For centuries, indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin have used plant-based medicines in their rituals for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Among these communities are the Yawanawa, Katukina, Kaxinawa, Nukini, and Shawandawa tribes, all of whom have a long history of using ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic brew made from the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and other plant ingredients.
In this article, we will explore the rituals of these tribes and how they use ayahuasca in their daily lives. These tribes share a deep connection to their ancestral traditions and the natural world, and their rituals serve as a means of maintaining cultural identity and spiritual well-being. Through their use of ayahuasca, they seek to communicate with the spirit world, gain insight into their lives, and heal physical and emotional ailments.
As interest in alternative medicine and spirituality continues to grow, the rituals of these indigenous communities and their use of ayahuasca have garnered attention from people around the world. However, it is important to approach these practices with respect and understanding, recognizing the importance of cultural preservation and the role that indigenous communities play in protecting the Amazon rainforest and its biodiversity.
The Yawanawá community is in reality a conjunction of people that includes members from other groups: Shawãdawa (Arara), Iskunawa (nowadays known as Shanênawa, who live in a village close to the town of Feijó), Rununawa, Sainawa (generally known as Yaminawá, who live in the Bagé river region), and Katukina.
The Yawanawá people reside in the southern region of the Gregório River Indigenous Land, which they share with the inhabitants of Sete Estrelas, a Katukina village. This particular indigenous territory, situated in the municipality of Tarauacá, was the first to be officially demarcated in Acre. In fact, it was established through the enactment of Decree 89.257/83 and covers an area of 92,859 hectares. The territory lies within the headwaters of the Juruá river’s tributary and was physically demarcated in 1984. It was later approved in 1991 and registered with the land registry office in 1985 and the National Heritage Service in 1986.
The Yawanawá engage in hunting and fishing as their primary economic activities. During the dry season, the community participates in fishing trips, which also serve as important social events, referred to as “food festivals” by the Yawanawá. They use plant poisons, such as lupine and sandbox tree sap, to make the fish rise to the surface, making them easier to catch. In the rainy season, hunting becomes the main source of food as large animals leave clear tracks. Their basic crops include manioc, banana, and maize, while other produce such as rice, sweet potato, papaya, pineapple, and sugarcane are also cultivated.
The Yawanawá possess unique expertise in a variety of traditional arts, such as pottery, weapon-making, basket weaving, and intricate designs. However, this knowledge is primarily held by a limited number of individuals, typically elders, though there have been recent efforts to pass down this expertise to younger generations. Notably, Yawanawá body paint designs are an outstanding feature of their artistic expression and are extensively used during the mariri festival (further details can be found under “Rituals”). These designs are created using annatto and/or genipap, and are sometimes combined with a fragrant resin to enhance the permanence of the dyes on the skin.
Nowadays, the main aspect of Yawanawá shamanism is healing, but in the past, shamans had broader roles in their society, including in warfare and hunting. To cure illnesses, Yawanawá specialists use various techniques, such as chanting and blowing, but the most important one today is “praying,” known as shuãnka. During a healing session, the xinaya (the practitioner) drinks ayahuasca and sings over a pot of manioc caiçuma, which the patient will later drink.
What is interesting about Yawanawá shamanism is that diagnosis is based on the patient’s dream before becoming ill. There are also various specialists with different names (yuvehu, kushuintia, shuintia), each using different techniques such as healing chants and prayers. Shamanic initiation involves passing certain trials, adhering to strict precautionary measures (including sexual abstinence and avoiding certain foods), ingesting hallucinogenic substances (ayahuasca, pepper, datura, tobacco snuff, rarë, and tobacco juice), and learning specific knowledge.
Shamanic power is both a blessing and a curse since it can be used to cure or to cause illnesses. Accusations of sorcery and poisoning can cause social tensions and fissions within and between Yawanawá groups. As of 1999, the Yawanawá community had two chant specialists and five plant remedy specialists.
