What follows may be controversial. It is important that it is read in the double context of:
ii) The love and respect I have for my Shipibo Maestro and his family as well as the affection I feel for Maestra A. and her family, (who I wrote about here). The strong, bright light they shine, and I know there are others like them, throws the shadow into relief.
The Shipibo are one of the largest and most well-known indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon. It is difficult to know their exact numbers but population estimates generally put them between 35,000 and 38,000 people.
They still live mainly in rural communities along the river Ucayali and its tributaries, up and down river from Pucallpa. Increasingly, in common with indigenous people all over the world, they are emigrating to the cities. Pucallpa (that is to say Yarinacocha, its largely indigenous part) has a substantial Shipibo population and there is now a sizeable Shipibo presence in Lima as people go there to find work.
(For a short Peruvian news program about the Shipibos in the community of Cantagallo in Lima, click here.)
Ayahuasca plays an important part in traditional Shipibo culture. Some would locate La Madre Ayahuasca at the heart of the culture. People coming to drink ayahausca in Peru and wanting to work with indigenous shamans are most likely to work with Shipibos.
Additionally, as shown in the photo, their intricate designs and artwork have become part of the burgeoning global ayahuasca culture.
Many foreigners coming to Peru and working with the Shipibo for the first time tend to idealize them – assuming they have a good experience, which unfortunately is happening less.
I recently came across the following introductory passage about the Shipibo posted on a Facebook site called Ayahuasca the Teacher Plant.
“The Shipibos are a very mysterious and fascinating people. Even in the turmoil of the 21st century, many of them keep a strong attachment to their culture and their philosophy of life, cultivating their traditions with attention and care. Proud, diffident, smiling, welcoming, strong, extremely sensitive, friendly and centred.”
This is indeed part of the story. At the risk of being politically incorrect, but in order to promote a more complex picture of the Shipibo – and in this way, I think, to actually do them more justice – they can also be prone to envy and back-stabbing. On the theme of envy, much of the witchcraft practiced is explained in terms of envidia – ‘envy’. Interestingly, Melanie Klein, the influential child psychoanalyst, also understood human behavior in two broad terms , which became the title of her major book – ‘Envy and Gratitude’.
Additionally, in my experience, most Shipbo are accomplished liars – for example, overpricing work materials so they can pocket the difference, saying it is their birthday when it is not to obtain gifts, lying to their community that they are not receiving money for work carried out when they are, saying they need money to buy medicines for a sick relative…….. etc, etc. They have become adept at getting what they want out of – on many occasions that means cheating – non-indigenous organizations such as NGO’s (non-profits). In short, they have human vices, which take particular, distinctive forms in their culture as they do in all human societies.
I have written before about some of the challenges of working with the Shipibo, which are common to many tribal people all over the world. In this earlier post, I focused on the clash between Western project planning methods and indigenous cultural reality. I want to extend this analysis here.
Firstly, it has to be recognized that the encounter between any non-indigenous person and the Shipibo occurs in a historical and cultural context marked by over 500 years of brutal colonization of the Shipibo and other indigenous Amazonian peoples – first by the Spanish, followed by continuing exploitation and discrimination by the mestizo and European population of Peru, and now by transnational companies. (For a beautifully written and meticulously researched account of the history of colonization in the Americas see Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy ‘Memory of Fire’ which I wrote about previously).
A Peruvian friend who grew up with indigenous people once said to me: “Indigenous people just don’t like white people”. (And with reason.) It seems highly naive to me, and a convenient denial of political history and cultural reality, to take the attitude of a young American I met who said: “Well I have not personally exploited any indigenous person so I don’t feel to blame for this. I just want to be friends.”
In this context of savage colonization and vicious exploitation, the Shipibo have learned to survive. Like many colonized people, as documented by Fritz Fanon, they have become skilled at identifying and displaying to the colonizer the face the colonizer wants to see, whilst showing one another a very different face. This often leads Westerners who get beyond the initial honeymoon period and over-romanticization of Shipibos to describe them as “two-faced”.
(There is an excellent video by Jerónimo M. Muñoz, a Spanish film-maker, describing exactly this process of Westerners first falling in love with and then becoming disillusioned with the Shipibo.)
In Western culture, this idealized and over-sentimentalized notion of indigenous people expressed in the concept of the ‘noble savage’ has a long history going back to its first mention in 1672 in a play by John Dryden and often attributed to the French political philosopher Rousseau.
Largely due to their strategic location on the riverbanks, the Shipibo have always been known for their capacity to trade and engage with the dominant powers in the region, going back at least some say to the Incas, and, importantly, to not let themselves be fully subjugated in the process.
