Native Americans identify their spiritual leaders by many terms, such as doctor, medicine person, elder, herbalist, diagnostician or spiritwalker. Many tribes object to the mislabeling of these people as "shamans," which is a term that originates from terms used to describe spiritualists in Siberian tribes. Different tribes hold to different beliefs, practices and traditions in regard to their Indian spiritwalkers, but all serve in some capacity as mediators between the spirit world and man.
An Indian spiritwalker derives his name from the belief that he is one who walks with the spirits to receive guidance and wisdom to use for his people's benefit. He is charged with overseeing the tribe's physical and spiritual well-being, and thus holds an important position of power within the community. Using various techniques such as fasting, rhythmic drums and songs, psychotropic drugs, isolation or sensory deprivation and dressing in animal skins and masks, the spiritwalker seeks to put himself in a trance-like state and journey to the spirit world in search of knowledge for the hunt; answers to questions on community issues such as famine, disease or individual healing; dream interpretation or weather prediction. Native Americans believe that their guiding spirits meet the spiritwalker in this trance and pass on the needed wisdom.
Powers Attributed to Spirit Walkers
Different tribes ascribe different powers to their spiritwalkers, but all are credited with some kind of magical or supernatural powers. Native Americans commonly attribute powers of weather control and prediction and dream interpretation to the spiritwalker calling. Other powers include ensuring a good hunt or harvest, controlling spirits to heal or kill at will and the ability to communicate with or control magical beings. Some tribes instead believe the spirit or magical being possesses the spiritwalker and controls her thoughts and actions during the trance.
Honor Instead of Worship
The deep veneration that Native Americans hold for nature and their ancestors causes some to mistakenly believe that these are objects of worship for them. Native Americans are quick to make the distinction between worship and honor. While they revere and respect creation and the heritage of those who came before and seek to understand the wisdom they have to share through spiritwalker visions, they do not consider them deities worthy of worship.
New Age Impostors
Spirit Walk Ministry advises that Native American spirituality is a "private cultural experience." It is an integral part of the Native American culture, something you can only learn by living with it. Unlike other religions you cannot "convert" because it is a culture, not a religion in the traditional sense. Therefore, they warn against spiritwalker impostors who claim to hold a degree in shaman studies or sell you "authentic" souvenirs because true spiritwalkers will not sell you services or religious objects, or charge you to perform a ritual. Other "red flags" include Native American spiritualists who use tarot cards, Wiccan, pagan or New Age objects or crystals. These practices stem from other mystic traditions and do not represent true Native American spiritual beliefs.
- Grand Valley State University; Shamans and Shamanism; Michael Webster
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History; Joan Shelley Rubin et al
- Native Languages of the Americas; Seeking Native American Spirituality: Read this First; Orrin Lewis; 2011
- National Humanities Center: Native American Religion in Early America
- Access Genealogy; Indian Shamans and Priests; 2011
- Bridger/iStock/Getty Images