Salmon Nation by Wolf and Zuckerman, eds.

Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge
Edited by Edward C. Wolf and Seth Zuckerman
Ecotrust/Oregon University Press, 1999/2003
80 pages

This is another one of those “not specifically pagan, but of pagan interest” books that I like to add in here every so often. Much is made of totemism, and the Land, and our connection to these and other elements of nature-based spirituality. Salmon Nation is a book that keenly illustrates those connections, and the roots of why Salmon is such an important totem to the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, it is just one example of how humans have taken a system that developed over millions of years of natural selection, geological evolution, and other processes that we often only barely comprehend, and changed it suddenly, violently, and detrimentally.

The book opens up with an essay from a member of one of the several indigenous tribes that fished for salmon and traded goods at Celilo Falls. A tradition that lasted fifteen thousand years ended when the falls were flooded by a downstream dam, despite protest. This sets the stage for showing numerous other ways in which technological progress has run over patterns that took an incredibly long time to set into place, to include the intricate migration patterns of multiple distinct populations of salmon. The book continues through descriptions of both wild and farmed salmon fishing and cultivation, the safety and health of wild salmon populations, and the impact that our current fishing policies have on the very existence of salmon.

To pagans, this should be an object lesson of why we need to take totemism beyond “My totem is a fish! Yay!” and tie our spirituality to the very earth and waters themselves. Many of the cultures we draw from revere(d) animals, not just out of symbolism, but out of survival. In post-industrial cultures, we are too often divorced from the processes that bring us food, and so turn a blind eye to ongoing destruction of our life support system.

Read this book as inspiration. Read it as motivation. Read it for grief for what has been lost, but also for the realization that we can make more of our spiritual practices than simple lip service to Nature. Meditate on what you read, and go from there.

Five fins out of five.

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Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
Norton, 1999
496 pages

I’m sure there are going to be people scratching their heads in complete confusion when they see this book on Pagan Book Reviews. However, this blog isn’t just for books that are specifically about paganism, but are also useful to pagans. And this one is useful–for giving us perspective.

See, lot of (usually, though not always, white) neopagans romanticize their conceptions of what “tribal” societies are like, and glorify rather unrealistic portrayals of hunter-gatherer and basic agrarian societies. This is not to say that these societies aren’t of value; quite the contrary. But many pagans have insufficient understandings of what makes a society sustainable, which then turn into overly simplistic arguments about how technology is evil and indigenous people are noble savages.

The beautiful thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is that Diamond painstakingly traces the various factors that caused some societies to advance technologically quicker than others, ranging from access to large, domesticatible animals and cultivatible plants, to proximity to animals that can pass on diseases and build a population’s immune system, to specific geographical and geological features, and so forth. Obviously, the book is not flawless; Diamond, despite his attempts to be matter-of-fact, still shows a Eurocentric bias in some areas; additionally, this book should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of its subject matter. But there are a lot of salient arguments here, too.

For pagans, it’s a nice break from the sometimes technophobic attitudes that pop up. Additionally, as neopagans are mostly found in developed, English-speaking and/or European-culture-based nations, it’s a good look at societies outside of those contexts. And who can’t use a good history lesson now and then?

Four pawprints out of five.

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Shamanic Wisdom by Dolfyn

Shamanic Wisdom: Nature Spirituality, Sacred Power and Earth Ecstasy
Dolfyn
Earthspirit, Inc., 1990
184 pages

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I want to not like it, because there’s a decent helping of cultural appropriation in it. Lots of “medicine” and various appropriations of watered-down indigenous concepts that have become so common in new age neoshamanisms. However, there are also some useful rituals for practicing a nature-based animistic path. I think it might have been a better book framed as animism rather than shamanism, and without the pseudo-Native trappings.

The good stuff includes practices for connecting with the directions, animals, plants, the sun and other celestial bodies, and various other denizens of the natural world. They’re designed to recreate awareness of these things we often take for granted, and the author does have a nice ecological flavor in her presentation of the material. The rituals are also not too difficult to enact, and this would be a great book in a lot of ways for a newbie pagan just learning to reach out to the world around hir.

