Gesileu Phaspy Ninawa
INTERVIEW : GESILEU PHASPY NINAWA: A MASTER OF THE AMAZONIAN MEDICINE OF RAPÉ
Last year, Amanda Viana spent some time in the state of Acre, North Brazil, to research the relationship of Brazilian descendants of indigenous peoples with Forest medicines. In Western culture there are two main approaches to such traditional medicines: either they are rejected by pharmacologically-based medicine as ‘non-scientific’, or they are considered a door to ‘artificial paradises’ by rebelliously disoriented people. This interview attempts to show that there is a third type of approach: respectful of and attentive to the voice of traditional knowledge, devoid of prejudices and aware of the potential of such ways of thinking and behaving – especially in the context of our planetary crisis.
Courtesy of Gesileu Phaspy Ninawa.
Rapé (dume deshke, Huni Kuin people; rume, Yawanawa people; rume poto, Shanawa people)1 is one of the best-known medicines among the indigenous tribes of Brazil, who have been using it since time immemorial. It is considered a sacred and powerful medicine because of its psychosomatic healing power. According to indigenous knowledge, rapé heals through the energies of Nature and at the same time opens the door to archaic powers of the forest that can become accessible to humans.
Rapé is a powdered mixture of tobacco, tree ash and – sometimes – special herbs. There are different types of rapé, which vary according to the tribe preparing them and the variety of the type of tobacco, ashes and herbs used. Gesileu Phaspy Ninawa is a Brazilian master of this medicine who has learned its preparation and usage in different Amazonian traditions, such as the Huni Kuin and the Yawanawa. He also studied with the well-known pajé Yawa from the Yawanawa tradition.
Gesileu Phaspy Ninawa (Brazilian name: Raimundo Gesileu de Lima) was born in Seringal Tupã, Xapuri’s town (Acre, Brazil), at the winter solstice of the southern hemisphere in 1967. He is a son, friend, student, and partner of the Amazon rainforest. Because of his devotion to that natural setting, he responds to its beauty and its call, revealing the shapes of vines, tree-trunks and animal bones through his sculptures, promoting traditional indigenous healing and disseminating its knowledge in ceremonies, using the medicine rapé. Gesileu is a great connoisseur of this medicine. The present interview was carried out on his ceremonial yard (terreiro) in December 2021.
A: Gesileu, what is your relationship with rapé? Are you a ‘master’, a pajé of this medicine?
G: The term ‘master’ or ‘shaman’ is a very strong designation. In fact, I don’t consider myself a ‘master’ of rapé because I still have a lot to learn from this medicine. I am a student of rapé, a scholar of this medicine that is so important and sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Acre Amazonian Rainforest. During our study, we learn that the terms ‘master’ or ‘shaman’ are titles that we do not give to ourselves. If you hear someone saying, “I am a master, I am a shaman”, it is a first warning to be suspicious. We don’t call ourselves in that way. Now, if it is another person, if it is you, who calls me ‘master’ or ‘shaman’ of rapé, with all humbleness, I will accept it, because it is you, someone else, who is defining me in such a way. But if you ask me whether I am a ‘master’ or ‘shaman’ of rapé, I’ll tell you, “No, I am not”.
A: Tell us a little about your ancestry and your relationship with indigenous peoples.
G: I am a caboclo, that is, my ancestry consists of a mixture of white and indigenous people. My ancestry line is composed on my mother’s side of original people of the Amazon with some mixture of white people, and on my father’s side of indigenous people stemming from the northeast of Brazil. My mother has indigenous Amazonian ancestors, but due to the mixing with white people that took place after the European invasion, I couldn’t precisely tell you which ethnic group she comes from. My father is a descendant of the northeastern Xukurus people, whose village is located near the municipality of Pesqueira, in Pernambuco. My paternal great-grandparents belonged to that ethnic group.
I was born in Acre, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Because my parents were rubber tappers, from a very early age I had a direct and intense connection with the forest. I lived literally immersed in the forest, not knowing what a city, a municipality or even a village was. It was only when I was seven years old that my father took me to the city for the first time, and that was a very particular experience for me. The first town I visited was the town of Xapuri, which, despite being very small, impressed me a lot and made a lasting impression on me.
A: What was the first indigenous village you ever visited, and which are the villages you are still in touch with?
