Adam Andros Aronovich, M.A.
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As the evening fell dark, I saw 4 young indigenous students enter the round maloka ceremony space at the Temple of the Way of Light, a Peruvian-based ayahuasca healing retreat in the jungle. They entered silently, trying to remain unnoticed by all the “gringos” gazing at them curiously. They have a good reason to be nervous: Tonight, they will drink ayahuasca for the first time in their lives. But, even though they come from indigenous groups where ayahuasca has been historically used, they are not to be initiated by the shamans of their communities; instead, they are the guests of honor for that night’s ceremony in one of the oldest and better known “gringo” ayahuasca retreat centers in the world.

The Temple of the Way of Light (often simply referred to as “The Temple”) has a long history of offering support to the indigenous people of the Loreto region, and has been inviting leaders from various indigenous federations to attend its community ceremonies since 2010. Recently, it began including indigenous university students as part of a wider initiative named Ayni Ayahuasca, a collaboration with the Temple’s sister organization, The Chaikuni Institute. The purpose of this initiative is to foster reciprocal relationships between the Temple and local communities, and provide opportunities for people who have benefitted from the wisdom, practices, and resources of the inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest to give something back to the jungle and its people. The goal is to establish patterns of relationships that break away from the easily-reproducible and well-established patterns of colonialism, extractivism or exploitation, both from intercultural and environmental perspectives.

As Research Coordinator for the Chaikuni Institute, one of the projects I am currently involved in is a promising collaboration with OEPIAP, an organization of indigenous Amazonian university students in the jungle city of Iquitos, Peru. These are some 120 students who hail from 15 different indigenous groups in the northern region of Peru. Most of them live along one of the main tributary rivers of the Amazon, many of which have been declared national environmental emergencies in recent years, including the Pastaza, the Corrientes and the Marañon. Through legal advice and mediation services, Chaikuni has been actively supporting and empowering some of the regional indigenous organizations in their popular mobilization for environmental and social rights arising from 4 decades of exploitation by oil companies.

Ayahuasca Youths Initation

Image: A leader of OEPIAP in a demonstration in the city of Iquitos, by Sophie Pinchetti

Ayahuasca Youths Initiation

Image: An OEPIAP student during a meeting, by Sophie Pinchetti

Ayahuasca Youths Initiation

Image: OEPIAP students raising funds for the completion of their urban campus, by Sophie Pinchetti

Ayahuasca Youths Initiation

Image: The Chaikuni Institute has been supporting the indigenous-led movement in Saramurillo, by Sophie Pinchetti

Although raised in groups that have historically worked with ayahuasca, such as the Kichwa, the Achuar (Shuar), the Awajun (Aguaruna) or the Bora, the large majority of the young students who attend ceremonies at the Temple have never drunk ayahuasca before. In fact, preliminary conversations with them reveal that many of them either fear it for its association with sorcery, dismiss it as devil worship, or think of it as an archaic and primitive practice that is not in accord with “progress,” the last two opinions resulting from centuries of religious demonization and the colonial cultural devaluation of their traditions.

Centuries of missionary work, accelerated Westernization, and the movement of indigenous youth into urban centers are causing a decline in the number of traditional ayahuasca practitioners in some of these communities, where younger generations seem less inclined to learn and practice shamanism or plant medicine. Understandably, as the economic frontiers advance, they want to keep up with a rapidly globalizing world. Although many Amazonian people still resort to the forest as the primary source of medicines, nowhere in the world have I seen a higher density of pharmacies as in the city center of Iquitos.

A lot has been written about the naïve notions that many Westerners have around ideas of authenticity and indigeneity.1 Despite the romantic fantasies of many Western seekers, the reality is that many of the forest-dwelling people in northern Peru wear jeans and T-shirts, communicate via WhatsApp, and love to post selfies on Facebook. Many young people, whether by choice or necessity, migrate to urban centers hoping to get a job. Some of them aspire to become professionals, seeking higher education.

Although the city offers many opportunities for growth and empowerment, their journey to enroll and succeed in university is not easy. They speak Spanish as a second language, and intercultural education in Peru is generally poor. Although universities have allocated berths for indigenous youth with significantly lower requirements for admission, most of them still struggle to finish their degrees. They face many economic, social, and cultural hardships as they try to adapt to urban life. The Chaikuni institute has recently started a fundraising campaign in order to build an urban campus for these students, as part of its ongoing support.

