorest of the poor’ in both developed and developing countries.”[6]

For example, the Navajo nation in the Four Corners area of the southwest United States, the biggest and most populous of the Native American reservations in this country, is experiencing terrible hardship. “More than half the Navajo live below the poverty line. Unemployment is 35% in the larger towns of the reservation and as high as 50% in the hot, bleak interior. Income per head is a paltry $4,100 a year.”[7] At the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the unemployment rate is an appalling 73%, and 47% of the population lives in poverty. Similar dismal statistics characterize most other North American Indian nations. (The Choctaw of Mississippi are a notable exception, having succeeded in bringing unemployment levels from 75% to nearly zero in the last two decades through a certain amount of industrialization.) Indians together represent only about 1% of the U.S. population after being targeted in former eras by a U.S. government-ordered genocide. They are the country’s poorest, sickest and least-educated minority. Because of the exceptionally bleak prospects for most Native Americans, alcoholism and suicide rates are woefully high. They have the lowest life expectancy rates of any ethnic people in the U.S.

More examples … (So many could be adduced; see Marc Miller’s book on endangered tribal peoples[8]). Indigenous peoples of Central America have had to endure terrible crimes and ongoing misery. Most of the 200,000 people slaughtered in Guatemala’s four-decade-long civil war, begun in 1954 by right-wing militarist forces, were innocent Maya Indian peasants. These ancient people were especially targeted during the 1982-4 reign of fundamentalist Christian and genocidal racist, EfraÍn RÍos Montt. Entire peasant villages were wiped off the face of the earth as people were rounded up and slaughtered by government soldiers—626 village massacres have been documented. Today nearly all surviving Mayans live in abysmal poverty.

An article for Sojourners reports on El Salvador:

“Although more than 32,000 indigenous people were killed in 'La Matanza,' a 1932 military campaign meant to exterminate El Salvador’s native population, members of the Nahuatl, Lenca, Maya, and other native groups continue to live according to their traditional ways. [Yet,] [a]ccording to a January 1997 U.S. State Department human rights report, these indigenous people are believed to be the poorest group in El Salvador, with 90 percent of them living in conditions of extreme poverty. Members of the National Association of Indigenous Salvadorans (ANIS), one of the largest indigenous organizations in El Salvador, have been forced from their lands, received death threats, and suffered violence.”[9]

Other primal peoples have been targeted for genocidal extinction, including Paraguay’s Ache, Chile’s Mapuche, and Kenya’s Degodia and Somali. Numerous indigenous tribes have been forced into virtual economic slavery by powerful overlords. Countless other natives have been displaced from their lands. The causes for this horror are many: land seizures by governments and/or corporate industrial or ranching interests; forced resettlement; direct environmental devastation (deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, pollution) inflicted by the same parties; indirect environmental damage caused by abuses elsewhere (global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion); and encroachment by landless settlers (economic-, environmental-, and war-refugees from neighboring regions).

Whatever the reason, multitudes of indigenous people have had to migrate away from their sacred terrain. They either wind up in harsher, much less friendly natural environments, or they must move into atrociously miserable, dangerous shantytowns or slums in overcrowded urban areas—situations completely insulting to human dignity. Well-known ecology consultant Norman Myers estimates there are today at least 25 million environmental refugees—a disproportionate number of whom are tribal people—whose primary reason for fleeing their homes was that their natural environment could no longer sustain their life. He warns that in the near future this number could inflate to 200 million or more environmental refugees.[10]

Again, too many of these will be tribal people. A tragic disaster.