The Katukina tribe has an intriguing history. They used to reside in the same region and tribal land as the Yawanawa on the Gregorio River. However, in the 1980s, they relocated to the Campinas River, where they worked on the highway for the government, and most Katukina still live there. Despite their close proximity to the road and long-term contact with whites, they have preserved their language better than most other Pano tribes in the region, apart from the Kaxinawa. They do not speak Portuguese amongst themselves, and children only learn Portuguese after the age of seven. Furthermore, many of the women speak little Portuguese. The Katukina were pioneers in sharing their medicines outside the state of Acre, and they are considered masters of Kambo, unlike some non-indigenous charlatans who falsely claim to be masters.
Identifying the Katukina based on their name alone is challenging. Missionaries, travelers, and government agents have referred to all known indigenous groups in the Juruá river region as Katukina since the early 19th century. However, according to anthropologist Paul Rivet, Katukina is a generic term attributed to five linguistically distinct and geographically proximate groups. Today, this number has decreased to three, one from the Katukina linguistic family in the Jutaí river region of Amazonas state, and two from the Pano linguistic family in Acre state. Neither of the Pano groups known as Katukina recognizes the word as a self-designation. Members of one of the groups located near the town of Feijó prefer to be known as Shanenawa, and the other group does not attribute any meaning to Katukina in their language, but they have adopted it nonetheless, stating that the government assigned the designation.
The Katukina people originate from five linguistically distinct tribes, but currently consist of three smaller tribes that speak a type of Panoan language and inhabit the Gregorio and Jutaí River region in Acre and Amazonas (Rivet 1920). The name “Katukina” was given to them by the government, and is not used by the tribes themselves. The Katukina identify themselves with six clans, including the Varinawa (people of the Sun), Kamanawa (people of the Jaguar), Satanawa (people of the Otter), Waninawa (people of the Peachpalm), Nainawa (people of the Sky), and Numanawa (people of the Dove). These clans have different beliefs and practices, such as some asserting matrilineal filiation while others assume patrilineal filiation, and the language also differs slightly between the clans. The Katukina population decreased significantly and almost disappeared during the latex cycle, as they were exploited, displaced, and scattered throughout the territory. Forced migration caused the Katukina to live separately in the wild, often leaving behind mutilated friends and families. Nearly a century later, the Katukina were allowed to return to their homeland, and their population has since grown by 80%, with 594 members currently compared to 177 in 1977 (Funasa, 2010).
The Katukina possess extensive knowledge of plants and the spiritual realm, and have a strong affinity with the use of sacred plants. Their relationship with Kambo medicine is particularly significant, and deeply ingrained in their tribal culture and understanding. However, despite their close connection with sacred plants, the Katukina do not exclusively rely on shamanistic practices, and instead empower all members to apply Kambo (Lima 2005; Lima and Labate 2012; Martins 2006). Kambo has been a part of their culture since the tribe’s inception, serving as a vital vaccine and medicine. As the first tribe to receive Kambo directly from the frog, the Katukina are considered the forefathers of frog medicine and played a pivotal role in introducing Kambo to urban areas by sharing their knowledge with non-indigenous individuals and even through publications like The New York Times. Consequently, the Katukina possess a distinctive and potent approach to utilizing this sacred tool.
The Kuntanawa tribe, also known as the “Coconut People,” have a longstanding tradition of utilizing plants to establish a connection with the beings and spirits of the forest. Through this practice, they have gained knowledge to heal their community with their own traditional medicines. Additionally, the Kuntanawa tribe has consistently protected their spirituality, which serves as the foundation of their existence.
The Kuntanawa tribe inhabits a reserve along the Tejo River in the Acre region of Brazil, with only around 400 remaining members (Pantoja 2008). Similarly to the Nukini tribe, the Kuntanawa faced near extinction during the slavery and latex cycle massacres that followed. After the slaughters, only one family remained, who worked as rubber pickers. It was not until the early 21st century that the Kuntanawa were officially recognized as an ethnic group, and due to the loss of their language, Portuguese is the only language spoken within the tribe.