However, as with so many other neoshamanic texts, there’s an element of entitlement, as though Nature will automatically always help us. While the chapter on eco-magic does emphasize giving back, the overall approach is fairly lightweight and says nothing about any of the potential dangers of connecting with these spirits. And there’s not really a discussion of the differences between what is presented here and indigenous practices. There’s the usual brief and somewhat stereotyped animal totem dictionary, just as a bonus.

Taken with some cautionary salt, this can be a useful text for beginners to nonindigenous animistic practices. Be skeptical, but also be open.

Three pawprints out of five.

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A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis

A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings
Kent McManis
Treasure Chest Books, 1995
48 pages

Note: There are expanded editions of this text available; this is an older edition. Please see the link at the end of the review. Please follow the link at the end of the review if interested.

Often imitated, but hard to reproduce at authentic quality, the small stone animal fetishes created by the Zuni and other southwestern American Indian cultures are well-known artifacts. However, most people don’t know much beyond the fact that they’re made by indigenous peoples, and perhaps that they’re worth money to collectors. This little book serves as an introduction to their origins and the current state of the art form.

A very basic explanation of the spiritual cosmology that informs the creation of Zuni fetishes is offered at the beginning. This creates a nice context for what follows, brief but interesting explanations of some of the more common animals found in fetish art, and what their spiritual and cultural significance is. Unlike Zuni Fetishes by Bennett, this is not a how-to text, and sticks pretty closely to the source material as opposed to extrapolating rituals that may or may not be authentic.

The book is largely aimed at collectors, and the absolutely stunning full color photographs that grace much of the book make it worth the cost on their own. McManis showcases the works of some of the better-known fetish artist families, as well as giving some information on the current living artists, and a bit on how to tell a fake apart from the real deal. The depth of the talent and creativity displayed in the examples given is amazing, and the book made me appreciate this art form even more than before.

Whether you’re a potential collector, a spiritual or artistic researcher, or simply interested in knowing a bit more about a neat niche topic, this is a good starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s an easy to digest intro.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Bear Daughter by Judith Berman

Bear Daughter
Judith Berman
Ace Books, 2005
422 pages

I don’t do much shopping for fiction any more, unless someone recommends a title. However, I was visiting my hometown not too long ago and stopped in at the sci-fi/comic book shop that I used to buy fantasy titles from on a weekly basis. I happened to see this novel and was drawn by the cover art, as well as the title. Because of it, I may just have to start browsing fantasy fic again.

Cloud is a twelve-year-old girl. Or, at least, she is now. Up until the beginning of the story, she was a brown bear living in the woods near a human settlement. Unsure of her place now, and with the leader of the community literally after her life, Cloud must figure out where to find safety, and why it is that she no longer wears a bearskin. The answers to her dilemmas are far from ordinary, as she is about to find out.

Normally I wince when an author tries to weave Native American cultural and spiritual elements into a work of fiction, particularly fantasy. Berman has the advantage of being an anthropologist, and additionally rather than trying to say that Cloud and her people are of a specific tribe, she instead draws on general cultural themes in the tribes of the Pacific Northwest (and is honest about doing so). Rather than being some lofty, Clan of the Cave Bear wannabe, Bear Daughter portrays a realistic, unromanticized and yet fascinating world created of threads of both truth and creative fiction.

I think my favorite parts had to be the descriptions of Cloud’s experiences with the spirit world. Berman does a spectacular job of capturing the otherworldly qualities of reported experiences in shamanic journeying and similar practices, yet Cloud’s own travels are anything but rote repeating of anthropological reports. Instead, the spirit world here is a unique thing, fraught with the same level of danger but not with the exact same beings. Again, it’s a great balance between what is in this reality, and what comes of the cosmology of a created world.

In short, I absolutely loved this book. I only wish the author had written more! I would recommend it especially who like a good bit of animism in their stories, but it’s a great read in general, too.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred by Beck and Walters – September BBBR

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters
Navajo Community College (now Diné College), 1988
370 pages

The vast majority of books out there about “Native American spirituality” are utter hogwash. However, I picked this text up because I figured with it being published by a community college operated by Native Americans, that it would be a pretty accurate overview of the subject material. I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

First and foremost, The Sacred establishes the cultural contexts that Native Ameican tribal religions have developed in. While there are some generalizations made, the authors in no way try to equate these various belief systems or combine them into some universal path. Instead, they identify some common general trends, and then spend much of the book providing individual examples from a variety of tribes. The specific subjects run the gamut from shamanism to peyote rituals, ghost dancing and similar religious movements to rites of passage. I also appreciated the frank discussion of the very real effects that the colonizers had on the indigenous cultures, to include the variety of opinions and reactions that were offered.

