Category Archives: Healing


The landscape in my head has colonists in it, looking out over the rolling hills with a productivist grasping that turns every tree into timber and every meadow into pasture, every field into rows of farmland, as far as the eye can see. The colonists in my mind see bodies and can understand only labor, see minds quick and alive and can find no expression of wonder but to enslave to their own gain.

They arrived without my consent and settled in my thoughts, through my eyes, in my blood and genes. There is a vicious rationalism and Puritanism that scratches at my thoughts, the willful demand that the world stop moving, that everything be held still, orderly, ready to be put to my own device, utterly dominated. They landed on the shores of Turtle Island and I came in tow, history dragging my bones across the sea, to murder the inhabitants of this incredible place, their blood in the earth mingling with that in my veins before I was even born. And discontent with the fecund earth my forebears chained the bodies and minds and lives of Africa to the terraforming of this continent in their own image, that of a distant God and a supremacy of Whiteness, until the blood and sweat and suffering and countless enslaved lives became the very productivity of the soil, the land itself, seen as the natural right of Whiteness to receive the generative capacity of the enslaved bodies and enslaved land in kind. The eyes and minds of dark-skinned bodies still alert and bright and looking at me today, right now in this moment, in faces that need only for me and mine to step the fuck aside, and let them live. Needing not my leadership or my brilliance but the silence of my certainty, the stilling of my constant trained domination, lending where asked and when requested my support and as much my absence.

But my own mind is colonized, too. The valuation of rationalism and scientism, the quiet calm of authority that I know I can retreat to if need be, the intellectualization that keeps me both distant from and infatuated with the majik of the immediacy of the real and lived world.

I have always been fascinated by majik. And I can see that in many ways it was not other than an alienated longing for communion with the living, dynamic, awake-and-wild world. But I only knew how to view it as something other than myself, distant, something unapproachable, that required some intermediary of the “other”, whether cultural or historical or religious. I will suggest that it is this divorcing from the immediacy of our living, breathing, moment-to-moment lives – the majik that I mean no metaphor by – that has characterized the intellectual-cum-historical alienation and terror that has driven the need for domination and control by me and mine in heteropatriarchal Whiteness. This is not a disconnected account from a Marxist historical-materialism, because I believe they are movements into history of the same disconnect.

I have been watching a series on the Daoist and shamanic origins of Chinese Medicine – my first graduate degree is in anthropology of shamanism, and I am an acupuncturist by training and current profession, and understanding these roots help me better understand my own medicine. But what has struck me over and over is how resonant much of the way these practices are with shamanic systems worldwide, with how near-fit they are, from tracing of sigils in the air to using whistling and songs to the manner of divination, from using an egg to trap evil energy and remove it from a patient to the misting a patient with blessed herbal water from the mouth of the healer – they show up everywhere, in so many different parts of the world that I cannot help but say to myself “Look! Again!”

And I have seen these work and I have recognized their profound possibilities. But then comes a mind of doubt, a resistance and a hesitation, a stepping back to a critical stance that I have celebrated as a kind of anchoring, a reasonableness that I have been taught and enculturated to believe shows a maturity, a stance of analysis that I have been led to believe is necessary to… and here the teachers fall silent and shamefaced. Necessary to what? The only answer is “to not be like them”, to retain the critical distance and cultural power afforded us by the Whiteness of our thinking. To generate theories and conceptual structures that will serve to both isolate us from “these others”, from their lives, and to shore up our own cultural-power derived from the accolades of our fellows at our intellectualization.

Because it is here we fall apart and fail. Our structures of ideas cannot help but be organized by our more fundamental and necessary Belief that we are separate from the world, from Life, from the way we perform, practice, and act. That there are discernible Truths somewhere “out there” that stand still and certain. We are infatuated with our processes, our Scientism not other than Colonialism given new clothes, bleached clean of its long histories of racism and complicity with violence and oppression. Our colonialism still that authority we grant ourselves to draw the lines that include or exclude forms of knowing, the gatekeeper of what is possible and what is not, and what we will allow within certain coded boundaries for real and unreal. Just because a materialism and scientism has become our Belief does not reduce the Protestant and Puritanical infatuation with adhering to “Belief” that so fully orders our lives and experience. By giving such primacy to what we “believe” to be possible and real, we have allowed the Protestant and Puritan character of an always-evolving colonialism to mark the whole of our intellectual history, a needless neuroses forever circling the security of Belief, where our only ability to engage with a living experience is to decide that we do believe, do not believe, or conditionally set aside our belief structures for a time, waiting to take back up our critical stance again at the end. Even the value of any laudable empiricism has been set back centuries now by a fixation on forcing experience to fit belief, rather than allowing that ontology itself is fluid, and that the rules that seem to shape aspects of experience are emergent from particular forms of organization and activity far more than they are absolute rules that transcend the historical and lived. It is the purity of our souls in the Protestant sense, that our salvation is by the unyielding faith in our beliefs and our incorruptibility in the face of other experience, that still structures our participation with those aspects and elements of the dynamics of life that do not fit neatly into categories of right or wrong, of true or false. Scientific replicability may have replaced God, but our hearts are still Puritans looking for salvation.