G: Since very early in my life, I have had close contacts with the indigenous communities here in Acre. Precisely because of that, I can say that I know almost all the ethnic groups in this state, of which about fourteen different indigenous peoples are officially recognized. I must say that I have a closer and very special relationship with the indigenous ethnic groups of the Panu linguistic branch, more specifically with the Huni Kuin (‘the genuine people’), the Shanenawa (‘the blue-bird people’) and the Yawanawa (‘the people of the wild boar’). It was with the Huni Kuin that I went through my rapé initiation. My first acquaintance with the medicine of kampum (also called kambô)3 took place with the Shanenawa people, whose village is close to the town of Feijó, that is, on the other side of the town. After some time, I had a long relationship with the Yawanawa people. With these people, I had also the opportunity of furthering my studies on the medicine ayahuasca4, which they call uni, and on the songs of the forest, which enables to communicate with the living beings there.
A: Did you discover the medicine of rapé with the Huni Kuin people? How was your first experience? Could you talk about your initiation into this medicine?
G: In fact, my first contact with rapé was in the town. The first rapé I took was from the Apurinã Indians, who call this medicine awiri. After that experience, I began to study rapé as a medicine, and subsequently I had the opportunity of receiving initiation into this substance with the Huni Kuin people of the village of Caucho, where I have brotherly ties. It was also in this village that I received my Huni Kuin indigenous name: my txais (relatives) decided to give me a traditional name in honor of my person and my genuine interest in forest medicines. After several rituals, they finally gave me the name Ninawa: ni means ‘forest’, and nawa ‘people’. The literal translation of this name would be ‘People of the Forest’, but when it is applied to a single individual, it becomes ‘Person of the Forest’. Other meanings could also be attributed to this term, such as: ‘Being of the Forest’, ‘Father of the Woodland’, or ‘Lord of the Forest’. The Huni Kuin gave me that name, took me to the forest and sang a kind of baptismal song for me, which they call pakari. From that day on, I was called ‘Ninawa Huni Kuin’. This was my first significant step in dealing with the medicines of the forest, guided by these people, who welcomed me in a very kind and affectionate way. I owe a lot to the Huni Kuin people for that profound initiation into the medicine of rapé.
My studies with the pajés did not take place through diets5 in indigenous villages. They taught me in a more personal way and in a relationship of friendship: “You are my friend, I will teach you!”. I received great teachings from pajé Yawarani, also known as pajé Yawa of the Yawanawa people. He was a very wise master with extraordinary knowledge of the Amazonian rainforest. His own life is an example for anyone who wants to study the different medicines of the Amazonian Forest. Pajé Yawa was a very responsible person with a kind heart, who kept his ‘inner child’ alive. I consider him my main teacher, the most significant person on my path towards the forest medicines. He taught me a lot not only about these medicines and how to live with them, but also about my personal life and the way in which I should behave when I am confronted with the power of the forest medicines.
Rapé is one of the most important medicines in indigenous traditions. The white man has acquired the habit of using snuff tobacco and even manufacturing it, but the indigenous snuff tobacco is totally different from that used and produced by the white man.
A: Could you say something about the meaning of the term rapé? What is the history of this medicine? What do the pajés say about its origin?
G: In fact, the term rapé is a Portuguese word that we use with non-indigenous people, so that they may understand what we are talking about. In indigenous traditions, however, this medicine has other different names. It can be called nawô, one of the expressions most used by indigenous people, which is a synonym of ‘tobacco’. Other names are – among many others – ‘rumâ’ and ‘dume’.
It is said that the Amazonian peoples have used rapé since time immemorial, whereas the contact of the white man with this substance is very recent. The point is that rapé is one of the most important medicines for indigenous traditions, but not for the white man. The white man also acquired the habit of using snuff tobacco and even manufacturing it, but the indigenous snuff tobacco is totally different from the one used and produced by the white man. In fact, the only thing in common between these two rapés is that they contain tobacco, nothing else. The truth is that shamans provided the white man with ancestral knowledge, that is, a medicine that they had been using for thousands of years. I am not able to tell you how rapé began from a historical point of view, but I can tell a story of the Yawanawa people about the emergence of the principal forest medicines, a story in which rapé is also included.
The Yawanawa say that, at the beginning of time, the forest had a very powerful king called Ruwá. This king, who was at the same time a ‘cacique’ (chief) and a shaman, belonged to the Yawanawa. This was a time of encantados (enchanted creatures), in which humans had a direct and clear contact with spiritual beings. It was not new for someone to meet a yuxin (spirit of the forest) and converse with it.
