Alhena Caicedo Fernandez, Ph.D.

Alhena Caicedo Fernandez, Ph.D.

Alhena Caicedo Fernández has Ph.D. in social anthropology from EHESS, France and is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia.
Alhena Caicedo Fernandez, Ph.D.

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On the 4th of June 2015, somewhere near Bogotá, Colombian authorities detained Taita Orlando Gaitán

On the 4th of June 2015, somewhere near Bogotá, Colombian authorities detained Taita Orlando Gaitán, a well-known neoshaman who, under his self-denomination as a traditional indigenous physician, led yage sessions as part of his provision of therapeutic and spiritual services in various cities around the country. He was detained due to allegations of sexual assault made by several women; among them, minors belonging to the Comunidad de Paz de Pensamiento Bonito [Community of Nice Thoughts], a group created and led by Gaitán in Bogota in the beginning of the 1990s.

In Colombia, the expansion of the yagecero field over the past 20 years is linked to the urbanization and elitization of yage consumption (a recognized practice of indigenous origin) promoted by the appearance of an urban spiritual therapeutic market led by indigenous and non-indigenous specialists known as “taitas yageceros.”

Orlando Gaitán is a well-known taita belonging to this generation of interface specialists who have legitimized themselves as traditional physicians, claiming that they are a continuation of the indigenous yagecero tradition, and asserting their “mission” to be that of propagating yage throughout Western society.

in addition to the yage sessions, the community has also embraced corporal rituals and techniques from different origins that take place within and without the actual yage session

Given that healing is the main goal of the CPPB, the therapeutic work is its most important activity, and yage sessions are considered the nucleus of the therapeutic process. However, in addition to the yage sessions, the community has also embraced corporal rituals and techniques from different origins that take place within and without the actual yage session. This is important, given that the multiple cultural references make it almost impossible to determine the adequate and legitimate uses of such practices, as the activities of the new taitas are not supported by a single source of legitimation, but rather by several sources. This grants the specialist a certain degree of power to reconfigure the ritual scenario as he sees fit, providing him a strategic ambiguity before the sources of legitimation.

In Colombia, there are several neoshamanic groups that are guided by similar principles of belief. Most work harmoniously and have adapted themselves to urban life without any significant inconvenience. In this context, however, the CPPB presents particular and significant characteristics. The ritual practice of the CPPB provides a rich and complex scenario for exploring the reconfigurations promoted by the expansion of the yagecero field.

 Orland Gaitán, in the company of two Amazonian shamans. Poster of celebration of the ritual year 2009 in the Carare Foundation’s maloca in Villeta Colombia. Photo Credit: Alhena Caicedo

The ritual activity that is exclusive to the community is, however, much broader and involves a varied range of appropriated and invented practices ordered into a sophisticated ritual calendar. Thus, in a little less than 15 years of the CPPB’s existence, it displayed a kind of ritual fixation through which it structured itself and regulated and standardized all the group’s ritual activities, and its procedures and hierarchies according to the leader’s personal decisions.

Thanks to his charisma, the taita portrayed himself as a model to follow, legitimizing himself as the only person able to judge the good or bad behavior of his followers

All the leader’s instructions on what to do and what not to do, and how to do it, were ultimately grounded on the idea that strict fulfillment of such rules was necessary for the achievement of spiritual evolution, and that all the rules are part of traditional codes pertaining to the “path of yage.” Thanks to his charisma, the taita portrayed himself as a model to follow, legitimizing himself as the only person able to judge the good or bad behavior of his followers. His power became so central that all his decisions and actions were considered original and authentic, and, as such, incontestable.

In the 1990s, when the first yageceros began to travel to the city to offer yage sessions to middle and upper-middle class intellectuals and academics, it was the latter that legitimized the indigenous practices in the city. Twenty years later, the equation is inverted. Currently, it is only a few elder taitas, recognized as political and medical authorities of their respective communities, who now serve as the sources of legitimation and guarantee for the practice of the new urban taitas like Orlando Gaitán.

Orlando Gaitán’s legitimation strategy was supported by the ambiguity between what would be a process of initiation with a teacher, and the relations of the commercial exchange of yage that exists among the taitas of Putumayo

Orlando Gaitán’s legitimation strategy was supported by the ambiguity between what would be a process of initiation with a teacher, and the relations of the commercial exchange of yage that exists among the taitas of Putumayo. In this sense, the relationships between Gaitán and the yageceros of Putumayo did not only become decontextualized; they shed light on a kind of instrumentalization of the links and the existence of power relationships between himself and the indigenous taitas.

The CPPB health center had a significant number of female patients, mostly from the urban working and middle classes. According to Gaitán’s therapeutic model, the female reproductive system, as a “creator of life,” means that women have more body parts than men. This theory of the female body is founded on a differential conception of female and male forces that, in the case of women, is determined by their capacity to conceive and by the power attributed to the menstrual cycle.

This therapeutic model is a substantial example of the logics that bolster the interface between tradition and innovation; it is notable in that it is supported by records, each having its own particular forms of legitimation. However, for the actors involved, the taita’s eclectic logic in positioning himself as the authority was not to be challenged. We can therefore affirm that Orlando Gaitán displayed a strategy of cross-legitimation that consisted in resorting to diverse sources of legitimation that he was able to articulate in such a way that each source served not to legitimize a concrete practice, but rather, to legitimize the other sources, thus making them impossible to question.