But there is nothing of belief in magik. To paraphrase a Zen saying, the Great Way has nothing to do with knowing or not knowing. And majik has nothing to do with anything separate from right here, right now, in the dynamic and extraordinary unfolding of our immediate and lived lives. Trace a sigil and whisper a spell, walk in the forest, or make a phone call to a friend, drive to the store and get groceries – everything immediately alive. Never a moment that was not humming filled to overflowing with majik and possibility.

We thought that finding the right beliefs was a prelude to living fully, completely, to finally being aligned with the “right” way of being in the world. We thought that our epistemologies were our ethics, we thought that our existential doubts were the crux of what made us special, even human. And when we Whites found other ways of being in the world, other folx living in radically different ways, with questions of their own developed from histories and embodiments marked by different ecologies and organizational styles and strategies, we could not even recognize their “humanity”, because our “humanity” had become so entangled with the quivering doubt and fear that a no longer immanent God had left us, wondering where our hearts and souls and spirits had gone. We demanded Faith to cover this chasm of doubt and separation that has left such a rent-open-hole in the hearts of Whiteness when God was nowhere to be found. When the crying out of doubt and despair was not echoed by others on these new shores, the despair that characterized our very experience of ourselves – that demanded Faith to if only for some moments salve the wound – was the only way we could recognize “humanity” at all, and in the absence of that despair-as-Faith we saw no brothers, no sisters, but only creatures without souls.

And so we set about enslaving bodies and etching our own despair into their flesh and living spirits, simultaneously using their bodies to carve up this living, breathing earth, which were carved with whips and chains in kind. The economies were about power, and the policies were designed to arrange power – it is not a material analysis that I am avoiding, done better and more fully by many others, but rather to ask the question about the why’s of power, of what is the broken thing, the diseased need at the core of domination, colonialism, imperialism. I cannot ask it fully or completely, and I cannot answer the history. But what I can point to is where the answer echoes for me where I was raised, with what I was taught, and how the world looked to me, how it was structured for me, and the deeply broken places in me that would have justified almost anything to escape.

What then does decolonization look like? Because this is my own responsibility now. There is no one else to do it, no one else’s labor I can take hold of and turn to my own device. My history as a slaveholder can and will never have another life to claim, and the mind of the slaveholder must die in kind, slain by the hand of those who have suffered and never relented, the unstoppable force of the Black bodies and lives who shake free the chains of my own fear, cowardice, and weakness. My history as a patriarch, who can demand labor of the women if no one else, is likewise spent, exhausted and failing from its own corrupt premises, broken asunder by the brilliant resistance and expressions of unflagging life of the minds and bodies of womyn who would not allow such a tiny cage to hold them. And so while I must listen, to allow the dynamic life of this decolonization to flow over and through me, to listen to voices that the colonist in my head has always failed to hear, my own decolonization is not their responsibility and does not belong to them to do for me.

I live on Turtle Island. My blood flows with its rivers and its streams, my breath is that of the wind in its trees, my bones that of the stones that are likewise its own. If I am ever to decolonize, it must first be by stopping the imperialist project in my own heart, it must be by dismantling the deep belief that, if I go elsewhere, find another land or another people, my freedom will be given to me by labor they have already done, or can be made to do. I cannot but live on Turtle Island, and I cannot but survive from the earth that is stained with the blood and sweat of those that me and my kind have enslaved, tortured, and murdered outright by the millions. I am a settler and I cannot escape that. I am a colonist and I cannot escape that. This is my home, too, now. There is nowhere else for me to go. And so the question is how do I come home, to this place, to this land, with this history.