The story goes that this great king was also a skilled hunter and liked to organize great hunting events. One of his most special hunting events, which he organized in the middle of the forest, involved the whole tribe: the Yawanawa stood near the edge of a lake and enclosed the place by beating trees, branches and bushes and making all kinds of noise to scare the animals away. Their purpose was that the animals should move to the edge of that lake – the only clearing in the middle of that dense forest. Ruwá and his wife strategically placed themselves at the edge of the lake in order to kill the animals as they appeared out of the forest. In one of these hunting scenes, a special kind of bird appeared, which in this region is called nambú. Seeing him, Ruwá immediately shot him and said to the woman: “Fetch the bird and bring it to me”. The woman took the dead bird and brought it to the king’s side. At that very moment, the water of the lake began to boil, giving off many different aromas and smells, and Ruwá fainted and fell on the ground.
It is important to know that at that time the Yawanawa people did not know death. No human died at that time, and no Yawanawa had ever died. They were born, but they lived forever. When Ruwá fell on the ground, his woman saw it and tried in many ways to bring him back – without success. In utter despair, she began to scream. The Yawanana who were hunting stopped and came to see what was happening. When they arrived, they asked what had happened and she said, “I don’t know. Your ‘cacique’ has fainted and lies there on the floor. It looks like he’s sleeping, but he doesn’t wake up.” Other people also tried to reanimate him, but to no avail. Then they said, “Let’s take him home.” And so, they did. They placed him in his hammock, where he remained with no reaction at all. Everyone was very sad and worried, because they didn’t know what was happening. He remained in that state for a long time and the people went back to their homes. Only his wife stayed with him. And at some point, he woke up. He got up and asked, “Woman, what happened?” She said, “I don’t know. You fell asleep and could not wake up. We called you and you didn’t react. We were very worried because you didn’t wake up”. He asked, “Where is the nambú I killed?” She said, “It is there”. He asked, “Have you prepared it?” She said, “No, because I was very worried about you.” The ‘cacique’ said, “Prepare the nambú, I am very hungry.” As soon as he finished his sentence, he fell once again on the floor. His wife tried to reanimate him several times and he didn’t wake up. She spent hours trying to bring him back, but it was impossible. Then, she called the whole tribe, because she didn’t know what to do any more. Finally, an old and wise Yawanawa shaman instructed the people to bury Ruwá in the center of the shurú or maloca, the longest house of the tribe. They did as they were told: they dug a hole in the center of the maloca and moved to another village (at that time, there were several villages and they moved frequently from one to another).
After some time, they returned to the village where Ruwá had been buried. When they arrived, they found their maloca covered with leaves and a different vine that they didn’t know. The vine was the jagube6 of ayahuasca. They went to the place where Ruwá was buried and saw that this place was covered with plants. Then they decided to dig up Ruwá, and discovered that from the center of his heart region, a jagube‘s root had grown, which surrounded the entire maloca. On the right side of his heart, a tobacco plant had grown, which gave rise to rapé. On the left side of his heart, a chili pepper plant had grown, which is also a very strong plant in indigenous diets. In the lower part of his heart, a chupa root had been born, which is a medicine widely used by the Yawanawa prior to their contact with white people.
Ruwá appeared to the old and wise pajé of the village in a dream and taught him how to prepare these medicines that emerged from his body, thus: “This tobacco here, you must take the leaves, dry them, crush them and mix them with the ashes of a tree (…)”. In this way, the medicine of rapé arose, that is, from its main component nawô (tobacco) and its combination with extracts from the tree-trunk. Ruwá also taught the pajé how to prepare the medicines of uni, chili pepper and chupa and work with them. The story is very long and full of details that I will spare you at this point.
From the day in which Ruwá experienced death, the Yawanawa people began not only to die in the village, but also to travel – while ‘alive’ – to the world of ‘the dead’ with the help of uni (ayahuasca). By drinking this medicine, the people of the village were able to find Ruwá on the other side, who told them that whenever they wanted to talk to him, they could take the medicine and find him, spend some time with him learning, and come back to the world of the living.
It is important to know that this story about the origin of the forest’s medicines, which also includes the origin of rapé, belongs to the Yawanawa tradition. Each indigenous people has its own story about the origin of these medicines, and the stories have different aspects and variations.
A: We can say that the medicine of rapé consists of a mixture of tobacco and tree ash, to which one or more herbs can be added, is that right?
G: Yes, but in addition to them, traditional prayers are a very important component, as important as the material elements.
A: It is known that the medicine of rapé has a physiological, psychological and spiritual healing effect. In addition to it, rapé is said to open the door to archaic powers of the forest that can become accessible to humans. And it connected humans with the beings of the forest and the world of the dead. I would like to know what rapé is for you personally, Gesileu.
G: Rapé is the main medicine that I have been studying. In my opinion, rapé is not only a medicine for curing different types of illness, but also a bridge that connects the material world with the spiritual one through mental power. The power of thought is a fundamental condition of rapé, and this power can expand our consciousness and amplifies our thought. It is also for this reason that rapé presupposes prayer. The power of thought linked to prayers leads to the realization of a given intention. It is in this way, through the realization of intentions, that this medicine works on the so-called material and spiritual planes.