While it is a textbook, it’s nowhere near dry or overly academic. One gets the distinct sense of these being living traditions, unlike many texts which try to place indigenous people in some mystical past. There’s a good balance, too, between stating the basic facts and displaying pride in heritage. The many photos add to both the scholarly value and humanistic elements of the text.

If you’re tired of generic “Native American spirituality” and dry anthropological studies, this is a great alternative. It shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of the subject, but it’s a good reality check and a nice resource if you want a quick reference to accurate information.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Rainbow Medicine by Wolf Moondance

Rainbow Medicine: A Visionary Guide to Native American Shamanism
Wolf Moondance
Sterling Publishing Company, 1994
192 pages

I tried to give this book a fair chance, despite my misgivings about claims of “Native American shamanism” from someone who, to my knowledge, isn’t recognized by any official tribe. (Having Cherokee and Osage genetics does not predispose one to knowing about a culture one has not been exposed to, or its religious practices.) While there are some useful practices in here, trying to call them a complete system of shamanism–or calling them Cherokee or Osage practices–would be seriously misleading.

As the title suggest, the information here is organized along the colors of the rainbow, though with an addition of “burgundy”, and several chapters on the directions and other natural phenomena. Each chapter includes the record of a journey the author did with the theme of the chapter, followed by a number of meditations, craft projects and other activities associated with the theme. And that’s pretty much it.

In and of themselves some of the journaling and meditation exercises are good reflection tools. Unfortunately, some of the activities, particularly crafts, are hijacked from various indigenous cultures, taken out of their context, and presented as “universal” practices. This, of course, dilutes their purpose as they need context which is unfortunately not provided here. One person’s journeying does not make up for the loss of an entire culture. Additionally, as mentioned, this seems to have less to do with complex Cherokee or Osage spirituality and more with core shamanism, New Age practices, and the author’s background in “human development” (does she have a degree in developmental psychology? Nothing is for sure.).

While I have no doubt that this can be an effective set of tools, both for the author and for some readers, I was disappointed by the lack of context, including but not limited to the lack of making direct connections between the author’s personal journey, and the exercises themselves. How much of this is the author’s own subjective experience, and how much is cultural material (however it may be presented)? It’s never made very clear.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Serpent of Light by Drunvalo Malchizedek

Serpent of Light: Beyond 2012
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Weiser Books, 2007
270 pages

There’s a saying that I’m fond of using when talking about spiritual practices:

It’s okay to have your head in the clouds, just so long as your have your feet firmly planted on the ground.

While trying to empirically prove any spiritual belief is most likely a lost cause, and belief is a heavily personal and subjective phenomenon, when beliefs intersect with more concrete concepts such as history and culture, quality of research becomes highly important. Unfortunately, much of the New Age has a tendency to eschew basic research techniques as “too academic”, and the proponents of a lot of New Age material prefer to not have anyone harsh their mellow, as it were. Hence why New Agers get a bad rap, including among neopagans, who do have a greater tendency to research history, mythology and other -ologies in an attempt to test their beliefs and experiences.

The whole 2012 morass is full of an unwillingness to do such litmus testing. In the spirit of the new Age “anything goes” attitude, the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012 has spawned an entire genre of “nonfiction” based on trying to prove that this means the world will come to an end exactly where the carvers ran out of stone on that particular timepiece. It seems as though the (primarily white) people who have latched onto the 2012 thing have done little to no research on the actual Mayan and other central American indigenous cultures, and instead pick and choose whatever bits of information will, however tenuously, “support” their claims. It’s one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation.

Serpent of Light is an excellent example of this: the entire book is the author’s ramblings about channeled information and other unverified personal gnosis that has absolutely no historical backing whatsoever. There’s the predictable hodgepodge of “Mayan” beliefs, Eastern philosophies (such as chakras), and New Agery (particularly the infamous crystal skulls, which have absolutely no historical relevance to the Maya or any other indigenous culture).

