History and Work of the Foundation 2005 Update

Michael Harner
© "Shamanism," 25th Anniversary Issue 2005, Vol. 18, Nos. 1 & 2

This is an update to the article originally published in 1991 "History and Work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies."

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Looking over the [original article] from almost one and a half decades ago, I was struck by how it accurately foreshadowed what the Foundation has consistently done since then. The exception was that the Foundation had to drop the SHE (Shamanism for Healing the Earth) project for lack of interest at that time, although it has continued in the workshop, “Shamanism and the Spirits of Nature.” Now there is much more awareness of the problem it attempted to address and, I am glad to say, many other individuals and organizations have since taken over active involvement on a larger scale than our limited resources could permit.

Now I would like to share with you a little more of the history and mission of the Foundation and a look into its future. Before doing that, however, I wish to mention my own personal mission, which foreshadowed that of the Foundation, and has remained to this day inextricably intertwined with it.

As I imagine you know, I began active participation in shamanism during 1961 in the Amazon and on subsequent return trips. The consciousness-changing substance used there in shamanism was, of course, ayahuasca. Initially I assumed that consciousness-changing plants of one sort or another were probably essential in the “trance” or “ecstasy” associated with shamanic journeying and practice. But after doing much cross-cultural research, I reluctantly concluded by the late 1960’s that shamans in most indigenous cultures altered their state of consciousness without the use of biochemical substances. My research also led me to conclude that percussion sound was far more widely used than plant “medicines” to achieve what I later called the Shamanic State of Consciousness. So I began to experiment with drumming for my personal shamanic journeying and discovered that, with the proper discipline, I could achieve basically the same shamanic results as with consciousness-changing substances.

This was a major personal discovery, for it meant that the shamans’ spiritual experiences could no longer be dismissed as simply due to the effects of biochemical agents. The implications were, and are, enormous for they indicated that drums and drugs were simply different doorways to another reality. With this realization, I was able to pursue my personal shamanic practice without the benefit of ayahuasca, using what we now call “sonic driving.” At the same time, acquaintances were asking me to introduce them to shamanism. As a result, in the 1970’s I was invited to teach journeying and other aspects of experiential shamanism within a workshop context both in the United States and Europe. It soon became clear that I also needed to share some of my knowledge in printed form in order to make it more accessible to the public.

The result was the publication in 1980 of The Way of the Shaman, where the methods of shamanic journeying were introduced in print for the first time. I simultaneously created the first shamanic journey drumming tape so that readers could work without the need for live drumming. Wider interest in shamanism and shamanic journeying required that I start providing more frequent teaching. To this end, the “Center for Shamanic Studies” had been set up at our home in Norwalk, Connecticut, with the aid of Sandra Harner. In 1980, with the help of some part-time high school students, as well as others, including David Corbin, the Center became full blown.

Teaching, however, was only part of the mission that I had set for myself. I also wished to help rescue, preserve, and study shamanic knowledge wherever it existed. This was important not only to the indigenous peoples but to the return of sacred shamanic knowledge to all of humankind. To this end, in 1985 I founded our non-profit organization, The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, especially for the purpose of engaging in field research and encouraging the survival of indigenous shamanism. As it also had education as a purpose, in 1987 Sandra Harner and I donated the assets of the pre-existing Center for Shamanic Studies, with its workshops, books, and shamanic journey drumming tapes, to the new non-profit organization.

At the same time, my heightened commitment to shamanism led me to decide to leave the academic world, and I resigned my tenured professorship at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Research in New York early in 1987. From then on, the Foundation’s activities rapidly accelerated, helped by the generous donations made by members of the new Board of Trustees and others, such as the late Laurance Rockefeller. In all these efforts to study, preserve, and teach shamanism and shamanic healing, no one has been more important than Dr. Sandra Harner, my steadfast partner and advisor, who has played many important roles in the Foundation and remains on its Board of Trustees. In 1994, together we moved the headquarters of the Foundation to its present location in Mill Valley, California, and have continued the maintenance and development of its activities with the aid of a new office staff.

At first, in the 1970’s, my workshops were not really standardized, but most depended heavily on shamanic journeying aided by drumming, which I adapted to core principles and introduced to the West. Shamanic journeying remains one of the important focal points of my teaching and that of the faculty members I have trained over the years. It is perhaps one of the contributions of which I am most pleased, a contribution that I believe can eventually help revolutionize human spirituality.

