Hey, white chick! How DARE you call yourself a shaman?

I was about to say there are no words for how sick I am of having that particular brand of ignorance spewed all over me, but there are words, and I’m about to type a bunch of them.

How dare I?

The spiritual reason: The spirits say that’s what I am.

The linguistic reason: It’s the proper word for a white chick who does the things I do to be using.

Yes, you read that right. It is not cultural appropriation. It is not racist. It is not stealing. It is a correct term (though not necessarily the only one) for anyone who speaks English – regardless of race, culture, or sex – to be using if they’re doing these things.

My doctor is a Scottish woman. Should she not call herself a doctor because she’s not of Italian descent? Doctor is, after all, from Latin – and in its original form would actually more properly apply to a teacher. She’s out of luck with physician, too; it’s also Latin, and would originally have been better suited as a title for a biologist.

That would be a spectacularly dumb thing to actually assert, wouldn’t it? And yet, the history of the word shaman really isn’t particularly different from that of the word doctor; both entered English down a path leading through several other languages, changing meaning along the way. That’s how English works; it is a borrowed and borrowing language. It’s how language works in general, in fact. The word shaman isn’t even the word from another culture that everyone gets in an uproar about. That word, from the Evenki language, is samán (which has another mark under the s that I can’t make my keyboard reproduce). That word has a very specific meaning tied to a specific culture and its spiritual practitioners, and should not be used by anyone not of (or properly trained from within) that culture; that is theft, and racist.

When Russian ethnographers and anthropologists arrived and studied the shamasal of the Evenki people, they needed a name for what they found, as a word for it didn’t yet exist in Russian. They, in proper linguistic fashion, borrowed, and the Evenki word entered the Russian language in a form I can’t even begin to reproduce here. German picked it up as Schamane, and depending on which timeline you accept as correct, it either moved from there into French and then into English; or straight into English, as shaman. But something very important happened along the way, something important enough that it merits some boldface:

The word changed meaning.

Probably by the time it entered German, and absolutely by the time it entered English, the word shaman no longer referred only to Evenki practitioners. It had altered to cover any practitioner from any culture who used the set of practices identified by ethnographers and anthropologists as shamanic. Shaman is the standard, accepted umbrella term in English, regardless of race or culture.

It is also the standard, accepted term regardless of gender. Shaman is not a gendered word; a woman who is a shaman is a shaman – not a shamaness, a shamanette, or a shamanelle. Do you call a woman doctor a doctorette? See that woman up there at the top of the article? You go and tell her she’s a shamanette. I’ll wait over here. Behind this tree.

By the same token, the plural of the word is shamans, not shamen. To insist otherwise is bad menner. (Fifteen people got that joke. Three of them even thought it was funny.)

And just to be clear: Shamanist and other terms of that ilk are nothing but a cop-out if they’re being used as a way to insist that “Hey, I’m not using that word.” Yes, you are using that word; you’re just sticking a suffix on it that doesn’t belong there.

Whether an individual has earned the right to the title of shaman is an entirely separate issue from the linguistic one. But to say that someone has no right to the title solely because of the color of their skin or where their mother went into labor is not only incorrect and linguistically ignorant…it’s racist.

(Photo: public domain)


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