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Ayahuasca is a traditional medicine for approximately one hundred indigenous groups in the Amazon basin, dispersed across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela
Yubaka Hayrá, the first indigenous ayahuasca conference, was held December 14 –17, 2017 in Puyanawa Village, in the municipality of Mâncio Lima, in the State of Acre, Brazil. The event brought together 15 peoples from the region to discuss the relations surrounding the use of ayahuasca today worldwide. Ayahuasca is a traditional medicine for approximately one hundred indigenous groups in the Amazon basin, dispersed across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela[; most of them from the Arawak, Pano, and Tukano linguistic families.
The drink goes by many names but became more widely known by the Quechua term “ayahuasca.” In Brazil, it has other names such as uni, nixi pãe, caapi, and camarampi. Archaeological studies suggest that it may have been used ritually for more than 5,000 years, but it is found in origin histories for all our peoples. For our civilizations, the sacred medicine has been the source of our knowledge, identity, and culture since the creation of the first person. Consequently, it is always present in our songs and histories, as well as being part of the ancient relations between our peoples. We ayahuasquero indigenous nations have ancient diplomatic and spiritual relations, meaning that the First Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference (Yubaka Hayrá), can be considered a landmark in contemporary indigenous history.
The initiative of holding an indigenous ayahuasca conference was partly a response to the AYA World Ayahuasca Conference, whose first edition took place in Ibiza, Spain, in 2014. Organized by ICEERS (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service), most of its participants came from the scientific community and the principal ayahuasca churches, while indigenous participation comprised four speakers from Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Puzzled at seeing Ibiza proclaimed the “world ayahuasca capital” in the local press, the possibility was discussed of holding the Second World Ayahuasca Conference in South America, where Iquitos and Rio Branco are major cities, and which has been the birthplace of the ayahuasca churches and world-renowned healing centers. Thus, in October 2016, the Second World Ayahuasca Conference (also known as AYA2016) was held in Rio Branco at UFAC (Acre Federal University) involving three lines of discussion; the first was the scientific, where researchers from the fields of medicine, ethnobotany, psychology, pharmacology, and anthropology discussed the effects of the drink and their experiences in the treatment of chemical dependency and depression, as well as other issues relevant to neuroscience.
The fact that our faith, science, and ceremonies remain alive today is a demonstration of the struggle and the political, cultural, and spiritual resistance of our peoples
The contact of non-indigenous people with ayahuasca occurred in the sixteenth century, when it was described by Portuguese and Spanish Catholic missionaries as the “work of the Devil”: Indigenous spiritual practices were immediately discriminated against and persecuted by the church. The demonization of our spirituality by the colonizers definitively marked our history and lasted decisively until the mid-twentieth century. The fact that our faith, science, and ceremonies remain alive today is a demonstration of the struggle and the political, cultural, and spiritual resistance of our peoples.
Scientific interest began with the cataloguing of the ayahuasca vine as Banisteriopsis caapi by the English botanist Richard Spruce in the mid-nineteenth century. Spruce had been in contact with the Tukano people on the Vaupés river and watched a ceremony of the Dabacuri in which caapi was drunk. During the twentieth century, interest in understanding the chemical agents and effects of the medicine grew alongside the globalization of the ayahuasca churches.
The second line of discussion at AYA2016 was led by the Santo Daime, Barquinha, and União do Vegetal churches: Brazilian religious groups, some of which emerged in Acre. The oldest of these is Santo Daime, which recognizes Raimundo Irineu Serra—better known as Mestre Irineu—as the person responsible for the Christianization of its use. Irineu had contact with the indigenous medicine while working in rubber plantations in the 1930s.
Throughout the Amazonian region the “Rubber Boom” is remembered by indigenous peoples as a time of slavery and correrias (hostile incursions). Even today in Acre state, centenarian elders bear the iron branding of the old rubber “bosses” on their bodies. It was during this period of massive rubber exploration that impoverished migrants from other states encountered the culture of indigenous peoples, who had maintained their practices in the rubber plantations, despite the persecution of their spirituality by missionaries and evangelizers.