This revival of shamanic journeying and drumming was part of my development of “core shamanism” which, as in the case of shamanic journeying, focused upon the most essential and near-universal elements of worldwide indigenous shamanic practice and knowledge. My many years of research and experimentation resulted in teaching not only shamanic journeying, but also many other important aspects of practical shamanism. These core teachings became the present-day workshops and courses of the Foundation. In this, the intention was to maintain and transmit a high quality of thoroughly researched, authentic and fundamental shamanic training. This was particularly important because I wanted to have a “gold standard” of accurate teaching upon which people everywhere could rely. Thus, persons seriously interested in shamanism could always confidently return to the Foundation for trustworthy core shamanic knowledge discerned from cross-cultural consistencies, rather than from culture-specific or personal revelations of individuals.

In 1980, with the publication of The Way of the Shaman, I began to expand my workshops in response to the growing demand. I have always seen the book simply as the door to first-hand oral teaching and demonstration, analogous to passing on such knowledge in indigenous shamanic situations. For this reason I have not placed as high a priority on publication after that door was opened. All these programs were the result of my decades of research and experimentation to make shamanism, shamanic journeying, and shamanic healing accessible to the West.

Gradually, as indicated in the excerpt from 1991 above, with increased demand I invited various persons who had studied under me to become faculty members of the Foundation. I trained them to give a series of workshops and courses which were standardized to assure authentic content and to permit a consistent system of progress by students regardless of the faculty members with whom they worked. As the years went by, the numbers of faculty greatly expanded, especially in North America and Europe, so that today there are 18 in North America and 20 in Europe. Eventually these teachers and I were training thousands of persons a year. Almost all of the North American and Latin American faculty members trained directly with me, as well as some of the European faculty, such as Paul Uccusic and Michael Hassingler.

Aside from the mission to bring shamanism and shamanic healing back to the West, I wished the Foundation to be of service to indigenous peoples who might want help in reviving shamanism after decades, and even centuries, of persecution. After all, indigenous or tribal peoples had long been the sole remaining custodians of shamanic knowledge, and the world owed them a tremendous debt. Therefore, I initiated the Urgent Indigenous Assistance Program (formerly called Urgent Tribal Assistance Program).

We began a program of specific expeditions to help indigenous peoples, when requested by them, to bring shamanism and shamanic healing back into their lives. Groups thus assisted outside the United States have included the Sami (Lapp) people of northernmost Scandinavia and adjacent Russia, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, the Buriat people of Siberia, and the Tuvan peoples of central Asia. Such work has also taken place in the United States, again when requested, such as with the Ramapough Mountain Indian people only an hour from New York City across the Hudson River, who were just beginning to emerge from centuries of hiding their identity and now wished to reconnect with the spirits. Of all these programs requested by indigenous peoples, the longest lasting was that in the central Asian republic of Tuva, where the Foundation maintained a ten-year program of assistance until shamanism and shamans were successfully restored. Critical to that success was the long-term work by Paul Uccusic, the European director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, his wife, Roswitha Uccusic, as well as by others.

Aside from the field programs, the Foundation has long maintained a fifty percent tuition scholarship rebate program for Native Americans (“First Nations” in Canada) to assist them in taking Foundation workshops and training courses. So far representatives of 54 tribes have taken advantage of this offer. In our expeditions and in the scholarship programs, my intention always was not to alter the spiritual cultures of indigenous peoples, but to help provide them with a gateway to the spirits, so they could wake up their own potentialities and traditions.

The Foundation is also trying to “wake up” the medical community to the value of shamanic healing and its potential to complement regular institutional medical practices. The Foundation took this role upon itself because of the difficulty of getting governmental or institutional support for such research. Despite this obstacle, we felt it was important to lead the way until others might be likewise inspired. As a result, the Foundation set up the Shamanism and Health program under the direction of Dr. Sandra Harner, who is a clinical psychologist as well as a shamanic practitioner and teacher. Aspects of her research results on immunological and psychological effects of shamanic journeying have been published in a variety of journals.

