Michael Harner

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Michael Harner

Michael Harner (born April 27, 1929, Washington D.C.) is one of the longest established contemporary authors and entrepreneurs in the esoteric market with his Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) and his invention of Core Shamanism.


According to biographical information published on the FSS website, Harner received a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and has taught at various institutions.[1] Harner did field work in South America where he became interested in „shamans“, and claims to have had experience with entheogens like Ayahuasca.[1] In 1979, Harner founded the Center for Shamanic Studies in Norwalk, Connecticut[2] which was renamed Foundation for Shamanic Studies in 1987. Harner also gave up his academic career in 1987 and since then has been president of the Foundation.[3] The FSS site claims Harner is an „authentic white shaman“.[1]

Besides the genuine academic title obtained at Berkeley, Harner also claims honorary titles, such as the "Pioneers in Integrative Medicine Award" in 2009 from a „California Pacific Medical Center's Institute for Health & Healing“ and a 2003 honorary doctorate by an instituion unnamed on the FSS site[1] which seems to have been awarded by one California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).[2] CIIS also offers chargeable FSS-courses at its premises, so e.g. the Basics and one Advanced Course in 2013.[4]

Core Shamanism

Harner came into contact with indigenous healing practices and hallucinogenic drugs during field work in South America. He not only claims to have started practicing shamanism as early as 1960-61 during a sojourn with the Shuar in Ecuador, but alleges he was recognized as a shaman by alleged shamans of various ethnic groups, like the Conibo, Shuar, Coast Salish, Pomo, Northern Paiute, Inland Inuit, Sami, and Tuvans.[1] Given the fact that indigenous spiritual persons and healers usually have to undergo a training which may well take two or more decades, this renders Harner's claim quite improbable and well exceeding one lifetime. Taking into consideration that such spiritual persons are also required to be fluent in the language and well-versed in the culture of their respective ethnic group, it is highly questionable that Harner will meet the requirements. However, his claim is well in line with the ways New Agers present themselves to their paying clientele.

The Core Shamanism Harner claims to have discovered and developed insists that shamanic practices and religions were once used in European cultures, too, until shamanic knowledge was ousted „by the suppressive pre-eminence of religions“[5] Core Shamanism asserts there were „[...] underlying universal, near-universal, and common features of shamanism [...]“ which it claims to teach particularly to „[...] Westerners to reacquire access to their rightful spiritual heritage [...]“.[6]

Although Harner's site today claims that „core shamanism does not focus on ceremonies [...]“[6], there are accounts of FSS and former FSS students selling indigenous ceremonies as e.g. sweatlodges resp. alleged indigenous ceremonies invented by FSS.[7]. In fact, according to the announcement of the so-called Basic Workshops „Way of the Shaman“ for 2013 on the FSS website, participants are still expected to „[...] bring a rattle or a drum if you have one. [...] and bring a bandanna, cushion and/or blanket (if the sponsor does not provide cushions), a rough-surfaced rock approximately the size of a grapefruit [...]“[8], indicating that the seminar includes a sweatlodge. However, this brief information to bring a „rough-surfaced rock“ leaves much room for participants bringing a stone not appropriate for high temperatures and a subsequent cooling by water; this may cause some types of rock to explode, with rock splinters taking on the speed and impact of missiles. Therefore, participation in such a lodge can be very dangerous. On the other hand, reports suggest that such stones are meant to be used in a so-called "Lakota stone oracle". This is a pseudo-ceremony propagated by FSS almost exclusively found on websites maintained by vendors who were taught by FSS, or in forum threads discussing FSS courses.

Foundation for Shamanic Studies

Founded in 1979 as Center of Shamanic Studies, the institution was renamed and reorganised as a foundation in 1987. The foundation resides in Mill Valley, California and is recognised as a non-profit organisation.[9]

According to its own words, FSS is „dedicated to teaching, preserving, and studying shamanic knowledge“ and has „initiated a wide range of projects and programs“.[9] One main field of the FSS activities is offering a variety of workshops and training programmes on basic and advanced levels. Both the US and the European website additionally maintain an online shop which not only sells Harner's books, CDs etc., but also a variety of articles said to be essential to practice shamanism. An FSS article written in 2005 claims FSS at that time was teaching about 203 courses per year and had approximately 5,000 students annually.[10]

