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HEALING BY TAKING CARE OF THE LAND1
In this essay, originally published in French in the Journal Multitudes N°77 (winter 2019) and translated by Kenneth Hurry, Barbara Glowczewski shows how Indigenous peoples in Australia or French Guiana reinvest their traditional medicinal knowledge and re-elaborate healing rituals to take care of their people and their land. This is also the case in Europe, where rites for well-being and relinking with the earth are reinvented through music and dance, for example in festivals of shamanism as well as in the Zones to Occupy (ZAD) as contemporary attempts to re-enchant people’s ways of living.
“In times past, shamans would meet to drink cachiri2 and in their dreams seek an answer from the spirits”, says Victor, an old Kali’na, as we were talking about the increasing anxiety of specialists at the silting up and growth of mangroves which, year after year, erode the beaches of Guiana, stopping the lute turtles from laying their eggs, and the fishermen from going out in their boats anywhere close to their villages. Erosion and the mud-bank that has already swallowed the sand of the village of Awala near the mouth of the River Mana are now threatening the sand beach of the estuary of Haut Maroni, where the houses of Yalimapo stand. The migration of mud-banks on the Guianan coastline, having also covered the beaches of Cayenne, is the most significant worldwide. According to the mayor of the township of Awala-Yalimapo, Jean-Paul Fereira, his Kali’na people will adapt to these geological transformations just as they have to the five centuries of French, Dutch, Portuguese or British colonisation, which caused the genocide of twenty-eight other Native American peoples who lived in this immense area (now the French Department of Guiana) and the lands bordering on Surinam and Brazil. One condition, however, is needed for this adaptation: the Kali’nas must be able to take back control of their lands and decide their own way of life. An initial restitution of 40,000 hectares has already taken place (December 2000) in the township of Bellevue.
Transplanetary Shamanic Knowledge
Victor remembers the time when, before his stroke, he used to work with five shamans: “We were strong then”. Over the last few years, a movement for the cultural renewal of the Kali’na people has successfully relaunched the half-forgotten sounding of shamanic drums (sampula) accompanied by singing, with men and women dancing in a circle for hours. Clubs of players, including all generations, have multiplied in the villages. I asked Victor whether the former Kali’na shamans had any younger successors. He told me it was too difficult to become a shaman nowadays. The efficacy of the earlier shamans was based on sacrifice and isolation, essential for communicating with the spirits, and this was no longer available.
With Victor, I mentioned the three Kali’na men – two of whom over sixty and one younger one – who had taken part in the Festival of Shamanism and ancient traditions at Genac in South-Western France in 2017. “That was different”, he replied, “They talk and play their drums, but real shamans are silent and only act in their own community”. The fact remains that, at Genac, when the three Kali’na men played their sampulas and chanted for the guest healers from other countries, three Aboriginal women from Australia – to whom they had shown their dance-steps in the holiday cottage shared by both delegations – grabbed the hands of the members of other delegations to form a great dance circle. Native Americans from the plains, from Brazil and Colombia danced in a circle with shamans from Mongolia and Siberia. I gave my hand to an Aka Pygmy man from Congo who, with members of other delegations, started singing the words in Kali’na. The participants exulted with joy, transported by sharing their particularities, affirming something about their common world in which the human being is not the centre of the universe, but cohabits with the spirits of the Earth, communicating in different ways with non-humans, animals, plants, water, air, fire and stars. Later on, hundreds of workshops welcomed for four days in tents set in a muddy field, some six thousand visitors. Enthusiastic or sceptic, the visitors kept asking how to recover what all these healers still have that they, in France, once had, but had lost.
At the 2019 edition of the Festival of Shamanism at Genac, two French Wayana of Haut Maroni explained, just like the Aboriginal Australians in the previous two years, that they, too, had lost much of their knowledge and were working, particularly through dreams, to recover it. Linia Opoya, a potter, and her husband, Tasikale Alupki3 – a collaborator of numerous researchers, notably on the project of virtual restitution of the Quai Branly museum collections – live at Taluen, a French Amazonian village struggling with clandestine gold-panning, which prevents them from living on the resources of the river, polluted by mercury, and of the forest, devastated by gold-seekers. For years the inhabitants have applied to have a school on the river, so as to avoid sending their children to the town, where some of them commit suicide owing to the deplorable living conditions there. The Aboriginal delegation from North Australia also spoke of the suicide of their young people as a result of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents having been taken away from their families on the pretext that they were of mixed race and had to be integrated with Whites. One child in five (between 1905 and the 1970s) was consequently forcibly shut up in a boarding school, destined to go into service with white families when adolescent, as a domestic or a farm labourer. This often involved unpaid work with situations of ill-treatment likened to slavery by Aboriginal activists, lawyers and academics today. Some Aboriginal people, raised in disastrous conditions far from their families or else in adoptive families, started researching their ancestry in the 1990s, when a Royal Commission made it possible to identify the extent of these “stolen generations” and finance genealogical research with the aim of reunion. In the process, some found where they came from; others didn’t, but they also consider themselves Aboriginal. When living in cities, some relearn the language of their ancestors, if it is still spoken or is being studied by linguists. Of the hundreds of Australian languages and dialects, many have vanished leaving no trace. For Aboriginal people, however, languages are the living memories of their related territories, and words can come to you in dreams when you sleep in the right spot.