But to do so, I have to wake up. I have to see THIS WORLD as it is. And so I have to expressly and without reservation finally simply say, with no caveats and no dissembling or intellectualization. I have seen the spirits. I have heard the stones, I have listened to the trees, I have sung my own deep song down into the ground and had it vibrate back from the earth into my body. I have witnessed the dynamic life that flows moment to moment in us, as us, through us, beyond words and beyond time or space, but never separate from and always completely filling up and emptying out, overflowing and unmaking, each space, each moment. It shames my face to give it any name, to speak a word to describe, and yet I must acknowledge it somehow. The world breathes in and out with me, as me. I have never taken a single breath. Lungs full and heart beating. I am the dirt moving. This is majik, this is LIFE itself, full and complete. Nothing else to find, nothing else to hope for. If you say GOD I will point back to this and ask where, and if you say NO GOD, I will point back to this and ask where. You want the mystical, I will trace a sigil in the air and I will place my hands on your body and I will pray with strange words. To whom? Does it matter? You want the material and practical and we will strike stones together for a spark, and we will together be Prometheus.

This is the beginning of my decolonization. To wake up. To see there was never any great chasm, no abyss, no heart separate from the whole world to be torn asunder by doubt and despair. That I am the dirt, moving. Nothing else to be. No great ideal to manifest, no world to conquer, no Divine Plan to implement, no great vision to make real, no final word from any voice to say “This is the direction forward, and all else must stand aside” – for therein lies the root of all fascism. Life is already alive, manifesting, unfolding, becoming. I could never stop it, control it, or direct it. It was not mine to control. The colonialist in my thinking demands that it be chained and harnessed, that it be turned to productivist ends, that one day it might tell a grand story of my triumphs, that history might justify me. And the raw force of Life dismantles, dashes asunder, the absurdity of any such claim, not even noticing it, not even turning its head to ignore it, as it vanishes in a gust of wind, snatching a half-heard bit of nonsense from a mumbling dreamer’s lips.



Bodies and Healing in Ayahuasca Ritual Spaces

Two in pretty quick succession! The Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos (NEIP) has just published a paper of mine. It’s an article drawn from my thesis work – it’s probably the chapter I’m most proud of, work I’m still excited about. Though I’m studying acupuncture and herbalism at the moment, I’m still very interested in ayahuasca research, and so I’m really excited to have this paper published.

La Medicina: Ritual and Healing with Ayahuasca

Religion, Medicine, and Healing: An Anthology is a new collection of academic articles put together by my friend and mentor Robin Wright. I had the opportunity to contribute an article to the collection, and I’m excited to say that it has now come out! It’s an ebook in the vitalsource ecosystem, so I can’t post a direct link to the article, but check out the cover. Very cool! There’s also a pretty cool flyer. Oh, and “La Medicina: Ritual and Healing with Ayahuasca” is the title of my article, so it’s also the title of this post.


Ritual Healing and the Aftermath of Dystopia

Utopia, Dystopia, and History

In analyzing ritual healing practices of the Amazonian rainforest and riverine cultural groups residing in southern Colombia, eastern Ecuador, and on into parts of lowland Peru, I follow Taussig in noting that illness and suffering tend to be understood, in the eyes of the ‘patients’ themselves, in terms that are “economic, political, and social, as well as those of bodily disease” (1980:219). If the body is disciplined, constrained, constituted, and produced by a variety of forces – ecological, political-economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual among others – then the body is, in a sense, the actual site of history, manifest. That is to say that these historically constitutive forces that act on bodies must be understood to act on, to the point of identity with, the biophysical body, the social body, and the body politic at one in the same moment (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:29), making the ‘all-at-once’ of the body central to any understanding of ritual healing.[1] In order to understand the suffering that such ritual healing practices must engage with, then, it is necessary to understand the geographical-historical place these bodies inhabit. I am interested in looking at the Amazonian rubber economy of roughly 1880 through 1914, and the effects this period has left buried, perhaps in shallow graves, in the ground of contemporary Amazonia. By associating the concept of dystopia with the ‘end of history’, and this in turn with what Taussig has described as a “culture of terror” and a “space of death” (1987:3-36), it is my intention to follow a trail through the legacy of the rubber economy in this region on through its intersection with historical sorcery and multi-generational trauma, to the question of how to heal historical violence, and where ritual healing intersects with the bondage of debt.

