American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers

American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers

Jack Montgomery
Ithaca, NY: Busca, 2008. Paperback, $19.95, 265 pages.

In 1974, Jack Montgomery was an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, in search of an interesting topic for a religious studies paper. He decided to interview local practitioners of folk magic and traditional healing, representing traditions such as hoodoo and powwow. This project "became a quest for knowledge, heritage, and personal meaning" (xi) which has continued to the present. Today, Montgomery is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University, and American Shamans is the fruit of over thirty years of study of these home-grown spiritual traditions.

Montgomery focuses his attention on traditions native to his home state of South Carolina, from both the lowland and Piedmont regions. Unlike Louisianan voodoo, these South Carolina traditions do not cultivate an alternative practice of religious worship/ritual, but are most often practiced by people who see themselves as pious Christians, and understand their magical work as a gift from God. For example, here is an excerpt from Montgomery's interview with "Sarah Ramsey," an Appalachian granny-woman:

JM: Mrs. Ramsey, how do you feel about the life you've had?
SR: I'm happy. I don't have any regrets, I'm at peace with the Lord.
JM: What has all of your healing experience done for you?
SR: I don't know what you're asking.
JM: I'm sorry; it's just that you have healed people, delivered babies, even fought with evil. What does all that mean to you?
SR: That my Jesus is everywhere. No matter what happens, he is with me. He's loved me and blessed me through all my troubles. Now I look forward to going home to be with him one day soon. (241-2)

These sentiments come from a woman who had just recounted to Montgomery her way of dealing with a "witch ball" sent as a curse to her, and her conversations with spirits who instructed her that "what you think makes everything" (241).

A large part of the book is Montgomery's account of his time with Lee Raus Gandee, who began as a contact for his USC paper, but became Montgomery's spiritual mentor and teacher of powwow for several years. Gandee is a complex character, whose personality comes through clearly in the dialogues:

"How does one become a Hexenmeister?" I asked him at our first meeting.
"By being a Hex until you can manage it!" replied the elderly gentleman in the rocking chair, calmly smoking his pipe (72).

American Shamans is somewhere between an academic anthropological account and a personal memoir. Montgomery admits to some trepidation in discussing his own spiritual experiences, his views on magic and spirituality, and how his work as a powwow has impacted his life. Gandee tells the young Montgomery: "Either magic works or it doesn't. I don't worry too much about the theory" (109). While Montgomery gives us a bit of theory, he focuses on the work, especially as it takes form in his life. It is his courage in bringing himself into the story which lends this book its warmth and its spirit of humble authenticity.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a freelance theologian, and the author of several books and articles on independent sacramental churches and esoteric Christianity.