When people from a dominant culture without proper respect or reverence for the source use artifacts or elements of a non-dominant culture it is called ‘cultural appropriation;. For example, a person of European ancestry wearing a headdress made of feather is an example of cultural appropriation; because the person neither recognized the spiritual significance of the headdress nor the history of genocide and colonization that has been enacted on the culture they are appropriating.
A person may reinforce their advantage as a person who can choose to adopt the sacred cultural foundations of a historically marginalized community for their benefit. Often occurring unintentionally, cultural appropriation serves to perpetuate domineering dynamics.
Modern non-native Western people have already lost their connection with their ancestral culture, rites, and rituals, and so many seek practices outside of their own culture to find this sense of belonging. Recently many studies have shown that the Holy Medicine has tremendous possibilities for healing some of the ailments permeating modern society. But, many people of conscience are aware of tourism surrounding the Holy Medicine, which is clearly commercialization of indigenous Sacred Ceremonies, which is a shocking example of cultural appropriation of indigenous communities to some.
But according to Gayle Highpine, who studied various Amazonian indigenous communities for several years and published an article about the origin of the Holy Medicine, suggests that the whole cultural appropriation of Holy Medicine is not that simple.
Before the recent boom surrounding the Holy Medicine of the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca, from around 2000, linguistic Gayle Highpine, while studying the Napo River communities, acted as translator for a delegation of North American Indians, including some European-American indigenous rights activists as they visited South American indigenous communities. In a certain discussion together that was attended by five other “Ayahuasqueros” from different neighboring villages with the North American Indians, the North American Indians asked if the shaman was ever criticized for opening their Sacred Ceremonies to white people. They also asked questions about other people’s feelings about outsiders attending their Sacred Ceremonies. Highpine was unable to translate these questions in a way that made full sense to the Amazonian people. The assumptions behind the question were completely alien to them.
It turned out that total strangers could attend their most Sacred Ceremonies. And it came out that they actually charged money to participate in these Sacred Ceremonies. The practice of shamanism with the Holy Medicine has been commercialized for a long time, and has been open to outsiders for a long time. Shamanism with the Holy Medicine, now we know, is certain forms of practice and throughout a wide region which stretches from southeastern Peru to eastern Colombia and nearby areas of Brazil. Surprisingly in these areas, shamanism with the Holy Medicine has remarkable similarities. Even more than a century ago, the Holy Medicine practices through this region were diverse and prepared with brews made with the Holy Banisteriopsis Caapi Vine only.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Amazonian indigenous peoples were hit by catastrophe. The indigenous population had already been severely depopulated by epidemics after the European conquest around the most accessible areas, such as the Amazon River itself, which were completely wiped out. The populations living nearest the Andes were forced into church-administered plantations. According to testimonial reports by ethnobotanists and anthropologists of the second half of the twentieth century, it is evident that with the Rubber Boom destruction and disruption of indigenous societies, added with the influx of missionaries who marched to stamp out indigenous Sacred Ceremonies wherever they could find out, most of the traditional practices with the Holy Medicine was lost during the Rubber Boom time.
One specific style of practice with the Holy Medicine not only survived but spread during this time. According to Highpine, one of the main reasons that the Shamanism with the Holy Medicine survived was because it is a detribalized practice. It is not linked to any specific culture or community, so it survived the destruction of cultures. This new style of shamanism was practiced by individuals, and was transmitted from one individual to another through a specific process of paid apprenticeship. And this apprenticeship was spread during the rubber boom by the mestizos of Brazil. During this time, the mestizo practitioners set up urban Sacred Ceremonies to treat the poor mestizo population of the cities, as this was the only health care available for the poor mestizos. So, were the shamanism practiced by the mestizos the first commercial practice with the Holy Medicine practice?
Gayle Highpine argued in one of her articles, that, with all the evidence and anthropological consensus, the practice of shamanism and probably the Holy Banisteriopsis Caapi Vine originated in the Napo River basin. Before the European conquest, the Napo River basin was already a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan society where people routinely interacted with strangers to whom they had no kinship obligations. Every now and then, healers were called to perform Sacred Ceremonies for strangers who were not their relatives. So, remunerations were called for. As it seems, even before the European conquest in the Napo River basin the Shamanism with the Holy Medicine was practiced by the individual as a private business.
So, as a detribalized practice, the Rubber Boom helped shamanism with the Holy Medicine to spread it from the Iquitos areas to the peoples of the Ucayali River and other river networks. According to this argument, even a century ago, shamanism with the Holy Medicine was already connected to the global capitalist economy, and it easily turned into wedded to the global tourist industry. Tourism surrounding the Holy Medicine catered to foreigners rather than local people.
To sum this up, according to Highpine, Amazonian indigenous people are not really concerned about the ethnicity of the practitioners. Regardless of skin color, they are concerned about the devaluation and degradation of their profession and the corruption of their traditional Sacred Ceremonies by practitioners they consider as imposters.
The Sacred Ceremonies are actually not about tribal identity, after all. The shamanism with the Holy Medicine is regarded in the Amazon as a private profession, not a religious practice. Traditionally, shamanism with the Holy Medicine has been a healthcare profession, practiced and done for patients or individuals willing to shamans enough.
Often, shamans have been the only healthcare providers for Amazonian communities without modern clinics or hospitals. As a result, it can be said that it has been a “cultural appropriation” for non-indigenous peoples to participate in Sacred Ceremonies to receive ‘Healing’ from the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca.
The Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca has been very kind to the world. She has allowed even commercialised world to spread Her message which is now bringing ‘Healing’ Worldwide.
- Highpine, Gayle. (2012). Unraveling the Mystery of the Origin of Ayahuasca. Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactive, [online] Available at: http://www.neip.info/novo/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/highpine_origin-of-ayahuasca_neip_2012.pdf [Accessed 2nd July 2021]
- Highpine, Gayle. (2018). Is it Cultural Appropriation for White People to Drink Ayahuasca? [online] Kahpi.net. Available at: https://kahpi.net/cultural-appropriation-ayahuasca-tourism/ [Accessed 2nd July 2021].