Paul Uccusic

FSS maintains a branch in Europe situated in Vienna with Paul Uccusic as its director.[9] According to biographical information provided on the FSS Europe website, Uccusic studied chemistry, physics, and mathmatics in Vienna and became a journalist; in 1971 he came into contact with parapsychology and spiritual healing, met Harner in 1981 and absolved courses with FSS.[11]

All FSS branches sell courses based on Harner's works, so e.g. on shamanic journeying, shamanic extraction, shamanic divination, shamanic dreamwork, shamanic training in creativity, core soul retrieval etc. While most courses last three days, FSS USA also offers one two-week „Shamanic Healing IntensiveTM“ and one „Three-Year Program of Advanced Initiations in Shamanism and Shamanic Healing“.[12] The obtrusive advertising tone at the FSS US website is rather noteworthy; most courses are advertised as „Michael Harner's shamanic [...]“. Similar to esoteric practice, FSS publishes positive customers' testimonials[12], and the 3-year-programme is said to be „widely considered as unparalleled in the world“, without mentioning by whom.[13]

FSS in Germany

Olaf Bernhardt

A further German website offers courses according to FSS. The site is maintained by one Olaf Bernhardt who is mentioned as an FSS Europe staff member on various sites. However, Bernhardt presently is not listed as a staff member (February 2013). He is still mentioned in the list of „Core Shamanic Drum Circles“[14], as a retailer of one of the FSS books, Shamans' stories from Tuva[15], and as a retailer for a kit to make one's own shamanic drum.[16]

Biographical information given at Bernhardt's site does not mention any academic education or career for Bernhardt, but claims he has been on the „path of the shaman“ since 1990.[17]

Bernhardt furthermore will publish a book in March 2013 with the esoteric publishing house Arun-Verlag owned by Stefan Ulbrich, a former member of extremist right Wiking Jugend banned by authorities in the 1990ies, and a former editor for new-right newspaper Junge Freiheit; Ulbrich is also a seller of indigenous ceremonies like sweatlodges and vision quests. Arun describes Bernhardt as an associate lecturer of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies“[18], and as a [...] traditional healer. Various study trips to places of power in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Germany. Intensive seminar activities both domestically and abroad.[18]

FSS staff

FSS staff is called „faculty“ and FSS seems to make a special point of hiring persons with academic degrees and titles. The North American FSS presently (2013) lists 27 persons, while the European FSS institute names 25 teachers, among them German, Austrian, Swiss, British, Czech, French, and Portuguese persons.[19] Similarly, the FSS newsletter, formerly named rather unpretentiously, has been renamed „journal“ which implies the notion of a regular academic, peer reviewed publication.[20]

Of the 27 staff members listed for FSS in the USA, only six do not have any academic grades resp titles, one has a Bachelor, ten have a Master's, and seven hold a doctorate/Ph.D., while one is a Naturopathic Medical Doctor and Registered Nurse.[19]

There are 25 teachers of FSS in Vienna, only three of whom do not have any academic grades. Four staff members are engineers with a diploma, one has a Master's degree (Magister), one is a pilot, six staff members hold a doctorate. On the other hand, as many as eleven staff members are described as running their own office as alternative healers, some of these do hold university degrees in non-medical fields, but at least one of them runs an alternative practice with a doctorate as a dentist.[21]

Claims of Indigenous Descent

Louise Gauthier

The FSS staff, regular and so-called guest faculty, listed on both the US and European site are all Euro-American. None of these persons are indigenous; only one of the teachers, Louise Gauthier, claims links to indigenous cultures mentioning she „was introduced to Native spirituality and traditions by a friend of the family, who had been adopted by the Mohawks from the Kanesatake reservation. More recently, in the 1990s, she followed the Maniwaki spiritual leader of all North American Natives, Grandfather William Commanda, as well as the teachings from pipe carriers and grandmothers from the Algonquin, Atikamek and Mi’kmaq traditions. In 2008, she discovered an Algonquin Weskarini ancestor and can now call herself Algonquin metis.“[22]

First of all, the description given of the role of William Commanda is not based on facts but is a gross misrepresentation.

