The Shamans of Suburbia

by Richard Petraitis

A student approached me in the classroom the other day and related to me a bizarre tale of a man who claimed he was an actual shaman! As this account went, the man had met the student at a restaurant and proceeded to tell the student and his girlfriend that he was an actual shaman who had received his training in India. (India is not exactly a hotbed of shamanism. Webster’s dictionary defines a shaman as "a person who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, foretell the future, control spiritual forces, etc." Shamanism is Northern Asian in origin, where it is still practiced among some of the indigenous people of Siberia.) I requested that my student, if he encountered the "shaman" again, inquire how this shaman received his training in the predominantly Hindu and Sikh country of India, known for yogis and holy men, not shamans!

However, going away from my usual attack on those who claim paranormal powers, with questions targeted on how these powers defy known scientific laws, I will let American history provide the examples that disprove the claims any "modern day" American shamans have to magical powers. History has shown that shamans had no magic powers, even when practiced by those who genuinely held those beliefs in our own past — the Native Americans. Please trust me when I tell you that the Native Americans had every reason to use their best sorcery against an invading enemy, the Europeans. Starting with Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro, and ending in the last Indian battles for the Americas, like the tragic stand at Wounded Knee in the Dakotas, history records that one shaman after another used his best incantations and spells to fight the European invaders and to protect his tribe’s warriors, but to no avail. Superior weapons, devastating diseases, and a continuing colonial land grab, despite the fierce, desperate fighting by the Native Americans, overwhelmed the original people of the Americas. Let’s closely study the specific accounts of shamanism being used to fight the European enemy during the Indian Wars, fought over a period of four hundred years. Magic was attempted by Native American shamans, unsuccessfully, to stop European invaders of the various Native American nations.

After the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, European exploration and colonization of the Americas accelerated at a rapid pace. The people of the Americas would become forcefully awakened to a newly arisen and aggressive culture, that of Western Europe. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, head of a militaristic empire and a believer in the power of sorcerers, had a number of these shamans present in his court. When the Spanish adventurer, Hernando Cortes, landed with his small army near present-day Veracruz, Mexico, Montezuma sent his best sorcerers to bewitch the consquistadors with powerful spells. The spells didn’t work and the magicians attributed the impotency of their magical arts to the conquistadors’ "hardskins," a possible reference to the armor they wore as protection against Aztec weapons. Unable to thwart the army of Cortes with magic, the Aztec empire would also be unable to prevent an advance on its capital of Tenochitlan. The Spanish arrival at the capitol city of the Aztecs would be the beginning of the end for Montezuma and his people. The land of Mexica changed rulers, despite Aztec resistance by physical and magical means. As one example, during a siege of the Aztec capital, in 1521, Aztec priests performed ceremonies, including human sacrifices, and promised the beleaguered population that Cortes and his Indian allies would be delivered by their god of war into Aztec hands in eight days. Unfortunately, the situation failed to change militarily, and the population became completely demoralized. They had already been disillusioned when Cortes didn’t turn out to be their returning god, Quetzalcoatl!

Native American shamans, usually men because of the male hierarchy of most Indian tribes, claimed to have the ability to foretell the future using divination and vision quests. Despite the numerous shamans and medicine men among the five hundred Native American nations prior to 1492, none of these men of magic used their special powers to foresee and to prepare their people to repel the future European invasion. The Incan emperor, Atahuallpa, in 1532, was caught completely by surprise with the news of white men disembarking from ships on the Peruvian coast. Incan diviners and augurs also had no previous clue to the impending invasion, despite their repoire with the spirit world. (However, one coastal chieftain, who brought news of the Spaniards’ arrival to Atahuallpa, did give the Incan emperor sage advice to silence the Spanish cannon -- pour Incan beer down the barrel to appease the thunder god inside of it.) The coastal Atlantic Native Americans were similarly surprised by the first arrivals of Europeans to their shores, despite the tribal shamans and seers in their midst. Why didn’t the Native Americans have any warning regarding their ultimate conquest by enemy nations with all the supernatural wonder-working talent on their side? Why no visions of sailing ships coming to their shores, laden with military adventurers, colonists, and slavers?

