Plastic shamans, or plastic medicine people,[1] is a pejorative colloquialism applied to individuals who are attempting to pass themselves off as shamans, holy people, or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who have no genuine connection to the traditions or cultures they claim to represent.[2] In some cases, the "plastic shaman" may have some genuine cultural connection, but is seen to be exploiting that knowledge for ego, power, or money.[3][4]

Plastic shamans are believed by their critics to use the mystique of these cultural traditions, and the legitimate curiosity of sincere seekers, for their personal gain. In some cases, exploitation of students and traditional culture may involve the selling of fake "traditional" spiritual ceremonies, fake artifacts, fictional accounts in books, illegitimate tours of sacred sites, and often the chance to buy spiritual titles.[3] Often Native American symbols and terms are adopted by plastic shamans, and their adherents are insufficiently familiar with Native American religion to distinguish between imitations and actual Native religion.[1]


The term "plastic shaman" originated among Native American and First Nations activists and is most often applied to people fraudulently posing as Native American traditional healers.[5][6] People who have been referred to as "plastic shamans" include those believed to be fraudulent, self-proclaimed spiritual advisors, seers, psychics, self-identified New Age shamans, or other practitioners of non-traditional modalities of spirituality and healing who are operating on a fraudulent basis.[3] "Plastic shaman" has also been used to refer to non-Natives who pose as Native American authors, especially if the writer is misrepresenting Indigenous spiritual ways (such as in the case of Ku Klux Klan member Asa Earl Carter and the scandal around his book The Education of Little Tree).[1][7]

It is a very alarming trend. So alarming that it came to the attention of an international and intertribal group of medicine people and spiritual leaders called the Circle of Elders. They were highly concerned with these activities and during one of their gatherings addressed the issue by publishing a list of Plastic Shamans in Akwesasne Notes, along with a plea for them to stop their exploitative activities. One of the best known Plastic Shamans, Lynn Andrews, has been picketed by the Native communities in New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities.[6]

People have been injured, and some have died, in fraudulent sweat lodge ceremonies performed by non-Natives.[8][9][10][11][12]

Among critics, this misappropriation and misrepresentation of Indigenous intellectual property is seen as an exploitative form of colonialism and one step in the destruction of Indigenous cultures:[13]

The para-esoteric Indianess of Plastic Shamanism creates a neocolonial miniature with multilayered implications. First and foremost, it is suggested that the passé Injun elder is incapable of forwarding their knowledge to the rest of the white world. Their former white trainee, once thoroughly briefed in Indian spirituality, represents the truly erudite expert to pass on wisdom. This rationale, once again, reinforces nature-culture dualisms. The Indian stays the doomed barbaric pet, the Indianized is the eloquent and sophisticated medium to the outer, white world. Silenced and visually annihilated like that, the Indian retreats to prehistory, while the Plastic Shaman can monopolize their culture.[14]

Defenders of the integrity of indigenous religion use the term "plastic shaman" to criticize those they believe are potentially dangerous and who may harm the reputations of the cultures and communities they claim to represent.[4] There is evidence that, in the most extreme cases, fraudulent and sometimes criminal acts have been committed by a number of these imposters.[15][16] It is also claimed by traditional peoples that in some cases these plastic shamans may be using corrupt, negative and sometimes harmful aspects of authentic practices. In many cases this has led to the actual traditional spiritual elders declaring the plastic shaman and their work to be "dark" or "evil" from the perspective of traditional standards of acceptable conduct.[3]

Plastic shamans are also believed to be dangerous because they give people false ideas about traditional spirituality and ceremonies.[5] In some cases, the plastic shamans will require that the ceremonies are performed in the nude, and that men and women participate in the ceremony together, although such practices are an innovation and were not traditionally followed.[17] Another innovation may include the introduction of sex magic or "tantric" elements, which may be a legitimate form of spirituality in its own right (when used in its original cultural context), but in this context it is an importation from a different tradition and is not part of authentic Native practices.[3]

The results of this appropriation of Indigenous knowledge have led some tribes, intertribal councils, and the United Nations General Assembly to issue several declarations on the subject:

4. We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well-being of the people as a whole.

5. We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any "white man's shaman" who rises from within our own communities to "authorize" the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such "plastic medicine men" are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

— Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality[18][19]

Article 11: Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature. ... States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.

Article 31: 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.

— Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[20]

Therefore, be warned that these individuals are moving about playing upon the spiritual needs and ignorance of our non-Indian brothers and sisters. The value of these instructions and ceremonies are questionable, maybe meaningless, and hurtful to the individual carrying false messages.

