A Shaman is not a Medicine Man

Hello. I am Mark Ashford. I am a Registered Reiki Teacher and Practitioner and a Usui Tibetan Reiki Master Teacher as well as a Shaman. I am a published author of books and online courses on Reiki, and Shamanism.

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A medicine man or medicine woman, there is no gender restriction, is a traditional healer and spiritual leader who serves a community of indigenous people of the Americas. Each culture uses their own name, in their respective Indigenous languages, for the spiritual healers and ceremonial leaders in their particular cultures. [1]

In indigenous North American communities, “medicine” usually refers to spiritual healing. This should not be confused with practitioners who employ Native American ethnobotany, a practice that is very common in a large number of Native American and First Nations households.

Ethnobotany is the study of a region’s plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of a local culture and people. An ethnobotanist strives to document the local customs involving the practical uses of local flora for many aspects of life, such as plants as medicines, foods, and clothing.[2]

A medicine man or woman usually caries a small pouch, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. [3] Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.

Other terms for Medicine Man/Woman are “medicine people” or “ceremonial people” are sometimes used in Native American and First Nations communities, for example, when Arwen Nuttall (Cherokee) of the National Museum of the American Indian writes, “The knowledge possessed by medicine people is privileged, and it often remains in particular families.” [3]

Native American indigenous people are reluctant to discuss issues about medicine or medicine people with non-Indians. And, in some cultures, the people will not even discuss these matters with members of other tribes. In most tribes, medicine elders are prohibited from advertising or introducing themselves as such. As Nuttall writes, “An inquiry to a Native person about religious beliefs or ceremonies is often viewed with suspicion.”[4]

One example of this is the Apache medicine cord or Izze-kloth whose purpose and use by Apache medicine elders was a mystery to nineteenth century ethnologists because “the Apache look upon these cords as so sacred that strangers are not allowed to see them, much less handle them or talk about them.” [5]

The term “medicine man/woman,” like the term “shaman,” has been criticized by Native Americans, as well as other specialists in the fields of religion and anthropology. [6]

While non-Native anthropologists sometimes use the term “shaman” for Indigenous healers worldwide, including the Americas, “shaman” is the specific name for a spiritual mediator from the Tungstic peoples of Siberia and is not used in Native American or First Nations communities. [7]

The term “medicine man/woman” has also frequently been used by Europeans to refer to African traditional healers, along with the offensive term “witch doctors”. [8] The term “witch doctor is also considered to have a negative connotation, or, it’s use is intended to belittle or disparage an indigenous healer.

A medicine man, or woman’s approach to sickness, disease or misfortune, is to strive to discover the root cause[s] and divine how to prevent the symptoms and conditions from recurring. Rather than the symptom/cure-based approach of modern medicine. They do this by exploring the supernatural causes of ill-health.

There is great emphasis on medicinal plants to heal colds, cough, fever, asthma, and insect bites. A medicine man/woman is a person with mysterious power over medicine or magic or other mysterious arts in general. The individual is aware that some medicine is good and beneficial in treating an illness, some evil or bad. Bad medicine may be infective, or make the condition worse.[9] It might also be poisonous. 

Of all the African religious specialists, medicine-men were the most useful, and people consult them frequently. They acted as the link between the people and the supernatural realm. Africans believe the cause of ill-health, misfortunes and other afflictions could be traced to the invisible world. Since most of the people did not have the ability to communicate with the forces that controlled that world, the medicine-men became very useful (Magesa 1997,210). [10]

As with other specialists in African Religion, medicine-men/women receive a calling to the profession. Africans believe some were born with the ability, having been born holding divination pebbles. The mid-wives would take note of relevant signs and inform the mothers that they had special children. In other cases, a medicine-man would pass on the profession to his son or other younger relative (Mbiti 1969, 167). Yet others received their calling through visions or dreams (Magesa1997,217). In addition, upcoming medicine- men went through training that involved attachment to practicing medicine-men. The trainees learnt the several ways available of dealing with health issues. Africans believed that medicine men possessed special gifts or powers (Magesa 1997, 219). Through training they were shown how to utilize those gifts and powers. After training, they were officially installed through a ceremony presided over by a medicine-man.[11]

Both Christianity and colonialism in Africa sought to discredit African psychological healing, which involves promoting the mental and emotional well-being of the individual and the techniques developed for psychological healing is developed in an African environment to address specific problems. Some Africans afflicted by certain crises can only be addressed using this approach. These afflictions include barrenness, mental disturbances, misfortunes and effects of witchcraft and sorcery in humans, combined with unproductive farms and animals (Mumo2009, 63). [12]

Comparing a shaman to a medicine man or woman there are some notable differences. The shaman soul journey’s either for themselves or at the request of another for healing purposes. A soul journey may also be undertaken to retrieve a soul or to help guide a lost spirit or a spirit that has not crossed over into the spirit world. Battles and confrontations with evil or dark spirits and souls may be undertaken to help a sick individual. The shaman’s universe includes an upper, middle and lower realm where spirits exist, along with the spirits of ancestors who must be understood and persuaded to help a soul in its current physical incarnation.

A shaman experiences possession by a spirit guide during a healing ceremony. It is also the case that a spirit guide maybe human or animal, but it is a guide they are familiar with and have a close relationship with. 

Generally, a shaman, especially one form Mongolia and Tibet, does very little work with regard to herbs and natural herbal treatments.

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“Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the… Pdf.” Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology.

Eastburn, Drake. “Healer, Shaman, Facilitator.” International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine 5, no. 2 (2017).


Mumo, Peter M. “Holistic Healing, an Analytical Review of Medicine-Men in African Societies.”

Wikipedia. “Ethnobotany.”

———. “Medicine Bag.”

———. “Medicine Man.”

[1] Wikipedia, “Medicine Man.”

[2] “Ethnobotany.”


[4] Ibid.

[5] “Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the… Pdf,” Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology.

[6] Wikipedia, “Medicine Man.”

[7] Drake Eastburn, “Healer, Shaman, Facilitator,” International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine 5, no. 2 (2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Peter M. Mumo, “Holistic Healing, an Analytical Review of Medicine-Men in African Societies.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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