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Home: Religion: Shamanism: Native American Shamanism and The Medicine Man.




Native American Shamanism, The Medicine Man

The primary function of these "medicine men" (who are not always male) is to secure the help of the spirit world, including the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka in the language of the Lakota Sioux), for the benefit of the community.

"Medicine man" is a western term used to describe Native American religious community figures. The meaning of the term is similar to that of "shaman". The word "medicine man" has been widely criticized by Native Americans, and various scholars.

The term "shaman" is believed to have originated among the Siberian Tungus (Evenks) and the literal translation of shaman is "he (or she) who knows". In some theosophical circles it's also believed that the words Shaman may have derived from Sanskrit through the confusion of the words shamanism and shramanism. There is a strong shamanistic influence Bon on central Asian and Tibetan Buddhism which also uses Sanskrit, so perhaps there is an overlap from popular etymology, if not a direct linguistic influence.

In Lakota traditions, Wakan Tanka is a term for "The Great Spirit" which resides in every thing, similar to many notions of God. Every creature and object has a wakan, such as wakan tanka kin, the wakan of the sun.

Sometimes the help sought can be for the sake of healing disease, sometimes it can be for the sake of healing the psyche, sometimes the goal is to promote harmony between human groups or between humans and nature. So the term "medicine man" is not entirely inappropriate, but it greatly oversimplifies and also skews the depiction of the people whose role in society complements that of the chief. These people are not the Native American equivalent of the Chinese "barefoot doctors", herbalists, or of the emergency medical technicians who ride our rescue vehicles.

Note: The term wicasa wakan is pronounced, approximately, as "wih-chah-shah wah-kahn". Sometimes "wicasa" is written "wic'as'a" to indicate that the letters "c" and "s" should both receive haceks, as "wichasha" to indicate aspiration, or as "wic^has^ha" to indicate both. "Wakan" is sometimes written "wakaN" or "waka~" to indicate the second A sound should be nasalized.

Recognition as a Shaman / Medicine Man

To be recognized as the one who performs this function of bridging between the natural world and the spiritual world for the benefit of the community, an individual must be validated in his role by that community.


Berdache (from French, from Arabic bardajo meaning "kept boy") is a generic term used by some for a third gender (woman-living-man) among many, if not most, Native American tribes. There are terms for these individuals in the various Native American languages, and the term "berdache" is frequently rejected as inappropriate and offensive by Native Americans, many of whom prefer Two-Spirit, which usually implies a man spirit, and a woman spirit, living in the same body.

These individuals are often viewed as having two spirits, and two sexes, at the same time. Their dress is usually mixture of male and female articles. They have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes. For instance, there was one ceremony during the Sun Dance that was performed only by a member of this group. (See winkte.)

Two-spirit individuals perform specific social functions in their communities. Some are counselors, therapists of sorts, while others are shamans or spiritual functionaries. They study skills including story telling, theater, magic, hypnotism, healing, herbal medicine, ventriloquism, singing, music and dance.

The word "berdache", though not universal, is most often used today to signify a traditional cross gendered "male" performing in a shamanic function in any society from Native American (with the above semantic caveat) to Siberian to Island-Pacific.

Some examples of Berdache or Two-Spirit tradition in history include the Spanish conquistadors who met a two spirit shaman in every village they entered in Central America and whom they then killed. The Hopis used to hold a ritual in which a 16 year old boy was dressed as the Corn Goddess. All the men of the village then performed anal sex with him in order to bring fertility to the corn crop for the year. Subsequently a huge feast was held in the youth's honor.

There are descriptions of two-spirit individuals having strong mystical powers. In one account, warring braves of a rival tribe ride up to attack a group of foraging women when they perceive that one of the women, the one that does not run away, is a two-spirit. They halt their attack and retreat after the two-spirit counters them with a stick, determining that the two-spirit will have great power which they will not be able to overcome.

Today, groups of cross gendered male bodied persons have picked up the tradition of the two-spirit and put them into practice. These groups include the Radical Fairies, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and others.

Shamanism Recommended Reading

One of the best sources of information on this subject is the story of a Lakota (Sioux) wicasa wakan ("medicine man") recorded in a book produced with his cooperation called Lame Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, by John Fire Lame Deer.

On a broader scale, Mircea Eliade's Shamanism puts the whole area of religious experience and practice into a broad historical and ethnographic context.

For more information about Native American Culture see Wikipedia's section on Native American Culture

Parts of the above article are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from Wikipedia. Images courtesy FCIT

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