The History and Work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies
By Michael Harner
© Shamanism, 25th Anniversary Issue 2005, Vol. 18, Nos. 1 & 2

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Preserving and Helping Revive Indigenous Shamanism

A distinctive feature of our programs for indigenous peoples is that the Foundation responds to requests for help rather than initiating assistance, because we do not want to be in a position of being yet another outsider imposing something on an indigenous culture.

The purpose of the Urgent Indigenous Assistance (UIA) Project is to preserve and to offer opportunities to restore, foster, and develop shamanism among indigenous people worldwide. The Foundation is interested in addressing the needs of shamanism in indigenous cultures especially in the following cases: 1) where shamanic practice has been suppressed and local peoples would like to revive the practice; 2) where extraordinary individual indigenous shamans under adverse conditions need assistance to continue and pass on their practice and knowledge; and 3) where a shamanic culture is active, but threatened, and has asked for help.

The program is made up of several distinct parts that accomplish program goals, and importantly, of Field Associates, a group of anthropologists and cultural experts, who work with indigenous groups around the world and locate situations where the Foundation can provide assistance. The help the Foundation provides comes in the form of recognition and financial assistance for extraordinary shamans in Third World countries (the Living Treasures Program); training of indigenous groups; expeditions into indigenous areas to boost the morale of shamans and stimulate their survival; and other support. These activities are outlined below.

Upon invitation, the Foundation assists in the revival of shamanism and shamanistic practices among indigenous communities. A notable recent example is the work of the Foundation to help the Northern Paiute people of Nevada reconstruct the Ghost Dance. Field expeditions combine training, information exchange, and the recognition of the value of traditional practices. This recognition can contribute to the acceptance of shamanic practices by local governmental authorities and, subsequently, a growing willingness of shamans to practice openly. It also supports the esteem of shamanic practice for the benefit of the culture’s emerging generations, who are otherwise likely to be over-influenced by missionization, governmental interference, and Western culture.

At the invitation of the government of the Republic of Tuva in Central Asia, the Foundation sent a team there in 1993 to participate in a conference and to help rehabilitate shamanism and shamanic healing there after a long period of Soviet oppression. The expedition was highly successful, contributing to the revival and the official recognition of shamanism and shamanic healing in Tuva, including the initiation of younger persons. Three additional expeditions have since been made to Tuva.

The Foundation has also sponsored expeditions to Baker Lake in northern Canada to work with the Caribou Inuit and to Siberia to work with the Buriat people. The Foundation also undertook an expedition to North China and Inner Mongolia to help foster the revival of shamanism there.

Through individuals representing indigenous groups, or through our Field Associates, the Foundation has become aware of the needs of entire shamanic societies that are threatened. For example, the Foundation became involved in a project to assist the shaman-priests (mamas) of the Kogi people of northern Colombia to preserve their shamanic wisdom and traditional culture in the face of ecological destruction and encroachment by the outside world. When the Foundation learns of similar situations in shamanically based cultures, and when invited to do so by indigenous peoples, it tries to provide whatever help it can.

The Field Associates Program of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies comprises a network of professionals who gather and preserve information about ongoing shamanic traditions and who identify opportunities to provide assistance to indigenous peoples and to individual shamans. Since 1991, the Foundation has appointed specialists in shamanism, now numbering thirty-three, all over the world.

At first, the work of these Field Associates was particularly urgent because of the rapid extinction at that time of indigenous shamans everywhere. A Field Associate in Siberia, for example, spent months without finding a single shaman among the Evenke (Tungus) who, less than a century ago, had many hundreds that then were executed or sent to prison camps by the Soviet government. Currently, the Field Associates include individuals specializing in North, South, and Central America, Northern and Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central and South Asia. These individuals have worked with indigenous people in a variety of cultures, including Tungus, Buriat, Yakut (Sakha), Mixe, Jívaro (Shuar), Yaminahua, Chukchee, Tibetan, Manchu, Yao, and Sami (Lapp). I am happy to report that today indigenous peoples are increasingly revitalizing indigenous shamanic practices on their own. The publication of The Way ofthe Shaman in various languages, including Russian, has reportedly helped them legitimize their efforts.

As indicated above, since its inception the Foundation has offered tuition remission to tribal people for regularly scheduled workshops and training courses around the world. These scholarships are separate from the training the Foundation brings directly to indigenous groups. The scholarships may be for tribal people who seek to establish or expand a personal spiritual life, for those who want to supplement an ongoing traditional practice, or for those who wish to revive their culture’s threatened or destroyed traditional practices of shamanism. The Foundation is committed to offering scholarships to all tribal peoples who are able to attend its training courses, and the scholarships are granted upon verification of tribal status.

Living Treasures of Shamanism Program

The Living Treasures program started in late 1991 in conjunction with the Field Associates Program. Part of the responsibility of the Field Associates has been to locate potential Living Treasures for the Foundation. Through its network of Field Associates, the Foundation has searched for outstanding indigenous shamans in jeopardized conditions to help them preserve their knowledge and practice through FSS recognition and lifetime stipends. By working with uniquely qualified shamans in such a manner, it is the Foundation’s hope to help preserve their shamanic knowledge for the future generations of their peoples and the World.

We are at a critical time in history when the accumulated knowledge of tens of thousands of years of shamanic practice, including shamanic healing, resides among a small number of remaining indigenous peoples. Many of these shamans want to pass this knowledge on to their descendants, but live in threatened cultures, and need encouragement and support. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies recognizes the value of offering help to them. In this regard, it has honored as Living Treasures with financial support, one of the last three known Tibetan shamans, a Yaminahua shaman in the Upper Amazon, a Camaiurá shaman in the Upper Xingu region of Central Brazil, a shaman in the Republic of Tuva, and a Buriat shaman in Siberia, as well as others.

Developing Practical Health Applications and Measuring Health Impact

The Foundation has investigated and refined a variety of shamanic healing methods to help deal with illness and other problems of Western life. Significant findings became incorporated in the training offered to medical doctors, psychotherapists, and others through the Foundation’s educational programs. A critical part of this work has been accomplished through the Shamanism and Health Program, where the Foundation has engaged in scientific research in a progressing effort to communicate the value of shamanic methods to the mainstream medical community. Another example has been Harner Method Shamanic Counseling, which combines classic shamanic divination methods with systemic and technological innovations to help persons deal with the stresses of daily life. We see the Foundation’s role as discerning the basic cross-cultural underpinnings of shamanic principles and practice that have stood the test of time, and sharing that knowledge.

The future work of the Foundation is expected to be stable, reliable, and with high ideals and quality, as it has been in the past. The mission is clear and remains the same: to study, preserve, and transmit shamanic knowledge, such as through our educational programs. The continuing synchronous development and integration of all these three activities will remain a key to the success of the Foundation’s work. As in the past, success will also depend significantly on the generosity and support of members and donors. In alliance together and with the helping spirits, our work is increasingly having a worldwide impact on human spirituality and is expected to continue to do so in coming decades.

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