Harvey designates ‘spatial’ and ‘process’ utopias as two distinct forms in which utopian aspirations can be organized (2000:159-179). In an analysis of ‘spatial’ utopias, he points out the way in which certain, classic, models of utopia are arranged in order to isolate them from the pressures of historical change. He suggests that ‘process’ utopias, by contrast, do not attempt to isolate a given spatial organization from historical change, but rather project onto the historical process itself a teleology that is predictive of some final utopian moment that will ‘end’ history. While this second ‘process’ utopia is more apropos of neoliberal capitalism, and likely the nascent capitalism of the rubber epoch in Amazonia, it is the first form of utopia that I am interested in for the purposes of this paper. It is the sense in which history ‘stops’ for a given spatial organization that I find most telling for the way in which the rubber economy became a dystopia for indigenous lives of the era. Utopia, in this sense, is something outside of history, becoming operative under its own internal harmonies, and unreliant on external influences to retain its state or position, effectively isolating it from history. Dystopia then can be understood as the opposite extreme, as something overdetermined by historical forces, where no novel action can arise, and cut off from the liberties of potential change. Here utopia is never subject to change, while dystopia is incapable of it. This inescapability provides an effective analytic lens through which to view the terror of the rubber boom in Amazonia.

Dystopia, the End of History, and the Space of Death

The imperialist justifications for the colonization and enslavement of indigenous persons in much of the Amazon tended to be based, when not denying their humanity outright, on a sense of indigenous people as those ‘without history’. Problematically, many of these assumptions have been carried forward even as late as Steward’s 1946 tome the Handbook of South American Indians (Fausto and Heckenberger 2007:2). This colonialist, and often bluntly racist, conception has been sharply rebuked by contemporary research. By highlighting instead the “regional scale and supra-ethnic character of Amerindian social organization” (Whitehead 1994:34), it is possible to look more carefully at the continuous processes of change that have gone on for indigenous groups before, during, with, and in spite of European contact (Whitehead 1994; Fausto and Heckenberger 2007; Zarzar and Román 1983). This has proved to be an especially potent tool for historical analysis in terms of ethnogenesis, marking it as a process of creative adaptation in the face of violent repression and exclusion, albeit one which is never unilinear or internally uncontested (Hill 1996). By recognizing the multiple modes of indigenous socio-political organization, all naturalized notions of ‘ethnicity’ become suspect, as ethnicity in emic categories – both prior to and throughout much of the colonial period – was as much related to economic production and trade networks as it was to linguistic or kinship commonalities (Whitehead 1994; A. Taylor 1999).[2] Indeed, it was the effects of violence, disease, slavery, and missionization that led to the fragmentation and “breakdown of macrosystems and regional networks” that had played such a pronounced role in indigenous identity formation prior to contact (A. Taylor 1999:208), ultimately producing the smaller, less complex, and more localized socio-political forms suggested as a-historically ‘typical’ by Steward and Métraux (1946).

Bartolomé de las Casas  decried the “brutal massacres”, “frightful and disgraceful crimes”, and “terrible butchery” during the early colonial period of Spanish invasion (in Peterson and Vásquez 2008:70-72), and the rubber economy in Amazonia unsettlingly echoed the worst abuses of this period. In the region of the Amazon outlined here, indigenous populations declined, between roughly 1550 to 1780, by eighty percent (A. Taylor 1999:238). The literature detailing this history is a tangle of violence, slavery, and disease, shot through with the rhetoric of saving souls (San Román 1975:85-87; Kohn 1992:51; Whitten 1976:10, 207-208; Myers 1974:139-147). The mission pueblos, in part because they acted as focal points for the spread of disease, became associated for indigenous peoples with the image of death (San Román 1975:87). The effects of disease, however, should not be mistaken for those of simple biological pathology – as Whitten clearly notes, “in these centuries the Spanish crown’s insatiable mercantile thirst for gold articulated well with the church’s insatiable desire for bureaucratic expansion” (1976:207), suggesting that calculated intentions drove the cataclysmic effects on bodies and territories of indigenous peoples as much as any happenstance of disease vector.

While rubber may have been the commodity, the object of control in Amazonia during the rubber boom was labor – or perhaps more clearly put, the organization and compulsion of indigenous bodies (Whitten 1976:211). The influx of capital from foreign investment created a situation in which the demand for rubber was extraordinary, but due to both socio-cultural norms and simple geographic logistics, the rationalization of rubber production was not feasible in the Amazon (Weinstein 1983:3, 263-264). Because wages on the ‘free’ labor market were high given the remoteness of much of the territory, the solution was often to simply coerce the required labor from indigenous populations (Taussig 1987:53). After 1892 when the Jesuits were expelled from Ecuador, “more than half of the Quichua men living near Loreto were chained and taken to work the ‘rubber lanes’ on the lower rivers in Peru and Colombia” (Hudelson 1984:68).[3] It is Weinstein’s thesis that these colonialist, classist, and racist attitudes represented and enforced during the terror of the rubber boom were behind the failure of this economic explosion to “give rise to a basic transformation of Amazonian society” (1983:267) in terms of economic development and socio-political arrangements. Moreover, it was international demand for rubber that “opened the floodgate for atrocities in Amazonia”, those which were to be “hauntingly reminiscent of those described by Bartolomé de las Casas” (Lane 2003:78). It is not difficult to find descriptions of the terror that reigned in many areas of the Amazon during the rubber economy (Stanfield 1998; Taussig 1987:3-138), but what is striking is the degree to which such violence seems related to the all-pervading system of debt (A. Taylor 2007:143; Stanfield 1998:37-60; Taussig 1987:53-71).

