Isabel Santana de Rose, Ph.D
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“Talk little”; “Don’t ask questions”; “Don’t talk at all.” This was the kind of recommendation I heard from my anthropologist friends before going on my first visit to the Guarani village Yynn Morothi Wherá, a name that may be translated as “Glow of the Crystalline Waters.” The name is a reference to the view of the sea from the village and the glimmer of the moon and the sun on its waters. This Indigenous Reservation is located at the southern coast of Brazil, near the capital of Santa Catarina state, Florianópolis. It is a part of the traditional Guarani territory and was reoccupied by an extended Indigenous family in the 1980s, but was only recognized by the Federal Government in 2003.

Ayahuasca ritual house

Opy (prayer house) of Yynn Morothi Wherá village. Photo: Isabel de Rose

I was then at the first semester of my doctorate in social anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, and had just decided to change the topic of my research. I was interested on the use of ayahuasca by the Guarani Indians from this village and their participation in a contemporary shamanic network called “Medicine Alliance.” The Guarani are a transnational indigenous people who live mostly in Brazil and Paraguay, but are also present in Argentina and Bolivia. Divided into several sub-groups, they share some common features of language and culture. The Guarani from southern Brazil are especially known for maintaining their native language and traditional spiritual practices and knowledge. The use of ayahuasca by the inhabitants of Yynn Morothi Wherá village brought up many questions. In spite of inhabiting the south of Brazil, they were claiming that this Amazonian beverage, which is typically found in cultures of northwest Brazil, was part of their ancient tradition and knowledge.

The Medicine Alliance emerged in the south of Brazil in the late 1990s. This network connects the Guarani from Yynn Morothi Wherá and other neighboring villages, Sacred Fire of Itzachilatlan (an international contemporary shamanic group, also known as Red Path, and largely inspired in the Native American Church) and the Céu do Patriarca São José community of Santo Daime (a syncretic ayahuasca religion), located at the city of Florianópolis, among other actors. In short, this network is characterized by the multidirectional circulation of ritual practices (such as the temezcal, or sweat lodge, the Vision Quest, and the Sun Dance), plants and substances (such as ayahuasca and tobacco), people, meanings, concepts and knowledge.

cooking ayahuasca

Ayahuasca ready to be boiled. Photo: Awkipuma

I always had wished to take ayahuasca in an Indian community, but had never imagined that this could happen in the south of Brazil, in a Guarani village crossed by a busy interstate road and located less then 50 kilometers from Florianópolis, the city where I was living at that time. Some friends who were also conducting research among the Guarani from Santa Catarina took me for my first visit at Yynn Morothi Wherá village. We went to a ceremony that would happen during the night but arrived earlier. We stopped at the house of Alcindo Wherá Tupã and Rosa Poty Djá, the Indigenous couple who founded the village in the 1980s, leading their family in a migration that resulted from a prophetic dream. We sat there for a couple of hours drinking chimarrão (a tea-like drink made of yerba-mate and very appreciated by the Guarani) and talking to people that lived in the community and visitors.

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In this occasion, Hyral Moreira, the cacique (political leader) of the village, told us that ayahuasca is a part of the Guarani tradition. According to him, this is an Indigenous beverage that was appropriated by non-Indians. He also affirmed that the plants that compose the beverage exist in the Mata Atlântica (native forest from the southern Brazil coast), and are not exclusive from the Amazon. Finally, he told us that the Guarani from Yynn Morothi Wherá were starting to cultivate those plants and were planning to prepare their own ayahuasca in the village.

ayahuasca ritual

Half-moon altar and fireplace inside the opy. Photo: Isabel de Rose

When the night started to fall, people began to enter the opy (prayer house), a place that is central in the social organization of the Guarani villages, and also in the community’s spiritual life. It took me a long time to start to understand the meaning of the nightlong Guarani ceremonies of dance, chanting, and prayer, but on this day, I registered some of my first impressions of this ritual in my diary:

When we entered the opy the musicians were already playing the mbaraka mirim (guitar) and mbaraka (Indigenous rattle), but it still took some time for the ceremony to start. Meanwhile, people were smoking their petynguas (Guarani pipe) and concentrating. The beginning of the ritual was marked by a speech in Guarani by the village’s spiritual leaders, Alcindo, Geraldo, and Hyral. Many of the Indigenous participants of the ceremony lit up their petynguas. Some of the young Guarani passed by all of those present in the opy, blowing smoke from their pipes over our heads in a gesture of blessing. Then Geraldo and Hyral started serving ayahuasca.

The Guarani singing and dancing began, and lasted all the ceremony, until the morning arrived. The Indigenous chants were sung by both men and women, in different voices and pitches that complemented each other. The chants sound to me like mantras, with small variations. I was sitting on the ground and looking at the fire placed in the center of the opy. Lost in the chanting of the Guarani chorus, I closed my eyes and remained like this for most of the ceremony, ending with the arrival of the morning sun. Thus, more than observing, what I did on this occasion was an ethnography of the impressions, sensations, and visions from my first Guarani ceremony with ayahuasca …” (Transcription from my fieldwork diary, June 2006).

I went through experiences like this during the following two and a half years, while I was conducting my fieldwork about the Medicine Alliance network and the use of ayahuasca among the Guarani from Yynn Morothi Wherá. Presented in 2010, this was one of the first studies about the entrance of the Brazilian Indians to the urban ayahuasca circuits in this country and abroad.

Especially over the last fifteen years, Indigenous rituals for a middle-class urban public conducted in large cities all over Brazil are multiplying, along with cultural festivals promoted in Indigenous villages and directed mostly to a non-Indian audience. As a consequence, the interchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous spiritual groups are also multiplying, as well as the research about these contemporary shamanic networks. Although this is a recent process, this tendency is only growing and is changing the Brazilian ayahuasca field in ways that still can’t be predicted.

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