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talking with Ecuadorian Amazon medicine men

Elisabet Sahtouris
with Wendy Girard Nunink, translator

The Shuar people live among the Ecuadorian rivers that are headwaters of the Amazon, in the foothills of the Andes, and up to the altiplano highlands of Peru.

Tshuin and the Uwishin Tradition

Marcello: Anank, my uncle, and I are both Shuar medicine men, called curanderos by the Spanish settlers. In Shuar, the word is uwishin (pronouned oo-wee-sheen')-- a healer who works with medicinal plants and with spirit powers. It also means "someone who knows all the secrets."

An uwishin's knowledge comes from other uwishins, from dreams, from ceremonies, from passing tests, making many sacrifices such as tolerating hunger, thirst, heat and cold, sexual deprivation, from years of learning to live alone in the jungle, to endure sexual deprivation in order to spend nights on beaches with dangerous animals and through other practical experience. A master uwishin creates an evolutionary process in his apprentice, and during this time the apprentice must have a positive dream vision of the future.

To have become an uwishin is, for me, the best possible legacy I could have received from my forefathers, because it enabled me to learn everything that they were and that they knew. It is a long and difficult process, one in which you receive an entire book of all the knowledge and secrets of nature. It means receiving a new life, discovering a new world you have never seen before. It transforms you completely, enabling you to see behind you as well as before you every obstacle that can possibly present itself to you.

It began when I told my father I wanted to drink natem and learn. Because of my insistence, my father told me to go participate in the ceremonies. My cousin Uwishu who was a famous healer from a distant Shuar community gave me power in a dream. I didn't tell anyone. My mother taught me to heal with plants; my grandmother taught me the chants-- the invocations to the gods and spirits. There were chants of dedication to women, to natural forces and to bring luck in travels and hunting.

When the formal training begins, the master uwishin breathes into the crown of the apprentice's head. From that day on you are more peaceful and healthy. During the years of apprenticeship you learn to fast and then drink ayahuasca, the halucinogenic tea we call natem, and malikawa, another halucinogen with powerful cleansing properties that heal the body like no other, that integrates it holistically. The master uwishin experiences the reality of his apprentice in a single night drinking natem. An uwishin, who may be a man or a woman, has a great deal of knowledge of medicinal plants with very powerful cures, through learning from others, and through experiments from the plants themselves. One plant, for example, can immediately remove from the body the venom of vipers such as the coral or little green snakes. Yet nature is so diverse we cannot know everything; there is always more to discover, to learn. It is the work of the uwishin to continually research and find solutions to illness.

To examine a sick patient one must be prepared and conscious of all possibilities of illness. When you drink natem you see a light clearer than sunlight, and as you chant in front of the patient, you are chanting to the spirits to whom you have dedicated yourself. Then it is not you who are chanting but the spirits which present themselves and sing through you. There are many different songs; no one healer knows them all. Those you know depend on the knowledge and discoveries of particular forces of nature you have made. An uwishin can cure five to ten patients in a single day.

There are two kinds of uwishin: benificent and malevolent. The benificent ones have learned all manner of cures; the malevolent ones have learned to do various kinds of harm to people. I have dedicated myself totally and solely to being a benificent uwishin, and have learned this path in six and a half years of training. During all this time I ate little and fasted often, participating in and conducting many ceremonies, taking much counsel from my fathers and grandfathers, and from my elder brother Mased. I abstained from eating the heavier animal fats and have been without a woman for three years; I have overcome many obstacles in my journets into the forest. It is not an easy path, for there are many distractions. I have been helped most by the Creator Arutam and by my dreams.

There are two kinds of illnesses a healer finds in his patients: one kind is induced by a malevolent uwishin, the other kind is due to microbes and other infections from the environment. Both types respond to our deep forms of treatment. In the world there are many types of curanderos, xamans and other medicine people, but it seems that relatively few of them really dedicate themselves purely to healing people. Many nowadays have become concerned with making money. In my own village there are uwishins with other intentions; very few are dedicated to healing and helping those who need it. Some have secret personal weapons and knowledge, some can divine the future.

The most famous Shuar healer of all was my grandmother's grandfather, Tshuin. An important part of the training of an uwishin, is going to live under the waters of a river with a tshunqui (Tshoong-kwee)-- a mermaid with whom he makes a pact and who becomes his wife and mentor for this period of training. While Tshuin stayed in the water with the tshunqui he made a pact with, she killed a boa and fed it to him. Shuar people never eat boa, because it is sacred, but to the mermaid it was meat, like pork. (Shuar also do not eat pork, because it is considered dangerous meat, breeding disease.) The tshunqui brought pieces of boa meat to Tshuin as gifts and he ate them. When he returned to his own home, he had an insatiable thirst. He had taken on the great thirst of a boa, which spends much time in the water and drinks a great deal.