Something important that I would like to add is that we never use the term ‘to sniff rapé’. The correct term according to the indigenous tradition is ‘to take’ (tomar) or ‘to pass’ (passar) the medicine of rapé. When you undergo treatment with rapé, you are said to ‘take rapé’. When you give rapé to someone else, you ‘pass the rapé to the other’. When something is not right in your life and you want to regain your focus, you ‘take rapé’.
A: It is known that shamans use rapé for healing purposes. Can they also use rapé to harm someone? Can a poisonous mixture be included in preparing rapé?
G: Several indigenous traditions say that rapé, which for the Yawanawa was born on the right side of the heart of the Ruwá, is a powerful medicine that works for good purposes. Rapé came into the world to heal and to do good things. However, as with every medicine, we know that the question of good and evil will rather depend on the person who prepares the rapé. Surely, rapé can also be used to harm someone. This is an option for the shaman or the person who handles this medicine. Judging from my experience and my study, I also believe that a person who prepares rapé without knowing how to do it correctly will do harm rather than good.
A: If a person wants to work with rapé, how can he/she be respected (by both indigenous and white people) in dealing with that medicine?
G: The main thing is, you have to be fair. To be fair not only with yourself but also with the people around you, with the medicine you are working with, with Mother Nature, with the animals, plants, and every being surrounding you. The moment you are fair with these forces, you have great chances of achieving a higher degree in your interaction with the force of this medicine. It’s no use showing that you are fair merely as a pretense, because some people will perhaps believe you, but the medicine knows that deep inside you are not, and it begins to look at you differently. It will tell you, “You are a liar, so we won’t help you anymore”.
Sometimes, we find people who have thoroughly studied our medicines, but they don’t speak or act in a fair way. Hence, despite their considerable knowledge about the culture and the medicines of the forest (even in their application), such people will lose strength and power if they operate with the medicine. For a pajé, it is evident that the ones who give strength and power are the ‘enchanted beings’, the ‘people on the other side’. If they don’t give you the strength to transform a state, a situation, or a person, you won’t be able to do it just by yourself. In this sense, there is no point in saying to the person you have treated: “I have cured you”. This is not fair, since it is the medicines that heal, whereas the human being is only a channel of their power. The expression “I have cured you” comes from the ego of the person: it is an expression of vanity. We must be very careful with such medicines not to be arrogant, not to be seduced by the vanities of the ego. We should rather listen to what the medicines say and how they guide us.
The power of thought is a fundamental condition for the use of Rapé.
A: Could you tell me what kinds of disease you have cured with the help of this medicine and whether you can identify a disease under the power of rapé? Are there differences between diseases of the body and diseases of the spirit?
G: From a shamanic point of view, illnesses first appear in the spiritual world and then manifest themselves in the material world. In my studies I have seen and treated people with different kinds of problems: alcoholism, drug addiction (cocaine and other heavy drugs), also people suffering from sinusitis, allergic flu, nose-bleeding, breathing problems and many other things. I have also dealt with people bearing so-called mental and spiritual problems: complexes, traumas, and other sort of crises. Sometimes forest medicines can make people aware of negative past events and give them another meaning, so that oppressive or traumatic memories are released and overcome. In addition to that, I often say that medicines are spiritual accelerators. A stage it would take you a lifetime to reach can arrive very quickly with the help of these medicines, also by studying them7. If medicines are used correctly and with proper responsibility, you will obtain the cure you are seeking. Often, despite the intention of a person, the forest medicines know exactly what the real needs of the person are – it is a question of general balance. So, it is very common for us to focus on a thought when taking rapé and when you feel the strength of the medicine, it tells you: “It is not this intention, but this other one”. To sum up: There are different elements in a cure: the intelligence of the medicine, prayer, mental power, thought, conviction … When all this is properly combined, you can heal your life or the life of someone close to you.
We help in the healing of many people, but I cannot speak explicitly about cases cured by me, because, as I said in relation to the title ‘pajé (shaman)’, it is the people who must tell me whether they are healed or not, not me. Some of them tell me: “You helped me on this particular issue”, and I am glad to hear that. But I insist: I am not the one who heals these people, but the medicines that are summoned for help.
In my opinion, the medicine of rapé should work together with the medicines of kambô and ayahuasca, because these three medicines constitute a unit – this is something that few people understand. Some people say, “Ah, I have already drunk ayahuasca, I’m fine now”. Others say, “Ah, I have been taking rapé, I feel well now”. Or even, “I have already taken kambô, I’m fine now”. People need to be aware that these three medicines are complementary to each other, and that each one of them must be used at the right time. Nothing is arbitrary in the question of shamanic healing.
