Indigenous Knowledge and Shamanic Ways: Inner Journeys and Soul Retrieval

In S. Mijares (Ed.). Modern psychology and ancient wisdom: Psychological healing practices from the world’s religious traditions, Revised Edition. New York: Routledge Mental Health/2016. pp. 92-110.



This chapter focuses on indigenous shamanic beliefs and methods of healing including shamanic ritual and soul retrieval, a process of recovering dissociated and traumatized parts of oneself through shamanic rituals encouraging self-discovery and healing. Since Mircea Eliade’s groundbreaking book Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy (1964) interest has been growing. It greatly increased as anthropologists engaged in ritual ceremonies when conducting their research and experienced life-transforming results. As a result of their written accounts, there has been an increasing interest and openness to shamanistic rituals and indigenous wisdom. For example, in North America, many people are engaging in Native American sweat lodges, Medicine Wheel Circles and attempting to follow the Red Road (Jean, 2003; Platek, 2009). Numerous people from around the world are streaming into South America to participate in ancient Amazonian rituals. I devote a portion of this chapter to this phenomenon.

Many people are participating in healing rituals from Africa. Similar to other spiritual traditions there is the belief in a divine creator, but beliefs differ concerning the origins of illness.​ For example, African shamans believe that illnesses can be manifestations of spiritually-related issues, including problems related to one’s ancestors who are dissatisfied with the person’s life style (Turner, 2004)​.

There are rituals enacted to heal the dissatisfaction and to bring forth healthier energies. For example, the popular Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé, elder, author and teacher, initiated in the Dagara, offers his indigenous wisdom to individuals, families, communities and corporate organizations. He leads fire rituals, divinations and encourages others to manifest the visions being set by the spirit world. His former wife Sobonfu, whose name means “keeper of the rituals,” travels the world on a similar healing mission.

Many Australian aborigines believe it is their work to help whites reconnect with the earth. In a culturally-mixed healing gathering an Aboriginal woman announces “We have a gift we have been trying to give you … We want to fill up your emptiness with meaning so that you can love us and our country. We want to teach all Australians about their belonging in this country … before it’s too late” (Mulcock, 2007, p. 1).

Most likely this is why so many people are seeking out shamanic experience and indigenous wisdom. At this time of environmental crisis, the seekers innately know this wisdom is needed to reconnect us with the very ground we walk upon, the waters we drink and air we breathe. These ancient traditions provide opportunities for healing body, mind and soul—paths that reveal a very different reality than what the modern world has created (Winkelman, 2013). The following pages will share ways for healing and reconnecting with our souls from the perspective of indigenous practice and wisdom. Although this short chapter is unable to address shamanic practices throughout this globe, inspired readers are invited to peruse the references.


Chapter Five

Indigenous Knowledge and Shamanic Ways:

Inner Journeys and Soul Retrieval


Sharon G. Mijares, Ph.D.


 The oldest forms of spiritual and healing practices are found in indigenous cultural beliefs and rituals (Eliade, 1958, 1964; Parrinder, 1971). For example, there is evidence of ceremonial practices as early as early as 300,000 to 50,000 years ago during the Middle Paleolithic period. Studies of burial sites at excavations of Neanderthals in the region now known as Iraq suggest that ritual rocks and medicinal plants were placed alongside the newly departed (Solecki. 1975). Such conscious, intentional burial practices indicated a belief in an afterlife (Lieberman, 1993). Ritual practices encouraging alternative realities continued to develop throughout the world (Eliade, 1981). Although ceremonial practices and initiatory rites may differ from culture to culture, their influence is deeply rooted in our genetic heritage (Hellenthal, Busby, Gavin, Wilson, Capelli, Falush & Myers, 2014).

Indigenous shamanistic beliefs and practices represent the world’s first spiritual tradition! Practitioners can easily enter into alternative realities through community rituals.  These ritual ceremonies include ecstatic trance Winkleman, 1986), often induced through drumming or some form of hallucinogenic plant medicine. The intention is to penetrate the veils of ordinary cognition, thereby entering states including realization of other realms as well as to discern what is needed to heal members of the community.