The efficacy of the earlier shamans was based on sacrifice and isolation, essential for communicating with the spirits, and this was no longer available.
Reinventing rituals to tie people to their background
Amongst most of the peoples of Australia, a child is deemed to be the incarnation of a song sowed by totemic ancestors: men-animals, or plant-women, rain- or star-people. As a result, he or she has duties concerning certain areas, which must be celebrated by ritual song, dance and paintings. In Australia, reconstructing one’s ancestral heritage has become a form of healing, a healing process that is both individual and collective. For the French Native Americans of Guiana, something of this kind also resonates, since they have also suffered aggression and displacement and still suffer today from whatever threatens their languages, their ways of hunting and fishing, or other aspects of their culture. As in Australia, so too in Guiana, faced with this distress, the young people mobilise in struggles against extractivism and turn to ritual healing to bind humans to their environment, “by the milieu” that is as a part of them, transversal to their being4.
“New concepts of living matter, in particular in the work of Manuel DeLanda, upset conventional distinctions between matter and life, organic and inorganic, passive object and active subject. In the “agential realism” of Karen Barad, material agentivity/agency does not privilege the human, just as, for Jane Bennett, “the power of the thing” places emphasis on the material base and relationship of all things, whatever their status: human, animal, vegetal, or mineral […]”5 If new materialism rejects anthropocentrism, in my opinion, inspired by Aboriginal practice, the relationship between human, animal, vegetal or mineral is not a model of comparability but, on the contrary, a model of differentiation of relations, positions, differences that do not necessarily imply domination, but often fall within the negotiation of alliances and the tensions of possible and inevitable conflicts6.
At the workshops of the Festival of Shamanism at Genac, the Aboriginal delegation came from the coastal regions of Darwin and Kimberley in North Australia, as well as from the desert of Queensland. All were of mixed-descent with European, Chinese or Malay ancestors engaged in the pearl trade, or even Pakistanis and Afghans engaged with their dromedaries to explore the desert. They have encouraged the public to retrace – as they have done – the sources of their living tracks in the Earth, to start listening to the spirits, in their dreams7. In their own way, that is what the organisers of the festival attempt to do, in defining themselves as Celtic “déo” healers8. Of course, the Celtic tradition has not been transmitted from generation to generation, having been suffocated by the colonisation of Romans, Franks, Kings, and then of a certain Republic. Neither are there many written traces for us to know how the ancient Celts operated, but these men and women of today invent new rituals, which they say are inspired by their bonds with the spirits of the Earth. Why not?
Starhawk, an eco-feminist activist who participated in the Occupy sit-ins in the US in 2011, and anti-globalisation protests before, promoted the Wicca witchcraft movement – a form of Neopaganism popularised in the 1950s by the British Gerald Gardner – aimed at ritualising this political and feminist action9. In 2017, Starhawk was invited with Isabelle Stengers to Notre-Dame-des-Landes where she executed a ritual for women. Inventing new rites is necessary for “thinking-feeling with the Earth”, as the Colombian Indigenous people say10.
In Australia, reconstructing one’s ancestral heritage has become a form of healing, a healing process that is both individual and collective.
Extending the Shamanic Domain
In June 2018, the inhabitants of the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes were recovering from the Government’s offensive in April-May to expel them, after its decision to abandon the airport project. The 2500 policemen and the armoured vehicles to drive them out had just destroyed about half of the cabins built on some 60 places of residence occupied, including farms renovated with the agreement of the peasants who had refused compensation for the lands confiscated by the State for the benefit of Vinci, the shareholder of the airport project. Among the “zadistes” and their peasant and other supporters, there were hundreds of wounded, violently assaulted by GLI-F4 grenades (25 g of TNT plus 10 g of tear-gas), the use of which is prohibited11. The inhabitants dumped in front of the Prefecture an immense heap of grenade shells launched by the police at the site, which was blackened by the smoke and damaged by the violence of these attacks on improvised barricades. The ultimatum given to present projects at the Prefecture created terrible clashes between those who felt betrayed at seeing the chicanes of their iconic “zigzag route” dismantled, and those who attempted to negotiate to avoid everything being destroyed. The filling-in of forms for farm projects, under such incredible pressure, demonstrated impressive collective map-making intelligence. Out of about forty projects, half were accepted, allowing most of the projects described on the forms to continue to function as a collective network. Some of the inhabitants of places destroyed by the police, after lodging in quarters still standing, preferred to leave or took refuge elsewhere. A certain sourness arose, occasionally poisoned from outside by those who did not understand what was at stake. All the areas fought over were transformed and depression awaited some combatants. At the ZAD, however, an incredible ferment continued throughout the summer: workshops of the group Défendre Habiter at the Ambazada , others at Bellevue and, since then, stimulating meetings and publications, including the launch, in January 2019, of an endowment fund, La terre en commun (The land in common), to buy up the land and buildings in order to prevent industrial agriculture which would destroy the countryside.
