'Spirit guides me': An exploration into neoshamanism in Northern California

Sara C. Sutler-Cohen
Dept. of Sociology, University of California, Santa Cruz
July, 2005


This dissertation explores the issue of the commodification and the notion of ownership of Indigenous healing (neoshamanism) in Northern California and the impact on the sense of self on behalf of self-proclaimed shamans and neoshamanic community members. By examining field notes, various texts, and interviews in an attempt to go beyond dominant tropes surrounding the New Age movement, I have gathered information toward expanding our understanding of the neoshamanic community. The ethnographic portion of the work offers narratives from the people who are involved in neoshamanism today and explores the underlying importance of cultural and economic characteristics, paying close attention to issues of race and class. Additionally, this work seeks an understanding of the development of the self through dreams, specters, and altered states of meditative consciousness of neoshamanic community members. Ultimately, I intend to show that neoshamanism, as an outcome of New Age thinking, should by all accounts be considered not only a verifiable religion in and of itself, but that it should also be examined and considered to be a cultural phenomenon and a social expression of our ever-changing world. I employ sociology and the history of the sociological and anthropological understanding of religion to examine the ways in which various sets of methods and analyses may confirm neoshamanism a new spiritual force to grapple with intellectually in coming years. The essential questions I address are: Where is the line drawn between spiritual seeking and cultural theft? What brings neoshamans to their set of beliefs? How can we look at this phenomenon in an interdisciplinary way? These questions are important to sociology because they open up an area of study that has yet to be effectively investigated on an interdisciplinary level. This area of study would include the fields of sociology and anthropology explicitly, and the branches of each including gender, Indigeneity, religion, and race/ethnicity. What has been written about New Age 'celebrations' of Indigenous spirituality is general of a polemical nature and reflects a feeling of negativity for most, if not all, Indigenous scholars. Vine Deloria, Jr. (1994), for example, suggests '...the malevolent image [of Indians] can be attributed to...the fervent wish by non-Indians to establish some personal sense of Jungian authentication (pg. 25)'. What seems to be missing is an attempt at a deeper level of understanding of this sociological phenomenon, however what is also duly noted here is the link between the need for absorption and the reality of
late capitalism. It is from this standpoint that I wish to explore my central theme. The core of my dissertation looks at the ways in which self-proclaimed non-Indian shamans borrow from and then in turn, sell spiritual knowledge. I look at how the text in words and pictures on websites represent the shamans as 'authentic' teachers. By participating in workshops and conducting long interviews with community members, I offer some new ways of thinking about the sociological fact as a controversial topic of what's been deemed as 'fake' or 'plastic' shamanism.