Native American/First Nations
  Because they are associated by geography and a shared history, the shamanic practices of the Native Americans and Arctic peoples – especially the Inuit – are similar in many ways, but distinct enough to warrant separate treatment. (For more see the Inuit  page.) In North America, the shamans of Native American cultures (or First Nations people, as the Canadians call them) are perhaps better known to us and themselves as diviners, healers, herbalists and medicine men. This last term is misleading because of the narrow definition, in Western thinking, of what constitutes Medicine. Native Americans understand that health includes not just physical and mental well-being, but also prosperity (of self and community), harmonious relationships with family and lasting friendships. Medicine is therefore anything which promotes this broader concept of health.

Becoming a Shaman
  A person may acquire the spiritual power necessary to become a shaman in a number of ways. It might be inherited, or the individual might seek it on a quest; frequently it is imposed on the person by the spirits themselves. The most common form of initiation for the apprentice shaman was through dreams and visions, usually undertaken in intense solitude and accompanied by fasting, through which he would endure a psychic struggle with an aggressive, invasive spirit.

Healing Practices
  For Native Americans good health depends on respecting the spirits of nature and the spirits of the ancestors, and illness or misfortune befalls anyone who does not follow correct behavior. There are three distinct causes of illness, any or all of which may cause a patient’s suffering: (1) a hostile spirit has thrust a foreign object into the person’s body, for instance a sharp stone, an insect, a tangled thread; (2) the patient’s soul has left the body of its own accord; (3) the patient’s soul has been stolen or lured away by enemy spirits. The shaman must determine which of these causes apply, and then go on a "soul journey" or "soul flight" to the spirit world, aided her own power songs, drums, rattles and other sacred objects, to engage with it and bring about healing.

In rescuing a soul, the shaman may have to journey to underworld, the heights of the sky, or the bottom of the sea -– provided the soul has not gone too far to be brought back. Shamans sometimes collaborate in retrieving a sick or injured soul. The Coast Salish shamans arrange themselves in the form of a canoe, and mimicking paddling while singing their songs and undergoing the soul flight or journey in their joint healing effort.

Soul Flights
  Many Native American traditions see the shaman’s soul flight as a special kind of dreaming. In fact, a common feature of these cultures is that none make a rigid distinction between the dreaming and waking states; the two "realms" of vision are inseparable. (Compare this with the Aborigines, on the Oceania  page.) Action taken in a dream in not considered complete until its corresponding action has been taken in waking life; conversely, crucial decisions are based on preceding dreams. Most Native Americans go on a vision quest at least once in their lives, and many do so on a regular basis.

Sacred Objects & Medicine Bundles
  Shamans employ an array of sacred objects and/or substances in their healing work; some of these may aid the shaman’s soul flight; others may be instrumental to the healing itself. Along with a drum and rattle, a particular shaman’s medicine bundles may include eagle feathers, stones and crystals, shells, bones, cords, and plants such as white sage, juniper, cedar, sweetgrass, and other herbs known to have healing and cleansing properties. The selection of objects depends partly on the geography and mythology of the local cultures, as well as the personal preference and experiences of the individual shaman. No matter what objects are selected, they are just outward signs of the inner spiritual power which the shaman has acquired through initiation. A shaman may speak of this inner power as a quartz crystal inside her body, or in more abstract terms such as "pain".

Relationships with Animals
  Native Americans believe that all creatures of a species are guided by a Guardian Spirit for that species, understood to be either the literal mother/father of them, or the collective spirit of all those individual animals. Animals are also viewed as sentient beings, like humans, and able to transform themselves into humans and back again. They might form a special relationship with an individual or a clan as a guardian spirit. A shaman’s guides in the spirit world often took the form of animals, such as an eagle, bear, wolf, beaver, and so on, reflecting the lack of distinction between animals and humans, and between the physical and the spirit worlds.

In hunting societies, animals were thought to sacrifice themselves willingly to hunters according them the proper respect. Respect towards the animals was defined by many customs and taboos –- for instance, the careful disposal of bones –- and the shaman helped the hunters to make the proper observances, especially when it seemed that a Guardian Spirit had been offended. In respecting an animal, though, a hunter treated it as a person, asking its permission to hunt it, and in some cultures, offering a particular prayer to the Guardian Spirit for pardon after a successful kill.





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