I also emphasize that the healing of a person will depend on the medicine, the prayer and on the merit of each of the persons involved in the process. Certain problems can be easily cured, others not. Some problems cannot be cured at all and become something that the person will have to live with and learn from, also for other situations. Ultimately, the reasons for such cases lie in the spiritual world, and there is little we can ‘explain’ with our own logic.
A: When you produce rapé, that is, when you harvest the tobacco plant, collect a piece of bark from a certain tree and/or gather specific herbs, do you establish some kind of negotiation with the beings you are dealing with?
G: Yes, of course. First you need to ask permission from these beings to do whatever you want or have to do. An opening prayer is uttered, and in that prayer you have to declare your intention of using a certain plant. For example, you can say to the plant you need, “I need you and I want you to help me. I will remove your bark and parts of your branches to crush them into ashes, which I will use to make my rapé, and this rapé will help people who need to be healed”. You can’t just place your hand on the tobacco leaves and rip them out.
When you are producing the medicine, you must pray to it throughout the preparation. It is necessary to invoke the beings of the forest and the energy of healing with the different qualities required for the case: love, peace, happiness, health, abundance, etc. So, you summon these energies and put them inside the rapé. Apart from this, it is essential that you feel well at this moment. If you are sick or if you are angry with someone, it means that you are not fit to prepare rapé. If your soul is full of anguish or your heart is full of sorrow, you are not fit to produce rapé. If you are a person who gets easily irritated, who carries a lot of anger inside and may have a fit of rage for no reason, you are not fit to prepare rapé. Just as when you are on a diet with a plant, you must work on special introspection before embarking on the preparation of rapé. You must forgive those you are angry with and you must ask forgiveness from those you have offended. You must pray and cast all negative feelings out of you. Only when you feel that your heart has been cleansed of these negative energies can you start preparing rapé. If you prepare rapé with negative feelings, you will pass those feelings on to the medicine and, consequently, on to the people you treat. They will be contaminated with these feelings; they will receive your negative feelings and experience them in the same way as you have experienced them. Instead of helping these people, you will harm them.
This issue is very important and often overlooked because of financial interests. We often see people making rapé and working with the medicine because they need money, but they don’t have the slightest concern about healing others in need. If your work with rapé revolves around money, you are dealing with the wrong energy, because money is just a consequence. This is the opinion of some shamans I learned from, serious shamans, really focused on healing and not on their wallets. This is the way I behave in my study of rapé, with full awareness of where the focus should be laid, and this is also why it is not good to use rapé from a person you don’t know. Before using any kind of rapé from anyone, you should ask, “Who made this rapé and under which circumstances was this rapé prepared?”
Something I always advise is the following: If you are going to use rapé stemming from people you don’t know, try to get in touch with them, to find out about their personal life, for example if they behave correctly towards their family and friends, if they are able to care for other people. If they have those qualities, they don’t even need much technical knowledge to prepare good rapé. The rapé will be impregnated by their good qualities, because the main ingredient of this medicine is love. If you have this main ingredient within your heart, you are fit to prepare and use this medicine. If you don’t have it, it’s something quite different, and you should be careful of the things I have mentioned.
Today we are facing an absurd marketing expansion of forest medicines, and the thing is becoming bigger and bigger. Of course, everything I have said about rapé also applies to ayahuasca and kambô. Many people work with these medicines to make money. They take advantage of them without really helping people. They just want to feed their greed, get more money and material goods, and the rest does not matter at all.
A: Could you speak about rapé diets? Are there several kinds with different durations? For example, I know that you usually do a one-week diet with certain people.
G:The one-week rapé diet has been developed through my own experience with and research on this medicine. There are different kinds of rapé diet in the indigenous tradition. Certain tribes, for example, prepare a pot of boiled tobacco broth and you have to drink it on the first day of your diet, which makes you vomit a lot. Only after that first step can you follow the diet with rapé, but certain types of food will be forbidden, because they are not compatible with your plant diet.
A: Is the prohibition of certain types of food restricted to the period of the diet?
G: No, it is a restriction for the rest of your life. For example, if you have made a diet with rapé, you can never eat armadillo meat again, because in the Amerindian world-conception the armadillo is the owner of tobacco.
A: Can we say that rapé is a living entity? Can you talk to it? Does it teach you the way a master teaches his pupil?