At the feast of St John, organised in June 2018 at the ZAD by the inhabitants of the Saint Jean farm, of the Rolandière and some other places, my youngest daughter Nidala Barker, whose paternal grandmother was a Djugun and Jabirr Jabirr elder, performed a ritual fumigation of well-being in which many took part. With some inhabitants, she gathered the sage that grows in many ZAD orchards, a medicinal and purifying plant for people and places, used by the Native Americans of the plains, as well as in rural European tradition13. In various European countries, alone or in groups, people are looking for pre-Christian traces, like the young Polish women who set up the Laboratorium piesni, a singing collective aimed at discovering ancient songs that can be interpreted according to a shamanic aesthetics paying tribute to trees, stones, rivers and animals14. Much followed by social networks, these singers are on tour everywhere. Isn’t it wonderful that, in Poland with its Catholic majority, where fundamentalists fan the fires of historical antisemitism and a xenophobia revived by moral panic at the European injunction to welcome a few hundred Muslims, young Polish women should choose to explore the pre-Christian past? It is of little importance that, like numerous other collectives seeking traditional inspiration, whether pagan or shamanic, their forms of expression are reinvented. What is essential is to open to others, human and non-human, to hear once more the enchanted history of lands where the bison, the bear and the wolf roam.
- The text was extracted from a section called “Living with spirits” which was introduced in the following manner: “Experiments in Europe and Asia show a renewed interest in spirits of the Earth and of the Dead. Although mediums, shamans and other healers have long conversed and healed through spirits, their traditions are now being reinvented, rubbing shoulders with new practices. An increasing number of non-professionals are in need of healing and of another way of living with the world(s). The reactivation of spirits manifest in certain places in dream or waking experiences – even with machines – concerns not only individual healing, but also the art of weaving multiple links with all living forms, thus strengthening an alliance between humans and inhabited places, whether in the forest, the countryside12, towns or even the very stuff of memory.”
- Cassava beer
- Alupki was co-ordinator of the Wayana-Apalai Commission for recognition by UNESCO of the maraké ritual initiation as intangible heritage. See Éliane Camargo, Veronica Holguin Lew, Sara Tandar et Équipe Wayana et Apalaï, « L’Amazonie amérindienne dans l’ère du numérique : le portail multilingue WATAU », Patrimoines du Sud [En ligne], 12 | 2020, accessed 9 Septembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org
- See the film Unti, les origines, 2018, by the Kali’na activist Christophe Yanuwana Pierre, who fights against the destructive impact of extractivism and for the rights of the Native Americans of Guiana with the Customary Grand Council of which he is a member for JAG (jeunesse autochtone de Guyane – Indigenous Youth of Guiana) and at UN level.
- Environmental Humanities and New Materialisms – The Ethics of Decolonizing Nature and Culture, Unesco 7-9, 2017, symposium organised by Nathalie Blanc
- In this sense, Australian totemism cannot be summarised in an ontology of generalised continuity, as proposed by Philippe Descola in Par delà nature et culture; see B. Glowczewski, Totemic Becomings. Cosmopolitics of the Dreaming, Sao Paulo, n-1, 2015. And “Standing with the Earth : From Cosmopolitical Exhaustion to Indigenous Solidarities”, Inflexions No 10 : http://www.senselab.ca/inflexions/
- Lance Sullivan, Yalarrnga healer of Queensland: https://vimeo.com/233652286
- Déo: phonetic transcription of the term “derv” (“oak” or “forest being”) which defines Celtic shamans, http://festival-chamanisme.com/; See also “Chamans de tous les pays…”, F. Joignot, Le Monde des Idées, 3/8/2019.
- Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, www.peripheries.net/article215.html; https://starhawk.org/
- Arturo Escobar, Thinking-feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South, Revista de Anthropologia Iberoamericana 11/1, 2016: 11-32.
- www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlGkqoNbiYQ On the grenades in question, 22 mai 2018, www.dailymotion.com/video/x6k6m3c
- https://encommun.eco; conf de presse du 17 janvier 2019 : https://vimeo.com/314732719 ; See Prise de terre(s), Notre-Dame-des-Landes, été 2019, https://lundi.am/ZAD; https://lundi.am/Considerations-sur-la-victoire-et-ses-consequences-depuis-la-zad-de-Notre-Dame
- “Rites de passage”, Zadibao no2, https://zadibao.net/2018/07/03/rituelle; Nidala Barker at the Taslu Library, Zad of Notre-Dame-des- Landes, France, 23 June 2018, https://vimeo.com/314743651