Retribing the Planet: Shamanism Repurposed for Modern Times
ICSA Today, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2017, 10-14
Retribing the Planet: Shamanism Repurposed for Modern Times
The notable Sixties in the 20th century marked history with a time of social change and a veritable explosion of experiments in consciousness. Music, drugs, and new spiritual movements drove the trends. We among the youth cult commonly heard “Do not trust anyone over 30.” Black Power, Gray Power, and Red Power emerged among many new movements that celebrated a tribalism of type or class. Indeed, a college mate once quipped around 1968 that the only thing missing was Ugly People Power. The Sixties milieu did not begin or end with that decade, nor was it all about young people. But an event in 1969 exposed both the dreams and the flaws of that era. We called it Woodstock Nation, composed of a Hippie tribe of nearly half a million, mostly college-aged folks who gathered for an extraordinary music and art festival on Yasgur’s farm near Woodstock, New York.1
Joni Mitchell, who could not attend, wrote the festival’s now-iconic theme song, Woodstock,2 which begins, “I came upon a child of God, and that child told her, I’m going to try an’ get my soul free.” The song’s refrain is at the core of what this essay on neoshamanism explores:
“We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
I did not attend Woodstock either—I thought of going, but I took my motorcycle and went camping on a beach in Delaware instead. College mates who did attend were totally hyped telling me about it a few weeks later. Well, not all of them were hyped: One spent most of his time in the medical tent being treated for ingesting brown acid, a particularly pure LSD dose that harmed hundreds. The “garden” for some was a psychotic state of mind.
“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” was Mitchell’s way of saying that we yearn for return to the Garden of Eden or the Aboriginal Dreamtime, that time in human consciousness when all was well, when protohumans, like animals, lived naturally off the land and made no moral judgments. Sixties seekers who did not grow up on Native reservations idealized aboriginals as more noble and somehow more spiritual, more connected to Mother Earth. Many read Carlos Castaneda (1925–1998). Carlos fed us popular fiction disguised as his real experiences with a shaman in his string of best-selling novels, starting with The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968. The author claimed that his mentor, don Juan Matus, was a Yaqui Indian sorcerer, and that he had met him in Albuquerque. Carlos was clever enough to fool top religious scholars, including Mircea Eliade, who wrote the definitive early book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951). Eliade endorsed Castaneda’s first book.3 I relished Castaneda’s first few books before discovering that don Juan was a made-up character, and that Yaqui Indians had no such sorcerer tradition. I still find seekers and neoshaman cult members who believe in Castaneda’s books as real reports.
Recently, I saw Embrace of the Serpent, the 2015 award-winning foreign film directed by Ciro Guerra.4 The story occurs in the upper Amazon jungle. It portrays two explorations, one in 1909 by German Theodor Koch-Grunberg, the other in 1940 by American Richard Evans Schultes. Both men journeyed upriver with the same Amazonian shaman, Karamakate, the last surviving member of his clan, to look for the rare yakruna, a sacred plant. Schultes in the end convinces the shaman to prepare yakruna brew for him. The primarily black-and-white film switches in the end to throbbing psychedelic color images that purportedly represent Schultes’s soul merging with the cosmos—he and stardust become one in 1940. Without going into the social complexities of this mesmerizing blend of fact and fiction, I want to mention that the actual fieldwork of these two ethnobiologists inadvertently presaged the psychedelic drug experiments of Timothy Leary, the cult fiction of Carlos Castaneda, the subsequent neoshaman movements, and the lately popular ayahuasca cults.