Research indicating ritual use of ceremonial plants such as cannabis can be found in the Artharva Veda (a portion of the Rig Veda) written around 2000 to 1400 B.C.E. In this ancient text, Cannabis was acknowledged as one of five sacred plants (Touw, 1981). In what is now known as Ecuador, the ancient Valdivia culture acknowledged use of hallucinogenic plants in some of the earliest pottery designs known in this part of the world (Stahl, 1985). Valdivia was flourishing in the fourth millennium B.C.E. around the same time that the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations were being established. Research indicates that medical marijuana use was acknowledged in Sumerian cuneiform texts (Campbell Thomson, 1936). Use of entheogens[1], a term defined as “generating the divine within," was well in place. Ancient Egyptians used Catha edulis from the Khat tree to enhance spiritual communion (Lewin, 1931). The list could continue, but the main point is the acknowledgement that humanity began exploring alternative realities long before written history appeared.

With the onset and continuing influence of these later religious traditions, dogmatic doctrines superseded actual spiritual experience. This relegated religious guidance to priests, rabbis, bishops, imams, etc., as prior forms of communal and ceremonial practices encouraging inner ways of knowing were denounced.  Breath, mantric chanting and meditative practices facilitating spiritual realization and awareness of alternative realities can be found in these religious traditions, but have been discouraged in the traditional levels of the Abrahamic religions where consciousness has been controlled and directed following the dictates of orthodox rabbis, priests and imams. Also, all of these religions have promoted patriarchal dominance. In the traditional beliefs within the Abrahamic traditions, any practices or beliefs honoring forces of nature and manifest creation, were deemed paganistic, and thus equated with evil. In the Far Eastern religions, animism was deemed as superstition—associated with those lacking education and/or sophistication. The idea that we could learn from nature and that nature itself had intelligence was unacceptable.

As noted in Chapter Three, Tales of the Goddess: Healing metaphors for women, this disconnection with the natural world has been a primary element in patriarchal ideology (Mijares, Rafea, Falik & Schipper, 2007). Yet many indigenous and shamanic cultures have not lost their relationship with nature as they practiced in secrecy despite the immense prosecution perpetrated throughout colonialism and the Spanish conquest of the Americas (Dillehay, 2007; Wright, 2014).  As modern humanity began to learn more about these ancient ways, increasing numbers of people have been seeking indigenous knowledge on an increasing basis during the last few decades. The timing of this re-awakening is especially relevant given the fact that indigenous wisdom includes a deep respect for the sacred feminine. It also relates spirituality to a balance between the forces and presence of nature as well as heavenly realms. Considering the increasing awareness of rape, domestic violence, trafficking and overall violence toward women as well as the inequality in the workplace (Waber, 2014) and political arenas (United Nations, 2012-2013), it is no wonder that increasing numbers of spiritually-inclined people are seeking participation in indigenous practices. This is also significant given the immense threats to the natural environment.

Reawakening to Indigenous Wisdom

Historically the term shaman derives from Russian explorations and the encountering of Tungusian tribes in Eastern Siberia (Laufer, 1971). Later, the Romanian religious-historian, Mircea Eliade (1964), popularized its use, but clearly understood that it simply provided a name for those “magico-religious practitioners who claim to interact with non-ordinary dimensions of human existence” (Rock & Krippner, 2011, p. 8; Winkleman, 1992). Anthropologists, Ethnologists and other traditions began using and therefore widely spreading the title. There are many other names as languages differ between regions, traditions and lands. For example, in the Columbian Amazon, those who travel into alternative worlds are called Taitas. The Quechan word for this lineage is Hampe in Peru. In Swahili the name for healers and those using magical trance is waganga. Those with magical powers are often called kadaitcha among the Aboriginals. Although the English terms medicine men and medicine women are often used to describe healers (curanderos) from Native American tribes, we must remember that these are English words rather than those of the indigenous peoples. This author prefers to use English terms such as “indigenous wisdom” or “indigenous knowledge,” but the names shaman, shamanism, shamanic powers and so forth will also be used to facilitate and convey understanding.