When Shuar men return to their homes from work, they sit and drink chicha, a kind of fermented root beer. Shuar wives never fail to make plenty of chicha for their men. But Tshuin could not tell his wife of the terrible thirst, because the tshunqui had forbidden him ever to tell anyone of his pact with her.

Anank: My mother told me women must always stay ready and alert until 3:00 in the morning to offer chicha.

Marcello: Tshuin became the greatest uwishin of the Amazon Shuar, going among all the Shuar communities where he was called to heal the most serious illnesses. In time, others grew jealous of his powers and his fame. Finally, men of his own family assassinated him and shrunk his head, celebrating the festival of head shrinking that honors the valor and prowess of those who kill a powerful man. Even today, whenever an uwishin becomes very successful, another uwishin of a different Shuar family can become jealous, so danger to the powerful continues to exist in our culture even though we no longer shrink heads.

Traditionally, when the land no longer produces abundantly-- when the fish population is reduced and the land does not bear enough fruit-- the Shuar moved to new locations, carrying shrunken heads with them. Sometimes they had to hide or abandon them for fear of colonists who came looking for such heads to sell.

Anank: Each of us knows our own history. Tshuin was the cousin of my mother, who died this past December at the age of 119. Shuar people often live up to 120. While Tshuin was very important and powerful, he was actually very modest. He could heal a person simply by touching them and blowing on them. That is why people became so fearful of him. He studied the psyche of the Shuar; there had never been anyone like him before.

Marcello: Tshuin passed his powers on to a son he had with the tshunqui, born in the waters and given the Spanish name of Pasqual, brought to the Shuar by Spanish Conquistador priests. My grandmother was the daughter of Pasqual, so we have this heritage in my family. In each generation there is someone with this knowledge who then passes it on to another, even to a new baby by blowing on it. The child will grow up having the visions, and when it can reason, it will ask its father (or whoever passed on the knowledge) what he is doing when healing or in ceremony. The child will then be taken to the waterfalls where Arutam the Creator lives, and to the rivers for private instruction. That is the way the tradition is kept without loss from generation to generation. This is how it was passed on to me.

While I was in training, I led a very natural, healthy life in the forest: there was much walking, fasting, sleeping on the banks of rivers and drinking ayahuasca-- the halucinogenic tea that is important for contact with the spirit beings that protect us. The Shuar name for it is natem. Thanks to the Father Creator Arutam and to my own father who taught me to make sacrifices-- to bear hunger and thirst, heat and cold, to overcome many obstacles-- I became an uwishin.

Anank: My father was not a medicine man; my heritage came through my mother's lineage. The uwishins are much revered because they are the salvation of the Shuar people. They can also be terrifying. I know a woman who is an uwishin and so is her husband. They are absolutely formidable. In my culture, we have studied the psychology of women. They are more more sensitive and can be more venomous. We do not want to do damage in our society, so we are very careful in training women. When women ask us to train them, we do not readily do so because they can be more powerful than men; they have access to secrets that we do not have. Also, women's extreme sensibility and volatility combined with their frailty makes them dangerous if they become venomous. It takes tremendous self-control to be an uwishin and not many women are capable of it.


Anank: I am the youngest of my mother's ten children, and was taken out of my family by the missionaries around the age of fourteen. This was our first contact with the outside world. My brother, Huank, who was also taken away, had been given a nickname as a child: they called him Yerush, meaning army ant. To be a yerush is to be a member of an immense and powerful family. Many years later, when Huank (whom the missionaries renamed Luis) was over forty, with a wife and children, he came to live in a town where there were many Shuar. No one recognized him until one of the old people of his own family figured out that he was the boy called Yerush, Nunink's son. They rejoiced, saying his name had protected him and helped him survive.They took him to his father's grave, where he had never been. He cried and cried on this great day of family reunion, everyone consoling each other after so long a separation.

When Yerush was only eight years old, he made a very small dugout canoe all by himself. We lived on the Santiago River which is very wide in places and has many rapids. When my brother finished the canoe, he was challenged to carry out the heritage of his name and his family by crossing the river in it. If he made it through the rapids, he would live up to his name! Since he was a crazy kid, he responded to the challenge. People watched and waited on both banks of the river. He could easily have been killed, but he was fearless and he made it.