During the War of 1812, intense fighting raged across North America. Various Indian peoples were in the process of losing their ancestral homes, east of the Mississippi River, to the advancing American colonists. In 1811, an Indian confederacy was being forged by the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, to combat the troops of the United States, which was then approaching war with England. Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatana, "The Prophet," claimed special powers after he manipulated knowledge of an eclipse gained from British officers to awe potential allies into joining his brother’s confederacy. While Tecumseh was away on a recruitment campaign, "The Prophet" decided to attack an American army encamped nearby. Tenskwatana convinced hundreds of Shawnee warriors and their allies that his magic would cause the bullets of U.S. soldiers to melt like water. Unfortunately, just like paranormalists of today, Tenskwatana failed to deliver. November 6, 1811, spelled disaster for Tecumseh’s plans at the battle of Tippecanoe, and a loss in his prestige among the Indian tribes because of his brother’s claim to perform magic. A ferocious assault by Indian warriors was beaten back by American volleys of gunfire, and the Indian army at Prophetstown was dispersed before the forces of a future president, William Harrison, then the governor of Indiana. Prophetstown was burned to the ground and Tecumseh’s dream of a giant Indian confederacy became a casualty of magical thinking. (Tecumseh almost killed his brother while enraged over the fiasco.)

In 1814, a "Tecumseh-inspired" uprising by the Creek Indian nation, the "Red Stick" war, was led by a number of "divinely-inspired" prophets who claimed special powers for use against any enemy, especially the white man. After the Red Stick destruction of Ft. Mims, three American armies launched a retaliatory invasion of the Creek lands. A Creek Indian village, named Red Eagle’s Town, also known as the "Holy Ground," was allegedly protected by these Creek prophets. They claimed to have cast an invisible barrier around the village which would destroy any white soldier crossing it. On December 23, 1914, American troops stormed the town at bayonet-point, with only one American casualty away from the village, forcing the Creek warriors to beat a hasty retreat after suffering much heavier casualties of their own. It can be safely said that the credibility of the Creek prophets among their people probably fell a little that day. (A similar situation occurred when Zuni priests had attempted to stop the advance of conquistadors during the sixteenth century by drawing a line with sacred corn, which was immediately breeched by a Spanish cavalry charge.) Yet another defeat for those claiming supernatural powers found in the history books!

How about another example of shamanic failure in aiding a people caught in a life and death struggle for survival? By the late nineteenth century, the tribes of North America had fought a long and losing battle against the encroaching settlers of America. The United States had managed to confine the remaining tribes to a number of reservations by the use of military force. There would be one more drama of resistance played ou in the West, that of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A Paiute Indian named Wovoka started a religious movement called the Ghost Dance, which anticipated a return of lands to the Indians. Many of his followers were Sioux Indians, a once proud Plains people who had resisted the white man by successful adoption of horses and firearms.

Wovoka claimed supernatural powers; he claimed the dead would come back and restore the land to the Indians. Wovoka told his followers that they would be protected from the bullets of the United States cavalry by the wearing of "Ghost shirts." The movement grew for two years and reached its zenith with an armed confrontation, on December 21, 1890, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The confrontation started over an attempt to disband a large number of Sioux Indians, as the U.S. army moved to arrest the leaders of the Ghost Dance movement. While some Sioux warriors were surrendering their weapons, a firefight broke out between the two sides. Two Hotchkiss guns, early machine guns, raked the Sioux band, leaving nearly three hundred dead men, women, and children. Native American magic had lent, via Ghost shirts and magical thinking, a false sense of invincibility. It was a tragic ending to a brave, warrior nation.

What are we to make of the growing number of people in America who are advocates of a return to shamanistic thinking (currently disguised as New Age thinking), which often had tragic consequences for many cultures around the world against the aggressive European powers and their technologically advanced armies? From suburban shamans, urban witches, and spirit mediums to a belief in the power of crystals, can we in the nation of America be laying the foundation for a future tragedy?

The claim to perform magic by tapping into a spirit world has failed no only historical tests, but scientific tests also. All pseudoscience, magical powers included, vanish before the scientific method and the test of history. So, if anyone every walks up to you in a restaurant and claims he or she is a shaman, please ask that person why the Native American nations, top-heavy culturally with medicine men and shamans, failed to repel the European invasion of their continent, or to save their people from the ravages of new diseases introduced by the Europeans. Only in the twentieth century have the Native American populations started to recover their lost numbers, after a rude awakening from their supernatural world-view. Let none of us embrace pseudoscience as a pathway to manipulating the physical universe around us. History offers countless examples of tragedy linked to such an outlook. Through an ignorance of history, as a famous man once stated, you may be doomed to repeat it.

Richard Petraitis teaches at Riverside Brookfield, Illinois, High School. This summer, he is teaching an enrichment class on pseudoscience and the debunking of the paranormal.

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