Anthropologists began studying indigenous cultures during the 19th century. This led to increasing interest in indigenous knowledge. Mircea Eliade’s book Shamanism (1964) discussed ecstatic trance journeys, initiatory rites as well as the cosmological views of the shamans he encountered during his literary research into the topic. Eventually anthropologists, ethnologists, and botanists began studying Amazonian indigenous practices, including the ingestion of psychedelic plant medicines inducing alternatives states of reality. Although there are many ways to enter ecstatic states, for example, drumming (Harner, 2013), breathwork (Grof, 1988), chanting (Thomason, 2010; Walsh, 1996), and other meditative processes (Tart, 1969), a large majority of ancient and many modern indigenous traditions use some form of psychedelic plant medicine (Narajo, 1986). These include psychedelic mushrooms, peyote buttons, iboga root, San Pedro (mescaline) cactus, and ayahuasca. Regardless of the means, the experience is generally to experience ecstatic trance and/or to heal (Naranjo, 1973; Rock & Krippner, 2011; Ruck & Hoffman, 2013; Strassman, Wojtowicz. Luna & Frecska, 2008; Winkelman & Roberts, 2007).

Soul Journeys

As noted, although the term shaman is a social construct (Rock & Kripper, 2011), the title generally designates the person who provides for community functions and rituals.  She or he generally guides the “public ritual for the benefit of the community or for individuals” (Langdon, 1992, p. 14 as cited in Rock & Krippner, p. 31). S/he is one who has obtained unusual powers, and a purported spirit guide and/or healing guide (Doore, 1988; Eliade, 1964; Harner, 1980, 2013; Kalweit, 1988; Some, 1994; Walsh, 1990). Although this position is often given as an initiatory process within a linage, the power to penetrate other realms and to heal can also be the result of a serious illness, a near-death experience and related, often dramatic, healing (Eliade, 1958, 1964; Kalweit, 1988; Mijares, 2012; Parrinder, 1970). Traditionally, pain, along with deprivation of food and sleep, has been used in shamanic cultures (as well as other religious traditions) to force openings into other realms of consciousness. During this initiatory process, the shaman learns to travel to other realms and communicate with spirits. What is learned is then shared appropriately with the community.

One has to dissociate from the ordinary world in order to enter these ecstatic states (although it is possible to be aware of both the ordinary and inner realm at the same time).  Generally, dissociation is perceived by modern psychology as a negative experience, but dissociation from ordinary reality can have desirable results. In shamanic cultures this ability to dissociate is often used to gather knowledge in order to heal others. Therefore dissociation from ordinary reality can have desirable results. The knowledge and skills gleaned allow the shaman the power and prestige to guide the community. A modern-day example of this is the Cametsa (traditional healer) Taita Juan Agreda Chindoy. He conducts ayahuasca (yage) rituals, prescribes healing remedies from Amazonian plants, is an artist, has a store that employs local people from the community to create indigenous art and make a livelihood in so doing and, most recently, was elected as governor of the Sibundoy Valley region of Colombia (De Leon, 2014, personal communication). He is a master of lower, middle and upper realms.

The shaman traditionally journeys into lower, middle and upper worlds, for example, the Jivaro (Shua) of the Amazon, Pueblos of North America, Tengriism of the Turkik/Siberian regions and numerous other shamanic tribes describe journeys into these realms). Each of these realms is important for mastery and capacity to both understand the cosmos and to obtain the power and gifts of healing. The closest modern psychology comes to understanding this is through Carl Gustav Jung’s Analytical Psychologists’ training wherein the analyst-in-training must learn how to enter unconscious realms in order to gain insight into the unconscious and its archetypal realms. But shamans enter ecstatic states not only to gain knowledge about healing or to investigate the presences within lower, middle and upper worlds, but also to assist the deceased who are stuck in an in-between place—unable to see or enter the heaven realms. Shamans are able to guide lost souls though the formers’ capacity of vision and ability to see and enter other realms. 

The lower world has spirits of plants, animal, trees, rocks. It is the underworld, where typically one encounters more mysterious, non-human entities. It is where the shamanic journeyer can encounter his or her power animal. For example, images of magicians, wizards and shamans are often depicted with birds of prey such as eagles, condors, hawks and owls. The first three birds of prey fly far higher than other birds, and yet can see the slightest movement of a mouse or tiny animal from a great distance. They are able to “hone in” on what they seek. The owl is able to see in the dark.  To obtain such a power is to have a guide that leads the practitioner to exactly what is needed. There are also healing attributes of bear, deer, jaguars, reptiles, turtles and other animals.  Each brings a specific quality of power that resonates within the shaman/healer although this experience differs according to the region. For example, a Sami shaman of Northern Scandinavia will have different encounters than a shaman of the Amazon. But there is far more than animal spirits in these realms, as the journeyer can encounter numerous other-worldly non-human entities.

