Tag Archives: culture

Huitoto: natives of the Lungs of the World

“You would die if left alone in the rainforest; I would die if I stayed in your cities” -Ráfue, a Native Huitoto in the Colombian Amazon.

In the Amazon Rainforest lies an alternate reality. Life is different there. Wealth is measured in terms of knowledge acquired from nature, their ultimate treasure. The natives have a use for resources in their entirety and waste is not a component of their system. When I immersed myself in this alternate way of living, I had the pleasure of talking to Ráfue, the son of the Shaman of a small Huitoto tribe, who gave me a small insight into their belief system. Their myths are structured around four pillars that are represented by the four columns that support their Malocas, or ancestral long houses used for rites and ceremonies. To the East lies the first pillar, representing plants and animals. To the west, the second pillar represents the knowledge and respect of and for nature. To the south lies the third pillar symbolizing water and its necessity for life. Finally, the fourth pillar points towards the north and represents fire, or Buinama, and sustenance.

This reality, so often considered inferior by the “Western man,” sees him as an Erudama, or younger brother, who should be cared for and taught in the right direction. The Huitoto believe that the Western man was born just yesterday and still has much to learn. Contrary to colonial thinking, all sources of native knowledge including their own come from the roots of nature since the beginning of creation which is why they have access to the secrets of nature and an inherent connection to it.

This intricate connection with nature is seen in every aspect of their lives, ranging from myths and stories, to medicinal, religious, and spiritual traditions. Present in the everyday lives of adult males, the Huitoto believe to have come from the female Mámbe, coca leaves after they have been toasted and ground, and the male Ambil, a semiliquid form of tobacco. A central part of every ceremony, coca, tobacco, and cassava, must be provided by the host community and any gathering. In the centre of the Maloca lies a pot of Ambil that is licked by every adult male and which signifies the unanimity, connectedness, and solidarity of those involved. Mámbe is used daily as a source of positive physical and mental energy as well as to avoid fatigue, but it is only to be used by males who have successfully completed the rite to manhood, which requires surviving for three months alone in the depths of the rainforest. Upon their return, men are received with a feast and a lifelong commitment to Mámbe and Ambil.

As a means to strengthen their connection with nature Yagé, commonly known as Ayahuasca, has a profound spiritual significance. Adults in the Huitoto communities have approximately three Yagé ceremonies per year to purge their souls and bodies, and as means to enlightenment and guidance throughout the path of their existence. All ceremonies are lead by their Shamans who guide it and interpret their visions. 

In order to walk the forest at night, they use Luciferosa, a fungi that grows on fallen leaves and glows faintly when the moon’s light is not enough to penetrate the lush canopy of the forest. As Ráfue talked about the uses of a vast repertoire of plants, I could not help but feel awed by their knowledge; how is it that the ‘civilized’ man had undermined it? They manage to survive extreme living conditions without the use of our science and technology, and not only do they survive but they live in a way that harmonizes with the ways of nature and protects it for the use of the coming generations. To me, it seems ironic. Isn’t living with cooperation and connectedness as core values, and with practices that ensure the wellbeing of nature and everyone in the community infinitely smarter?

Mimesis. This picture was taken in Leticia, Colombia in July 2014 during a visit to a Huitoto community, whose constructions are built with the rise of the Amazon river in mind. Pictured is the Vicoria amazonica, the largest species of water lilies endemic to the Amazon region.

Ways of Knowing.

Like Kant suggested, I believe I cannot know the world in itself, but only how it is for me. Thus, I am fully aware that all the constructs of my head are products of my environment, but I also know that sometimes these skewed perspectives can go unnoticed. When thinking about what ‘the situation’ was like in Canada, I always admired this country because it seemed to have it all figured out. No one seemed to live in poverty, it seemed to have achieved social equality, and all ethnic groups seemed to have equal opportunities. But this was only relative to what I had seen in Latin America, to the drastic gap between the highest and lowest classes, the open chauvinism seen so often regardless of social class, and the ever-so-present racism that painted the social pyramid. With this preconception in mind, I overlooked the possibility that Native Americans in Canada might experience unjust living conditions and was quick to propose that social efforts should be focused somewhere where it was ‘really’ needed. I called this preconception into question once with Kanahus Pelkey, the Native Youth Movement Mother and Warrior from the Secwpemc Nation of British Columbia, and a second time upon attending a talk by Dawn Evans, the representative for the Coast Salish peoples in relation to food insecurity in the Vancouver Board, who said that local peoples belonged to what she called “the 4th world,” which to her meant living in a developed country with the living conditions of the lower classes in developing or underdeveloped countries. And then it struck me that often the term ‘civilized’ became an antonym with ‘native,’ and that pigmentocracy was not an issue solely of developing nations, but that it also happened right here where, for better of for worse, this is not easily noticed.

But upon realizing that there is crucial change to be made all over, how does one proceed? I became overly aware of my position of power as a well-off woman seeking to ‘help’ communities I thought of as situated below me, not in terms of race and culture, but in terms of social inequality and economic injustice. What does this say about me? I can say that it says a lot about the way I was raised and the culture in which I was brought up. I could not stand in solidarity if I saw fellow Latin Americans as removed and special because of their conditions. I too am oppressed by the conditions I was born into wherein individualism, rather than cooperation, prevails. This made me dwell deeper on my values, my place in society, and on my responsibilities as a citizen of the world. Were my values and beliefs built on sound knowledge? And whose knowledge? Numerous deep-thinking sessions led me to one conclusion: no one knows for sure. Socrates beat me by a couple thousand years in knowing that he knew nothing, but coming to this realization on my own was humbling and enlightening as I recognized that there is truly not one way of knowing or of leading life ‘correctly.’ With that as a personal maxim, I could now say that my values included recognizing every source of knowledge as equally important, reminding myself that believing something did not make it true, and nevertheless, judging my actions by their intention. It is these vales what have shaped the way I see success—not by the amount of money I get to accumulate over the years, but by how happy I feel and how happy I make those around me. This could seem obvious, but it is by no means the only popular definition of success. I too, put this definition to test. Were my personal and professional goals the ‘right’ ones, or should I reassess them because they were too platonic and idealistic?

Having completed more laps around the sun, my choices seem to carry the weight of their consequences increasingly, and I have feared that my mentality could silently take the shape of a screw in the production machine. The constant pressures to engage in activities that would look good on paper and help me impress my future employers often made me consider doing so. If I am to be honest, at times, the duality between working for material goods and working towards protecting nature and humanity had occupied a large portion of my thoughts.

I have come to believe that life sends cues to dissipate these doubts and reaffirm our deepest beliefs. But then again, we might be better at perceiving that which aligns with our worldview. It doesn’t matter, as long as we strive to assess our actions and decisions so that they remain in alignment with our values and get us as close to our ideals as possible. How about protecting Mother Earth and the humans she nurtures?

Loyal to Von Humboldt's observation of Spanish America, the palm trees that used to represent an untamed natural landscape  now precede land heavily fragmented to meet global coffee demands.

Tropicality. Loyal to Von Humboldt’s observation of Spanish America, the palm trees that used to represent an untamed natural landscape now precede land heavily fragmented to meet global coffee demands.