How One Shaman is Spinning a Web of Life, Equity, and Multiculturalism
By employing a sociocultural, historical, gendered, and anthropological lens to a spiritual practice too often overlooked, generalized, or misunderstood – Shamanism – I explore how women’s equity, environmental rights, and other empathetic practices manifest through healing introspection in an urban geography. Based on historical analysis and anecdotal evidence, I discuss the strong correlation between Shamanism and feminine energy, and the apparent need for such a connection to transcend spiritual healing into political discourse to further both sectors of human life. All the while, I hone in on Donna Henes’ testimony to craft metaphorical explanations to synonimize her full, impactful life with larger phenomena. To end, I take a reflexive stance in order to deduce the ways in which my ethnographic work may serve as a roadmap to subsequent anthropological studies of this nature. Without further ado, herein lies words which, at their very core, are at the reader’s analytical, theorizing service.
I am now more than fifteen minutes late to meet with Urban Shaman Donna Henes. I could blame the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the flighty Apple Maps, or my afternoon meeting for running long. Yet, regardless of the reason, I was visibly flustered. As I ran up the Old Public School 9’s steps at 279 Sterling Place, I was at once sweating and shivering – an ideal composure for an evening interview with one of Brooklyn’s most prominent healers. Once I reached the fourth floor I was met immediately with a familiar sound – not one of human likeness, but instead a quick yap from a dog smaller than a reasonable baguette. Standing behind the makeshift guard dog – makeshift here is a codeword for too cute to hurt a fly – was Donna Henes, commonly known as Mama Donna, Urban Shaman. Instantaneously my stress subsided and I felt ready to dive into the interview, overcome with the question: Who is this fiery, yet innately calm, redhead standing before me?
To robustly comprehend the assertions within this text, it is imperative to take a step back and explicate both Shamanism and Henes place within the discourse, utilizing a macro and micro lineage, respectively. This introductory knowledge is necessary before diving into analysis, for without a sound informative foundation, theoretical pillars will not stand the test of time. Thus, to embark, Shamanism, as analyzed by Anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, is not one monolithic definitive term. Vitebsky explained, “It could [be said] that there are many shamanisms (Atkinson 1992), just as there are many monotheisms” (Vitebsky 2000, 151). Yet, for continuity purposes, he finally landed on a working definition. He shared, “In this chapter I shall keep to the criterion of soul flight, since this constitutes a distinctive form of human religiosity with its own particular theological, psychological, and sociological implications” (Vitebsky 2000, 151). While the exact root is not unquestioningly confirmed, most scholars believe the earliest practicings of Shamanism to be found in Siberia, due to rock carvings which depict recognizable Shaman’s costumes, complete with “reindeer-antler helmets and drums stretched over a distinctive style of wooden framework” (Vitebsky 2000, 152).
Consequently, one begins to wonder, how did the practices of Siberia travel all the way to The United States, let alone the most densely populated area, New York City? Ironically, Vitebsky noted that such a practice was not intended for this audience at its inception. “Broadly speaking, shamanic kinds of religion have tended to be persecuted with the growth of urban civilizations, centralized states (Thomas and Humphrey 1994), and institutionalized priest-based religions” (Vitebsky 2000, 151). He continued on, noting that Shamans and Shamanism alike thrive outside of “the main orbit of these structures” (Vitebsky 2000, 152). Defying this notion, Shamanism has crossed seas and borders to end up in Henes’ lap: an eager and prepared recipient.
Henes described her beggining experiences with the concept. When asked, “How were you first introduced to Shamanism?” she responded:
I’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been alive. I think that I came in to continue what I’d already begun in other lives. And that has been brought home to me in lots of experiences that kind of verified that in some way. So, even as a little girl I was doing rituals, but then when I was 30, I had a major vision that I called my assignment from the universe and that set me on this course in a formal manner.
Said assignment, she explained, provided “context and meaning, extra depth, understanding.” “I was already kinda on that path, but this really solidified me and I haven’t gotten off of it ever. You know, this is what I do. That’s what I’m supposed to do and I do it,” she said with a chuckle.
That moment, during her 30th year, brought her past face to face with her future in a way that could only be described by destiny.
I was an artist at that time and I was creating these big environmental installations that kind of looked like webs and one day I was in my last loft and I was sitting there were two guys who lived in the building, and this is an interesting gender thing for you, usually you think of science and art as being opposite and one of these guys was a chemist, one was a painter, but they were both guys, and the UPS guy came and delivered a package which was from a friend who had moved out to Long Island. Her house has been abandoned for a very long time and in the attic she found this kind of silver gossamer web that reminded her of my work and so she sent it to me. And both guys when they saw said “oh, wow, you should press that between plexiglass and can see it from both sides.” I said “Are you kidding it’s clearly a viel” and I put it on my face and ran to the mirror and I-
Henes broke off, and with a trying tone, attempted to put this instance into prose worthy of the weight of that revelation:
It’s confusing to talk about spirit in English cause we don’t have a good vocabulary for it. So when I say that I had a vision, I did not see anything. It was an instantaneous kind of Gestalt understanding of the inextricable interconnectivity of the universe, which was the web, basically. So, that really helped me in terms of the work I was doing. And other work that I was doing, I was able to see that it was very conceptual, it wasn’t sculptural. I understood that I had been creating webs of communication. I just kind of understand. But that’s my job. I’m a connecting force processor.