Mestre Irineu adopted the drink, rebaptizing it as “Santo Daime,” based on the exhortation Dai-me amor, “give me love,” Dai-me firmeza, “give me strength,” with his group mixing elements of popular Catholicism, Afro-Brazilian traditions, and some traces of the original indigenous spirituality. The ayahuasca churches grew by establishing their own dogma, rituals, hymns, and dress. They fought to be institutionally recognized as religious entities and took a leading role in the fight for recognition of the religious use of the drink under CONAD Resolution 01/2010. The churches attracted the interest of many and grew both in Brazil and internationally, beginning a period of globalization of the medicine that today includes the involvement of various neo-shamanic groups, alternative healing retreats, and indigenous and scientific research centers.
Finally, the third line of approach at AYA2016 was the indigenous track, where 150 representatives from various peoples from Acre State in Brazil and from other countries were invited to take part and present their thoughts concerning the importance of ayahuasca in their cultures.
The AYA2016’s program was divided equally between the three lines of approach. The private sector event, although supported by the Acre State Secretariat of Culture, involved entrance fees and a limited number of participants. This caused some consternation among indigenous leaders, since all the ayahuasca-using peoples showed considerable interest in the event and argued that they had the right to participate and express their own views, considering the importance of the drink in their traditions of origin.
As per practice in the indigenous movement, the view was that all the peoples should be allowed to take part equally in the discussion. However, this left, for example, a space of five minutes for each participant to speak during the first roundtable; obviously, not enough time for anyone to express their thoughts adequately. From the outset, the lack of time and limited space provoked a tone of indignation among the indigenous participants that resulted in a letter read publicly at the end of the conference.
AYA2016 was an important moment for the indigenous groups involved who were able to observe the scale and impact of the globalization of ayahuasca, the sacred medicine of their peoples.
“I want to ask you people what shori [ayahuasca] did to you to make you do this to us?”
– Zé Correia Jeminawa
Disconcerted, the indigenous leaders were continually amazed by the impact of the globalization of the medicine about which so many non-Amerindians claimed to have greater knowledge and specialized practice than native peoples themselves. Given the lack of space at the conference itself, they organized a parallel discussion to adopt a stance in response to the colonial relationship to which our peoples have been subject vis-à-vis the institutions of the state, the churches and science. It was evident once again that indigenous knowledge, practices, and knowhow were being approached in a peripheral way and were not recognized as a science itself.
At the end of AYA2016, the general feeling of the indigenous participants was that they had been treated as “guests in their own home.”
At the end of AYA2016, the general feeling of the indigenous participants was that they had been treated as “guests in their own home.” They found themselves needing to organize an indigenous conference to allow their impressions of this first experience to mature in a space that would guarantee them protagonism, autonomy, and dignity.
Cultural Heritage Registration
Another discussion parallel to AYA2016 concerned registration of ayahuasca as cultural heritage with IPHAN. The process of registering ayahuasca as intangible heritage emerged from the debate on recognition of use of the medicine in religious practices, solicited from CONAD by the ayahuasca churches, given the difficulties imposed by legislation banning the agent DMT contained in the drink. As a result, in 2010, the churches obtained their recognition and exceptional permission for their use of the brew within religious practice. The same churches also submitted a request that the drink be recognized as Brazilian cultural heritage. This provoked a discussion on where the indigenous peoples would stand under these terms as the original producers of the beverage. IPHAN developed a consultancy program to clear up doubts concerning the heritage recognition process, including the distinction between “heritage” and “patent” or “property.”
The fact that native peoples did not take part from the beginning in the discussions on ayahuasca’s legalization, and that this process had been headed by the churches, generated a series of problems for the indigenous peoples who had been prosecuted on diverse occasions for carrying the beverage outside their villages. Spiritual leaders expressed their discontent over denial of their right to come and go in possession of their own medicine. Various indigenous people had already been arrested, fined, or had their medicine confiscated or destroyed, while the churches transported thousands of liters to the rest of Brazil and abroad. The indigenous conference recorded various denunciations of abuse of authority on the part of police officers or airline staff who were clearly unaware of indigenous rights.
One of the observations made during the Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference is that, since the Brazilian Constitution recognizes the right to indigenous culture, uses, practices, and knowledge, it also recognizes our spiritual practices, including our medicines. It was recalled that indigenous rights, like any citizen’s rights, are not limited to indigenous lands, and that our cultural practices also constitute our territory of identity; meaning, that there is no valid argument against our right to come and go in possession of our medicines and in the practice of our spirituality. It was also recalled that indigenous rights are basic rights, recognized in a fundamental clause in the Constitution, and that, combined with Brazil’s ratification of ILO Convention 169, which has the status of law, indigenous peoples must be consulted on any legislation of concern to them, including about scientific practices relating to the medicines over which they possess an original right.