The middle world is the ordinary world in which we reside. It is also a realm intermingled with spirits reside, such as the spirits of ancestors or recently departed. This amalgamation of realms allows for the shaman to see forms that take shape in nature. It is where one truly sees the life within nature. Each of the elements of fire, earth, water and air are believed to be filled with nature beings, for example, spirits in trees and waterfalls. Sometimes these beings may be curious or drawn to the shaman entering into these realms, whereas other entities may be totally unaware of the seer’s presence. These presences are also encountered in the lower world. Numerous cultures have always held beliefs that such beings exist although the forms may differ from tribe to tribe. Regardless of any disputes about the existence of such entities, it is a common understanding that nature is endowed with abundant energy and life-radiating force.

The upper world is a realm where the shaman can encounter deities from other planets or stars, or Buddhas, saints and so forth who convey wisdom with their presence. It can also be associated with a profound sense of beauty.  As in the other realms this can differ depending on the land, or the region, in which the shaman resides. It is important to remember that these beliefs differ from region to region not unlike the world’s religious traditions. An inner and outer vicinity is also influenced by long-held religious beliefs and practices.

Imagine you are experiencing a metamorphosis into a powerful bird of prey. You can see long distances, feel the strength of the wings and in this transformation be able to gain needed knowledge. Or perhaps you can experience the shift into a great mother bear guiding you to the plants and herbs that will heal your patient.  Shape-shifting is the ability to know oneself in a different form. It is a relevant element in shamanic cultures as evidenced by mask, totems, ritual elements and so forth. It is not uncommon for those persons participating in the ritual to see the shaman change forms or to experience a metamorphosis themselves (Praet, 2009). The ritual itself transforms ordinary reality into a non-ordinary one (Ptaet). According to the French Anthropologist Philippe Descola (2005) “ ... it would be inadequate to envisage metamorphosis as ‘symbolic’ or as something metaphorical or figurative, for even at present many people see it as a ‘natural fact’, analogous to the growth of plants or the movement of stars” (p. 192).

There appears to be a relationship between shape-shifting and archetype although Brent Stpcynski (2013) proposes that shape-shifting is an archetype in itself. In Jungian psychoanalytic theory an archetype is a collectively-inherited unconscious image, idea or a pattern of thought. It is universally, albeit more often influencing at unconscious levels, both universally and within the individual psyche (Jung, 1969). According to this theory humanity has been influenced by archetypal representations for millennia. It can be said that each of these realms is endowed with archetypes and archetypal forces. The shaman has learned how to work with these forces.

If one knows how to enter and travel in all three dimensions then it is easier to connect with a lost soul in order to guide him or her into light realms. Importantly, these same gifts are available to guide the living. The shamanic journeyer can encounter animal and spirit guides to assist in greater understanding of the cosmos, enhanced self-knowledge including knowledge that benefits the community as well as the larger world.

Soul Loss and Recovery

In both psychological and shamanic understanding, soul loss is a negative form of dissociation. For example, Sandra Ingerman (1991) defines “dissociation as a form of soul loss at the roots of many forms of physical and mental illness, not simply dissociative disorders” (as cited in Smith, 2007, p. 186). Just as recently departed souls may need to be guided to the heaven worlds, a dissociated part of oneself can be guided back and integrated into wholeness. This appears to be the primary work of modern-day shamanism. For example, when a person has experienced soul loss, there are shamanic healers who use drumming and rattling as well as those who use psychedelics or other means to enter into a trance state in order to assist needed healing. Much of their work may be focused on what is called soul retrieval (Halifax, 1982; Harner, 2013; Ingerman, 1991; Platek, 2009).

Indigenous healers do not hold the same view as practitioners of allopathic medicine. An illness or a mental disorder is more often seen to be the result of the intrusion of a negative force (thought, feeling or entity) resulting in soul loss (a dissociative process). This can be initiated through grief, illness, trauma or the ill-will of another person (Eliade, 1964, 1978; Ingerman, 1991; Smith, 2007).