It has to be pointed out that one indigenous ancestor (way in the past, since this nation was scattered and largely displaced "in the latter half of the 17th century"[23]) of course does not create any basis to call oneself „Métis“. While the term Métis is used in Canada, Métis are descendants of French/English and Cree/Ojibway ancestry with their own culture and language who are recognised as a First Nation by the Canadian government. However, a person with only one distant ancestor will not qualify as a Métis; furthermore, the name 'Weskarini' is historic and there is no present-day ethnic entity going by this name.[23]

The biographical information on her own website seem to have been brushed up, since Gauthier not only claims to be "Métis Algonquine", but to have been initiated into "the" indigenous spirituality since her early childhood, to have worked with several "pipe carriers" of Algonkin nations as well as of Innu and Mohawk nations who all allegedly initiated Gauthier to different ceremonies like Sweat Lodges, Marriages, and Ceremonies of Passing.[24] Gauthier not only does workshops in Canada/USA, but also in France. Her activities outside of FSS seem to be done under the aliases of "Loumitea" and "Grand-Mère Louise".[25]

However, Gauthier is not only selling indigenous ceremonies and workshops, she also practices further pseudoscientific CAM methods, among them "Total Biology" resp. "Décodage Biologique".[24] "Total Biology" has its origins in Germanic New Medicine which contends that tumours were due to psychological conflicts and to be healed by a "conflictolysis"; it further rejects evidence-based medical therapies, pain management etc.

Another person who is not listed as FSS staff presently but taught FSS courses in the past is Carol Proudfoot Edgar who claims to be Lakota[3]; however, mentioning just an indigenous nation without any further specifications usually indicates a person of distant (if any) indigenous ancestry and/or a Newager trying to further sales of their workshops by claiming to be indigenous.

FSS courses and titles

Both FSS in the USA and in Vienna offer the so-called Basic Course and another set of courses on an advanced level. The US site further offers a five-day seminar, one two-week seminar, and a three-year programme [26]

For North America, 79 Basic Courses are being advertised for 2013, seven for Australia, eight for Latin America (Argentina and Chile), and four for Asia (Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan).[26] Additionally, there is one two-week „Shamanic Healing Intensive“ and the three-year-programme of „Advanced Initiations of Shamanism and Shamanic Healing“.[27]

FSS in Vienna announces 77 Basic and 80 Advanced seminars. The basic courses take place in 12 countries: Germany (27), Austria (13), Switzerland (10), Italy (9), France (3), Portugal (1), Poland (2), Great Britain (2), Czechia (3), Slowakia (1), Slovenia (2), and Croatia (2). The advanced courses will take place in 13 countries: Germany (15), Austria (17), Switzerland (13), Italy (11), France (4), Poland (2), Great Britain (8), Czechia (2), Slovakia (1), Slovenia (1), Croatia (2), Netherlands  (1), Spain (2).[28]

The advanced courses offer extraction healing training, trainings in shamanic creativity, core soul retrieval and divination, and courses in „Shamanism, Dying, and Beyond“, „Shamanism and the Spirits of Nature“, „Shamanic Dreamwork“, and a „Shamanism Practicum“. On the US site, several of these courses have been registered as a Trade Mark.[26]

FSS Europe offers two additional advanced courses which are not part of the range of seminars on the US site: „The Power of Mountains“ which aims at finding „places of power“: “The Alps offer a multitude of possibilities for shamanic work with their rocks, waterfalls, glaciers, plants, and animals. Shamanic experience will be brushed up and new techniques will be tried. Furthermore, competences with mountains will be demonstrated, we will learn how to move appropriately in heights of about 2,000 metres [...] and to apply shamanic methodology on this fascinating and challenging environment“.[29] The other one is a course titled „Vision Dance“ which is uncorrectly said to correspond with the English term „ghost dance“. The description of this course claims: “Visions are power, joy, and health giving realities which may give inspiration and direction to individual life as well as to communal life.“[30] However, in indigenous spirituality, vision quests are not to be confused with the comparatively short phenomenon of the Ghost Dance which also only spread to a part of the indigenous nations in the USA, and to suggest these were or are one and the same may not even be characterized as neglectful. The US site has no comparable course listed for „Ghost Dance“, while FSS Europe lists five seminars planned for 2013.

