"In the same sort of way the Huaorani do not separate the physical and the spiritual, they also
don't compartmentalize the use of plants. I might say, 'We make arrows from this tree, we make
dinner with that plant, from this root we heal cuts with these leaves we can see spirits.' They
make no sharp distinctions—one plant can do all of these things."
On his return Mengatoi begins making curare, the poison that covers the arrow's tip. It involves
cooking the pulp of a crushed vine, but the main ingredient is spiritual. Making curare is a ritual
performed with care. Curare is deadly poison. It has the power to take life. Careful preparation
reflects the conflict of the hunter who uses it. The Huaorani must kill animals to live, but
they believe dead animal spirits live on and must be placated or else do harm in angry
retribution. To show the respect of the hunter, the curare must be prepared properly by
the shaman. It is one of many ways Mengatoi mediates with the spirit world on behalf of
Meanwhile, barbazo plants are being crushed. The juice contains rotenone—a chemical that causes
fish to suffocate. A small group heads upstream with gourds full of it and empties them into a
quiet eddy. Soon fish of all sizes float to the surface and are thrown in the boat for dinner.
Alarcon offers an explanation: "The poison kills all the fish, even the little ones. If they used
it all the time it would wipe out the fish entirely. They are not conservation-minded in the modern
sense, because scarcity is unknown to them. It's inconceivable to them that their world could
disappear. But since they rely totally on the forest, they have no desire to destroy it or change
it into something else. It is their home. They like it just the way it is."
As the sun sets Alarcon walks downriver to a solitary house along the water's edge. Here we find
Mengatoi at his fireside preparing another brew. Beside him a young woman lies still on a palm mat.
Perched on a rafter over his head, a pet owl looks down on the scene below.
The shaman must inhabit two worlds. Mengatoi lives beyond the village edge. Somewhere between the
human community and the natural community that envelopes it, lives a man who villagers believe
has the power to transform himself into a jaguar. With fear and respect, they come to him when
they need help to rebalance the natural forces that have made them ill.
With the help of his wife, Mengatoi makes Mi'i, a psychoactive potion made from the Banisteriopsis
vine. Known by many names and used by many tribes throughout the upper Amazon, Mi'i will help
Mengatoi contact animal spirits to diagnose the ailments of a woman who has fallen ill. He
drinks the dark liquid and sits with the woman. With the help of Mi'i, Mengatoi will mediate with
animal spirits on behalf of his patient. While his mystical journey to the spirit world may be
unfamiliar to western culture, his demeanor is much like a country doctor—reassuring and down to
earth. He will spend hours with his patient to do whatever is in his power to make her well.
Slowly he falls into a trance, singing to himself. Healing must occur in almost total darkness. If
the illness involves a fever he may rub stinging nettles on the patient's chest, which will cause
no welts to form but will alleviate symptoms. He may eat hot peppers and blow their essence into
the patient's chest. He may suck the illness out of the top of the patient's head and spit it on
the floor. He often finds his diagnosis by following a jaguar spirit through the forest. The jaguar
leads him to specific plants that he must use to heal the patient. He may also explain how he
appeased animal spirits angered, perhaps unintentionally, by the patient.
By daybreak, order and rhythm have been restored inside the patient, and in the light of day,
the rhythm of life continues in the village. While Mengatoi and his patient rest, children play
in the river, splashing hands together to create musical patterns. Others play with pets such as
pygmy monkeys and baby eagles, while hunters in the forest take careful aim with their blowguns.
Alarcon talks with village women about the medicinal plants growing around their houses.
The shaman is both physician and priest, and the condition of the spirit is as important as the
body's physical state. Having dealt with the spiritual aspect of the illness, Mengatoi will now
prescribe an herbal remedy to deal with the physical ailments. Alarcon talks about the remedies and
her work with Mengatoi.
"When I began my work, I used the culture as a way to understand the plants. Now, I use the plants
as a way to understand the culture. Mengatoi says that in a trance, he can transform the stinging
power of the nettles into a healing power. The fact that the nettles do not actually sting
demonstrates to me the incredible power of belief."
The Huaorani are immersed in a green world—surrounded by natural mysteries whose meaning is
carried in the mind of the shaman. Young men, distracted by the fast-paced rhythms of the modern
world, are losing interest in becoming shamans. Mengatoi has no apprentice, and without written
language, his grasp of these mysteries will not endure beyond his death. Rocio Alarcon is
determined to collect as much knowledge as possible and translate it into written form.
"Everything they need to survive is right here. They own nothing. They are in balance with their
world. When I come here I feel what it means to be human."
No one knows where or when this shaman's tradition began. Some say it was carried by his ancient
ancestors from the far side of the planet. With their ancient traditions the Huaorani can give
us a sense of what we all once were. In their memories may lie the origin and essence of the
entire human race, filled with the scents and sounds and possibilities of an Earth vibrant with
life and mystery.
Photos: (1,5) courtesy Aaron Strong/Strong Images Inc; (2-4) Joe Seamans.