The debate on the globalization of ayahuasca was led by indigenous leaders who have assumed the task of learning about experiences abroad and constructing new forms of relationship with indigenous spirituality: Benki Ashaninka and Biraci Yawanawá spoke about cultural exchange and the spread of indigenous medicine. Siã and Ninawá Pai da Mata Huni Kuin also commented on their experiences in other countries.
Positive and negative aspects of globalization were evaluated, also seen as an opportunity to valorize indigenous culture in Brazil and abroad, not only to “show something different or exotic,” but also to share the philosophies, positionings, and worldviews of indigenous peoples in closer harmony with humanity and the planet as an alternative to the global crisis. Unlike the academic tone of other conferences, Yubaka Hayrá featured opening and closing ceremonies and, during the discussions, a ceremonial tone was maintained in accordance with indigenous traditions.
The use of ayahuasca outside indigenous contexts was evaluated with concern following accounts of practices considered improper by traditional masters; for example, its use beyond a ceremonial context; its mixture with other medicines or chemical agents; its recreational use by non-Amerindians; the synthesizing of the medicine’s chemical agents; the lack of discussion on the ethics of some scientific research; and its marketing for the personal enrichment of some individuals who have used the name and image of indigenous peoples for their own benefit, not to mention cases of sexual abuse and fraud.
The discussion on the good use and practice of the medicine led to a debate on the importance of traditional apprenticeship. The roundtable on the significance of the traditional ayahuasca songs, directed by Professor Joaquim Maná, Ninawá Pai da Mata, and Isaka Huni Kuin, discussed the safeguarding of traditional practices and recognized the important contributions made by new generations, principally through the instrumentalization of songs, a practice that has strengthened the valorization of culture by young people.
The observation of the fact that, today, there are more non-Amerindians than Amerindians drinking ayahuasca was an alert for the need to preserve the forest’s native plants and indigenous culture
The conference was an encounter between different generations of legitimate researchers of indigenous science and spirituality, in which elders were remembered with reverence for their perseverance in maintaining the knowledge of their peoples. The importance of the management and sustainability of the vine and the leaf, along with preservation of the forest and its medicines, was presented by Puwe Puyanawa, spiritual leader of the host village. The observation of the fact that, today, there are more non-Amerindians than Amerindians drinking ayahuasca was an alert for the need to preserve the forest’s native plants and indigenous culture.
The cultural show “Nokun Txai” involved musical presentations, the launch of the CD “Nukini,” and a film showing. Gathered in the enormous arena that had hosted the indigenous games in Acre in 2008, spectators in the stands were moved watching the film Puyanawa Atsa – Encounter with Ancestors, which recounts the history of the cultural recovery of this people over recent years, through the strengthening of their spirituality.
Acre has been the space for a full-blown spiritual revolution of indigenous peoples
Acre has been the space for a full-blown spiritual revolution of indigenous peoples. Here, history is measured in four eras: the time of origin prior to contact; the time of the correrias, when they came into contact with the rubber bosses, responsible for their genocide and enslavement; the time of rights, marked by the conquest of indigenous rights in the 1970s and 80s and the indigenist policies; and the time of culture, in the present time where indigenous peoples are organizing themselves and once again becoming protagonists of their own history.
Until the 1970s, the integrationist policy of the SPI (Indian Protection Service), alleging insufficient human resources, frequently delegated the implementation of indigenist polices to non-governmental organizations, in most cases, missionary groups, to administrate education and healthcare among indigenous populations. The missionary groups, in turn, maintained their catechizing and evangelizing practices, persecuting indigenous spiritual traditions.
During the formation of the indigenous movement, the discussion on the importance of preserving indigenous cultures strengthened the stance taken by indigenous leaders who decided to expel missionaries from their territories. This was the case of the Yawanawá people, who, at the end of the 1980s, told the “New Tribes of Brazil” mission to leave, proclaiming their autonomy and the revival of their spirituality with the use of ayahuasca.