Furthermore, indigenous people in Peru routinely face exclusion, marginalization, and stigma. Some of them hide their identity for fear of retaliation from their peers. I was surprised about their reluctance to share with me details about their ethnicity or communities of precedence. I had imagined they would be happy and proud to identify as Achuar or Awajun. From my naïve a priori perspective, I thought that all Amazonian indigenous people must have very strong links to their cultures and a strong sense of identity. I now know that this is not always the case.

It is evident that the arrival of Western seekers to the Amazon also implied a fundamental change in many of the “traditional” practices. It is thus a mistake to regard indigenous ways of doing and knowing as crystallized and frozen in time, as these processes are dynamic and fluid.2 For example, the emphasis on psychological healing and personal development that has become the narrative of Western ayahuasca drinkers and providers is not necessarily a central one within “authentic” or “indigenous” contexts. As more and more Westerners are called to work with ayahuasca, some people fear the dilution of ancestral knowledge, perhaps with good reasons. However, this adaptation also provides many opportunities for ayahuasca practices to keep evolving and transforming in new and different ways.

Since times immemorial, animistic societies have lived in enchanted worlds where everything is alive and sentient. The plants, trees, animals, rivers, and mountains all have spirits; they are intelligent and communicative. They have intentions, and they can hold grudges. The religious studies scholar Graham Harvey defines animism as the belief “that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others”.3 According to Harvey, people living in animist societies are therefore primarily “concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons”.4 Author David Abram observes that the shaman’s primary role is to restore and maintain balance in the reciprocal relationships between the human community and the wider spheres of sentience in which it is embedded. In animist cultures, the task of the shaman is to uphold his community to the principles of reciprocity and interdependence with all living being, elements, and spirits.5

ayahuasca retreat

-Temple of The Way of Light Ayahuasca Retreat

In my fieldnotes, I recorded a conversation with a well-reputed Shipibo healer, or “medico,” with whom I am “dieting.” In vegetalismo shamanism, a “dieta” means a period of relative isolation and austerity that apprentices endure in order to connect with the spirit of the plant that is being “dieted,” as to establish a relationship and gain its power for both sorcery and healing. I was very curious about his perceptions regarding the work that he does with Westerners. He confessed that, in many ways, working with gringos is much easier than working among indigenous or mestizo people, as most Westerners come here primarily to enhance their individual wellbeing. His work thus focuses on cleansing and releasing trauma, stagnant energies or “mental blockages.” In accord to our own culture, it’s a much more individualistic approach, as contrasted to the reciprocal relationships that underlie indigenous cultures.

According to this medico, working with native people is tougher because it inevitably involves “black magic” and sorcery. The reciprocal worldview of indigenous cultures means that most illnesses or personal problems can be attributed to the envy, anger or bad intentions of another “person,” human or otherwise. In these cases, the medico is not merely cleansing, but actively engaged in a power struggle with his opponent, the antagonistic brujo who cast the spell on the afflicted: the “owner” of the illness. This is in line with the observations of anthropologist Brabec de Mori, who points out that medicos are ambiguous figures: They heal through sorcery.6 Sorcery, it should be pointed out, is generally understood as the manipulation of other people´s energies and agency, and it isn’t necessarily perceived as “black magic” if it is done with consent from the patient.

In line with the increased attention that the Shipibo medical system receives from Western people, the training process of young apprentices is changing to adapt to the needs of Western clients. According to my informant, “the younger medicos no longer learn how to do sorcery, because they only want to learn the things they need in order to be able to work for gringos.” In his opinion, they are thus less prepared. “Maybe,” he reflects, “it is actually better like this, because now many of them only know how to heal.”

Although younger brujos and unscrupulous native practitioners do still exist, it is evident that working with Westerners has altered many aspects of modern Shipibo ayahuasca practice, and not necessarily always for the worse. Shamanism has always been rooted in the exchange and sharing of knowledge, methods, and philosophies, and retreat centers that cater to Westerners are extremely fertile ground for this. At the Temple of the Way of Light, workshop curricula include not only ayahuasca ceremonies and other elements of vegetalismo, but also Eastern psychospiritual practices, such as yoga or meditation, and a wide range of somatic approaches, integrative practices, and processing techniques.

