Environmentalism – Shamans cannot strictly be identified as environmentalists because, as animists, they are members of a large community of life rather than being surrounded by an impersonal environment or “nature.” However, the common indigenous requirement to be respectful and even humble in one’s relationships with all persons (humans as well as other-than-human persons) generally leads to ecologically responsible lifestyles. Shamans in many places are centrally concerned with resource management. In an important article entitled “From Cosmology to Environmentalism” (1995), Piers Vitebsky argues that at the same time as an “intensely local kind of knowledge [i.e., that of shamans] is being abandoned [in many indigenous cultures] in favour of various kinds of knowledge which are cosmopolitan and distance-led,” “shamanism” is being coopted to support environmentalist and therapeutic projects. He illustrates this with reference to the changing culture of the Sora of India and the Sakha (Yakut) of Siberia. The Sora are increasingly exchanging their intensely local culture as they become linked into larger markets and contexts: for example, their crops become food and commodities, where they had once carried ancestral “souls.” The Sakha, however, are finding shamans and shamanism iconic in the evolution of a cultural and ethnic identity that fits the needs of their new republic.
All this illustrates and takes place within a larger context of a struggle between globalization (homogenization) and local diversity. It should not be reduced to or mistaken for a contrast between neoshamanic “appropriation” and indigenous decline. Indigenous shamans, in some places at least, are appropriating methods and idioms that may aid their peoples’ survival and even full participation in global affairs with some degree of autonomy and agency. However, environmentalists do often use representations of indigenous people (especially Native Americans) as icons to support their cause.
Vitebsky matches his list of four “key characteristics which [are] reasonable to see as distinctively shamanic” with an insight into the problematic reinvention of shamanism in environmentalist (and therapeutic) contexts. He argues that shamanism’s “local nature is coopted” but immediately relocates the environmentalist or therapist in new ways. Its “holistic nature is shattered,” but because it remains a “cardinal value,” it is replaced by the “weaker concept of globality.” Its “eristic nature suffers a variable fate in the new therapies [because they are “less gutsy”] . . . but becomes a driving force in the heroic side of environmental campaigning.” Finally, its “dissident, or anticentrist nature is likewise retained and enhanced (‘alternative’).” Vitebsky’s argument is supported by reference to the role-play by shamans and shamanism in the practice and discourse of environmental movements among indigenous peoples and in the West. Many activists in the anti-road and “social justice” (i.e., antiglobalization) movements identify as or with shamans.