28 September 2008

Video Resource on Cultural Misappropriation

Here are two clips from White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, a one-half hour documentary dealing with the popularization and commercialization of Native American spiritual traditions by Non-Indians.

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, Part 1 of 3

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, Part 2 of 3

I found a study guide for this documentary that asks the following questions:

1. What are the motivations for many non-Indians who take use Indian religious practices?

2. Do you think any of them are aware of the problems caused by what they do?

3. Do you think any of them consider the possible dangers related to their appropriation of Indian religion?

4. Which of the non-Indian people interviewed might be the most aware of the fact that they are exploiting Indian religion and people?

5. What are some of the recognizable names discussed in the video?

6. When non-Indians appropriate elements of Indian religions, what does it say about their view of the complexity of Indian cultural practices?

7. Why do they think it is okay to do use Indian religious practices?

I saw this video several years ago when I attended a Young Religious Unitarian Universalist "Spirituality Development Conference" as an adult advisor.

This documentary with a follow-up discussion would make a very useful adult or youth religious education class on appropriate and inappropriate borrowing from other cultures in Unitarian Universalism.


Joel Monka said...

Ironically, the word "shaman" is itself a case of cultural misappropriation; neither Native American nor English, it is derived from Turk and Mongol origins, from the indigenous peoples of those regions. None of the Native American practices are quite like the practices of the people of Tungus; it might have been better to stick with the earlier translations- medicine man or witch doctor.

One sure way to spot a plastic shaman: if he uses constructs such as "shamen" or "shawoman"- it is a whole word; "sha" is not a prefix for "man".

Steve Caldwell said...


Thanks for posting the comment on the etymology of "shaman" for us.

Given that many languages borrow words and that English is one of the biggest borrowers of words from other languages, "shaman" is a currently accepted English word with roots in Russian and Tungusic languages.

For Native American documentary filmmakers who are making a film about whites who are inappropriately borrowing, what English term for shamanic practices should they use if they want to communicate with a North American English-speaking audience?

Even if the term "shaman" is a cultural misappropriation, it may be a necessary word for Native Americans to communicate their concerns with an English-speaking audience.

Borrowing of terms between languages is in my humble opinion a lesser problem than a more-powerful "conqueror" culture that borrows practices, symbols, rituals, and other cultural artifacts of a "conquered" culture.

More importantly -- what are your observations after viewing the video clips? Surely, you have more to say than just this bit on word origins.

Joel Monka said...

I did indeed have more to say- but as I often do, I ran too long for a comment, so I poted it on my blog, with a link to you.

M Talso, Nevada UU said...

Thanks for posting these videos - you're right, they're a great discussion-starter. I found your blog while doing some research for a homily I'm writing that will in part address the idea of "cultural misappropriation".

One point of view I don't see reflected here is the idea that almost ALL cultures can trace their religious roots back to indigenous, often "shamanistic" practices. Two cases in point are Celtic and Finnish folk religions, which are what my upcoming service is about and which represent MY cultural heritage. Although my stomach churns at many of the comments and scenes in this documentary, I feel I have to defend the idea that even white people have legitimate claims to earth-based religious traditions. It is not in the least surprising (to me) that we are drawn to the nearest, most accessible manifestation of these traditions, which in North America happen to come in the form of American Indian (or sometimes African) spirituality.

I encourage anyone reading this post (Indian or non-) to do some research on the ancient traditions of European, Asian or African cultures, and I’m sure you will eventually find remarkable similarities between them and current Native American practices. It’s just that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or some other major belief system assimilated and/or eliminated those traditions centuries before they arrived to do the same in the New World or in Africa.

Anonymous said...

Shaman originally come from the Turkish “Işıman” (Ishiman; ş~sh) or “Işıkman”(Ishıkman; ; ş~sh) the meaning of word is “Man is Light” or “Işık man” . “Işık” represent the sunlight; therefore refer to the meaning of Shaman.

Also, the word of Star is come from the Turkish word “Isıtar”(give a hotness) or “Işıtar”(give a light).