Susan Mokelke

Neither the US nor the European site mention any fees charged for these seminars. As FSS is a non-profit organisation, the seminars are technically organised by the staff members who are also to be contacted regarding fees: “To register, obtain information, get fees and/or locations for any of the listed workshops, please contact the person or organization listed below as "contact person". The Foundation does not register participants for any of its courses and will refer you to the listed contact for any information beyond that provided here.“.[26] Accordingly, only six seminars announced on the Vienna site are said to be organised by FSS, five of them with Paul Uccusic as a teacher, and one done by Susan Mokelke, who is the executive director of FSS [31]

FSS also offers a system of certificates for participants of the seminars which is only published at the US-site:

  • Harner Shamanic Counseling (prerequisite: five-day Shamanic Counseling)
  • White certificate (prerequisite: two-week Shamanic Healing Intensive)
  • Bronze certificate (prerequisite: three-year programme)
  • Silver certificate (prerequisite: two-week seminar and three-year programme)
  • Gold certificate (prerequisite: all standard advanced seminars plus five-day seminar on counseling, two-week healing intensive, and three-year programme).[27]

Surprisingly, the Vienna site only mentions one „Harner Shamanic Counselors®“ and one „Shamanic Practitioner“; the Shamanic Counselor is described as “graduated shamanic counselors who completed a respective training with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies“.[32]

Reception and Criticism

Since Harner left academia in 1987 to pursue the sales of his books and courses through his foundation, his work has no academic standing and is not recognised by anthropologists. In fact, Harner's claim to have synthesized a universal core of similar beliefs and practices in shamanic traditions worldwide has been criticised for separating these aspects from their cultural framework. Critics have described this as cultural appropriation and also as misrepresentation of indigenous cultures. Harner, same as Carlos Castaneda, is held responsible for having established the basis for a massive exploitation of indigenous cultures, and has been bestowed with the denotations of „shamanovelist“ and „shamanthropologist“.[33] Harner provided “[...] a Western imaginative construction [...]“ offering “[...] spiritual practices that [...] are simulated, with the danger of neo-colonialist misappropriation of indigenous cultural property and delusions of "direct access" to such indigenous wisdom.“[33]

One main point of criticism voiced by indigenous Americans is that core shamanism assumes „one could easily learn methods that take decades to master among tribal traditionalists in a short time. Even [Harner's] "advanced" seminars only last three days and he is clearly engaged in a highly profitable enterprise as much as an attempt to form a new spirituality, exactly the same as the New Age.“[34] Another is they „homogenize tribal traditions worldwide and deny their diversity and important differences by lumping several thousand belief systems together. Harner pretends one can master elements that are supposedly common or universal ("core" shamanism in his lingo) to all. The supposed commonalities of "shamanism" are largely superficial or even self-delusion. For example, many would-be "shamans" falsely claim the sweat lodges used by some American Indian groups are allegedly a "core universal shamanic" practice. [...] Not even all American Indian groups use the sweat lodge.“[34]

Other often voiced criticisms point out “... neoshamans such as Michael Harner as examples of the next wave of popularization of Indian spirituality, from 1960 to 1980. These New Age entrepreneurs established a workshop industry mainly attended by middle- and upper-class whites seeking the Indian experience.“[35] The imminent racism of this practice is criticised since „the neo-shaman is one that feels justified in appropriating techniques of shamanism and marketing them for personal benefit. Furthermore, the neo-shaman mixes or “syncretes” occult notions from various religions and spiritual philosophies as if shamanism shares a common perennial basis with all religious ideas“ and “Harner homogenizes what he sees as primitive mysticism and tribal ritual into one word — shamanism. He claims to have distilled the essence of that shamanism, and then he recycles it for eager customers who want a piece of authentic “Indian” experience.“[35]

Harner and FSS also attribute the sweatlodge to pre-historic European cultures, as is claimed on the site of the FSS Vienna branch: Shamanic traditions are already to be found in Neolithic (verified in Europe approximately from 32,000 before Christ – the Cave of Chauvet [...].[36] The term used in the original version [„Jungsteinzeit“] means „Neolithic“, and therefore the claim is blatantly incorrect: the era of 32,000 years before our time is not Neolithic which, in Central Europe, only began between 5500 – 2200 before our time; even its earliest beginnings in the Middle East do not predate 11,500.[37] The era about 32,000 belongs to the Upper Paleolithic.[38] However, the religions developed by those populations are unknown and any statements about these religions remain in the realm of wild guesses and therefore are to be seen as historical misrepresentation even if the text gave that era its correct name of Upper Paleolithic. Furthermore, the Chauvet Cave mentioned accordingly does not provide any proof of Paleolithic religions, but is a site of several hundred Paleolithic paintings dating back to between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.[39] The unfounded claim of dating alleged European shamanic traditions and ceremonies back to a time of 32,000 before our time on the other hand also implies a European claim to their origins, as compared to indigenous peoples.