Through stories such as these and articles like Vitebsky, I plan to pull out themes of feminine spiritual healing energy, place, environmental needs, and the deep intertwining of such on political, social, and cultural scales. This nuanced analysis is vital in the furthering of an inclusive Shamanism which views itself as an entity powerful enough to shape culture and humble enough to let culture shape it. Significance is moreover found in the acknowledgment that a Shamanistic outlook – one which views every part of the earth as energetic and capable of interplay – fosters empathy in the face of widespread climate change and its impacts. Then, willing to take it to a deeper point of examination, I conglomerate these various socially disadvantaged groups and briefly discuss how politics, and the politics of place, need to be in this ever-growing conversation.
Contextual Umbrella and Diversity Imperative
As with most all religious endeavors, there are political aspects in discourse regarding Shamanism on two levels: at a transnational intersection point of identity, globalization, and ethnicity, and the hyper-present legislative field within which nation-states interact with the earth and other spiritual beings. First, as reported by Al Jazeera in a 2015 article entitled “Siberia’s resurgent shamanism,” Shamanism is said to have “attracted new followers since the fall of the Soviet Union” (Mater 2015). Jassim Mater, based in Doha, Qatar, wrote “In this region, as in most of the world, the practice was largely forced out by competing beliefs – in Siberia’s case through occasionally violent conflict with Tibetan Buddhism for centuries, followed by decades of state repression under the Soviet Union” (Mater 2015). Yet, they discovered, “Despite being driven to the edges of society, shamanism – the belief in good and evil spirits and rituals to appease them – has experienced a resurgence in recent years” (Mater 2015). With an increase in visibility, unfortunately, too often comes an appropriation of cultural practices. The article describes a new “Neo-Shamanism,” one that is accompanied by practitioners who “don’t learn shamanism’s core beliefs or follow proper rituals” (Mater 2015).
Vitebsky also speaks to this new popularity surge in Shamanism. He challenged the upcoming days for the practice, expounding that “For the foreseeable future, the term shamanism will be the subject of intense controversy centering especially on questions of definition, authenticity, and appropriation” (Vitebsky 2000, 157). Colleen McCann can serve as a perfect example to these piling critiques. McCann is a “fashion stylist turned energy practitioner,” according to her website equipped with catchy subsections such as “HEALING + HIGH-HEELS” and “SAUCY RECIPE.” Without implying that spirituality cannot coexist with fashion, it is vital to note that her modern shamanism is wrought with problematics directly alluded to by Vitebsky and Mater. In fact, McCann embodies the characteristics of the former’s quote on page 157: “[Shamanism becoming a world religion] is most likely to come about only in a globalized form in which diverse shamanic ideas and practices are severed from their roots in numerous small-scale societies, largely at the hands of white outsiders.”
Henes is aware of the inequitable cultural appropriation of Shamanism and is steadfast in making sure her personal walk takes an appreciative stance, honoring those who have come before her. Just three years after she received her assignment from the universe, Henes embarked on her vision quest. A vision quests, as explained by the School of Lost Borders, an institution which “offers vision fasts and rites of passage training which cultivate self-trust, responsibility, and understanding about ones’ unique place within society and the natural world” (Scott 2018), according to their website, are “both personal and collective events that are guided and witnessed within the community, and often involve the “quester” spending time alone in nature in search of a personal vision that becomes a vision to support the entire community” (Brown 2018). Henes individualistic and shared journey began on a mountain off of the Lycan Trail, which is off of the Appalachian Trail. Punctuating a twenty-three day fast, Henes spent nine days on the peaks, receiving all types of visions and understandings. Further, Mama Donna had a “Power Dream,” which she had asked for. This trip also led to a much longer journey for the budding Brooklyn Shamin.
I had been connected with this Mexican Mazatec Shaman. Spiritually I had no access to get to her. But I found her chants. The Smithsonian had recorded her chants, and they just made me weep. So years after my vision quest I finally was able to take this National Geographic track to find her.
I had a Mexican friend and he was able to arrange for me a letter of introduction when I got to this little village, to the woman who had the cafe, and her brother-in-law was a Mazatec so he could translate, he was able to kind of set me up to meet her and I did and I was with her on her deathbed and she blessed me. I mean, I was with her for a time. But when it was time for me to leave she blessed me, not to do her work, which I never have done. I am not a Mazatec, that is not my tradition. I’m a modern urban woman and all of my work is very multicultural. And so she blessed me to do my work which is why I started calling myself an urban shop. I still get visions, I still get visitations, I still get incredible, incredible experiences.
