Thomas Karl Alberts. Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity. 286 pp., refs., index. New York: Routledge, 2016. $122 (hardback), $54.95 (e-book). First published 2015 by Ashgate.

Alberts, of Cape Town, South Africa, chooses “shamanism” to be the linchpin of a detailed history of an anthropological trope increasingly popular and politically engaged. Because “shamanism” is universalized as a component of “the primitive,” its usage closely followed the development of anthropology within imperial regimes, and its current proliferation ties in with indigenous rights and environmental projects. Alberts goes farther, citing Foucault at numerous points about modernity’s universalizing epistemologies versus its acknowledgements of contingencies. The term “modernity” seems to refer to an Enlightenment search for new knowledge as the means of establishing universal types and laws, forever pushed on by contingent particulars brought up to critique these projections (14-15). The strength and value of this book is in its critiques, packed with historic and contemporary detail.

“Shamans” became known to Western educated persons through Russia’s explorations of Siberia in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth century. Drawing upon Andrei Znamenski’s work, Alberts chronicles descriptions and interpretations of Tungus shamans and similar Siberian religious practitioners, who in Western eyes were buffoons, lunatics, or deceivers. Their performances observed by the cool Enlightenment gaze of explorers and ethnographers made them a stock figure of “the primitive,” ignorant of science and liable to fall into hysterics. The development of anthropology as a discipline incorporated “the shaman” as a cross-cultural type among “primitive” societies, while Franz Boas’s concern with historical particularities led him and his followers to postulate that Siberian shamans’ beliefs and practices had diffused eastward into northern North America, into both Northwest Coast and Arctic communities. Alberts highlights how Boasians committed to “particularist and relativist method” faced a dilemma: “ethnographic particularism must work with cross-cultural categories if it is to establish a science of anthropology founded on comparative analysis” (73). It seems to me that this challenge continues to roil our discipline: the forever argument over whether we’re scientists.

Having laid a foundation of ethnographies describing Siberian shamans and borrowings of the term for ritualists in other societies deemed primitive, Alberts details the postwar emergence of indigenism and of its use in environmental movements. These chapters, footnoted with citations to U.N. Declarations, Commission Reports, and other legal documents, chart how anthropologists’ work has been co-opted to construct, first, a global category of “indigenous societies,” then “indigenes,” “indigenous knowledge,” and “indigeneity”—that last an example of the academic exercise of nominalizing an adjective.[1] With the racist persistence of models of cultural evolutionary stages dichotomizing Us the Educated from the Others, the concept of “primitives” remains in the label “indigenes” and with it, the assumption that religions in “indigenous societies” are led by “shamans.” As postcolonial political movements meshed with environmental movements, native healers and priests came to be labeled “shamans”: the cross-cultural category submerged historical particularism.

Alberts continues with descriptions of commercialized shamanism, from Michael Harner’s extensive business teaching “shamanism” to paying customers, to South African sangomas taking advantage of the business model to sell their teachings and fetishes. These entrepreneurs of the self, as Alberts calls them, fit in the neoliberal economy, hence “modernity.”   Harner’s status as a Professor of Anthropology (New School of Social Research) before he resigned to devote himself to his Foundation for Shamanic Studies lends credibility to his claims that “shamanism” is a primordial method for healing, in contradistinction to the actual practices of Tungus and other Siberian ritual leaders. Harner presents himself as a research scientist whose knowledge derives from his fieldwork with Shuar in South America, in this way undergirding his business with, ostensibly, anthropology.[2]

Shamans, Alberts says, have since the eighteenth century been pictured as mediators between worlds, and are therefore suitable today to actively link encapsulated indigenous societies and global nation-states, non-Western ecological knowledge, and environmental campaigns against Anthropocene destructions (226). It seems to me that the Western idea of shamans is of travelers, rather than mediators, between worlds––literally when Yanomami and Kayapo leaders toured with rock star Sting. Siberian shamans were supposed to travel in spirit to realms where they could marry a reindeer doe; “shamans” in societies elsewhere travel Outside to ally with First World environmental advocates. The aura of otherworldly knowledge clings, sacralizing campaigns to save the planet.

This book fits with Adam Kuper’s “Return of the Native” exposé of euphemisms cloaking persistent dichotomizing of Us the Civilized and the primitive Others.[3] Alberts, like Kuper, understands this to be the fundamental thesis of anthropology as a scholarly discipline. Its roots lie in Classical distinctions between citizens and barbarians beyond the gates. Imperial explorations by European scientists became ethnographies mined for regularities formulated into a discipline called anthropology. Both Kuper and Alberts alert us to the seemingly innocuous ascription of “eco-centric” knowledge to “indigenes,” folding them into the hoary oppositional category of “primitives,” objects of our study. Alberts’s Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity is a clear scholarly exposition of how a Tungus word epitomized, for imperial powers, the supposedly irrational and socially inferior native leaders of distant communities destined to be colonies. With the breakup of administered colonies unleashing independent capitalist exploitation, indigenous communities struggled to be recognized and to protect their resources. Boundaries weakened between anthropologists’ exotic research areas and international political institutions, such as the United Nations. Like it or not, anthropology has been complicit in perpetuating the invidious emasculation of small non-western nations into “primitive peoples.” The Noble Savage lives in the anthropologist’s gaze upon eco-centric “shamans” performing on YouTube.

[1] See Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[2] Parenthetically, I remember an AAA meeting in which, in the morning, Marjorie Balzer and other ethnographers with years of fieldwork with Siberian Small Nations presented their researches, and in the afternoon, a session in which Harner and Edith Turner described their altered-consciousness journeys down the tunnel to meet their Power Animals, each insisting that because he and she observed the tunnel and the Animals in the other reality, they had scientifically demonstrated the validity of “the shamanic method” and the other reality it reaches.

[3] Adam Kuper, “The Return of the Native,” Current Anthropology 44, no. 3 (2003): 389–402.

Alice B. Kehoe: contributions / / Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Marquette University