The text also recommends an article written by one Ute Moos who is the author of a book titled Spiritual Healing. The Other Path to Health“ which comes with a foreword written by Michael Harner.[40]

Harner claims one of the result of his research of core shamanism is that the use of entheogens was not necessary to gain access to a different reality, and says this was already possible by drumming. This implies, however, that indigenous shamans are less knowledgeable since, in some traditions, they use entheogens; therefore, this contributes to a notion of superiority among a Western clientele. In the same way, indigenous shamans, medicine persons etc. usually undergo an apprenticeship lasting twenty or more years – core and neo-shamanism claim to achieve the same in weekend seminars.

Another point of criticism is that FSS merchandises shamanism and therefore commercialises it. This spiritual colonialism also denigrates indigenous cultures and persons, since these courses offer Western clientele a shortcut to what takes several decades in the original contexts. While in these contexts, only few individuals are seen as having shamanic aptitudes, the Western clientele is told that everyone can become a shaman[41], or as FSS asserts its clientele, even a trainer of shamans. Such attitudes are deeply rooted in a notion of white superiority and therefore are racist in core.

A racist attitude is also the basis of the FSS goal to aid indigenous peoples to preserve their traditions, and the statement that FSS will give indigenous persons a possibility „to establish a renewed contact with their own traditions via the Harner Method“[3] documents that FSS claims a power of definition what a real Indian is, how real Indians should act and behave, and that only successfully passed FSS courses will make them real Indians again, as opposed to learning the ways of their ethnic groups from their elders. However, the success of FSS may be doubted: “In a private communication, Paul Uccusic wrote in reply of a respective question (July 2000), FSS had repeatedly accepted enrolled Indians to participate in courses without payment (particularly in the Basic Seminar) and that this right was still in effect to this day. The idea was to teach these people only the techniques of shamanic journeys, so that they afterwards were able to find a contact to their buried roots on their own with the help of their power animals and spirit teachers. Uccusic commented very negatively on the „personal structure of many Indians“ and their „difficulties in adapting“, which made success of this measure doubtful, so Harner was thinking about changing this practice. [...] Uccusic's condescending ways towards Natives were also criticised by some participants of the shamanism congress „Wanderers between Worlds“ (in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 2000) [...]“[3]

Jeffrey David Ehrenreich

Currently, the FSS website only offers reduced fees for indigenous participants which will amount to 50% of the original fee charged[10], and apart from the letter quoted above, there are no further reports about FSS courses being available without payment for indigenous persons. On the other hand, there is an account by a person of Buryat ethnicity describing that a Buryat shamanic centre contacted FSS in 1997, with FSS simply sending them application forms for membership and a schedule of their courses in reply[42]. FSS also offers no proof for their claim that „[...] representatives of 54 tribes have taken advantage of this offer.“[10]

It is also noteworthy that the FSS staff does not have any indigenous teachers from English speaking countries (except for the two persons of dubious distant ancestry mentioned above), and despite its preference for teachers with an academic education, persons with a course of studies in anthropology are an absolute minority. Furthermore, FSS claims to have assisted several ethnic groups in South and North America, and this list bears an apparent likeness to the list of ethnic groups with whom Harner worked while still employed at university institutes. One of these claims asserts FSS had assisted the Paiute in reconstructing the Ghost Dance.[43] This seems highly unlikely, as the Ghost Dance religion in particular has seen academic research by anthropologists for more than one century, with publications dating back to 1896 (James Mooney), 1927 (Leslie Spier), and 1930 (A.H. Gayton).

Sandra Harner

Although Harner's publications since he left academia are largely not recognized by anthropologists, a 2009 meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists ran a series of lectures and discussions titled „Papers in Honor of Michael Harner Part I and II" which were being organized by Jeffrey David Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich, an anthropologist, also invited several persons connected to FSS to give lectures, one of them Sandra Harner, Michael Harner's wife, Vice President of FSS and also a member of its Board of Trustees[44], as well as Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Frank Lipp, and Edith Turner who are all listed as FSS Field Associates on the FSS site.[45] According to the information provided in Sandra Harner's biography at the FSS site, she has no formal education in anthropology, but is a clinical psychologist.[46] FSS used this incident to claim Harner had been "honored by the American Anthropological Association" on its website.[47] The events earned Ehrenreich an admission to the FSS Board of Trustees which was announced in the FSS E-Newsletter Volume 6, Issue 3 of September 2012, after prior publications in the FSS Shamanism Annual in December 2010.[48]

Versions of this article in other languages


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