Marcello: Our ancient calendar had ten months, with ten-day weeks of named days. We also had names for the stars, including the Sun, and the planets. Our numbers were originally limited to ten, as counted on fingers. When we went into the forest for the festival of the palm or the festival of the shrunken head, it would take many days. We took a green plantain with us and when it had ripened we knew one week had passed and it was time to go home. Sunrise to sunset for us is just twelve hours as we have equal length days and nights year round. We measured our travels; in one day we could walk forty kilometers.

Now we use the standard calendar and begin the Shuar year in January, though we call it Itza, meaning Sun. The Sun is the son of the Earth Mother in our culture, so Itza is similar to the Christ Child. We are three degrees south of the Equator, so we do not have summer and winter seasons, only rainy and dry, or less rainy. Itza is a relatively dry month when the Moon is biggest, so we cultivate and sow our gardens; then, in the month you call February, the rains come and the frogs come out. In March and April the plants grow; in May and June we harvest our crops, celebrating the Festival of Chanta, the palm, whose growth tells us when to harvest.

July and August are a time of more festivals, followed by a period of rest during Sseptember and October. Toward the end of the year we usually moved to a new place, hunting and visiting along the way. Sometimes there were territorial wars during this time, sometimes wars between jealous uwishins. It was also a time for taking "the rapture of the women," a time for courting. We have a special musical instrument, a one-stringed bow, used to call the women we love.

About Women

Anank: I got my stories from the old people; Marcello studied the scientific stories of anthropologists as well. I learned that the Shuar people came to Ecuador and Peru where they now live from two directions: some from the East and South, from what is now Uruguay and some from the North. The Shuar were originally peaceful people and never married outside their tribe. Meeting other tribes was difficult because they had other costumes and customs and languages.

Among the Shuar there were more men than women. Long ago, boy children were preferred and from infancy they were taught to make arms. Because there were fewer women, they could not let other tribes take women. It was necessary to defend them. Basically, the Shuar were pacifists with high spiritual development and visions. But the theft of their women made them terrifying and formidable warriors. Revenge for touching a Shuar woman was to get the head of the offending tribe's chief. However peaceful the Shuar naturally were, when they were crossed they did not give up until fully avenged. They shrank the enemy chief's head, then danced a celebration of love, peace and understanding.

Known as invincible because they always completed their missions or fought till they died, the Shuar were unique in many ways, as, for example, in being the only head shrinkers. It was also the genetic heritage of the Shuar to have more male children. Because there were fewer women, men were needed as warriors to protect them, and long ago the boys were preferred. But this changed, and later, when a girl child was born, a Shuar father devoted his life to her. When a woman was pregnant, a young Shuar man would ask her parents for her hand. When she was five months pregnant, he went to live with her family and hunted, fished and provided for them to make sure she was his woman.

Marcello: In our culture we do not have competition among entrepreneurs, as in yours, but from an early age we compete to win over young people to protect our families, our women. This is our ancestral heritage.

Anank: Reverence for women became a very strong part of Shuar culture and was important to our evoutionary growth and transcendance. The Shuar thought a long time about the girl baby problem and proved themselves to God by taking better care of women. Now equal numbers of boy and girl babies are born. This is the myth the old people told me of how the Shuar came to revere women:

How the Shuar Came to Revere Women

Long ago in antiquity, Shuar men had breasts and women did not. Women were killed in childbirth and the men nursed the babies, who were cut out of their mothers' bellies when it was time for them to be born. One day a pregnant woman whose baby was almost ready to be born was tending her garden. All around her were a kind of delicious ground nut, nearly ready to harvest. It was important to know exactly when they were ripe, because they would all be eaten by rats if the people did not harvest them quickly. The woman's husband had told her to go and test the nuts while he went to gather firewood.

While the woman stood in the field, nibbling the nuts and crying, nibbling and crying, a rat appeared before her. "What are you doing?" the rat asked. "Why are you crying?" The woman answered, "I have come to test the nuts. Tomorrow they will be ripe and tomorrow I will give birth. So, tomorrow I will die." The rat looked up at the woman and said, "Don't cry. I will save your life. You will become like me, as strong as I am. Female animals do not die when they give birth, and so they have long lives." Then the rat gathered up all the nuts and gave them to the woman, telling her to eat so that she would get strong. "How can you, a rat, save my life?" the woman asked. "Why do you want to save my life?"

As the woman ate she grew stronger. Then the rat told her to go home to her husband. "You will have no problem. Do not tell him anything. Just say the nuts are ready for harvest and then come back to me." So the women went home to her husband, who was piling up the kindling he had gathered for the fire. He knew there must be a fire to keep the baby warm when he took it into his bed to nurse it. The woman told her husband the nuts were ripe and ready to harvest. Then she slipped out of the house again and ran back to the field where the rat was waiting.