In conclusion, and in a bit more detail, here are examples of some projects of the Foundation:

Training Westerners in Shamanism and Shamanic Healing

We are working to develop a broad range of educational and training opportunities founded specifically on fundamental and near-universal shamanic principles and practices that will help revive shamanism and shamanic healing around the Planet. Developing such courses and offering serious training is a top priority of the Foundation, and it currently offers 203 courses to approximately 5,000 individuals annually. Introducing individuals to the wisdom and consciousness of shamanism continues to be one of the most important and broad-based efforts the Foundation can make toward healing the Planet. Our workshops and training programs are reaching more people, and in a broader geography than ever. The Foundation’s European leadership has expanded significantly, and we are continuing to contact and work with tribal peoples in the United States and around the world.

Other areas of educational expansion have included: maintaining a web site . . . with schedules of upcoming workshops and training courses; bringing indigenous shamans to work with graduates of the Three-Year Programs; and upgrading the Foundation’s Newsletter to a semi-annual members journal, "Shamanism", including significant articles, an annual members’ voluntary telephone directory, and resource guide.

Cross-Cultural Research and Experimentation

Quality research is necessary for quality teaching. Basic to the quality and success of our educational programs has been cross-cultural research on shamanic knowledge and practices in hundreds of the world’s cultures to provide authentic and time-tested information. My research work, aided by graduate students and the Foundation’s staff, has made it possible to rediscover or recreate practices long thought to be lost. Teaching them to Foundation students has assured their revival and persistence. The various research activities of the Foundation, including my experimentation based on fragments of almost forgotten information, have resurrected for practical contemporary use many remarkable types of shamanic healings and experiences. Today these are especially available to advanced students in the Foundation’s Three-Year Programs.

The Mapping of Nonordinary Reality Project (MONOR) has also contributed to the rediscovery of much shamanic information, such as regarding the ultimate nature of reality and cosmology. This is a basic form of research destined to go on for years, comparing both indigenous and Western experiential data. It also constantly provides surprises of immediate benefit to our long-term in-depth teaching.

Preserving and Helping Revive Indigenous Shamanism

A distinctive feature of our programs for indigenous peoples is that the Foundation responds to requests for help rather than initiating assistance, because we do not want to be in a position of being yet another outsider imposing something on an indigenous culture.

The purpose of the Urgent Indigenous Assistance (UIA) Project is to preserve and to offer opportunities to restore, foster, and develop shamanism among indigenous people worldwide. The Foundation is interested in addressing the needs of shamanism in indigenous cultures especially in the following cases: 1) where shamanic practice has been suppressed and local peoples would like to revive the practice; 2) where extraordinary individual indigenous shamans under adverse conditions need assistance to continue and pass on their practice and knowledge; and 3) where a shamanic culture is active, but threatened, and has asked for help.

The program is made up of several distinct parts that accomplish program goals, and importantly, of Field Associates, a group of anthropologists and cultural experts, who work with indigenous groups around the world and locate situations where the Foundation can provide assistance. The help the Foundation provides comes in the form of recognition and financial assistance for extraordinary shamans in Third World countries (the Living Treasures Program); training of indigenous groups; expeditions into indigenous areas to boost the morale of shamans and stimulate their survival; and other support. These activities are outlined below.

Upon invitation, the Foundation assists in the revival of shamanism and shamanistic practices among indigenous communities. A notable recent example is the work of the Foundation to help the Northern Paiute people of Nevada reconstruct the Ghost Dance. Field expeditions combine training, information exchange, and the recognition of the value of traditional practices. This recognition can contribute to the acceptance of shamanic practices by local governmental authorities and, subsequently, a growing willingness of shamans to practice openly. It also supports the esteem of shamanic practice for the benefit of the culture’s emerging generations, who are otherwise likely to be over-influenced by missionization, governmental interference, and Western culture.

At the invitation of the government of the Republic of Tuva in Central Asia, the Foundation sent a team there in 1993 to participate in a conference and to help rehabilitate shamanism and shamanic healing there after a long period of Soviet oppression. The expedition was highly successful, contributing to the revival and the official recognition of shamanism and shamanic healing in Tuva, including the initiation of younger persons. Three additional expeditions have since been made to Tuva.

The Foundation has also sponsored expeditions to Baker Lake in northern Canada to work with the Caribou Inuit and to Siberia to work with the Buriat people. The Foundation also undertook an expedition to North China and Inner Mongolia to help foster the revival of shamanism there.