G: Rapé contains several living entities. In fact, it would be correct to talk about the ‘tobacco entities’, instead of the ‘rapé entities’. Snuff, the pipe, cigars belong to the tobacco family. All this involves a very large spiritual field of ‘enchanted’ beings. And each of these beings has an affinity with a certain identity of each person who works with these medicines in a ritualistic way. It’s a matter of energy, some ‘enchanted’ ones identify themselves with you and are open to work with you and others don’t.
A: You talked about the ‘enchanted beings’. Who are they? Are they ‘non-human’ beings from the forest? Do you have a relationship with them? Can you communicate with them? Do they help you in healing work with the medicine of rapé?
G: Strictly speaking, the ‘enchanted beings’ are not ‘helpers’; they don’t ‘help’ me, since they are the ones who really carry out the healing work. Without them, you can’t do anything. With them, you can do wonderful things. If the ‘enchanted beings’ don’t work with you, you can’t do anything with rapé. For most indigenous peoples of the Amazonian rainforest in Acre, the ‘enchanted beings’ – in concrete and spiritual terms – are the most powerful beings of the forest, which are also called yuxibus (spiritual pajés) because they can do significant and decisive work of the type we know from shamans. The three most powerful and important ‘enchanted beings’ of the forest are the ‘enchanted boa’, the ‘enchanted harpy eagle’, and the ‘enchanted jaguar’.
Usually, people who take part in ceremonies in which forest medicines are used tell me that afterwards they have dreams about boa constrictors, jaguars and harpy eagles. In Europe, for example, where I worked several times, people told me about visions and dreams with these animals, even without having seen them before or knowing that such animals are linked to forest medicines. I heard comments of this type: “I saw a big snake at work, a snake that I had never seen before!” It was clear to me that the ‘enchanted boa constrictor’ had manifested itself through the power of the medicine.
A: Can a white man really enter the world of rapé and gain deep knowledge of it? Is the person who shares the teachings of the ‘enchanted’ ones responsible if he/she transmits this knowledge to the wrong person?
G: One thing I can say for sure is that, within the spiritual world, there is no skin color. Within the spiritual world, there is no spirit of indigenous people on the one hand and spirit of the white man on the other hand. There is ‘the’ spirit, and this spirit can become incarnate both in the indigenous man and in the white man. What happens is that indigenous people live in the forest and, because of their habits and way of life (so close and even intertwined with the natural environment), they acquire knowledge of it. The forest is part of their culture, and it also produces culture – without the intervention of humans. However different this is from the modern culture of the white man, none of it prevents the latter from penetrating the world of forest knowledge. In fact, we sometimes see white people whose spirit is nevertheless profoundly indigenous. In the same way, you will find indigenous people living in the forest who neither study nor use ancestral medicines such as rapé and ayahuasca, and who are fond of modern city gadgets such as televisions, cars, computers, and telephones. It is also common that some indigenous people hide or deny their origins, but you can also find white people who affirm “I am an indigenous person”.
Pajé Yawa used to tell me that there are some people who, from birth, have a strong connection with the powers of the forest, and that they know instinctively what to do with forest medicines. Such people can do what they want with their prayers and the force of the medicines. Even if they refuse to use them, they are always ready to deal with them. They will be the most powerful people, whether or not they practice the forest healing art. There are of course many people without these inborn qualities, but who can develop them by working with diets and studying the forest. For sure, if they take their study seriously, they will be able to do wonderful things for others. But according to pajé Yawa, even with study and experience, they will never be as powerful as the person with an inborn talent. Pajé Yawa also told me that quite some time ago, when they were looking for a future pajé for the village, they observed their children. Of those fifty or one hundred boys who were in the village, one was not like the others: he did not like to run around, play or do pranks with the other boys. He had a different character, he was very quiet and obedient, he used to watch the forest for hours and didn’t talk a lot. When the shamans found him, they took him immediately to themselves: “This boy already has a strong connection with the forest and is going to study with us”, they said. They taught him, from an early age, to become a very strong shaman.
But that story belongs to the past… Today, some indigenous peoples offer numerous diets merely to gain status, and they no longer look for someone with special qualities to become a great pajé. Today, some people go on a short diet and soon afterwards they call themselves shamans. From then on, they prepare medicines and offer rituals that would actually take years and years of learning. We see this kind of behavior especially in ethnic groups that have assiduous contacts with white people. A lot of people want to become a shaman because of the status that this title gives. In the past, it was not like that. It was very different.
A: Could we say that the medicine of rapé is a kind of intermediator between human beings and the forest?
G: The term I like to use is ‘bridge’: rapé is a bridge.
A: In this sense, would you say that rapé contributes to the protection of the forest?