It is the relationship between a system of debt and the performance of such extraordinary violence as plagued the rubber-boom-era Amazon that orients an invocation of dystopia as an analytic tool. If inescapability of structurally compelling historical forces is a worthy view on dystopia, then the pervasive bondage of debt in terms of peonage and forced labor provide a convincing image of the rubber economy as dystopian. The utter absence of a cash economy or an internal labor market meant that “wage labor was impossible”, making the only source of labor available the compulsion of indigenous persons into service (Stanfield 1998:40). However, as outright slavery had by the nineteenth century dropped from favor in liberal-minded European societies, it became necessary to establish a polite fiction over the institution by invoking the ‘moral’ need to repay debt (Taussig 1987:65-70; Stanfield 1998:39-62). In this manner indigenous persons, as well as unfortunate others, could find themselves pressed on threat of violence to accept wildly overvalued goods, as well as unwanted and unneeded lines of credit with company stores, as ‘advances’ in exchange for their labor. Roger Casement, known for his clear descriptions of both British violence in the Congo and later in rubber era Amazonia, described this situation as making a “compulsory debtor” out of a person so forced, though he would go on to affirm that such a debt was “pretext altogether”, for it was threats and enactments of violence that were the real “hold on the Indian in the Putumayo” (in Taussig 1987:70-71). Both Casement and a contemporary, if more melodramatic, voice in Hardenburg noted “the lurid details of flogging, mass slaughter, decapitation, rape, dismemberment, and pleasure-killing” performed routinely in the Amazon of the rubber boom, and in the Putumayo in particular (Stanfield 1998:133). It is virtually impossible not to note the mad logic of the marketplace, the commoditization of lives and labor, where patróns sold human beings back and forth “like chattel” (Stanfield 1998:47-48), via the accounts of their debt. Indeed, Taussig suggests that, in the Amazon during the rubber boom, in answer to the question of what makes a human, human, “the answer lying closest to hand is his debt” (Taussig 1987:70). This throws into unsettling relief the distinction between debt-peonage and slavery. Though neither promised any greater security of rights or property, the debtor could be simultaneously a fetishized ‘object’ in terms of his[4] debt, though still recognized as a social ‘person’ in this sense. The slave, on the other hand, per Patterson’s notion (1982) and as echoed in Graeber’s recent work on debt (2011), had undergone ‘social death’ by being uprooted from any community or social network which would have conferred upon them a form of personhood. Within a space of terror such as the Putumayo, the very production of personhood via social relationships – throughout the entire aviamiento system of patróns, international business partners, rubber tappers, and Indian labor – was transformed by, and perhaps only understandable in terms of, inescapable bonds of debt. It was perhaps this inescapability as much as anything else that lead to a kind of madness of violence, for as Taussig suggests, it was the fiction of the “appearance of trade” in which the debtor is a free person able to exchange himself, and somehow his family for generations at a time, on the market as labor, and hence as a debt, on which the whole fiction of the system depends (1987:65). What shows the system mad is that despite the efforts to maintain such a fiction, the rubber traders “were just as ready to claim the flesh of a debtor’s body” as any amount of rubber (Taussig 1987:65).

