As I was lying in a hammock in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon I was certain that I’d finally found the place I was looking for.
I looked at the whole tribe around me, people of all ages from eight to 80 years old; all dressed in the most beautiful hand-made clothes and jewellery. Their faces were painted in red and radiated with welcoming and genuine smiles. I had tears in my eyes as I felt blessed knowing that a time and place like this was to be deeply honoured and was rare to find.
I first became interested in the Kaxinawa tribe watching documentaries at the Aya 2014 Conference, held in Spain, to debate the use of the ayauasca brew. I saw the Cacique (Chief) Sia Kaxinawa speak to a worldwide audience with great pride and confidence about the traditions kept by his people in the state of Acre, in Brazil.
What I didn’t know at that time was just how precious these people are for learning about the correct use of the traditional sacred plants of the Amazon Jungle, nor how threatened they are by both the outside system as well as the greed and corruption within their own communities.
The white settlers gave them the name Kaxinawa, a derogatory term meaning ‘bat people’. They call themselves Huni Kuin in their own language (hatcha kuin), meaning the ‘People of Truth’.
‘Even during the most difficult periods of living with the nawas (white men) our elders always made sure we learned and kept our traditions alive, despite all the forces against us,’ the Paje (medicine man), Tene told me while sitting with his family in the kupixawa (big house) just a few days before we sat in ceremony.
I had to be patient on my journey to get there, sometimes waiting a few days to receive permissions from the Huni Kuin leaders or the Ibama.
Although you sometimes come across corrupt Ibama officers (the Brazilian government department that looks after indigenous rights) in other areas of Brazil, I was surprised to meet Ney Alencar who was well respected by the leaders from all villages inside his jurisdiction.
He invited me to join him on a visit to a very isolated indigenous settlement, called Flor da Mata, many hours up river from the city of Jordao where he was going to see Tene.
‘Last time I met this medicine man we were on a boat ride and he impressed me by chanting to blow away the clouds of rain coming our way,’ said Ney.
‘It is hard to say exactly if it really played a role but we did not feel a single drop of rain in our journey.’
When we arrived at the village in a small boat a loud horn, made from armadillo, announced that outsiders had arrived.
‘We are honoured to have you here,’ said Tene with a wise smile, welcoming us to the village. ‘You guys are the first outside visitors we’ve received since we settled up river eight years ago.’
I knew I’d arrived at the right place. Everyone from his family, about 35 people, were getting ready to show us the jiboia (python) dance, one of their sacred rituals. Soon I had my face painted in red from a plant called Urucum and my body dressed with leaves, ready to join in the dance.
Ney realised he needed to go back to Jordao, leaving just my family and me alone with the tribe. I knew the experience would be even more meaningful now.
For the next few days we were shown how most of their beautiful art, crafts and clothes were made and how to produce a tattoo-like black body painting out of a fruit called jenipapo.
They fished by spreading a mixture of plants in the water to poison the fish, which asphyxiates them. The tradition is called Bakawa, and apparently doesn’t affect human consumption.
My step-son Pedro wasn’t as impressed as I was.
‘That’s not fair’, he cried feeling sorry for the fish that had no chance to fight back.
Only a small portion of the river was used to catch enough for the meal accompanied by peanuts, banana, cassava and corn. These were, I soon discovered, the same ingredients we’d have for all following meals. It made me realise how spoilt I am with my normal super-food diet.
It seems contradictory to think about how people of the rainforest can suffer water problems. But their water sources are contaminated by the farms that border their land. Farmers use all sorts of nasty chemicals and their water sources get contaminated, causing many different illnesses in the community.
‘There were 22 deaths over a very short period of time in a nearby village’, says Valdir Baptista, PhD in Public Health from Sao Paulo University.
‘The sewage system, food security and transport issues for emergency treatments in isolated areas are some of the main problems in the region’.
Most of the outsiders that manage to visit the area get infected too, due to the poor quality water. It wasn’t any different in my case.
Leaving all the difficulties aside it was time to focus, as we were told we would have a Nixi pae (ayauasca) ceremony the next day.
We cooked the traditional medicine in the morning and around sunset the armadillo horn sounded six times. It was the command for the entire tribe to head to the kupixawa as their sacred ritual was about to start.
Everything that followed was extremely beautiful and hard to truly convey in words. We spent the entire evening singing and dancing together. In the morning we all had the talking stick in our hands to express our feelings and insights.
Every Saturday the tribe does this and that is how they make important decisions as a group – from a ‘clear mind state’, Tene points out as we head to the river for a swim to close the ritual.
After visiting Tene’s village, we visited a few other Huni Kuin settlements. Despite their hospitality and incredible knowledge of the forest, I noticed the same water and health problems at most of them.
As I started inquiring about the subject with different locals I came across another sad reality: that in my naive, romanticised way of thinking, what I thought would never happen among the people of the forest was happening.
Unfortunately it seems that in the same way love and kindness can be found anywhere in humanity, greed and corruption are also part of society’s condition, independent of race or cultural background.
The Cacique Sia Kaxinawa (whom I saw in a documentary saying beautiful words about his people) is also in charge of an association that manages the money that comes to this ethnic group. But locals are not always happy with the allocation of funds.
‘One of my students won a ten thousand dollar prize from an art project many years ago but we never saw the money’, complains PK, the leader of a village who asked to remain anonymous.
The Huni Kuin are becoming well known worldwide for their beautiful art. Exhibitions in big Brazilian cities and even in Europe are becoming more common. Often these exhibitions are helping to draw the attention of organisations genuinely interested in helping them to preserve their customs, which has been very beneficial.
At Fortaleza village a group of British people helped build a wheel powered by solar panels, solving their electricity problem for many years to come.
Unfortunately, it was also clear that many of the ‘shamans’ travelling the world offering ayauasca ceremonies – for very expensive sums – have not been authorised by the tribe to do so.
They are then coming back to Jordao to buy real estate, while their communities continue to have no access to basic necessities.
‘Many of the boys travelling around the world with Nixi Pae are showman, not shaman’, says PK.