Here’s an example of what this all causes the author to do:

“I was preparing to go to the Yucatan in Mexico to place specially programmed crystals in jungle temples, and I had never been there before in my life” (p. 52).

So you’ve never been to a place, never interacted with the people, other living beings, spiritual denizens, or the place itself–and you’re going to presume to improve upon what another culture entirely created?

…and this is pretty much what the entire book is: White guy who makes up his own convenient version of history mucks around in other people’s cultural artifacts attempting to improve on them because of what his channeled messages say. I could go on and on, but it would just be more of the same. Unlike The Great Shift, the only other book on 2012 I’ve reviewed here so far, there’s not even practical advice to balance out the drek.

Not recommended.

One pawprint out of five.

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Toltec Dreaming – Ken Eagle Feather

Toltec Dreaming: Don Juan’s Teachings on the Energy Body
Ken Eagle Feather
Bear & Company, 2007
256 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine.

I really tried hard to like this book. Unfortunately, I’m just too skeptical of the author’s claim that he met don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher of questionable existence, in the flesh. Additionally, saying that don Juan told him to learn from Castaneda’s books because don Juan’s English wasn’t good enough is suspect and sounds like an excuse for not using more reliable sources. The bulk of the source material is Castaneda’s works, which have been highly questioned in both anthropological and modern shamanic fields—and labeled as plastic shamanism by American Indian tribes in Mexico and elsewhere. Rather than backing up the shaky research with more solid sources, his bibliography is littered with more New Age fluff.

Poor scholarship aside, the techniques in the book are pretty good. It’s a heterogenous mixture of Eastern philosophy and New Age practices, aimed at helping the reader become a more effective dreamer. Awareness of the energy body, meeting with Death, and lucid dreaming are just a few of the topics covered. Eagle Feather is an excellent writer, and provides a good array of techniques to help build one’s dreaming ability. As a practical guide to dreamwork and related practices, this is a decent choice. And the author’s writing style is easy to read, punctuated by anecdotes that illustrate the material. Regardless of source, there’s some good, usable material available in these pages.

It’s just a shame that the questionable “Toltec” material wasn’t backed up by direct sources other than Castaneda. If you’re looking for good dream techniques or if you’re a fan of Castaneda’s works, this may be the book for you; however, take a huge lick of salt with it. If you’re looking for genuine indigenous shamanic practices, look elsewhere.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Earthway – Mary Summer Rain – September BBBR

Earthway: A Native American Visionary’s Path to Total Mind, Body and Spirit Health
Mary Summer Rain
Pocket Books, 1990
442 pages

Oops, almost missed this month–grad school has me exceptionally busy. But here it is, the Bargain Bin Book Review for September! I’ll admit, this is the very first book by Mary Summer Rain I’ve ever read. I’ve heard the praise and complaints about her work, but I wanted to find out for myself what the fuss is all about. Some people absolutely love her work, and some hate what they consider to be some of the worst plastic shamanism.

I’m afraid I’ll have to opt in with the latter group. Right off the bat, I was cringing from the pidgin English that “No-eyes”, Rain’s supposed mentor, was stuck with–“Nope, it just be fact”, from p. 26, is just one example. I’m guessing No-eyes is up there with don Juan Matus for being a fictionalized Indian presented as a flesh and blood human being. Trying to buy legitimacy with a made-up mentor = points off your final review.

This is subtitled “a Native American visionary’s path”. I found a hodgepodge of information from a variety of sources, including a ton of Western medicine, with some totem animals and other correspondences thrown in. There’s New Age dream interpretation material, to include a whole bunch of 20th century elements that wouldn’t have been a part of any traditional Native American culture. There’s what’s supposedly Anasazi astrology. And there’s a whole lot of medical advice being dispensed by someone who, to my understanding, isn’t a medical professional. Extra points taken off for an utter and complete lack of a bibliography or other notations of source material.

I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this book to anyone, either as a guide to healthy living, or indigenous spiritual and cultural practices–really for anything except as an object lesson in plastic shamanism. Now I see why so many people complain about this author’s work. This is some of the worst of the worst.

One pawprint out of five.

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