“Ineffability is a striking feature of this death-space” (Taussig 1987:4), a space where the arbitrary exercise of brutal force and lethal power – the ability to hold children as young as nine years old as concubines, to torture or murder a man for no fault, but rather as entertainment (Stanfield 1998:128) – suggests that the performance of terror ceased to be, if it ever had been, in service of an attempt to rationalize production of rubber, but rather toward “the inscription of a mythology in the Indian body”, in this case the mythology of a colonial ‘civilization’ onto a fantasy of ‘wildness’ (Taussig 1987:27). What stands out from both Taussig and Stanfield’s accounts of the Putumayo, is the uncertainty, the ambiguity and amorphousness of the spatiotemporal place of the Putumayo in the rubber boom era. As Taussig compellingly suggests, this uncertainty is itself the groundless-ground of a culture of terror (1987:4). As lethal as any particular event of violence was the promise, miasmatic, of the same waiting senselessly at the end of an arbitrary and even anonymous gun barrel or machete blade. How many had died, and what was fabrication, what was sensationalistic – and was, as Taussig asks, the sensationalism perhaps nevertheless part of the real of the space (1987:32-33)? Casement estimated that for the production of 4,000 tons of rubber over the period of 12 years, no less – and likely many more – than 30,000 indigenous lives had been taken, through explicit violence or the toll of disease and starvation (Taussig 1987:20). In such a space, reasoned estimates echo in shock as if they must be hyperbolic.

Healing and History, Ritual and Debt

History, for many indigenous people of this region, is understood to be of and in the earth itself. Uzendoski states that for the Napo Runa, “there is no reality that is not part of place”, and that the past is something, like plant growth, that blossoms into the present, which, fading, becomes again the ground of the future, which finally is the same allpa as the past (2012:15). The production of subjectivities are often expressed in these terms, as a socio-ecological and cosmo-political network of relationship between humans, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, ancestors, and powerful beings that cross boundaries between forest and urban spaces, as well as contemporary history and the primordial past (Kohn 2007:106-125; Uzendoski 2005:201).[5] Bodies and personhoods are developed in relation to the earth, and the history it holds. This intersects with Taussig’s notion of ‘historical sorcery’ – he suggests an image of sorcery as an “evil wind”, wherein the “history of the conquest itself acquires the role of the sorcerer” (1987:373). In this conception, the historical space of colonial violence itself becomes a “temporal hell located in a fermenting, rotting, organic underground of time” (1987:372). Sorcery in this temporal sense reminds of the notions of historical and multigenerational trauma noted by Good (2008:5), where structural violence not only occurs in the past, but echoes in experiences of suffering through generations. History, as it produces persons and bodies in kind, also produces this suffering, via the selfsame forces.[6]

The question becomes how to heal historical violence. The political agency so powerfully displayed by indigenous persons throughout this region, both historically and in contemporary political practice, give answer on one level to the work that must be done to right structurally repressive forces.[7] But if there is a relationship between inescapable debt and the production of violence, then contemporary indigenous lives are still under threat. Neoliberal structural reform advocated, or demanded, by the IMF, World Bank, and other international financial bodies leads to national, regional, local, familial, and individual debt in unprecedented ways (Cleary and Steigenga 2004:14; Lane 2003:96; Warren and Jackson 2002:15; Whitten 2003:11-19). All exploitation and structural violence must be actively produced and performed in contemporary situations by contemporary actors for them to have compelling force, but there is nevertheless the troubling sense that colonial history and the repressions of the rubber economy find themselves being replayed in novel but nevertheless familiar ways. Whitten notes that Steve Forbes likened Ecuador’s turning to the IMF for aid as a hemophiliac turning to Dracula for safety, and suggests that this analogy runs startlingly close to indigenous ideas of the “pishtaco or ñakak… the foreign, white bogey man who renders and sells ‘indian fat’ and sucks the blood of indigenous people” (2003:3). The threat is to the body, as physical as it is economic. And if the site of suffering is the body – material, social, and politic – then the question I am interested in asking is just where it is that ritual healing intersects with the alleviation of both historical suffering and the multiple crises of debt. It is my contention that the very corporeal mortality of the body is an effective denial of any ‘end of history’, whether a utopian isolation, or a dystopian inescapability. Mortal things cannot evade history, and this reverberates through institutions wrought by the same. The capacity to heal and be healed suggests there are always, in a sense, spaces left for historical ‘play’, openings to novelty both in terms of crisis and transformation. Whitten affirms that “shamanism provides a focal point for confronting and containing the real forces which dismember” the lifeways of the Napo Runa (2007[1979]), which suggests that an understanding of ritual engagement with the problem of national, regional, local, and individual debt is central to a full understanding of its elaboration as suffering in indigenous lives. Uzendoski notes, “the logic of debt-peonage… continues to exist culturally in Napo even after the actual institution does not” (2003:135). There are numerous studies of ritual healing in this region,[8] and likewise a significant number of analyses of both political-economic structural suffering and discourses of sorcery in terms of envy and violence.[9] What I am interested in opening is a direction for inquiry oriented toward where sorcery, history, and global networks of debt intersect in embodied lives of indigenous Amazonians of this region, and how these forces – as cosmological, in a sense, as they are economic – are engaged with in a space of ritual healing.