To reconnect with their traditions, the Kuntanawa needed to reestablish their connection with sacred plants, particularly Ayahuasca. In 1989, two remaining members of the family traveled to the Kaxinawa Territory along the Jordan River and Breu, where they participated in Ayahuasca ceremonies and met revered shamans. This trip allowed the Kuntanawa to rediscover and reintegrate Ayahuasca rituals into their culture.
Ayahuasca has played a crucial role in the Kuntanawa’s cultural reconnection, self-awareness, and ethnic identification. The tribe regards Ayahuasca as a teacher and a leader of their culture and identity. Through Ayahuasca, the Kuntanawa have been able to “listen” and expand their minds, perception, and knowledge of lost traditions and history, including music, songs, magical and botanical knowledge, painting, and language. During Ayahuasca ceremonies, the Kuntanawa can also experiment and build a new image of themselves, facilitating a deeper connection with their roots.
The Kaxinawa tribe is part of the Pano linguistic group of tribes that inhabit the border between eastern Peru and western Brazil. Their villages are situated near the Purus and Curanja rivers in the Peruvian landscape, while Brazilian tribes reside near the Tarauacá, Jordão, Breu, Muru, Envira, Humaitá and Purus rivers. Nowadays, most of these tribes are interconnected, but in the past, European explorers entered their territories in search of resources, including latex or caoutchouc, which they started to harvest from the Amazonian forests. As a result of deforestation and invasion of their lands, the indigenous people began to attack the invaders. Some tribes, however, were open to exchanging with foreigners, which led to their separation from each other. It was only in the 20th century that they began to come together again.
The Kaxinawa tribe is known for its strong connection to the spirit, which they refer to as “yuxin”. According to their beliefs, only a true shaman can connect the spirit of the tribe with the spirit of the forest and maintain a balanced communication between the two. They believe that only a shaman can protect the village, but many indigenous people think that there are no true shamans left. However, there are still many apprentices who are striving to become initiated. To become a shaman, one must undergo a significant transformation guided by the plant kingdom. At the end of their apprenticeship, they become powerful enough to heal and even kill using only their yuxin power. Ayahuasca is commonly used in combination with special types of rapé snuffs during these rituals and initiations. The Kaxinawa people wear a lot of feathery clothing and usually paint their entire bodies during ceremonies.
The name “Kaxinawa” means “the bat people,” but this term is not used by the tribe itself. They call themselves “huni kuin,” which translates to “true human.” There are many related tribes that also have “nawa” in their names, such as Yaminawa, Sharanawa, Mastanawa, and others.
The Kaxinawas tribe uses Rapé for various purposes, including the alleviation of physical pain and headaches, clearing the sinuses and relieving congestion. Furthermore, the Kaxinawas employ Rapé for mental healing, typically in conjunction with chanting. It connects the tribe with the spirits of the jungle and, depending on the specific ingredients, can aid in curing illnesses, enhancing concentration, improving hunting, or serving as a conduit for spiritual experiences.
The Nukini tribe inhabits the heart of Acre in northern Brazil, along the streams of Timbaúba, Meia Dúzia, República, and Capanawa. This region, surrounded by a dense tropical forest, is rich in flora, and the tribe members, particularly the women, gather plants for making handcrafts and medicinal plants. The Nukini language belongs to the Pano linguistic family, similar to the Yawanawa.
With a population of approximately 750 people, the Nukini tribe has faced a decline in members due to harsh exploitation and slavery during the latex cycle of the early 20th century. This exploitation, initiated by non-indigenous people, led to the dispersion of the surviving members, the loss of their culture, language, and traditions, and severe epidemic outbreaks. In an effort to survive, the Nukini had to intermingle with members of other ethnicities, but still face threats from drug traffickers, loggers, and hunters.
Despite these challenges, the Nukini people have established a stable socio-economic situation and engage in economic activities such as fishing and hunting. The tribe also benefits from nutritious plants such as mango, soursop, coconut, cashew, jackfruit, pineapple, lemon, Barbados cherry, guava, avocado, pupunha, cupuaçu, and papaya.
