[NB] Shaman: a snapshot in the life of a word

“Anonymous writers were the norm, frequently German, Swedish, or Danish captives; among them, by the second half of the seventeenth century, ‘shaman,’ ‘saaman,’ and ‘shaitan’ were established as indigenous terms, applied to all groups living past the Ural Mountains. Later ethnographers would suggest that the term ‘shaman’ was specifically of ‘Tungus origin,’ but in the mid-seventeenth century the Tungus were…not a distinct ethnic tribe…. Judging from the historical evidence, the word itself is a generic label of Slavic origin via German transcription with negative connotations.”—Silvia Tomášková, The Wayward Shaman: The Prehistory of an Idea (77–78)

So, yeah, this word that has now become a tense spot in the dialogue around appropriating indigenous discourse, may very likely have had its origins in the imperial effort to catalog the margins of Russia. I’m not saying the dialogue around appropriation doesn’t matter, but it does suggest something funny that we have gotten tangled up in a word rather in the history or present circumstances of a people and a practice. Or, that we twist ourselves in knots to avoid appropriating a word while living the ins and outs of our days on the appropriation of their land and labor.

Does the concern over a word really help us or other people? Or does it slow us down, isolate us, divide us up so that we can’t communicate so easily with each other? While we need to have good definitions on the ground, I suspect that language policing benefits empire first and foremost.

One thought on “[NB] Shaman: a snapshot in the life of a word

  1. Fascinating. The concern over the word is probably appropriate, given how much of our modern discussions about anti-imperialist him and anti-colonialism revolve around not talking over indigenous acts and voices. But we have also done a terrible job of making the western spiritual Ally, that is an actual human being who help mediate experiences of the divine for other humans, into an easily accessible form. Psychiatrists psychologists priests ministers family therapists, and more, are all answerable to various structures and hierarchies. Some hierarchy is clearly needed, but too much field impersonal and oppressive.

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