On one of my many trips to the Amazon, I shared a long conversation with Wawacuru Curushiña (Enchanted Macaw), an elder of the Shawandawa tribe. One of only fifteen remaining ethnic groups in the Jurua Valley, the Shawandawa have lived in the west of Brazil for generations.
The old knowledge in these areas is still transmitted orally, especially by the elderly, so I feel most fortunate to have spent time speaking with Wawacuru. After initially greeting each other we started discussing many aspects of tribal life, but mostly she was interested in teaching me about the art of making rapé, and of its medicinal uses.
Rapé is a traditional snuff medicine of the Amazon, usually made with mapacho and a tree ash. This would be rapé in its simplest form, and a medicinal rapé would also contain herbs determined by the rapé’s desired healing effects.
Rapé is either taken with a Kuripe or a Tipi. When giving rapé to oneself, you would use the v-shaped Kuripe, one end in the mouth, and one end placed up the nose. By administering a short, sharp blow, the rapé is fired deep into the nose. When giving rapé to another person, an elongated pipe called a Tipi is used. One person blows while the other person receives.
Wawacuru told me that Rapé is a medicine that heals many ailments. Physically rapé she said is good for headaches, body pain and for generally increasing vigor. Emotionally it is taken to lift your mood, impart inspiration and even remove sorrows and sadness. Rapé then is a medicine which increases your strength, elevates your mood and supports your spiritual connection.
Historically rapé was made only by the wisest men of the tribe and the origin stories of rapé are as old as the practice of the black earth. Black earth is the ancient practice of clearing an area of jungle, burning the trees, reducing them to black ash and then adding the ashes to the soil. Many holes were drilled in a grid pattern, the ash placed inside and covered up. In time, a rich, black and fertile soil was created, it is this soil which is referred to as the black earth.
The job of making black earth was generally reserved for the younger men of the tribe, while the wise shaman elders or Pajes used this opportunity to experiment with the different wood ashes created for the purposes of making their sacred healing rapés. Over time the Pajes discovered the different medicinal properties of each tree and plant and used them to create medicinal rapés.
In the clearings of black earth were planted the seeds of yucca, papaya, plantain, pineapple and many other plants that grow vigorously and mature quickly. The tribe supporting themselves with jungle agriculture, hunting and fishing. During the hunt, the tribesmen would often visit other areas of black earth to harvest from the more established gardens. There they would collect herbs, vegetables, and fruits.
Interestingly the sacred and powerful mapacho plant would often establish itself in these new clearings, offering protection to the naked jungle floor with its board leaves. It was the perfect ally, shading the soil from the glaring sun and torrential Amazonian rains.
Once the master plant El Mapacho had matured, its leaves naturally dried by the elements the Pajes would collect them. The leaves were pulverized into a fine powder and combined with the different wood ashes. Later medicinal herbs would be added to create a treatment for a specific sickness or even give vigor to an elderly man in his family bed. Rapé is a strong tradition for the Indians and is considered an important and powerful remedy.
Wawacuru went on to tell me of at least 15 types of wood ash that the ancients used to make their rapes, coincidentally there are 15 ethnic groups that still subsist in the Jurua valley, not counting the isolated tribes that exist in the region.
Some of fifteen ashes are called Tsunu, Parica, Murici, Mulateiro and Imbauba and are derived from trees of the same name. Each of these ancient trees having accumulated years of energy from the sun, and all having a sandy and textured bark that when burned becomes a very fine ash similar to talcum powder.
Many of the rapés in daily use today contain only mapacho and ash, with each ethnic group having their own preference of ash. For example, the Katukina Tribe favor Mulateiro whereas the Yawanawa Tribe use Tsunu.
The mapacho and ash are a remedy in themselves and can create a strong purgative effect for those that are not used to taking it. To make an even stronger remedy though, the dried foliage of shrubs and trees are added. Each additional ingredient considered for their medicinal and magic powers: for example, certain plants are known to remove headaches, ease muscular pains, or even imbue the concentration needed for a public talk. Some plant allies were added to connect to the spirit world and speak with your ancestors and even to internalize your own being.
Sansara, Mucura, Lariño, Pupui and Muruchero, are among the more than 30 species of medicinal plants used to give medicinal/spiritual characteristics to each rapé.
Depending on which Paje made the rapé, which ash and which herbs he selected, the rapé would take on a particular character which he shaped for its intended purpose. The main purposes of his rapés could be considered general (fortifying), medicinal (healing), inebriating (uplifting) and opening (spiritual).
To better understand the art and science of rapé, consider these ingredients, skillfully combined to create a relaxed, meditative state. Mapacho, Tsunu ash and Escencia (Passiflora Phoetida). This particular Passiflora rapé relaxes the central nervous system, decreases your heart rate and is also gently sedating*
This formula exemplifies the wisdom that many ancestral people carry, knowledge now being recognized and researched by modern science. For example, the American Botanical Council, references 6 clinical trials, 22 pharmacodynamic studies and 32 analytical chemistry papers on Passionflower.
As I was saying goodbye to Wawacuru I could not help feeling a little saddened by the constant advance of so-called civilization. Many of the tribal homelands are now under threat from corporations hungry to carry out oil exploration or to raise cattle and those that would stand up, the activists are often threatened or found dead under mysterious circumstances.
I believe it is important that we learn to strike a balance between the old and new. Discarding the old ways in favor of money and power could ultimately lead to us to miss out on a valuable answer, one we may collectively need in the future.
An article by Milton Narvaez & Simon Scott
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.