The Nukini tribe is known for its feminine power in the composition of their Rapé blends, often created by female tribe members. These blends have a flowery, fresh aroma and are believed to provide grounding and clarity.
The Shawandawa tribe is among the 15 remaining ethnic groups of the Jurua Valley in Brazil. The Shawandawa, also known as Arara del Acre, shawandaua, Shawanaua, Shawanauá, Shaonahua, or Shaodawa, inhabit the southwestern region of the Brazilian state of Acre and had their first contact with Western cultures at the start of the 20th century. Currently, the entire tribe is composed of only 550 people.
Currently, the Arara elders play a crucial role as the “guardians of Arara memory” and strive to pass it down to their descendants. The younger generation is increasingly interested in learning about the myths and rituals that were once heavily practiced by the Arara. While the rituals are not regularly practiced, they are still present. The mariri ritual, the “frog injection” ritual, and the sinbu ritual are still practiced by the Arara. The mariri ritual, which is an indigenous dance found in other Pano groups, is mainly used to maintain the group’s cohesion and emphasize their identity. During the ritual, the older members who are fluent in the language sing and teach the younger members.
Although most of the Arara have participated in the sinbu ritual, some no longer ingest it, even if they have used it in the past. Before working in the rubber plantations, the Arara consumed sinbu regularly, sometimes as a cure, where the shaman would take the drink and use it to remove the patient’s illnesses and restore their health.
In the 1990s, some of the Arara began to follow the Santo Daime doctrine, which was prominent in the town of Cruzeiro do Sul. They constructed a temple in the village of Foz do Nilo. However, most Arara living in the Indigenous Area did not join the Santo Daime church when it arrived, and those who did, known as “daimistas,” faced opposition from Arara who preferred the traditional use of the ayahuasca drink. As a result, there are now two distinct ways of using ayahuasca in Arara rituals: one traditional, including healing sessions, and the other practiced by followers of Santo Daime.
The Arara also practice a ritual to recover the luck of hunters, which is a characteristic of the Pano groups. When a hunter experiences a string of bad luck, the Arara perform the “injection of the frog” ritual to restore the hunter’s essential qualities, such as aim, vision, hearing, and luck. To do this, they capture a campo frog and extract the milk-like substance that covers its body using a hook. They use the frog’s milk to burn two or three small circular points on the hunter’s skin with a cigarette or a braca. The frog’s milk is only applied to the hunter’s dog’s snuff from the milk that comes out of the frog’s head. A small amount of milk is sufficient to induce vomiting and evacuation, which is also encouraged by consuming caissuma, a fermented manioc drink, before the injection. The next day, the hunter is rejuvenated and better equipped to continue hunting with increased skill and efficiency.
Nature connects us al! Watch this video from Nixiwaka Yawanawa at TEDxTalks and learn more about the tribes of the Amazon!
In conclusion, the Yawanawa, Katukina, Kaxinawa, Nukini, and Shawandawa tribes are indigenous communities that have preserved their cultural heritage and traditional ayahuasca rituals despite the challenges they have faced from the outside world. Their deep connection to nature and the spiritual realm is reflected in their use of the ayahuasca plant, which is seen as a sacred and transformative medicine that allows them to connect with their ancestors, spirits, and the natural world.
Each tribe has its unique approach to ayahuasca ceremonies, with different songs, rituals, and traditions. However, they all share a deep respect for the plant and its healing powers, as well as a commitment to preserving their cultural heritage for future generations.
It is important to recognize and respect the indigenous cultures and traditions of these tribes and to support their efforts to maintain their way of life. This includes protecting their lands and resources, promoting their rights to self-determination, and providing access to basic services such as healthcare and education.
As more people around the world are becoming interested in the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca, it is essential to approach the plant with respect and to learn from the indigenous communities who have been working with it for centuries. By doing so, we can not only benefit from the healing powers of the plant but also support the cultural survival of these unique and valuable communities.
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