G: I believe that not only rapé but all forest medicines contribute to its protection. These medicines are directly associated with the forest, they come from it and belong to it. Thus, it is logical that they contribute – directly or indirectly – to the preservation and protection of the forest: if there is no forest, there is no medicine!
A: This means that the study and use of rapé bring in a certain way greater ecological awareness and, consequently, a potential reduction of environmental problems?
G: Without a doubt rapé, as a forest medicine, makes people more sensitive to the environment and enables them to feel that they are an integral part of Nature. I believe that rapé can contribute not only to the protection of the Amazonian Forest but of any natural setting, because it brings awareness and a concrete sense of rootedness. Who wouldn’t want to protect one’s own home? My home is the forest, and I want to take care of the forest. The more people know and interact with this medicine, the more they will feel a sense of respect for the natural setting it stems from and the more they will try to convince others of its value.
Rapé, as a forest medicine, makes people more sensitive to the environment and enables them to feel they are an integral part of Nature.
A: How does the healing process for a white take place using the medicine of rapé? I ask this because a white man has another worldview and is very often full of preconceptions about other cultures. Moreover, persons who live in completely urbanized places without contact with the natural environment cannot possibly develop an awareness of the ‘enchanted ones’, as well as of the typical medicinal plants of the place you know so well…
G: As I said before, the medicine itself already brings the energy of its setting, and with it a sense of rootedness and an interaction with other (subtler) dimensions of being. This is already part of a healing process. If the forest medicine brings all that, it will benefit that person no matter what the latter’s background is. Natural medicines know no barriers, since we are part of Nature – whatever the distance from it and whatever our lifestyle.
This idea becomes easier for us when we accept the view that everything consists of energy. This view can help us wherever we want to go and whatever we want to do. Energy is fluid, and once we really connect with it (at its different levels), all barriers become relative. In addition to that, it is evident that nothing dies, but everything transforms itself. Birth and death, creation and destruction are closely related. The moment you create something, you destroy something else, and this enables creation. At the same time, the moment you destroy anything, something else is already being created. When you observe creation and destruction in practice, it becomes clear that this opposition does not exist.
A: Do you agree, however, that we are living in a time of destruction driven by human action and exercised upon the body of “Mother Earth”? Would you say that we live in a period characterized by the dominance of human spaces, with pollution at all levels, deforestation and destruction of various types of biomes, the extinction of different species – to sum up: by an economy of death? How can we re-establish creation when the fundamental conditions for it are being destroyed?
G: Well, we must think in terms of balance. The energies of creation and destruction must be in balance. In the period in which we live, this balance is totally tilted towards destruction, hence all these consequences. But at some point, the forces will balance out once again. Unfortunately, most people don’t learn through love, but through pain. It is obvious that the world is moving towards a lesson of pain. Although there are many people trying to counterbalance the relation between creation and destruction, most people, because of their greed and ignorance, are not interested in the other option, in learning through love and care.
A: Humankind is actually enfiando o pé na jaca (‘sticking its foot in the jackfruit’), that is, going beyond the limit. As Ailton Krenak says, we are working on our own extinction, while ‘Mother Earth’ will seek her own ways to regenerate herself from the damage that our species has caused.
G: It is true, human beings, despite being part of this planet, are destroying everything. But they are very feeble, and if they continue behaving in this way, they will end up sealing their own extinction on this planet. Nature itself, at some point, will balance things out again, because its self-regenerative capacity is an essential part of it. We can say that Nature has already given alarming signs, as if saying, “No, that’s not right. Dear humans, do you want pain? I will inflict pain on you if you insist on that”. Accordingly, Mother Nature has been teaching us through pandemics, floods, and other so-called catastrophes, all those negative things that are now happening to us.
A: I think we could almost speak of a specific role or function of forest medicines in the present context. Maybe that’s why they are now spreading all over the world. In this regard, I wish to ask why you have been traveling abroad. Are you working with forest medicines in other countries? If so, why? What is your experience so far?
G: A forest medicine student must become a facilitator, that is, it is his duty to disseminate knowledge about the forest and help people by that process. If you travel, you can reach more people. Obviously, I can’t speak for other indigenous people who travel, I can only speak for myself. In addition to transmitting forest knowledge, my interest in travel is to help people in need. But I know a lot of people working with forest medicines who travel for money. I myself don’t travel for money. Money is welcome and is very well spent (on local projects I am developing in Brazil) and I am very grateful for it, but it is not the main reason why I travel to other countries or even to other states in Brazil. Rather, it is friends and suffering people in general who are the main reason for my travels. My focus is on people.