I very much want to thank Robin Wright for his constant mentorship, without which I would not have been able even to begin this line of research. I want to thank Whitney Sanford for giving me the opportunity to explore “utopias and dystopias” as an analytic lens through which to view this particular period of history, and for acquainting me with Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. I want also to thank the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida for their support over the last two years, giving me the opportunity to pursue this course of study.


Beyer, Stephan V.

2009 Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Brysk, Alison.

2004 From Civil Society to Collective Action: The Politics of Religion in Ecuador. In Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change. Edward L. Cleary and Timothy J. Steigenga, eds. Pp. 25-42. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Cárdenas, Timoteo C.

1989 Los Unaya y Su Mundo: Aproximación al Sistema Médico de Los Shipibo-Conibo del Río Ucayali. Lima, Peru: Instituto Indigenista Peruano.

Cleary, Edward L. and Timothy J. Steigenga.

2004 Resurgent Voices: Indians, Politics, and Religion in Latin America. In Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change. Edward L. Cleary and Timothy J. Steigenga, eds. Pp. 1-24. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Csordas, Thomas.

1988 Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology. Ethos 18:5-47.

Das, Veena.

2000 Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Das, Veena with Arthur Kleinman, Margarate Lock, and Pamela Reynolds.

2001 Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dobkin, de Rios, Marlene.

1972 Visionary Vine: Psychedelic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon. San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co.

Fausto, Carlos and Michael Heckenberger.

2007 Indigenous History and the History of the ‘Indians’. In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives. Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, eds. Pp. 1-43. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Good, Mary-Jo D. V.

1992 Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Good, Mary-Jo D. V. with Sandra Teresa Hyde, Sarah Pinto, and Byron J. Good.

2008 Postcolonial Disorders. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Graeber, David.

2011 Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Harner, Michael J.

1972 The Jívaro, People of the Sacred Waterfalls.  New York: Doubleday/Natural History Press.

Harvey, David.

2000 Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Heckenberger, Michael.

2004 The Wars Within: Xinguano Witchcraft and Balance of Power. In In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright, eds. Pp. 179-201. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hill, Jonathan D.

1996 History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Hudelson, John.

1984 The Lowland Quichua as ‘Tribe’. In Political Anthropology of Ecuador: Perspectives from Indigenous Cultures. Jeffrey Ehrenreich, ed. Pp. 59-79. Albany: Society for Latin American Anthropology.

Kleinman, Arthur.

1992 Pain and Resistance: The Delegitimation and Relegitimation of Local Worlds. In Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio, Paul E. Brodwin and Byron J. Good, eds. Pp. 169-197. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1995 Writing at the Margin: Discourse between Anthropology and Medicine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur, Paul E. Brodwin, Byron J. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good.

1992 Pain as Human Experience: An Introduction. In Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio, Paul E. Brodwin and Byron J. Good, eds Pp. 1-28. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das, and Margaret M. Lock.

1997 Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kohn, Eduardo O.

1992 La Cultura Médica de los Runas de la Región Amazónica. Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala.

2007 Animal Masters and the Ecological Embedding of History among the Ávila Runa of Ecuador. In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives. Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, eds. Pp. 106-129. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Lane, Kris.

2003 Haunting the Present: Five Colonial Legacies for the New Millennium. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 75-101. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Luna, Luis Eduardo.

1986 Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Myers, Thomas P.

1974 Spanish Contacts and Social Change on the Ucayali River, Peru. Ethnohistory 21(2):135-157.

1981 Aboriginal Trade Networks in Amazonia. In Networks of the Past: Regional Interaction in Archaeology. Peter D. Francis, F.J. Kense, and P.G. Duke, eds. Pp. 19-30. Calgary: University of Calgary.

Patterson, Orlando.

1982 Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Peterson, Anna Lisa, and Manuel A. Vásquez.

2008 Latin American Religions: Histories and Documents in Context. New York: New York University Press.

Rubenstein, Steven.

2002 Alejandro Tsakimp: A Shuar Healer in the Margins of History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

San Román, Jesús Victor.

1975 Perfiles Históricos de la Amazonía Peruana. Lima: Ediciones Paulinas.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Margaret M. Lock.

1987 The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1(1):6-41.

Stanfield, Michael E.

1998 Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850-1933. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Steward, Julian H.

1963 Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Stewart, Pamela J, and Andrew Strathern.

2004 Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Strathern, Andrew.