Through individuals representing indigenous groups, or through our Field Associates, the Foundation has become aware of the needs of entire shamanic societies that are threatened. For example, the Foundation became involved in a project to assist the shaman-priests (mamas) of the Kogi people of northern Colombia to preserve their shamanic wisdom and traditional culture in the face of ecological destruction and encroachment by the outside world. When the Foundation learns of similar situations in shamanically based cultures, and when invited to do so by indigenous peoples, it tries to provide whatever help it can.

The Field Associates Program of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies comprises a network of professionals who gather and preserve information about ongoing shamanic traditions and who identify opportunities to provide assistance to indigenous peoples and to individual shamans. Since 1991, the Foundation has appointed specialists in shamanism, now numbering thirty-three, all over the world.

At first, the work of these Field Associates was particularly urgent because of the rapid extinction at that time of indigenous shamans everywhere. A Field Associate in Siberia, for example, spent months without finding a single shaman among the Evenke (Tungus) who, less than a century ago, had many hundreds that then were executed or sent to prison camps by the Soviet government. Currently, the Field Associates include individuals specializing in North, South, and Central America, Northern and Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central and South Asia. These individuals have worked with indigenous people in a variety of cultures, including Tungus, Buriat, Yakut (Sakha), Mixe, Jívaro (Shuar), Yaminahua, Chukchee, Tibetan, Manchu, Yao, and Sami (Lapp). I am happy to report that today indigenous peoples are increasingly revitalizing indigenous shamanic practices on their own. The publication of The Way ofthe Shaman in various languages, including Russian, has reportedly helped them legitimize their efforts.

As indicated above, since its inception the Foundation has offered tuition remission to tribal people for regularly scheduled workshops and training courses around the world. These scholarships are separate from the training the Foundation brings directly to indigenous groups. The scholarships may be for tribal people who seek to establish or expand a personal spiritual life, for those who want to supplement an ongoing traditional practice, or for those who wish to revive their culture’s threatened or destroyed traditional practices of shamanism. The Foundation is committed to offering scholarships to all tribal peoples who are able to attend its training courses, and the scholarships are granted upon verification of tribal status.

Living Treasures of Shamanism Program

The Living Treasures program started in late 1991 in conjunction with the Field Associates Program. Part of the responsibility of the Field Associates has been to locate potential Living Treasures for the Foundation. Through its network of Field Associates, the Foundation has searched for outstanding indigenous shamans in jeopardized conditions to help them preserve their knowledge and practice through FSS recognition and lifetime stipends. By working with uniquely qualified shamans in such a manner, it is the Foundation’s hope to help preserve their shamanic knowledge for the future generations of their peoples and the World.

We are at a critical time in history when the accumulated knowledge of tens of thousands of years of shamanic practice, including shamanic healing, resides among a small number of remaining indigenous peoples. Many of these shamans want to pass this knowledge on to their descendants, but live in threatened cultures, and need encouragement and support. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies recognizes the value of offering help to them. In this regard, it has honored as Living Treasures with financial support, one of the last three known Tibetan shamans, a Yaminahua shaman in the Upper Amazon, a Camaiurá shaman in the Upper Xingu region of Central Brazil, a shaman in the Republic of Tuva, and a Buriat shaman in Siberia, as well as others.

Developing Practical Health Applications and Measuring Health Impact

The Foundation has investigated and refined a variety of shamanic healing methods to help deal with illness and other problems of Western life. Significant findings became incorporated in the training offered to medical doctors, psychotherapists, and others through the Foundation’s educational programs. A critical part of this work has been accomplished through the Shamanism and Health Program, where the Foundation has engaged in scientific research in a progressing effort to communicate the value of shamanic methods to the mainstream medical community. Another example has been Harner Method Shamanic Counseling, which combines classic shamanic divination methods with systemic and technological innovations to help persons deal with the stresses of daily life. We see the Foundation’s role as discerning the basic cross-cultural underpinnings of shamanic principles and practice that have stood the test of time, and sharing that knowledge.

The future work of the Foundation is expected to be stable, reliable, and with high ideals and quality, as it has been in the past. The mission is clear and remains the same: to study, preserve, and transmit shamanic knowledge, such as through our educational programs. The continuing synchronous development and integration of all these three activities will remain a key to the success of the Foundation’s work. As in the past, success will also depend significantly on the generosity and support of members and donors. In alliance together and with the helping spirits, our work is increasingly having a worldwide impact on human spirituality and is expected to continue to do so in coming decades.