The word “shaman” has become another of those Damned Things in spirituality, as difficult as “Witch” and as slippery as “Pagan.”
From my own viewpoint as a Pagan occultist and a (very non-traditional) Cherokee, I seem to be skating around that word everywhere I go.
Shamanism as a portable concept is convenient for anthropologists, but it often runs afoul of the understandings of those within the cultures it is applied to. In particular, try bringing up Shamanism in a group of American Indians sometime. You’d get a much better response if you merely farted loudly. Exposure to non-Native neo-shamans, especially those out to make a quick buck by selling fraudulent Native ceremonies, has given rise to the appellation “plastic shaman.” Some of these people have boundless nerve, claiming all kinds of traditional Indian bona-fides, because they think no one will go to the Rez and check up on them (I can name names, but this is not the place). Besides, there are thousands of different tribal and family Indian spiritual and healing traditions; they don’t much resemble each other, let alone something imported from Siberia. But just to keep things complicated, there are a few First Nations, such as the Inuit, whose traditional healers and ceremonialists have very much in common with Tungus Shamans.
Neoshamanism also enjoys a reputation for being the province of those who have not paid their dues. Galina Krasskova, author of a dozen books on the Northern Tradition, writing on Facebook, put it bluntly: “I did not pay money at a weekend workshop to become a shaman. I fucking died.”
It’s no accident that the widely-cited bit of Indian satire, “You may be a Twinkie if …” starts with “1. You’re a shaman, and all your friends are shamans, too.”
My personal opinion, based on considerable study and discussion, is that to be a shaman, you need first to be a member of a shamanic culture, and second, to experience the call to the practice and the training that traditionally follows it, and third, to commit to serve your people. While other spirit-workers may be doing many of the same things shamans do, and doing them well, they are missing the vital context of shamanism.
Those who are actually following a traditional indigenous spiritual way under the guidance of the Elders of that way will know whether their Elders approve of applying the S-word to what they do. Other spirit-workers would do well to use a different term. Such as, oh, I don’t know, maybe spirit-work. Whatever your practice is named, what you and any clients get out of it will be proportional to the effort, discipline, and sacrifice that goes in.
Having said that, I have to mention that a number of people I know and respect call themselves shamans anyway (I can name names, but this is not the place), and they are not going to forfeit one iota of that respect for continuing to do so. They have their own ways of dealing with the issues I have outlined. I personally get around it by translating everything I do that is inescapably shaman-like into a Western Occult equivalent, or using some fairly generic wording.