When we talk about mental illnesses, anxiety, depression, and suicide, we usually focus on modern Western societies, considering them as afflictions of our time caused by an increasingly disconnected lifestyle from nature. However, indigenous peoples in the Amazon suffer from extremely high levels of alcoholism, and their suicide rate is three times the national average, as denounced by the artist and activist Daiara Tukano, from the Tukano (or Yé’pá Mahsã) people, during the opening of the 7th Colloquium ‘Shamanism, Science, and Knowledge’ held last week in Tarragona.
“It seems incredible to me that there are so many research projects for mental health, but I have a request because I know that we need that attention in our communities. Indigenous peoples are the most marginalized. If you want to investigate how to treat suicide, depression, come and research with us… the suicide rate among indigenous peoples is 300% higher than any other social report,” explained Daiara Tukano via videoconference from her community in the state of Vaupés, on the border between Colombia and Brazil.
The indigenous activist traced a historical overview of the troubled relationship between the white man and the original inhabitants of the American continent, a relationship marked by violence, exploitation, and extractivism:
“These non-indigenous people seek this medicine [ayahuasca] because it provides health and perhaps peace, a way to combat this violence. But the fact is that we are peoples so affected by this entire historical process of violence. The suicide rate among indigenous peoples is 300% higher than any other social report. We know what it is like to live with suicide, to coexist with the trauma of suicide within our families, within our territories. We know that this suicide, this sadness, this enormous rate of alcoholism in our communities is also the result of a social process of marginalization, impoverishment, and sadness in our society, in our culture. It is the denial of our bodies, the denial of our place of being.”
Sexual abuses in ceremonies
A recent survey conducted by researcher Daniela Peluso and disseminated by Chacruna reveals that half of the respondents have experienced or personally know of sexual abuse cases during ayahuasca ceremonies. The study and its implications were mentioned several times throughout the conference organized by MARC, and inevitably, Daiara also referred to the outrageous incidence of sexual abuse cases in ayahuasca ceremonies:
“Nowadays, there are many reports of sexual abuse in ceremony circles, and I’m talking about both indigenous and non-indigenous people, but mainly non-indigenous, unfortunately. And I find it very serious because the majority of people seeking ayahuasca are women, and they are women seeking to address their abuse traumas.
So, imagine a woman who has already been violated and is going to be violated again… I believe that these forms of violence persist in humanity, and we really need to talk about them and take responsibility. It’s not a plant that is healing us; it’s our actions and behavior.
Therefore, the ethical practice of those offering a cup of ayahuasca is crucial. And any slip-up, anything done wrong, in the end, it is we, the indigenous people, who are held accountable. Whenever someone is arrested or accused of anything like that, they blame us again, demonize us, and marginalize us again. So, it also reoccurs in our trauma.”
Respect for the medicine
Daiara concluded her speech by demanding “respect” from institutions and companies in the global North when exploiting medicines like ayahuasca. “The uses of ayahuasca are delegitimized by institutions like JIFE due to abusive use. But what I have learned from my work is that ayahuasca is not a substance with recreational uses; people consider it a sacrament, a medicine, or a living being, never as a drug. Who has the authority to define what is authentic?”
“We need to discuss the projects of patenting and medicalizing ayahuasca, where there are demands within the institutional protocols of legal regulation in each country to standardize a medicine that is accepted by health entities. But when you standardize a recipe, you are criminalizing all the others. When you standardize, for example, a Santo Daime recipe, you are saying that this one is legal and all the others are illegal.
We have the right to our genetic heritage, but mainly to our cultural heritage. We need to think about the possible and real violations of indigenous rights that have occurred during this process of ayahuasca globalization. Consider that there are national and international laws that require consultation protocols, recognition of cultural heritages, recognition of genetic heritages, which are natural rights for indigenous peoples, rights that precede other legislations. We have reached a point where the practice of mutual respect must be established.”
- ‘Chamanismo, ciencia y conocimiento’ (Shamanism, Science, and Knowledge), ICEERS.
- Daiara Tukano’s website.
- ‘Results of Chacruna’s survey on awareness of sexual abuse in ayahuasca ceremonies,’ Chacruna Latinoamérica, May 15, 2023.
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