Nature – One aspect of the common Western perception that indigenous peoples, especially hunter-gatherers, are “close to nature” is that shamans and shamanism provide helpful leads in restoring human respect for the world. The fact that this close-to-nature view was once valued negatively (“primitive savagery”) should encourage careful reflection on the culturally determined and shifting idealism of such views. The environmentalism of indigenous people and shamans may or may not be evidenced in particular contexts. However, as Bruno Latour concludes from reading diverse relevant ethnographies, it is more likely that most indigenous peoples do not know of any place that could be called “nature.” Eduardo Viveiros de Castro demonstrates that in Amazonia there is a common perception that all living beings (and in these animist communities that probably means all existences) have one common culture: they eat cooked food, live in constructed dwellings, abide by or break kinship rules, are hospitable or predatory, and may require shamans or shamanic powers or abilities. However, he further notes, in contrast with the Western notion of multiculturalism and a single “nature” (or “mono-naturalism”), indigenous Amazonians understand that the single culture shared by all life is masked by “multinaturalism.” In this context, shamans are those trained and experienced in perceiving the cultural person hidden by the mask of apparently different natures. This is especially important when a “natural” appearance masks a predatory activity. So, a jaguar may be an animal passing by, but it may instead be intent on predation against humans, who require shamanic defense.

While this specifically Amazonian perspectivism may not be applicable elsewhere, it does exemplify the pervasive absence of a dualistic contrast between “nature” and “culture” among most indigenous peoples. In animistic communities, for example, what appears to Westerners to be nature is understood to be “the community of life” or, in Latour’s terms, “the collective.” However, among neoshamans the perception that shamanism encourages respectful environmentalism is important. It encourages practices that take place in rural or wilderness environments, participation in ecological protection or enhancement projects, and lifestyles respectful of the wider, other-than-human living world. Gordon MacLellan’s work as an environmental educator illustrates the outworking of shamanic practice and environmentalism. The pervasive perception of indigenous intimacy with nature and spirituality sometimes (as in the biography of Richard Erdoes) combines with a sense of the numinous power and beauty of “natural” places to establish an initial interest in indigenous peoples in general and shamans in particular.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007