The Ancient Art of Rapeh
On one of my many trips to the Amazon, I had the privilege of conversing at length with Wawacuru Curushiña (Enchanted Macaw), an elder of the Shawandawa tribe. This tribe, one of the mere fifteen remaining ethnic groups in the Jurua Valley, has dwelled in the western regions of Brazil for generations.
The wisdom of these ancient cultures is predominantly transmitted orally, particularly by the elderly. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to engage with Wawacuru. After our initial greetings, we delved into numerous facets of tribal life. However, she was primarily interested in imparting knowledge about the art of creating Rapeh and its medicinal applications.
Rapeh is a traditional snuff medicine of the Amazon, typically made with tobacco and ash derived from specific tree species like Tsunu or Samaúma. In its simplest form, Rapeh consists of just two ingredients. For more detail on its composition and use, you can explore our article 'What is Rapeh?'. A medicinal Rapeh contains additional specific herbs, chosen by a medicine maker according to the desired effect.
While the younger men of the tribe made the earth, the older, wiser men (Pajes) experimented with the different plant and tree ashes for the production of Rapé. Over time the Pajes (medicine men) discovered the various medicinal properties of each tree and plant and used them to create medicinal Rapés.
Each Rapé is unique, from tribe to tribe, Paje to Paje. The ash and herbs are selected to shape the character towards its intended purpose. The main categories of Rapés are general (fortifying), medicinal (healing), and opening (spiritual).
As I said goodbye to Wawacuru, I could not help feeling a little saddened by the constant advance of so-called civilization. Many tribal homelands are now under threat from corporations hungry to carry out oil exploration or raise cattle. The activists who stand up are often threatened or found dead under mysterious circumstances.
I believe it is vital that we learn to balance the old and new. Discarding the old ways in favor of the new ultimately can lead to blindness; valuable answers remain in the jungle, answers we may collectively need in the future.
Written by Milton Narvaez and Simon Scott