— Resolution of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elders Circle[21]

Many of those who work to expose plastic shamans believe that the abuses perpetuated by spiritual frauds can only exist when there is ignorance about the cultures a fraudulent practitioner claims to represent. Activists working to uphold the rights of traditional cultures work not only to expose the fraudulent distortion and exploitation of Indigenous traditions and Indigenous communities, but also to educate seekers about the differences between traditional cultures and the often-distorted modern approaches to spirituality.[3][6]

One indicator of a plastic shaman might be someone who discusses "Native American spirituality" but does not mention any specific Native American tribe. The "New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans" website discusses potentially plastic shamans.[22]


The word "shaman" originates from the Evenki word "šamán".[23] The term came into usage among Europeans via Russians interacting with the Indigenous peoples in Siberia. From there, "shamanism" was picked up by anthropologists to describe any cultural practice that involves vision-seeking and communication with the spirits, no matter how diverse the cultures included in this generalisation. Native American and First Nations spiritual people use terms in their own languages to describe their traditions; their spiritual teachers, leaders or elders are not called "shamans".[3][16] One significant promoter of this view of a global shamanism was the Beat Generation writer Gary Snyder, whose 1951 PhD thesis treated Haida religion as a form of shamanic practice, and whose subsequent poetry promotes the idea of the Pacific Rim as "a single cultural zone and a single bioregion."[24] Other writers promoting the idea of a generalised shamanic religion in this period also include Robert Bly, who stated that "the most helpful addition to thought about poetry in the past thirty years has been the concept of the poet as a relative of the shaman ... I am a shaman."[25] Snyder and Bly's remarks attest to the deep investment in shamanism in 1960s and 1970s counterculture. Leslie Marmon Silko would later condemn Snyder's appropriations of Native religions in her 1978 essay "An Old-Fashioned Indian Attack in Two Parts". Later, Michael Harner would develop the concept of neoshamanism, or "core shamanism", which also makes the unfounded claim that the ways of several North American tribes share more than surface elements with those of the Siberian Shamans.[3][5][26] This misappellation led to many non-Natives assuming Harner's inventions were traditional Indigenous ceremonies.[3] Geary Hobson sees the New Age use of the term shamanism as a cultural appropriation of Native American culture by "white" people who have distanced themselves from their own history.[3]

In Nepal, the term Chicken Shaman is used.[27]

Documentary film

A 1996 documentary about this phenomenon, White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, was directed by Terry Macy and Daniel Hart.[28]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Hagan, Helene E. "The Plastic Medicine People Circle." Archived 2013-03-05 at the Wayback Machine Sonoma Free County Press. Accessed 31 Jan 2013.
  2. ^ Sheets, Brian, "Papers or Plastic: The Difficulty in Protecting Native Spiritual Identity", Lewis & Clark Law Review, 17:2, p.596.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j G. Hobson, "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." in: Hobson, Gary, ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978: 100-108.
  4. ^ a b Chidester, David, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture. University of California Press; 2005; p.173: "Defenders of the integrity of indigenous religion have derided New Age shamans, as well as their indigenous collaborators, as 'plastic shaman' or 'plastic medicine men.'"
  5. ^ a b c Aldred, Lisa, "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" in: The American Indian Quarterly issn.24.3 (2000) pp.329-352. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  6. ^ a b c Sieg, Katrin, Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany; University of Michigan Press (Aug 20, 2002) p.232
  7. ^ Francis, Daniel, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture; Arsenal Pulp Press (July 1, 2002); pp.109-110: "A particularly bizarre example of the 'plastic shaman' phenomenon occurred as recently as 1991, much to the embarrassment of The New York Times, which for several weeks listed as the top of its nonfiction bestseller list a book called The Education of Little Tree. Supposedly the autobiography of a young Indian orphan ... But it soon turned out that Forrest Carter, author of Little Tree (along with several western novels, including one that became the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales), was not an Indian at all: the autobiography was fiction. And there was more: Forrest Carter ... had in real life been a man named Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan thug and virulent racist."
  8. ^ Herel, Suzanne (2002-06-27). "2 seeking spiritual [enlightenment die in new-age sweat lodge". San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Communications. Retrieved 2006-09-26.
  9. ^ Taliman, Valerie (13 October 2009), Selling the sacred, Indian Country Today, archived from the original on 24 July 2012, retrieved 15 February 2014
  10. ^ Goulais, Bob (2009-10-24). "Editorial: Dying to experience native ceremonies". North Bay Nugget. Archived from the original on 2012-09-06. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  11. ^ Hocker, Lindsay. "Sweat lodge incident 'not our Indian way'", Quad-Cities Online, 14 October 2009.
  12. ^ Wernitznig, Dagmar, Europe's Indians, Indians in Europe: European Perceptions and Appropriations of Native American Cultures from Pocahontas to the Present. University Press of America, 2007: p.132. "What happens further in the Plastic Shaman's [fictitious] story is highly irritating from a perspective of cultural hegemony. The Injun elder does not only willingly share their spirituality with the white intruder but, in fact, must come to the conclusion that this intruder is as good an Indian as they are themselves. Regarding Indian spirituality, the Plastic Shaman even out-Indians the actual ones. The messianic element, which Plastic Shamanism financially draws on, is installed in the Yoda-like elder themselves. They are the ones - while melodramatically parting from their spiritual offshoot - who urge the Plastic Shaman to share their gift with the rest of the world. Thus, Plastic Shamans wipe their hands clean of any megalomaniac or missionizing undertones. Licensed by the authority of an Indian elder, they now have every right to spread their wisdom, and if they make (quite more than) a buck with it, then so be it.--The neocolonial ideology attached to this scenario leaves less room for cynicism."
  13. ^ Wernitznig, 2007: p.132.
  14. ^ Such as James Arthur Ray, convicted of three counts of negligent homicide.Riccardi, Nicholas (June 22, 2011). "Self-help guru convicted in Arizona sweat lodge deaths". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ a b May, James (18 Feb 2002). "Man claiming to be Northern Cheyenne "Shaman" convicted on eight felony counts". Indian Country Today Media Network.: "A letter from the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council obtained by Indian Country Today and signed by three tribal council members, said that Cagle is in no way associated with the tribe ... The letter further stated that the Northern Cheyenne do not use the term "shaman" when referring to their religious leaders"
  16. ^ "Sacred Ceremonies Must Be Protected Archived 2013-11-29 at the Wayback Machine," Indian Country Today / Lakota Journal, April 7, 2003
  17. ^ Mesteth, Wilmer, et al (June 10, 1993) "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." "At the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota unanimously passed a "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." The following declaration was unanimously passed.
  18. ^ Taliman, Valerie (1993) "Article On The 'Lakota Declaration of War'."
  19. ^ a b Working Group on Indigenous Populations, accepted by the UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Archived 2014-10-19 at the Wayback Machine; UN Headquarters; New York City (13 September 2007) p. 5.
  20. ^ Yellowtail, Tom, et al; "Resolution of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elders Circle" Northern Cheyenne Nation, Two Moons' Camp, Rosebud Creek, Montana; October 5, 1980. Inter-tribal council of Navajo, Hopi, Muskogee, Chippewa-Cree, Northern Cheyenne, Haudenosaunee and Lakota Elders.
  21. ^ Lupa 37
  22. ^ Eliade, Mircea; Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1964; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-11942-2. p. 4.
  23. ^ Ling Chung, "Gary Snyder's American–Asian Shamanism". The Comparatist 29 (2005), pp. 38–62. [1]
  24. ^ [2] Joseph Shakarchi and Robert Bly, "An Interview with Robert Bly." The Massachusetts Review 23:2 (1982), pp. 226–243
  25. ^ Harner, Michael The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0-06-250373-1
  26. ^ Müller-Ebeling, Claudia; Christian Rätsch; Surendra Bahadur Shahi (2000). Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas. Thames & Hudson. pp. 19, 24 & 156. ISBN 0-500-51108-X.
  27. ^ "White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men Archived 2019-09-07 at the Wayback Machine", Terry Macy and Daniel Hart, Native Voices, Indigenous Documentary Film at the University of Washington