Ayahuasca (also known as yagé) was introduced from South America to northern seekers in recent decades. Ayahuasca sessions led by Amazonian Indians and self-proclaimed shamans are now common around the United States and Canada. This psychoactive, entheogenic brew is traditionally made from a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and the Psychotria veridis (also called chacruna) leaf. Caapi alone may produce psychotropic effects, but plants such as chacruna (translated, yacruna) with DMT (dimethyltryptemine) need a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MOA) in caapi to release the DMT and thus enhance the psychedelic effects. Yagé varies in intensity and content depending on the preparer’s knowledge and the quality of available plants. Health Canada made it illegal to administer ayahuasca in Canada because of questionable harm and lack of information about its effects, though some Native people claim it helps hard-core addicts.5,6
A veritable industry of psychospiritual tourism has emerged, with wealthy white executives among the throngs going to the Amazon for an ayahuasca experience led by a shaman. One of the most popular shamans has been Piero Salazar of Iquitos, Peru. Salazar has come to dread the seekers coming to his retreats. As quoted in the Onion, he said,
I believe this source of healing should be available to everyone, but lately it seems like the people I guide toward a vision of cosmic wholeness are all 32-year-old billionaires hoping to gain a deeper insight into their SEO strategy or whatever. (May 17, 2016).7
Two new movements prompting ayahuasca sessions are Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (or UDV). Two of the more popular neoshamans not necessarily promoting ayahuasca have been Michael Harner and don Jose Luis Ruiz with their lucrative transformational workshops.8
When I first observed neoshamanism, I participated in a sweat-lodge ceremony in New Mexico around 1980. No drugs were introduced (I had stopped all drug use including psychedelics by 1975), but the idea of connecting with ancestors, spiritual inspiration, and self-healing were themes common with Peyote cults and the emerging Ayahuasca cult retreats. The dozen or so folks at the sweat were a mixed bunch, some veterans of many sweats and some seeking relief from addictions or anxieties. There was a definite protocol using a tent made from tarp draped over bent branches, heated rocks in an outside fire pit tended ritually by a fireman, and most participants going in to sweat after sunset skyclad9, although that was optional because some people wore swim gear. Someone beat on a drum and chanted. The leader’s language was spiced with Native American derivatives, and we passed a pipe stoked with burning tobacco. Not everyone chose to inhale. In other words, this was a typically hybridized Indian-style sweat not attended by Natives.
When I lived in New Mexico, I lectured several times to Apache and Zuni tribes about the cult problem and the effects of occult experimentation. I lived around Pueblo Indians and got to know some of the leaders. Indians on reservations struggle to maintain identity and tradition as youth lose the language and appreciation for ritual. The elders were both amused and disturbed by fake Indians and New Agers using Native tradition to further selfish ends. The New Age is all about the self. For example, in the mid-1990s, I had a case in America involving a young military man who got caught up with an unofficial Indian tribe influenced by a self-proclaimed medicine man. Thunder Horse Harjo was a black man who parlayed his medicine services to a small band of makeshift Seminole Indians who were trying to incorporate as a tribe with the federal government. A gambling casino company was backing them.
I met with perhaps 30 members of the tribe during a powwow—all but one or two looked like white persons, yet most claimed traceable Indian blood lineage. Some had been adopted into the tribe.
Several members of the tribe told me that Thunder Horse (Wayne Bowen) caused havoc among them with his unlicensed counseling services. The medicine man’s approach proved to be little more than manipulative self-awareness trainings and an attempt to grab a leadership position. Thunder Horse’s basic teachings were in his self-published booklet, The Thunder Horse Medicine, Volume 1: Becoming Your True Self (1996).10
My client’s son, 21, was totally taken in by the ersatz medicine man even after members of the tribe had distanced from Bowen. The tribe was willing to adopt the military man, who was not of Native heritage. Anyone could become an Indian if formally adopted by the tribe—this has been true of tribal customs in general in America. In any case, the military brass were very concerned about Thunder Horse’s control over a serviceman with top-secret clearance. With evidence I had with me, I managed to convince the young man that Thunder Horse had run his unauthorized medicine services before in Arizona (where he irritated the Navajo) and also in Hawaii. The young man came to see that Thunder Horse was inauthentic and ceased his devotion.
Neoshamans have offered their medicine in the form of drug intensives to both First Nations peoples in Canada and Native Americans in the United States. Laura Dutheil, 54, a nonnative woman who was for a time adopted into a Haida clan, had a damaging experience with a neoshaman who claimed to be of Mayan spirituality. Laura has given written permission to use her story and name. She is now married to a First Nation Haida man and lives in the Skidegate area of Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) off Canada’s west coast. She contacted me earlier this year to help educate Haida about cults. For the past 7 years, she and some Haida elders and community leaders have been working among their Haida clans to expose the harm done by neoshaman Erick Gonzalez, who heads Earth Peoples United (EPU). Dutheil also participated in a high-demand New Age enterprise called Psychology of Vision (PoV)11 that has affected many Haida members.