In Fragmented self, archetypal forces and the embodied mind (2012), I discussed how parts of the ego can split off as a defensive maneuver during intense traumata, especially when the developing ego is young and fragile.  These split off parts remain within their original state of consciousness. In a trance state the shaman can see fragmented parts of a client such as a child part who split off during a traumatic situation (Ingerman, 1991; Mijares, 2012; Smith, 2007). This young child self has remained conscious of herself, but perceives herself to be living in an isolated realm of limited vision. The shaman may see this as a cave or another location as the child projects itself, but she can also be found at a deep level within the unconsciousness of the body-mind (Mijares, 2012). Canadian psychiatrist Colin Ross believes

that since shamans are masters of intentional use of trance states and imagination for therapeutic purposes, and because there appears to be some neuropsychological linkage between abuse, dissociation, and the visual imagination, clinically adapted shamanic methods can be quite powerful and therapeutically effective.  (cited by Smith, 2007, p. 183)

It is the gift of the shaman to reach through to this lost soul part and guide it back to its primary personality in safety. In the shamanic traditions, clients suffering from depression and anxiety may well be seen as suffering from soul loss related to a missing part of oneself, an intrusion of other influences and so forth.

Typically, shamanic traditions include the recognition that ancestral spirits influence the shaman, the individual presenting for healing as well as the community (Eliade, 1964; Rock & Krippner, 2011; Smith, 2007; Turner, 2004). These ancestral spirits can have curative or malevolent influences. In a shamanic journey into inner realms of consciousness, the practitioner can engage with these influences. There is a resemblance to Carl Jung’s analytical psychology in which archetypal entities from both the personal and the collective unconscious (Smith, 2007) are encountered in the imagery of the therapeutic encounter. These can be ancestral, shadow (malevolent tricksters), anima (feminine), animus (masculine), magician/witch, divine child and numerous other archetypal manifestations that are universally shared. It has been hypothesized that these archetypal ancestral presences arise from phylogenetically ancient brain systems (Smith, 2007; Stevens, 1982). Regardless, both shaman and analyst focus their energies on illuminating knowledge, transforming negative influences by bringing into consciousness what is needed for greater healing and psychospiritual integration.

When considering shamanic, phenomenological modes of experiential transformation, Krippner and Combs (2002) advise a “neurophenomenological approach [as it] identifies four major modes of consciousness: deep sleep, dreaming, wakefulness, and integrative (i.e., transpersonal) consciousness to better under the changes taking place,” as “These modes reflect the cyclic systemic operations of adaptive brain structures” (p. 80). This is also supported by Winkelman’s classic text, Shamanism: The neuroecology of consciousness and healing (2000).

Shamanic cultures throughout the world use some form of drumming or rattling. This rhythmic auditory stimulation enhances entry into altered states of consciousness as it changes brainwave patterns (Thomason, 2010; Walsh, 1996), thus enhancing neurophenomenological change.  Anthropologist Michael Harner has been teaching drumming methods for accessing shamanic states of consciousness since the early 80s. Although his own journeys into various realms began with ayahuasca (1980, 2013), he has found that a “steady rhythm of 205 to 220 beats per minute worked perfectly to change consciousness and with knowledge of shamanism, to make flights or journeys to spirit worlds” (p. 2). He and his wife, Sandra Harner, established the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and provide ongoing training in shamanic methods for soul travel. 

The neurophenomenological process is greatly facilitated by shamanic ritual, especially those that include plant medicines (Grob, McKenna,  Callaway, Brito, Neves, Oberlender, Saide, Labigalini, Tacla, Miranda, Strassman & Boone,1996; McKenna, Callaway & Grob, 1998; Narby, 1999; Stassman, Wojtowicz, Luna, & Frecska, 2008).

Shifting cosmologies through plant medicines

Although several types of plant medicines were mentioned earlier, this section will focus on ayahuasca and ibogaine. It is an intriguing fact that increasing numbers of people from North America, Europe and other areas are traveling to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia to ingest ayahuasca, a medicinal remedy primarily made from the combination of two plants from the Amazonian jungle (Tupper, 2009, 2011). One ingredient is the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the other usually is the Psychotria (Narby, 1999; Rock & Krippner, 2011). These plants are combined then cooked in preparation for ceremonial ritual. McKenna, Callaway and Grob (1998) note its purpose to be “for curing, for divination, as a diagnostic tool and a magical pipeline to the supernatural realm” (p. 67). Participants experience revelations, soul journeys and healing as they seek this ancient means for guidance.