As a result, many young Shipibo maestros are now literate about chakras and mantras and they understand concepts of Western psychology and psychiatry. The Shipibo, like everybody else, are curious and interested in other cultures and practices, even if some idealists would prefer to preserve their “authenticity.”  Furthermore, as Labate noted, the continuity of these traditions, in a quickly globalizing world, depends on their flexibility and ability to incorporate new cultural elements.7

Including indigenous students in the Temple’s ceremonies is an opportunity to learn about the different ways in which people experience and express affliction in relationship with culture. Westerners who come to the Amazon usually suffer from depression, anxiety, existential anguish, and trauma. We come from highly individualistic and alienating cultures, and loneliness and a lack of relatedness are turning out to be major contributors to these epidemics. Our narratives focus on our own biographies and dramas, and the ayahuasca ritual becomes highly psychologized, embedded within sessions of processing, integration, and sharing.8 Perhaps this is inevitable, living in competitive societies where the support structures offered by a communal lifestyle rooted in reciprocity simply do not exist.

Preliminary conversations with the students suggest that the main themes that arise before and during their ayahuasca experiences pertain to wider spheres of social-ecology, linked to collective and environmental issues. Although they do express the desire for individual healing, they are mostly concerned about their families, left behind along the riverbanks and living at the frontlines of environmental devastation. They are worried about the state of their forest, the rivers, the sustenance of their communities. They bring to the conversation central themes that are mostly foreign in Western settings, such as sorcery and divination.

Our immediate goal is to find the best ways in which we can provide effective and responsible accompaniment for their processes. As Labate points out, the role of the “facilitator” is a relatively new construction emerging from the psychologization of ayahuasca practices.9 The deep processing and open-sharing strategies that seem to work very well for Westerners appear to be less effective and appealing for indigenous students, at least at first sight. As we become more inclusive, we want to create spaces that are comfortable for all of us, blurring the artificial divides between “them” and “us” perpetuated by colonial historical narratives.

Ultimately, we feel that inviting indigenous students to participate in ceremonies is an opportunity for well-known retreat centers, institutions that have established satisfactory standards of good practices, to reciprocate and share that wealth of accumulated, syncretic knowledge back to indigenous youth. It is also an opportunity to learn how ayahuasca is perceived and practiced in their various communities of origin, and an open channel to engage in a deeper conversation regarding the respectful and reciprocal use of ayahuasca in a predominantly Western setting.

I am curious to see whether this process can inspire young indigenous academics to become a generational link that bridges the epistemologies of science with their own diverse ways of knowing and being.  From the perspective of the Chaikuni Institute, it allows us to learn from them how best can we be allies in the preservation of their medical systems while minimizing their dilution. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for the future leaders of many indigenous communities and federations to connect at a deeper level and share potentially transcendental and cohesive experiences. This opens the doors for the formation of deeper alliances that, in the near future, may prove decisive for the survival of their way of life. This is a way of life that is not only an incredibly rich and diverse modality of experience but also a way of knowing and being that is becoming more and more relevant as the disenchanted dominant culture crumbles all around us.

  1.  Fotiou, E. (2014). On the Uneasiness of tourism: Considerations on shamanic tourism in western Amazonia In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 159–181). New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Labate, B. C. (2014). The Internationalization of Peruvian Vegetalismo. In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 182–205). New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. Harvey, G. (2006). Animism: Respecting the living world. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press.
  4. Harvey, G. (2006). Animism: Respecting the living world. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press.
  5.  Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous. New York City, NY: Pantheon.
  6.  Brabec De Mori, B. (2014). From the native’s point of view: How Shipibo-Konibo experience and interpret ayahuasca drinking with “gringos.” In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 206–230). New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.
  7.  Labate, B. C. (2014). The Internationalization of Peruvian Vegetalismo. In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 182–205). New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.
  8.  Labate, B. C. (2014). The Internationalization of Peruvian Vegetalismo. In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 182–205). New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.
  9.  Labate, B. C. (2014). The Internationalization of Peruvian Vegetalismo. In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 182–205). New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.

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