Psychology of Vision was founded by Chuck Spezzano, who mixes an array of New Age teachings, including A Course in Miracles, a manipulative mass-training style he learned as a follower of Lifespring, and the Oneness Movement that borrows from Asian religion. Long sessions of emoting and breaking down the purportedly false ego are techniques in nearly all mass therapies, including PoV. Former members of similar unlicensed mass therapies have complained of seriously debilitating after effects that include panic attacks and confusion, and long months of recovery to get back to a sense of a sane self again. Others praise these workshops, claiming to have overcome issues such as fear of taking on challenges and low-self-esteem.
Dutheil was caught up in PoV from 1995 through 2007. She was recruited from within that group into EPU around 2004 by someone who was also a follower of Erick Gonzalez. Gonzalez claims grandiose titles, including Tata OmeAkaEhekatl of Mayan Shamanism—the title is an Aztec derivative, not Mayan.12 Like Thunder Horse, Erick has managed to gain status among many Haida as a legitimate medicine man. From records kept by the Haida Gwaii Trust, tens of thousands of dollars have been spent since 2004 to pay for workshops with Ngystle Society, a front group connected with Erick Gonzalez. In 2002, the Ngystle Society got more than $3,000 to teach Reiki Level 1 classes to Haida residential school survivors, a vulnerable target for healing scams.13 The value of offerings by Ngystle has never been properly vetted. As for Erick Gonzalez and his neoshamanism, in September, 2012 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued a warning about Gonzalez for the suspected use of drugs such as peyote, ayahuasca, and mescaline during alleged religious ceremonies.
Laura has had a difficult recovery for a host of reasons, not the least of which was having been poisoned at least twice by Amanita muscaria, a mushroom she was encouraged to ingest in some of Gonzalez’s intensives. The Amanita (the classic fairytale, red mushroom with white spots on the cap) was used ritually by ancient shamans in Siberia. The Amanita was one suggestion for the entheogen Soma in the Rigveda of Hindu tradition, though most scholars reject it.14 Back in the early 1970s, after some research on its use and effects I ingested Amanitas twice, once in a small dose (one small mushroom) from which I got a kind of buzz for a few hours. The second time, an artist friend and I ate two or three each. We were poisoned with blurred vision, severe nausea, and distortion in thought processes for many hours. We had a distinct sense that we might die. We did not know at the time that the toxins in Amanita can cause liver damage. We stood under a very cold waterfall for some time, and that seemed to help. I could not stomach any kind of mushroom for more than a year after that. Laura reported that her last Amanita intensive with EPU left her with panic attacks, a ministroke, memory loss, poor comprehension skills, and a severe arthritic condition. When Laura reached out to a nurse associated with EPU to complain about panic attacks, she reports that the nurse said, “It was just the medicine working.”15
Shamanic healing with or without drugs and herbs led to what we call the medicine man in Native tradition. Shamans were governed by tradition and generally under the authority of a chief or tribe leader. But medicine in an unregulated neoshaman’s hands could be anything, including high-demand encounter groups in isolated places, peyote parties, LSD, long days of lectures, chanting, drumming, fasting, hypnotic trance inductions, frog venom, Datura, ayahuasca, mescaline, and sleepless nights. Datura was made famous as a powerful hallucinogen by Carlos Castaneda in his early novels. Some Haida leaders cautioned tribal members. Tom Greene, Jr., who ran for council, wrote, “Our ancestors did not use peyote, ayahuasca, frog venom, or amanita to become spiritual.”16
Entheogens, including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline have a varied impact on users. Deep insights tend to fade with repeated use, and potential for harm increases. The great scholar of world religions Huston Smith observed, in his significant study of entheogens, Cleansing the Doors of Perception (2001), that these drugs have a “half-life” (p. 63) in terms of effective therapeutic value, if any.17 I agree. Things can go very badly.18 Sometime in ancient India, the Vedic culture stopped Soma19 use and turned to nondrug meditation and yoga to seek inner bliss in a safer, more measured, and enduring manner.