I could prepare rapé quite comfortably at home and sell it abroad, since my rapé is already well known even outside of Brazil. I could work at ease with my family without making much effort. But at some point, travel calls, because people ask for help. Then, I remember all my friends who live in other places, and if I know that they need me, I feel a strong call to respond to that demand. I also know that many people need forest medicines but haven’t the means or the knowledge to get to the right setting. Because of that, I go to them. My purpose in traveling is to help as many people as possible. We can help some people, not all people. But the desire to be useful and to contribute in some way to the benefit of others is like reestablishing a balance. Of course, it is not easy at all…
A: I realize that it must be very difficult to perform healing work with forest medicines outside your native place, not only because of all the physical and mental exhaustion that this kind of work can cause, but also owing to legal issues abroad, for example in countries where some forest medicines are considered ‘drugs’. Sometimes money is no retribution for that kind of healing work.
G: Of course, when you make a trip like that, you come back exhausted. Usually, before arriving in Rio Branco, I stop in Brasilia, where I stay for three or four days – especially because of the waterfalls in the vicinity of that city: they cleanse me and give me steadiness; they strengthen me. If I don’t do it, I am totally worn out.
A: Do you have any message for those who work with the medicine of rapé?
G: Yes, I would tell them: “Use this medicine with full responsibility. Rapé is a medicine, but if you use it too much, it can become a poison!” Today, we see many people lost to the power of rapé, using it compulsively, like drug addicts, taking it as easily as a compulsive smoker lights a cigarette… These people are doing everything completely wrong. If you use rapé responsibly, for example when you really need to work with it, you are on the right path. If you use it anyhow, if you mechanize your use and it becomes a habit like drinking coffee, lighting a cigarette, or watching television, you are doing it wrong. You need to have responsibility and respect for forest medicines.
A friend of mine asked me once, “Txai, how many times do you think I should use rapé per day?” I replied, “I don’t think anything! What’s this story? Why are you asking me to prescribe the frequency of your daily use of rapé?! You are the one who knows or should know what you need. This is the starting point”. I continued with the following question, “How often do you take pharmaceutical medicines?” He replied, “I take it when I am sick”. I asked, “What is rapé for you?” He said, “It is a medicine”. I added, “If it’s a medicine, then why are you going to take it every day? You should take it when you really need that medicine”. Do you understand what I mean?
Now, let’s imagine that I intend to study this medicine profoundly for a week or two. During that period, I would use a lot of rapé, but I would take it with a very clear objective, a purpose related to something that I really need. When that period is over, I would stop taking that medicine for a while, at least until new purposes arise. Rapé should not be used just for the sake of it…
And one last last remark: Our talk, however instructive it may be for others, can only be a minor basis for awareness. We humans can scratch the surface of the mystery. The deep knowledge ultimately belongs to the forest medicines. It is they who are the real masters
- These other designations of the word rapé (dume deshke, rume, rume poto) belong to the Amazonian linguistic trunk Panu. Huni Kuin (‘the genuine people’), Shanenawa (‘the blue-bird people’) and Yawanawa (‘the people of the wild boar’) are indigenous peoples of the Amazonian Rainforest in Acre (Brazil).
- The term pajé is the Tupi-Guarani (subfamily of the linguistic trunk Tupi in Brazil) equivalent of shaman. During the interview, the word ‘shaman’ also appears and is used interchangeably with pajé.
- Kambô or kampô (a word belonging to the Amazonian Panu linguistic trunk) is a species of frog (phyllomedusa bicolor), whose skin secretions are used in Amazonian folk medicine as a vaccine to protect the organism and to strengthen the immune system as well as to cure illnesses and injuries.
- Ayahuasca is a sacred medicine in Amerindian traditions, a brew made from the stem and bark of the tropical liana (banisteriopsis caapi) and the shrubby flowering plant of the coffee family Rubiaceae (psychotria viridis), also called chacruna.
- In Amerindian traditions, a person may become familiar with the qualities and also with the personality of plants through so-called ‘diets’, that is, a period in which his/her organism is exclusively devoted to the plant. Such diets have not only significant effects on a physiological but also on a psychological and even anthropological level, in the sense that communication with the plant adopts an animistic register (communication with the soul of the plant, spiritual use of the plant for certain purposes, etc.).
- Jagube is another name of the liana that is combined with leaves of chacruna, to make ayahuasca.
- By ”studies”, Gesileu does not mean merely a theoretical study of such medicines, as some ethnologists or ethnobotanists may do, but a study following the shamanic method, in which you become familiar with the plants by taking them and establishing a dialogue with them. This study differs considerably from the individualist experimentation with psychotropic substances typical of the new-age context.