New Respect for the Charismatic Shaman Figure

I must say more about the shaman, the central figure in tribal societies. Reports on shamans by Westerners have, until fairly recently, usually been quite negative. Early Christian missionaries (and many to this day) assumed that shamans, due to their strange-looking shamanic states of consciousness, are in league with Satan, and/or possessed by evil spirits. Most early anthropologists and psychologists concluded, erroneously, that shamans suffer from schizophrenia. Significantly, numerous Christians and an even greater percentage of anthropologists and psychologists have changed their views in the last two decades.[11]

Whereas the shaman still possesses a mystique and inscrutability as the archetypal “trickster” and “mystery person,” both for outsiders and even for many fellow members of the shaman’s own community, the shaman has also come to be seen by Western scholars as the archetypal suffering servant for the community. S/he is an heroic and sagely figure who mediates between the Spirit realm and realms of spirits on the one hand, and the human collective on the other. At no small physical and psychological risk to the shaman, s/he not only endures the healing crisis that marks the onset of most shamanic careers. The shaman also undergoes the disciplines—the fasts, the offerings, the vision quests, the vigils, the more austere habits, and the entranced journeys beyond the body (many of these induced by hallucinogens that take their toll on the body) into the subtle, numinous, or “imaginal” realm—that allow her or him to serve the community. This service takes the form of mediating information, guidance, blessings, and healing energies for the fellow members of the community.

Consider the words of psychologist Stanley Krippner, longtime student of and expert on shamanism:

“Shamans have not been taken seriously by most allopathic physicians, despite the fact that many shamanic traditions have developed sophisticated models of healing over the centuries…. With the exception of its herbal knowledge, shamanism generally has been ignored or scorned by the medical and academic world. Nevertheless, shamans were the world’s first healers, first diagnosticians, first psychotherapists, first religious functionaries, first magicians, first performing artists, and first storytellers…. There are shamanic healing methods that closely parallel contemporary behavior therapy, chemotherapy, dream interpretation, family therapy, hypnotherapy, milieu therapy, and psychodrama. It is clear that shamans, psychotherapists, and physicians have more in common than is generally suspected. For the shaman, however, the spiritual dimension of healing is extremely important, whereas contemporary physicians and psychotherapists typically ignore it. Shamans often retrieve lost souls, communicate with spirits, emphasize the interconnectedness of their patients with the community and the earth, facilitate spiritual purification for those who have violated social taboos, explain dreams and visions, and stress the importance of spiritual growth, one’s life purpose, and being of service to humanity and to nature. These functions rarely attain importance or even respectability in the world views of Western allopathic physicians and other health care specialists.”[12]

It is an inspiration to read of or meet the illustrious shamans and shamanesses just in North America, including Doña María Sabina (1894-1985) of the Mazatec, Don José Matsúwa (1880-1990) and his wife Josefa Medrano (another centenarian) of the Huichol, Teresita (1873-1906) of the Yaqui, Sunbear (1929-1992) of the Chippewa, Godfrey Chips of the Lakota, Raymond Stone of the Paiute, Rolling Thunder of the Shoshone, Black Elk (1863-1950) and grandson Wallace Black Elk (b. 1921) of the Oglala, and numerous other luminaries.[13] Their deep compassion, fearless courage, healing medicine power, humble charisma and sage advice (often quite humorous) have touched and uplifted their people in a profound way. Many of us from beyond their culture have also felt richly blessed by them and by encounters with elders of other shamanic tribes around the world.

In short, among the Western, industrialized people there has come to be a marked transformation in attitude toward the shaman. From being seen as “evil,” “deranged” or “deluded,” the shaman is now regarded as a wise elder, a master of a certain kind of knowing and perceiving and being. Such a figure silently challenges us members of non-indigenous societies: “Who are your shamanic guides? What is the wisdom they have discovered about living? What are your ancestors telling you about how to live in harmony with the Great Spirit and the Divine Dream of nature? Are you enjoying peace and joy and kindness? If not, why not?”

Shamans from around the world think something is dreadfully wrong with our religiosity and our lifestyle. We are “living out of balance,” koyaanisqatsi, as the Hopi elders term it. These shamans fear for our future, and the future of our planet, if we continue in our wanton, insensitive ways. Given the many warning signs already coming to pass, perhaps we had better heed their advice… And what they tell us is to listen: Listen to Spirit. Listen to your ancestors. Listen to Mother Earth. Listen to the spirits of animals and plants and mountains and waters and skies. Listen to your heart. And when you receive guidance, act on it. Do what is right and true, in harmony with the Whole.


