Origin of the word “shaman”

When the Russians started conquering and colonizing Siberia, they first came upon shamans among the Evenk people. (The Russians call the Evenk “Tungus”). The Evenks, and their neighbors, the Buryats, use the term “shaman” for their spiritual leaders. The word spread from the Russians to the Americas via anthropologists who were studying Native Americans. These anthropologists needed a word to describe what they thought the Native Americans were doing and did not understand the very different world views that the peoples had. It is a shame that native peoples were not given a chance to define their own spiritual beliefs and had outsiders label them in generic, condescending, and destructive ways. They never bothered to ask the Native Americans what their words for their beliefs were.

I myself am Buryat and find it confusing how the term has grown and changed in the West. What was once a very specific term used by my people has become to mean everything and yet nothing in the West. Westerners tend to label everything earth-based as shamanism because their culture lacked the vocabulary to discuss these matters otherwise.

When I use the term “shaman” in these writings, I refer to the true traditional meaning of the word. The ancestors of my tribe have practiced this path since the beginning of time. I hope that by sharing my thoughts and traditions with you, we can bring better understanding among peoples.