Further reading

  • Berkhofer, Robert F. "The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present"
  • Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century.
  • Deloria, Philip J., Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0-300-08067-4.
  • Deloria Jr., Vine, "The Pretend Indian: Images of Native Americans in the Movies."
  • Fikes, Jay Courtney. Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties. Millenia Press, Canada, 1993 ISBN 0-9696960-0-0.
  • Harvey, Graham, ed. Shamanism: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-25330-6.
  • Green, Rayna D. "The Tribe Called Wannabee". Folklore. 1988; 99(1): 30–55.
  • Jenkins, Philip. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press; 2004. ISBN 0-19-516115-7.
  • Kehoe, Alice B. "Primal Gaia: Primitivists and Plastic Medicine Men." in: Clifton, J., ed. The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies. New Brunswick: Transaction; 1990: 193–209.
  • Kehoe, Alice B. Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking. 2000. London: Waveland Press. ISBN 1-57766-162-1.
  • de Mille, Richard, The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies. 1980, Santa Barbara, CA: Ross Erikson Publishers. ISBN 0-915520-25-7.
  • Narby, Jeremy and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. 2001; reprint, New York: Tarcher, 2004. ISBN 0-500-28327-3.
  • Noel, Daniel C. Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities, Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-1081-2.
  • Rollins, Peter C. Hollywood's Indian : the portrayal of the Native American in film. Univ Pr of Kentucky, 1998. ISBN 0813120446
  • Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7679-0742-6.
  • Rose, Wendy, "The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on White Shamanism." in: Jaimes, M. A., ed. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonisation and Resistance. Boston: South End; 1992: 403–421.
  • Smith, Andrea. "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former life". in: Adams, C., ed. Ecofeminism and the Sacred. New York: Continuum; 1994: 168–171.
  • Wallis, Robert J., Shamans/neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-30203-X
  • Wernitznig, Dagmar, Going Native or Going Naive? White Shamanism and the Neo-Noble Savage. Lanham, Maryland, United States; University Press of America; 2003. ISBN 0761824952
  • Znamenski, Andrei, ed. Shamanism: Critical Concepts, 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-31192-6

Declarations and resolutions

Articles on selling native spirituality