1 Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism is published by the Cross-Cultural Shamanism Network (P.O. Box 430, Willits, CA 95490) and represents a lovely combination of academic and engaging (“popular”) approaches to the topic. See classic works on tribal shamanism such as Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Willard Trask, Trans.), Princeton Univ. Press, 1964 (and see Eliade’s 50-page bibliography therein); I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism, Routledge ed., 1989 (first published 1971); E. Bourguignon (Ed.), Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change, Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1973; Ruth Inge-Heinze (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Conference on the Study of Shamanism and Alternative Modes of Healing, Berkeley, CA: Asian Studies Center, multiple volumes and dates of publication, 1984 onward; R.I. Heinze, Shamans of the 20th Century, NY: Irvington, 1990; Joan Halifax, Shaman, NY: Thames Hudson, 1988; J. Halifax, Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives, Dutton, 1979; Felicitas Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality: Religion in a Pluralistic World, Indiana Univ. Press, 1988; Stanley Krippner & Antonio Villoldo, The Realms of Healing, Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts, 1976; Gary Doore (Ed.), Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth and Empowerment, Boston: Shambhala, 1988; and Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman, Boston: Little, Brown, American ed., 1995.

2 The quote is from an unnamed essay by Malti Nagar, writing for a special issue of the Indian periodical Marg, reprinted in Hinduism Today, March 1993, p. 25. (The special issue of Marg is “Tribals of Eastern India,” available from Marg Publications, c/o Jimmy Batliwala, Tata Inc., 101 Park Ave., N.Y., NY 10178.)

3 Geoffrey Lean & Don Hinrichsen, WWF Atlas of the Environment, HarperCollins 2nd ed., p. 49.

4 “Government equates Aboriginal suffering with concentration camps,” Associated Press, Wed., August 4, 1999.

5 Many of these statistics on Native Americans come from the cover-story by Lyric Wallwork Winik, “There’s a New Generation with a Different Attitude,” Parade Magazine, Sun., July 18, 1999, pp. 6-8. See also information from the National Congress on American Indians, at

6 Ibid.

7 The Economist, Nov. 23, 1996, p. 33.

8 Marc Miller, State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger, Beacon, 1993.

9 Aaron Gallegos & Sandy Maben, “Between the Lines: The Reconquest of El Salvador,” Sojourners, May-June 1997, Vol. 26, No. 3.

10 Norman Myers & Jennifer Kent, Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena, Climate Institute, 1995.

11 On this changing view on the shaman, see articles in Gary Doore (Ed.), Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth and Empowerment, Shambhala, 1988; and Roger Walsh, The Spirit of Shamanism, L.A.: Tarcher, 1990. Walsh, a professor of psychiatry, demolishes the idea that the shaman and schizophrenic have any true similarity.

12 Stanley Krippner, “Shamans: The First Healers,” in Gary Doore (Ed.), Shaman’s Path, pp. 101-2.

13 On these shamans, see earlier cited works by Joan Halifax (Shaman and Shamanic Voices) and Stanley Krippner & Antonio Villoldo (The Realms of Healing), as well as Gordon Wasson, et al., María Sabina and Her Mazatec Velada, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974; A. Estrada, María Sabina: Her Life and Chants, Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erickson, 1981; Mary Louise Dow, “Encounters with a Medicine Man [Godfrey Chips],” New Age, August 1992, pp. 44ff.; Doug Boyd, Rolling Thunder, Random House, 1974; Brad Steiger, Indian Medicine Power, Gloucester, MA: Para Research, 1984; Steve Wall & Harvey Arden, Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders, Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words, 1990; Steven McFadden, Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth, Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1991; and Carolyn Niethammer, Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women, Collier, 1977.