Popular media is paying attention to this phenomenon as well. According to a report on the Huffington Post, an ongoing Global Drug Survey notes a 50% increase in the use of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the United States in the last six years. Statistics were also related to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. According to the Huffington Post article,

That sampling found that the number of people in the U.S. who have used DMT [an active ingredient in ayahuasca] in some form has been up almost every year since 2006 -- from an estimated 688,000 in 2006 to 1,475,000 in 2012. (para. 3)

The Huffington Post report also quoted a column from the L.A. Weekly stating “that its home city hosts at least three active ayahuasca subcommunities and that on any given night, some 50 to 100 ‘ceremonies’ where the drug is used are underway in New York City” (para 18).  In the L.A. Weekly article, one user relates that even though it is illegal, on the list of Schedule 1 drugs, she would do it anyway because of the healing she has achieved. These people are entering into the ayahuasca ceremonies seeking healing and inner development. In fact, it is referred to as medicine (in Spanish, la medicina), and those engaging in these ceremonies do not equate this experience to one of “getting high.”  They are seeking spiritual and psychological healing that had previously been privy to indigenous cultures. For example, a National Geographic excursion to research ayahuasca through experience for an article (Salak, 2006) led to the conclusion by the author that she had been healed from ten years of depression whereas ten years of psychotherapy and medications had not been effective. One might wonder how this would be possible.

Researchers Rick Strassman, Slawek Wojtowicz, Luis Eduardo Luna, and Ede Frecska (2008) explain that

According to nature-based religious traditions, plants possess intelligence. Many modern Westerners who have undergone a deep experience with ayahuasca can vouch for the apparent presence of a “personality” in this botanical brew with which they communicate under this influence (p. 8).                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Participants are often able to resolve personal and historical (i.e., childhood) issues, as they also experience transpersonal fields of consciousness or what Rock and Krippner (2011) call “Shamanic patterns of phenomenal properties” (p. 82). Participants and shaman may enter the lower, middle and upper worlds described earlier in this chapter.

A simple internet search will quickly reveal the numerous healing centers along the Amazon, reflecting the growing interest of persons participating in ritual medicinal plant ceremonies. At the same time questions arise regarding “mystical tourism,” advertising ceremonies for large fees by untrained shamans (Dobkin de Rios, 2001; Fotiou, 2014).

Takiwasi, in Tarapoto, Peru, was founded in 1992 by Dr. Jacques Mabit, an M.D. specializing in Tropical Diseases, to explore the use of ayahuasca for healing serious addictions.  The Takiwasi program focuses on treating and rehabilitating drug addicts as well as conducting research on the benefits of traditional medicines (Mabit & Sieber, 2006, Mabit, 2007).

Physicians, psychotherapists and shamans coordinate the healing program. Patients commit to a duration of nine months to a year.  According to Mabit’s research, the success rate is as high as 70% for those who stay for the entire program (Lizarzaburu, 2013).

Another psychedelic drug receiving attention for its ability to heal serious drug addiction is the iboga root, or Ibogaine (Brown, 2013; Naranjo, 1973). It is part of a spiritual discipline known as Bwiti, practiced in Gabon and Cameroon, Africa, combining ritual, animism and Christianity. It is believed that Bwiti promotes spiritual development, heals individuals, families and communities.  It is used to heal emotional, mental and physical pathologies. Although the research studies are far less than those of ayahuasca, iboga root is being used in treatment centers outside of the United States to treat serious opiate and cocaine and other additions. Given that the “war on drugs” has been a failure (UN, June 1, 2011), further research on ayahuasca and iboga are needed. These ancient treatments act on spiritual and psychological dimensions. It’s not about good versus bad, but rather discovering new paths of transformation.

Politics of Respect

An important issue regarding indigenous wisdom and practices goes into the realm of intellectual property as well as practices issues related to scope of training. The issue of intellectual property is well addressed in the following quote.

Indigenous cultural knowledge has always been an open treasure box for the unfettered appropriation of items of value to Western civilization. While we assiduously protect rights to valuable knowledge among ourselves, indigenous people have never been accorded similar rights over their cultural knowledge. Existing Western intellectual property laws support, promote, and excuse the wholesale, uninvited appropriation of whatever indigenous item strikes our fancy or promises profit, with no obligation or expectation to allow the originators of the knowledge a say or a share in the proceeds. (Greaves, 1994)

Generally, Native Americans protect their rituals, and believe that non-natives should not be emulating sweat-lodges and other traditional practices without years of initiatory training and experience.