The leader, Biraci Brasil, decided to valorize and preserve the knowledge of the last three shamans of his people, whose population at the time numbered less than 300. Today, the words, histories, songs, and prayers of the elders Tuinkuru, Tatá and Yawarani are found in school textbooks, on mobile phones, and are played on sound equipment in every village where young people and children sing the saiti (traditional songs) daily to the accompaniment of their guitars. Although the Christian religion persists among some families, the pride of the Yawanawá people in their culture is vividly present.
Another cultural valorization strategy was the promotion of the mariri—traditional festivals—as an annual event reuniting the people in order to celebrate their dances, paintings, games, sports, cuisine, and spirituality through uni ceremonies. The Yawanawá people saw in the mariri the opportunity to promote cultural exchanges, creating festivals that today welcome an international audience and generate partnerships and resources for structural projects in the villages. Similar experiences have happened with the Huni Kuin (Kaxinawá) people, who have the largest indigenous population in Acre, and who, today, in addition to the festival activities and cultural exchanges, possess a new generation of ceremonial masters, along with writers, artisans, visual artists, and musicians whose production revolves around traditional knowledge and spirituality.
The Ashaninka people, who bravely confronted loggers during the process of demarcating their land, are also organized today around their camarampi medicine, creating a traditional cure that has gained international recognition. The valorization of their own spirituality and ethics have been a great example of fighting alcoholism and violence among indigenous populations.
The history of the Puyanawa people, enslaved for decades by Colonel Mâncio Lima, whose name today is given to the municipality that covers their traditional territory, was a history filled with abuses and acts of violence. Living along the roads and under the colonel’sviolent control, they saw their population become heavily evangelized and, like many peoples, faced problems in recovering the pride of their religious identity. Today, with the revival of their spiritual practices, they work together to recover their language, paint designs, cuisine, and self-esteem.
Acre’s experience demonstrates that ayahuasca is something of profound importance to our peoples. Along with defining our origin and historic past, as a master and teacher, it can light the way to what we may build for the future, our culture, and spirituality, as well as for the ethics and politics of our civilizations.
The conclusion of the First Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference, Yubaka Hayrá, jointly emphasized the responsibility of indigenous peoples, as the original recipients and bearers of the medicine, to preserve our scientific and spiritual knowledge.
The conclusion of the First Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference, Yubaka Hayrá, jointly emphasized the responsibility of indigenous peoples, as the original recipients and bearers of the medicine, to preserve our scientific and spiritual knowledge. Participants affirmed the importance of consciousness and autonomy over exchanges and contacts made with non-Amerindians, remaining informed of what is being shared and to what end it is being used, in order to ensure good use of the medicine. They also stressed the responsibility to educate the new generations and the urgency of inviting debates on the ethics of ceremonial practices among the indigenous groups themselves. This discussion should not only enrich cultural revival but also promote indigenous healthcare and education policies to strengthen indigenous identity and rights.
The intention is for the next conference to return to focusing on the ideas of each group, in an event that includes the presence of more peoples from Acre and other states and countries for a greater exchange of experiences. (1) Yubaka Hayrá proposes to be a space for the construction of a collective position of native peoples on what has been made of ayahuasca worldwide.
The closing ceremony united approximately 200 people in the arena, combining the songs and prayers of various peoples in a circle, generating a strong energy that we hope can reach our brothers from other groups for a better relationship with the world and life, as well as guiding our spirituality. The globalization of ayahuasca is today an irreversible fact. The native Amazonian plant is now planted on other continents whose residents have adapted its use to their own practices and forms.
Views of science, knowledge, tradition, spirituality, and ethics vary structurally from culture to culture. For indigenous peoples, for example, there are no great distances between one thing and another, as in European culture. The desire to preserve a science, politics, and religion with a deep awareness and respect for nature and for all peoples is a general demand of indigenous peoples, along with the demand that our medicines are not treated like poisons or weapons for hurting anyone, and that our home, both our forest and our spiritual territory, and our autonomy and dignity, are respected, as well as the life of every being and the planet itself.
This paper was written at the Nova Esperança Village, Yawanawá Indigenous Land in the state of Acre on 26 December 2017, and published originally in Portuguese by Rádio Yandê here
(1) After this paper was written, the 2nd Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference was held August 10 – 14, 2018, at the same place where the First Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference took place.