Overall, mass therapies can be big moneymakers for leaders while customers hope for promised breakthrough advances in oneness, inner peace, and good fortune. Neoshamans add a new twist by claiming that drugs can help bring one back to the authentic self, the healed self, and the ancient tribal consciousness that once guided people—in the Garden. All you need to do is sign the waiver, like the one Gonzalez hands out that states he accepts NO responsibility for what happens to you during the “self-transformational journey.” Moreover, the “ceremonial guidelines” state that
Tata Erick is our guide and we need to trust and follow any instructions he may give. One should not make assumptions that the way it has been done in the past or the way it has been done in other ceremonies, is the way it will be done this time. Trust the spiritual leader and the process.20
Erick, in other words, is the final word on what your experience will be. And he will collect the profits. There is no reliable tradition.
Dutheil noted that she was getting worse emotionally and physically after more than a decade of participation in so-called healing and medicine groups. She recalled that the leaders never took responsibility for bad effects but blamed the participant, shaming her for not getting it or for resisting the process: The process is always right, the drug is sacred even if it is nontraditional frog venom and amanita, and the neoshaman is a messenger of sacred tradition, whether he is or not. Modern tribal people have lost the sacred path, and the neoshaman will help them gain it back—so goes the pitch from new versions of metaphysical snake-oil salesmen. The process has divided the tribe and families who promote Gonzalez from those who do not. A classic us-versus-them cult mentality emerges among followers who feel persecuted when criticized.
There is nothing indigenous about neoshamanic workshops. In every case, I find that advertisements to heal the self and to connect with the universe through some kind of special scheme are centered on the purported power and insight of the leader. The neoshaman becomes an entrepreneur in the spiritual-seeker industries—no better than Scientology, the old est, or gurus from India ready to bottle sacred water from the Ganges and sell it for $1,000 a pop.
Alice Beck Kehoe, an anthropologist, has been critical of the neoshaman movement. She wrote that neoshamanism is racism. By this she meant an intellectual or ivory-tower racism that looks down on and dismisses the achievements of a living ancient culture, as if shamanism represents a lesser evolved human being who needs a more advanced culture to properly interpret it. Thus, the neoshaman feels justified in appropriating techniques of shamanism and marketing them for personal profit. Furthermore, the neoshaman imposes personal experience on ancient cultures as if he knows that shamanism underlies a common, perennial basis with all religious experience.21 In other words, the promise of ancient tribal consciousness comes to those who go along with one shaman’s transformation cult and are committed to sharing that vision with anyone who will submit to it and buy it. And yes, you must sign the liability waiver.22
 shamanism.org/; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Miguel_Ruiz
 meaning “nude for ritual purposes.”
 aurorathespirit.com/index_files/Page585.htm; https://www.facebook.com/thunderhorse.bowen
 Email correspondence with Laura Dutheil, May 15, 2016.
 “Tom Greene, Jr. for Council” (campaign newsletter for February 2012 election).
 Soma in ancient Hindu tradition indicated three functions: as a plant, as an intoxicating brew or entheogen, and as the god Soma.
 I have copies of a waiver and guidelines handed out by Earth Peoples United (EPU).
 Blue Morph has a good example of liability waiver for ayahuasca tours: https://www.bluemorphotours.com/
Philip Jenkins. (2005). Dream catchers: How mainstream America discovered Native spirituality.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Alice Beck Kehoe. (2000). Shamans and religion: An anthropological exploration in critical thinking.
Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Huston Smith. (2003). Cleansing the doors of perception: The religious significance of entheogenic plants and chemicals. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications.
Turner, B. (2011, August 2). “Psychedelic use spreads in B.C. native community,” CBC News, British Columbia. Available online at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/psychedelic-use-spreads-in-b-c-native-community-1.1111869
About the Author
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect called Church Universal and Triumphant. He began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986.
Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery, including consultations via phone and Internet. He received the Jury award with his Jackrabbit Stew painting for a three-person show in the fall of 2016 at Freyberger Gallery, Penn State Berks campus. firstname.lastname@example.org