In this way, Henes is not only showing respect for her forehealers, but is also stepping into her own positionality as a Shaman, one which is appreciative of tradition, and not appropriative in the now. She had been called to perform ritual where she was planted, New York City. She made clear “I don’t believe in usurping somebody else’s culture, but giving a credit and giving it, you know, respect is a whole other thing. So people come to expect that, and then again, the circles are usually pretty diverse.” When considering what set Brooklyn apart as spatially important for Shamanic practice, Henes responded quickly,
Well people have said to me for a long time “you should be living in Santa Fe or the Bay Area where everybody’s like you” and I said, “well, that’s the point.” It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it and I feel it’s easy to do ritual in New York because everybody is here. I mean, I think it’s a very spiritual place. There’s so many different aspects of that spirituality, but it all spills out.
Henes has truly taken the city by the steering wheel and is conducting rituals from animal blessings to wedding ceremonies, and everything in between. Diverging slightly from Michael M. Ames’ text “Buddha and the Dancing Goblins: A Theory of Magic and Religion,” Henes takes a less intake and outtake perception of ritual and what it does in the world. For Ames, ritual in a Buddhist sense exists primarily to act as “a transition between the world of the profane and the world of the sacred” (Ames 1964, 79). For her, rather, ritual is deeply indebted to what the person needs and is requesting from the multiverse in that specific temporal, geographic, and spiritual moment. Instead of being a transaction, ritual, whether it be a blessing of a house, family, or workspace, is an intimate process by which the Shaman steps into another’s life in order to speak security, love, and hope into their situation.
Secondly, the hyper-present legislative field within which nation-states interact with the earth and other spiritual beings is inseparable from Shamanism. Looking only at the United States, how can individuals expect their leaders to embrace a progressive – while still traditionalist – manifestation of spirituality based not in rules and regulations, but the wholistic love of another energetic individual regardless of race, age, class, gender, or an amalgamation of such? As the nation becomes more polarized, and women’s rights take the main stage in many institutional contexts for the first time, well, ever, Henes has noticed a slight shift in her practice throughout New York City. As the nation and world rebuke diversity, Henes uses it as her guiding principle, finding a possible solution to hate, with ritual love:
I love, I love the rituals. I love how I am not a – I am not new age, airy fairy stuff. I’m very down to earth and as I said very multicultural. So, it’s not like a white middle-class thing. Every person is there, of every stripe – sometimes I have to stop the ritual and just say “look at us. We’re all here together in peace. And on the same wavelength.” Like, we’ve seen the future, the future works. So what the hell is the problem the rest of the world?
In fact, when prompted to consider what the future of Shamanism ought look like, considering the current political, historical moment, Henes predicted “I think that it is going to grow with and as environmental consciousness grows, because really it is what it is, honoring of nature.” She continued, “the more people becoming environmentally aware and conscious and interactive and supportive and all that, the more this kind of ceremonial reverence will jive with that.” This too is gendered. National Women’s Law Center, a United States non-profit organization founded by Marcia Greenberger in 1972 and based in Washington, D.C., correlated the two social justice movements:
First of all, both environmental and women’s activism are extremely intersectional fights. In each area, individuals of varied races, ethnicities, economic status, gender, and citizenship status are disproportionately affected by these movements’ encompassing issues. […] We need to mirror the type of undiminished commitment that indigenous groups, women and environmental advocates alike have shown throughout the years. Most of all, we need to recognize that women’s rights activism and environmental activism share common goals and continue to further conversations that work toward broader, multifaceted solutions.
By allowing these two life-force-movements to web connections, the activist, human, social actor is furthermore doing the right of two movements under one body of spiritual reverence and empathy. While the solution is not encompassing to every corner of social disenfranchisement, it is a step into a more unified, emotive future for those who begin to see feminine energy as antidotal to sociocultural malfeasances.
By taking a reflexive stance at my work, I can identify areas which would have supplemented the above information. While it seems as if no amount of fieldwork or shared words will ever be sufficient to craft complex social theory that actually does things in the world, I find it important to verbalize that this study could benefit from an echoing of what was said by Mama Donna from other prominent Shamans in the city. Had this element been integrated, along with more space and time to take even more second glances at this social phenomenon, my words would gleam brighter with the type of authority which comes when you have a reverberation of your assertions being encouraged by those knowledgeable on the situation.
That depicted, the aforementioned systems in which Urban Shamanism is persisting today, in a way that most would have made most scoff during those early days in Siberia, is unendingly worth acknowledging. Based on historical analysis and anecdotal evidence, I discussed the strong correlation between Shamanism and feminine energy, and the apparent need for such a connection to transcend spiritual healing into political discourse to further both sectors of human life. Moreover, I showed that Henes’ words were poignant enough to display a web of Shamanistic ethics which does not merely stand still in the face of national and global hate, but ebbs and flows with the hopeful moving of political strongholds to people who I would not be surprised to run into at a Tarot Card reading in Mama Donna’s Tea Garden & Healing Haven. In this manner, I agree with Erika Bourguignon’s findings that academic feminism, psychological anthropology, and religion have much to offer one another (Bourguignon 2004, 557). However, I raise her a fourth category: without sifting environmental studies into our discourse on the movement of religion and feminism, we are doing a disservice to the people of these lands, and the very land itself.
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