It is important to respect ancient traditions, but it is also becoming increasingly difficult for them to maintain their purity. Shamans are traveling from the Amazon to lead ayahuasca rituals in other countries. As the shaman is invited to bring these ceremonies, s/he is also gaining practical knowledge about selling and buying. The days of giving the local shaman or medicine person a chicken for a treatment are becoming rare. Monetary expectations are rising. There is a cultural cross-over occurring, for better and for worse. I note the former because these nature-based ways of living appear to be beneficial due to the fact that humanity is disconnected from nature and authentic life. As for the latter, one can see how increasing expectations for higher payments will limit the amount of people who can partake in these rituals. Spiritual tourism is on the rise and the future will reveal the results.

Another consideration is that these rituals can bring on troubling psychospiritual effects (Mijares, 2009; Trichter, 2010). An authentic shaman has been trained in healing ways. She or he is more aware of potential risks, and, most likely, has received lengthy training in remedies in times on crises. Certainly those persons who take a few trips into the Amazon or participate in backyard ceremonies in their neighborhoods and/or learn how to make an ayahuasca brew from a youtube video may not be able to handle a profound psychospiritual crisis. Lengthy training under the guidance of a master-shaman still remains an important attribute.


Tragically, even though tribal myths and legends acknowledge feminine equality and power, for example, Father Sun and Mother Earth, this equality tends to be forgotten in actuality in many areas of the world. Patriarchal dominance can be found in many indigenous tribes (Fotiou, 2014, Mijares, 2013). Despite this, there is and always have been a significant number of female shamans, medicine women, curanderas, witches, etc.  

Indigenous African rituals of Umbanda and Candomble maintain a strong feminine presence and guidance in ritual practice. African traditions spread as a result of the slave trade. Christian influences were mixed into the rituals, which did not discount the power of the female deities. In fact, they have a vast influence in Brazilian spirituality. Umbanda incorporates elements of both Catholicism and Spiritualism. Candomble rituals honor various deities and the trance invokes the deities that they may enter the participants providing guidance and healing power. Although it incorporates some Christian elements, it avoids the concept (hence no judgment) of ‘good’ of ‘bad’ as everyone’s task is to fulfill his or her own destiny. Women priestesses often lead the initiations and the rituals. Both Umbanda and Candomble emerged from the African Yoruba traditions, with its strong goddess-worshipping tradition (Semley, 2011).

Codices produced by the ancient Aztecs and Mayas indicate that women led the sweat lodges (temezcal), an indigenous healing form of ritual purification, included an invocation by the priestess of the temezcal noting her healing power (Nuttall, 2010). But many images of shamans and medicine healers depict the male gender, even though such callings go beyond gender. Modern researchers and authors for the most part still do much of their investigations with men. Research is needed to determine qualitative differences of indigenous female and male shamans and healers.

Conclusions: A Timely Topic

Considering the ongoing news reports of climate changes related to global warming, as well as the continued reports on violence toward women, it is significant that increasing numbers of people are engaging with indigenous peoples and practices. Shamanic traditions have always known that nature is a spiritual force, and ideas that heaven is a spiritual place whereas earth represents the mundane do not exist.

Their cosmologies include feminine and masculine manifestations throughout nature as well as the elements of air, earth, fire and water. All of nature is revered as an intelligent and spiritual presence. It is Ecopsychology in vivo. The oral traditions pass on revered narratives of mountains, oceans, volcanoes and other forces and manifestations of nature from one generation to the next. Examples for moral and conscientious living are related in the tales—all elements have a part and purpose. It is a spiritual tradition in which both heaven and earth are endowed with spiritual force and presence.


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Dr. Sharon G. Mijares is a Depth Psychologist. She has authored seven books and numerous articles, and is a Core Faculty member of the California Institute for Human Science. She is a also a professor at National University assisting with its addition of Cultural and Social Justice components in its programs and within her courses. Sharon has studied mysticism, occult, and shamanic traditions for 48 years and is Shodan (Black Belt) in Aikido.