In The Spirit
By Katie Richards
Photography by Lauren Teng
At just 16 years old, Dorena Clifton experienced what it meant to lose someone she loved. She worked at a local grocery store and each day her boyfriend, a recent high school graduate, picked her up after her shift. But the day Clifton decided to spend the night at a friend’s house, things went terribly wrong. Her boyfriend, in a state of post- graduation depression, drove head-on into another car, his car exploding into flames. Bystanders said they heard the boy scream as flames enveloped him. His body suffered severe burns. The boy’s father could identify him only by the two wedding bands in his pocket—the wedding bands he planned to share with Clifton.
Angry at herself for not being with her boyfriend the day of the accident and desperate to change the outcome, Clifton decided to travel to the “other side” and communicate with her late boyfriend to figure out what went wrong. The two met in “dreamtime” on a warm August night in 1974 at Clifton’s family home. He wore a light-colored shirt and camel slacks, his dark hair resting gently on his shoulders. The two walked side by side, from her home to his. As they walked together, Clifton observed her boyfriend age ever so slowly. Each time she glanced at him, she noticed his long hair grow shorter and whiter, his face more wrinkled. When they finally arrived at his home after spending hours talking about their lives together and apart, he reverted to his earliest years as a baby. Clifton knocked on the front door, handing the small bundle over to his mother, who said nothing in response. She simply smiled. “I felt at peace,” Clifton says of completing her excursion in this dreamtime space. Clifton’s travels on the other side helped solidify her understanding of her true identity as a “medicine man,” or a Shaman.
The specific origin of Shamanism is difficult to pinpoint. Most anthropologists and historians attribute the term to Siberian origins and the among Tungus people. Among the Hmong community, Shamans, more commonly known as Txiv Neeb, aid the injured and cure the sick. The Hmong believe one is born a Shaman. Ancestors, deities, or spirits identify a Shaman, giving him or her the responsibility to heal others by first subjecting the chosen person to an illness. The illness begins with a week of sweats and shakes. Then come vivid dreams, during which the chosen person may travel through time, across the globe, or to the recent past. When the dreams kick in, a family member may call upon a well-respected, practicing Shaman to rid the sufferer of illness and help that person discover his or her true calling as a healer. Many healers, similarly to Clifton, go on trips or journeys into the spiritual world— be it the overworld or the underworld—to interact with a spirit or find answers to pressing questions.
Upon entering the spirit world, the healer’s goals can include seeking out and bringing back knowledge to the realm he or she came from. The Shaman makes this information accessible to the community, brings back a healing power, or retrieves a lost soul. But first, a Hmong Shaman must diagnose the sickness by tossing bull’s horns across the room. Different patterns signify different ailments. Upon reading the signs, one of the Hmong Shaman’s souls may depart from his or her body and journey to another world. There, the Shaman will negotiate with the evil spirit holding the soul hostage, often sacrificing a goat or a pig to complete the exchange. However, Western interpretations of the soul retrieval and other common traditions differ greatly.
Evidence of this discrepancy exists in Syracuse itself. In the quaint storefront of Healing-Inspirations in Liverpool, N.Y., the steady pounding of a drum echoes in the background as Deborah DeRusha, a Syracuse-based Shamanic healer and teacher, guides her client into a trance-like state, leading her through what she refers to as “journey work.” DeRusha shouts out what she sees and feels. The client, an aspiring teacher who wants help uncovering one of her totem animals, does the same while an outsider transcribes detailed notes. She studies constantly and actively searches for jobs in an almost stalking, cat-like manner, waiting for the opportune moment to pounce on the perfect opening.
DeRusha’s ritual calls forth the totem animal, a mountain lion or perhaps a panther— any animal that stalks its prey. This totem animal guides the teacher through life and helps her succeed in the future.
Unlike Shaman practitioner Dorena Clifton, DeRusha did not journey to another world to uncover her healing roots. This high-energy mother of seven first discovered her bond to Shamanism while driving a friend of a friend home. The acquaintance sang her a traditional Native American song, causing DeRusha to break down in tears. Native American culture piqued her interest at a young age and she always felt a deep connection to their culture and to the Earth.
DeRusha, better known to her clients as the Dreaming Gypsy, signed up to take courses at The Institute for Contemporary Shamanic Studies, a small Shaman school in Toronto. For three years, she explored her connection to “everything in the universe” by spending one weekend each month participating in intense study sessions of the self and of Shamanism at The Red Lodge Longhouse. There, she also discovered her identity as the Dreaming Gypsy. She originally pegged herself as the Dreaming Cougar Woman— “cougar” representing one of her totem animals and “dreaming” signifying her ability to read people’s true aspirations. But following undesired responses from young males online, DeRusha changed her title to capture her wanderlust, carefree attitude, and nurturing spirit. Once she finally reached an understanding of her higher self, DeRusha began her own healing sessions, charging $20 for classes on the medicine wheel, totem animals, or the magic of trees; $45 for aura cleansings; and $125 for one to two-hour soul retrieval sessions.
Over time, various Western groups have adopted the term Shaman and applied it to their own practices, creating what some call “white Shamanism.” This phenomenon arose in the United States during the 60s, in areas like Northern California, Colorado, and the Southwest. DeRusha, for example, packages herself as an all-inclusive medium: Shamanic teacher, healer, and spiritual guide. But with this borrowing of certain indigenous traditions comes the potential for inauthenticity. “People think they can just take whatever it is they need to make themselves feel better,” says Philip Arnold, an associate professor of religion at Syracuse University and the founding director of Skānoñh-Great Law Peace Center. “Shamanism in traditional societies is more like harmonizing with the natural world, but you don’t really want to get involved in these Shamanistic ceremonies.”In reality, these highly traditional ceremonies last hours and are more imperiled than the Western idea of a Shamanic vacation at the local Hilton hotel.
Native American groups like the Onondaga have only opened their lives up to “white Shamans” in the past 10 years, allowing Westerners to understand more about their healing traditions. This sharing of their practice catapulted after the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which allowed native people to practice their religions freely, causing the hybrid traditions of Shamanism to arise. These new rituals are not authentically native nor indigenous— instead, they come from a modern, Western society. But white Shaman Practitioners like Dorena Clifton and Deborah DeRusha respect these traditions. Clifton constantly keeps up with her studies of Shamanism and the Lakota Nation, reading books such as Amber Wolfe’s The Truth About Shamanism and Arnold Mindell’s The Shaman’s Body. She recently received a pipe and medicine bag from the Plains Indian tribe, a small token of appreciation for her work and understanding of their tradition.