1996 Body Thoughts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Taussig, Michael.

1980 Folk Healing and the Structure of Conquest in Southwest Colombia. Journal of Latin American Lore 6(2):217-278.

1987 Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2010[1980] The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Taylor, Anne Christine.

1999 The Western Margins of Amazonia from the Early Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century. In The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Volume III: South America, Part 2. Frank Saloman and Stuart B. Schwartz, eds. Pp. 188-256. New York: Cambridge University Press.

2007 Sick of History: Contrasting Regimes of Historicity in the Upper Amazon. In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives. Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, eds. Pp. 133-168. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Tournon, Jacques.

2002 La Merma Mágica: Vida e Historia de Los Shipibo-Conibo del Ucayali. Lima, Perú: Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica (CAAAP).

Uzendoski, Michael.

2003 Purgatory, Protestantism, and Peonage: Napo Runa Evangelicals and the Domestication of the Masculine Will. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 129-153. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

2005 The Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Uzendoski, Michael, and Edith F. Calapucha-Tapuy.

2012 The Ecology of the Spoken Word: Amazonian Storytelling and Shamanism Among the Napo Runa. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Warren, Kay B. and Jean E. Jackson.

2002 Introduction: Studying Indigenous Activism in Latin America. In Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America. Kay B. Warren and Jean E. Jackson, eds. Pp. 1-46. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Weinstein, Barbara.

1983 The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Whitehead, Neil L.

1994 Ancient Amerindian Polities of the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Atlantic Coast: A Preliminary Analysis of Their Passage from Antiquity to Extinction. In Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to Present: Anthropological Perspectives. Anna Roosevelt, ed. Pp. 33-54. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

2002 Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

2004 Violence. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Whitehead, Neil L. and Robin Wright.

2004 Introduction: Dark Shamanism. In In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright, eds. Pp. 1-20. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Whitten, Norman E.

1976 Sacha Runa: Ethnicity and Adaptation of Ecuadorian Jungle Quichua. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

2003 Introduction. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 1-45. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

2007[1979] Soul Vine Shaman., accessed March 6, 2013.

Whitten, Norman E, and Dorothea S. Whitten.

2008 Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Zarzar, Alonso and Luis Román.

1983 Relaciones Intertribales en el Bajo Urubamba y Alto Ucayali. Miraflores: Centro de Investigación y Promoción Amazónica.


[1] Cf. Csordas 1988; Strathern (1996:178)

[2] Cf. Zarzar and Román (1983:24) for ethnicity as a particular historical moment than an essential category

[3] Cf. San Román (1975:142-150) for more on the coercion of indigenous bodies to rubber slavery

[4] Here I opt for the gendered term, as men tended to be the explicit debtors in this system. Women were systematically exploited, raped, and enslaved, but debtors were almost exclusively men.

[5] Cf. A. Taylor (2007) for alternative indigenous modes of engaging with history among the Shuar and the Runa of this region.

[6] Cf. Kleinman (1992), Das  et. al. (2001), Kleinman et. al. (1997) for analyses of cultural elaborations of ‘suffering’ in anthropological and ethnographic literature.

[7] Cf. Uzendoski (2005:147) for the echo of colonial era ancestral heroes in contemporary resistance. See Tournon (2002:59-60) for an analysis of both Atahualpa and Runcato’s revolutionary movements in the colonial era. See Whitten (2003) and Brysk (2004) for accounts of contemporary levantamientos in Ecuador by indigenous activists. See Warren and Jackson (2002) for an analysis of current indigenous movements and the establishment of new political power throughout Latin America.

[8] Cf. work by Beyer (2009), Luna (1986), Dobkin de Rios (1972), Tournon (2002), Cárdenas Timoteo (1989), and Harner (1972).

[9] Cf. work by Whitehead and Wright (2004), Heckenberger (2004), Whitehead (2002; 2004), and Stewart and Strathern (2004), and Rubenstein (2002), Taussig (2010[1980]).

A new direction

I’m contemplating taking this site in something of a new direction. My posts here lately have been few and far between. My ideas have been changing, and I’m realizing more and more how much I want to know how to heal, as much as I want to study healing academically. I’m not sure what that means for me yet, but I’m changing the title of the blog, to remind me that I need to be posting here about the things that are working in my thoughts. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading on herbalism, healing traditions from a wide variety of places, as well as my more consistent work and research on my MA thesis. I’ve felt positively inspired by all of the work and research, though in unexpected ways.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days and weeks, as I think about it more. Still, I felt like it was important to recognize the change.