They are a resourceful people. There are stories that in the times of the rubber boom between 1897 and 1912, when the most appalling slavery was inflicted on indigenous people, the Shipibo protected themselves by hunting and rounding up other tribes and leaving them in cages on the riversides for the rubber barons so that, in return, they would be left alone.
Non-Profits and the Shipibo
It has been interesting, frustrating and often amusing (the sanest response) for me to see over time, (and I’m still learning), how many Shipibo deal with non-profit organizations wanting to implement international development projects. For the Shipibo, ‘projects’ have come to mean money in their pockets. In the past, even sixty years ago, money was not strictly necessary – nature provided everything in abundance.
However, as the Shipibo emigrate to the city and want better educational opportunities for their children and consumer goods, and therefore need money, they increasingly enter the global money market economy.
A friend, who has directed a non-profit working in this area for many years, said to me: “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been ripped off by the Shipibo”. They have become extremely good at this. It is common knowledge, for example, that some Shipibos take money from campaigning non-profits to fight against the arrival of oil companies in their territories whilst at the same time taking money from the same oil companies to open the doors to them.
The experience of being cheated is one reason that some non-profits quickly stop working with the Shipibos – thus further fueling the vicious circle where the Shipibo think that the non-profits will only be here for a short while so its best to take maximum advantage of them whilst they are here, which means that the non-profits feel abused and decide to leave, which proves to the Shipibos that the non-profits are only present for the short-term and should be exploited even more, which means……. etc. etc.
It is, of course, possible to work with the Shipibo. But it requires a long term commitment which can be difficult when funding bodies want to see short-term results.
Money and the Shipibo
The Shipibo have a different attitude to money. Two people, including the Director of the non-profit quoted earlier, who have had long term involvement with the Shipibo, have made the same comment to me in relation to taking money for themselves that: “I don’t think for them they see it as stealing”.
I think this is for a number of reasons. It’s partly because the attitude that foreign and National Peruvian aid organizations are there for the taking has become embedded in Shipibo culture – we are fair game. Now that the traditional hunting of fish and animals, which provided a key and nutritious food intake in the past, has almost been destroyed by deforestation, contamination and large-scale extractive industries perpetuated by non-indigenous people, why not hunt money with the same cunning and skill that is needed to fish and hunt animals?
It’s partly resulting from a view promoted by the second Alan Garcia government of 2006-2011 that people from non-profits are using indigenous people to get money to line their own pockets. This further fuels the Shipibos’ feeling that they are owed something and justifies using those same non-profits for personal and immediate family rather than community benefit.
It’s partly too because Shipibos think differently about money. In fact, they think differently about many things and in different ways. In an excellent article called ‘Archaic Man’ written in 1931, C.G. Jung investigates the differences between Western and indigenous (what he, reflecting the prejudices of the time, calls ‘archaic’) ways of thinking.
His basic point is that both Western and indigenous systems of thought have their own logic. They start with different assumptions. What Western thought typically attributes to chance or natural and perceptible cause (as exemplified in theories of illness, for example), indigenous thought attributes to the actions of spirits and the invisible world (bad spirits causing illness).
The assumed superiority of the Western worldview is deeply engrained in the Western psyche, although La Madre Ayahuasca is working flat out to overturn this and show us the reality of the invisible world, which has long been known to indigenous peoples.
A significant reason that Westerners feel attracted to the Shipibo is that they live in the ‘now’. They don’t need Eckhart Toll exhorting them to do this. Relating this to the theme of money, it means they spend it when they have it.
They tend not to save, which is a future-oriented perspective, with the result that they are always in need of money because it is immediately spent – especially because many Shipibo have, feel strongly connected to, and support large extended families in which there will always be need for money.
Two important caveats.
i) I am writing mainly about the Shipibo who have sustained contact with Westerners. Clearly, within this group, there are important individual exceptions. I would suggest the hypothesis, (which would be challenging to test!), that the more contact individual Shipibos have had with white society, the more likely they are to be corrupted.
This indicates how profoundly toxic Western materialist culture is on every level for indigenous peoples: physically destroying their natural environment via large-scale, extractive industries; ruining their health through the aggressive marketing of Western fast food; mentally conditioning people to Western modes of thinking; emotionally creating a sense of inferiority; and spiritually undermining and denigrating their traditional cosmovision.
(As a relevant aside, I met someone recently who had not been back to Pucallpa since she first drank ayahausca thirteen years ago in Yarina. She was distressed at how much the overall vibe in Yarina had changed for the worse. Now, in relation to ayahuasca, it is much more commercial and predatory.)
ii) I’m talking primarily about Shipibo men who occupy nearly all positions of leadership and authority in the communities and indigenous political organizations – although, thankfully, this is now changing – and who are the people that tend to deal with non-profits.
Mind you, the same could be said of many places in the world.