The rat explained to the woman that among his people, the women gave birth to their babies by themselves , even to many babies at a time. Then the rat seized the woman by her belly, twisting it and making her begin to give birth. "Push and push," the rat told her, until her baby was born. The rat took the baby and wrapped it in a big plantain leaf. "Take the baby back to your husband now, and do not be afraid," the rat said as he handed her the child. "You are as strong now as a rat."

When the woman got back to her house she saw her husband had built the fire and was sweating as he brandished the big machete, waiting for her to come home. When he saw her with the baby and understood what had happened, he was furious. "You have betrayed me!" he shouted, and in his rage he took the machete and cut off his own breasts, one after the other. Then he flung them at the woman. In this moment, everything changed forever after for all the Shuar people, for the husband knew instantly that woman must be honored and respected, her rights and her dignity upheld. Ever since that day it has been the duty of all Shuar men to protect and revere their women.

I learned this story from my people. Very little of my education comes from books, almost everything came from practical experience. My mother taught me to weave, to make baskets, to make pottery and musical instruments. Shuar uwishins have to weave their own skirts; men teach us to make weapons. I became a car mechanic later, also through practical experience.

Women make Shuar pottery. They dry it onthe rafters of smoke hgouses for as much as four or five months, then pile the pots into a small mountain and cover it with firewood. The pots glow like hot coals during the firing. Then the women carry them carefully back to their houses and decorate them with beautiful designs of faces, flowers and other things. Women who decorate pots with great dedication are most prized as wives. Men hope they will show the same dedication to them as husbands.

Marcello: Traditionally the Shuar have protected women carefully. Uwishins often married widows; it is also customary for younger brothers to marry the widows of elder brothers. My father, for instance, married three sisters. If one of my elder brothers dies, I will have the obligation to marry his wife-- at least this has been the custom until this generation. The education and experience of my generation is changing things.

In terms of my own education, since I began to adapt myself to the western world, I have always been interested in reading, curious to learn. But I also learned in other ways from my Shuar people and from dreams, as I said before. When I was six years old, I already had the obligation to assist at Catholic Mass and to speak Spanish. I was not allowed to speak Shuar, but at this age I had a very real dream about going to the river and seeing a stone roll down to the bank. I stood there wondering why it had rolled down and then realized it was not real, but a vision. The stone talked to me, saying, "I am a very valiant man. I am also eternal, a supreme principle. I am the Source."

I loved studying and wanted to travel and know new places. After my primary education I went back to my people to study with the uwishins as I described earlier. Then, later, I went to a city with a large Shuar population to study. The teachers were Hispanic and deprecated our Shuar culture, but I demonstrated my abilities and won their confidence. When I was seventeen, my community made me director of programs; I facilitated conferences, directed native festivals and sports events. In high school I won a medal running. After high school I continued my apprenticeship as an uwishin.

After all these spiritual journeys and years of training I had the greatest dream vision of my life. After twenty hours of walking through the jungle without food, taking only natem, tobacco and the cleansing herb malikawa, I had the dream of a very large city. I never knew where it was until I came here and saw surely that it was Los Angeles.

I came to this country to help my people. I knew their problems would grow greater and greater and I wanted to be able to help solve them. My family and my Pikiur Shuar community sent me here with one great objective: to represent them in the defense of my forest and my community. I am grateful to my Father God Arutam for giving me the energy and the capacity to continue, for guiding me and giving me help in every moment. I am very far from my family and because I am human I have a great longing for them. Fortunately, an uwishin can communicate with his family at a great distance, and from his dreams he can know what their situation is. I will try to be faithful to the philosophy of my people, to keep moving forward and not fall behind, to overcome all obstacles no matter how great.

Indigenous peoples are not participating in the decisions of nations, yet we are a natural part of Mother Earth and have human rights. For fifteen years now I have been practising what I learned in my training as an uwishin, from my life as a Shuar and from experiences outside my own culture. I have many ideas and plans for the future. I want to return to my people to help save the forest which is the planet's breath and the basis for the life of my people.

I would like to proclaim my respect for you, Elisabet. You are a very select woman for me because I have come to know you and my special appreciation for you is engraved on my mind. Tonight the world of my life and of yours have become united to create history that is now eternal. I will always hold you in my mind as a symbol of brother/sisterhood. I have learned what your own talent is; you were born to know many people of the world. Thank you for coming to me here in Los Angeles, for writing of my life. When I return to my country and my people, I will carry your name engraved in my mind with eternal gratitude every day from now on.

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