The appreciation of the feminine is not excluded from this neoshaman’s therapeutic protocol. In many of the scenarios of the new yageceros, the female condition has a central importance within their discussions and practices. Given that, within the traditional field, yage is associated with male power, these new urban spaces, considered heirs of the yagecero tradition in the city, adopt different mechanisms and strategies that include women at both discussion and practical levels, reconstructing the modalities of the ritual use of the psychotropic treatment. The growing trend to make the feminine more prominent in the new scenarios could be read as an innovation pertaining to the broadening of the field. What is interesting about these innovations is that they not only establish complementary spaces or spheres for women, but that they have also gained increasing visibility among the urban public.

Almost two years after the detention of Taita Orlando Gaitán for allegations of sexual assault from various women from the CPPB, legal action is still underway. The case speaks of a particular moment in which the changes in the way yage is used have led to the formation of an interface whereby traditional practices and innovations coexist. Such transformations are the product of processes of urbanization and elitization, crossed by the flows of the global market, that, at the same time, respond to the multiculturalist policy of the Colombian state. The case also expresses a progressive trend towards the deregulation of this interface as a consequence of the changes in the legitimation regimens for yage consumption, as well as the emergence of new forms of legitimation based on romanticized representations of Indianness and on cross-legitimation strategies. Finally, this case also reveals that, despite the fact that most neoshamanic practices are harmless, some can display the features of sectarian danger, such as those of the CPPB that evolved in a community of believers guided by a charismatic leader.

Their practice does not rely on the formal recognition of external authority for its legitimation. On the contrary, they themselves become their own authority. In this sense, they have a great flexibility in terms of combining therapeutic practices and rituals but, above all, they use self-legitimization strategies. Those who move through this interface can choose different traditional or non-traditional practices as they please, and obtain legitimation when they are considered by their followers as authentically indigenous. In the case of the CPPB, the centrality and authority reached by the charismatic leader and his ability to manage rituality as a planning and control device, the implementation of a therapeutic model aimed at a female clientele, and, above all, the potential to compose cross-legitimation mechanisms, are conditions that jointly allow the generation of a space propitious for abuse, even if they do not in themselves explain it.

for example, during the healing ritual, the specialist—the taita or yagecero—plays an active role when he sweeps away and extracts the disease from the patient’s passive body

The new scenarios of yage consumption relate the forms of difference and inequality, both within and without the ritual session. Thus, for example, during the healing ritual, the specialist—the taita or yagecero—plays an active role when he sweeps away and extracts the disease from the patient’s passive body. This structural inequality present during the therapeutic process involves the patient’s trust and the power he delegates to the taita, who he presumes has expert knowledge. In this sense, the inequality is legitimate. On the other hand, in these new contexts, the figure of the taita has been deeply idealized by his followers. The romantic image of the wise healer-shaman has circulated on the information networks, and global consumption has filtered through to urban social sectors that access such representations. Thus, even more power is conferred to this idealized image.

In fact, according to the therapeutic model, they are the main source of pollution and risk against the taita’s power and, at the same time, they constitute the ideal patient to diagnose, treat, and cure.

The forms of difference at stake are, in turn, forms of power in context that act according to the logic operating within the yagecero field, but also according to the hegemonic logic of the broader field of the social sciences. During the healing sessions, as the differences between the taita and the patient are active, so are the ethnic and cultural differences (and inequalities) of all the participants (Indians, urban mestizos, gringos, etc.); differences between the urban and rural as part of a broader hegemonic geopolitical logic; class differences (between new urban middle and upper class followers, and the traditional popular class followers); generational differences (reflected in aspects as basic as the authority of those followers with more experience, who knew the leader since he began to practice versus the younger, newer followers); and last, but not least, gender differences in which the established patriarchy works effectively on bodies and desires, placing women, younger ones in particular, at a disadvantage. In fact, according to the therapeutic model, they are the main source of pollution and risk against the taita’s power and, at the same time, they constitute the ideal patient to diagnose, treat, and cure.

In this sense, the allegations of sexual assault are related to a pattern of social relations of difference—to the multi-relational nature of the yagecero field of power, to the strategies of cross-legitimation and a trend towards the deregulation of the interface—more than they are to the psychoactive effects of yage. Thus, the risk of abuse—not just sexual, but any kind of abuse— can be latent, despite the attempts to regulate the sources of legitimation that allow it.

Several authors have expounded on the existence of radical differences between traditional shamanism and neoshamanisms.

Several authors have expounded on the existence of radical differences between traditional shamanism and neoshamanisms. Yet, cases like this one reveal that, despite the distinctions between the type of actors, meanings, and purposes, yagecero shamanism and neoshamanism coexist within the same field of power where the power of difference is more active than ever.

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Note:

This text is an adaptation of the original “Power and Legitimacy in the Reconfiguration of the Yagecero Field in Colombia,” published in the book, The Expanding World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Appropriation, Integration and Legislation (2018), edited by Beatriz C. Labate & Clancy Cavnar, and published by Routledge.