With the Huni Kuin people in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest

Located in the extreme northwest of Brazil deep in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, lives the indigenous peoples Huni Kuin [1]. Driven by the desire to immerse myself in their mysterious spirituality and the magical world of the rainforest, I embark on an adventurous journey into the jungle. There I not only meet the "Queen of the Forest", but also go through a mystical baptismal ritual.

It is pitch dark. My flashlight lights the wet and slippery path through the thick undergrowth. Shortly afterwards I reach the simple wooden house, which will be my new home for the next three weeks. I enter and look around in the beam of light from my flashlight. Big fright! Two huge spiders. They are the size of a hand but don't move. Other crawling animals and insects are attracted to the light. I feel a bit queasy. My first night here alone in the middle of the jungle. Only me, my flashlight and the little roommates. No electricity. I crawl under my mosquito net and try to fall asleep. The forest hums loudly. The frogs in the swamps and ponds perform their quacky singing. Not much of the expected magic of the forest is yet to be felt. The next morning at breakfast I tell about the giant spiders. "They are poisonous!" I am warned. "Just leave them alone. Then they won't harm you."

 

The arrival

We drive down the winding river at a rapid speed along the dense rainforest. The intense sounds of the forest mix with the wind that blows vigorously into my face. I am in the boat with Sia and two of his daughters. Sia is the cacique [2] of the indigenous village where I will stay for three weeks. He promised to initiate me into the mystical spirituality of his people. Sia's young son navigates us. He has to be careful that we don't run aground. The river runs less water in some places. Suddenly the boat stops and is actually stuck. Fortunately, none of us fell into the water. A little exhausted, I help to free the boat again. It was a long way to get here. From my hometown, the trip initially led to Rio Branco [3] in the state of Acre [4] in Brazil. Then a small propeller plane took me to Jordão [5], a tiny community in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. There are no roads in this region. Now there is only this two-hour boat trip ahead of me and the village is reached.

 

Welcome gift

Finally there. Immediately I am invited to a body painting ritual. A villager takes me gently by the hand. "Come with me, I have a welcome gift for you". Her name is Rosane. Rosane paints my face and my arms with a black color. "What is that color?" I ask interested. "This color is obtained from a fruit called 'Jenipapo' that grows here in the rainforest. The painting serves as energetic protection for you," she explains to me. The color will stay on my skin for seven days. It consists of drawings that the Huni Kuin people receive during their spiritual rituals. Already very small babies go through this body painting ritual. Afterwards Rosane gives me a pair of earrings and a bracelet - jewelry of their typical handicrafts made from Missanga [6].

 

Everyday life in the village

Life in the village is simple. No Internet. Until recently, no electricity either. But now a newly installed solar system supplies the centre of the village with electricity for a few hours in the evening. Every day I would go down to the river with the villagers. There we wash ourselves and our clothes. Dry toilets or the forest are there for those who need to relieve themselves. There's a lot of work to do. Large steaming aluminum kettles sizzle on open fireplaces. The women eagerly prepare the daily meals, which consist of a lot of beef and fresh fish from the nearby river. For me as a vegetarian, there is rice, beans, eggs, cooked or grilled bananas, corn, cassava and pineapple tea. It tastes delicious. Simple but robust wooden houses line the village. Their roofs are made of thick straw or occasionally of aluminum. The chainsaws screech loudly, because new malocas [7] are being constructed. To do this, some men and boys cut down the "Urikuri palms" in the forest, the leaves of which they use to build the roofs or which need to be prepared for the handicrafts of the women. Other men go hunting or fishing. 

I often watch the women and girls make their traditional handicrafts. I am fascinated by the way they thread the tiny round balls from Missanga and how in this way they create colorful bracelets, necklaces and earrings with sacred drawings. Others weave baskets and mats from the leaves of the Urikuri palm or weave bags, sweaters and jackets from wool. In addition to their own use, they also sell this handicrafts to tourists. There are only a few breaks. Women and girls carry large cauldrons with water on their heads from the earth wells up to the village, clean the houses or take care of the children. Many of the teenage girls are already mothers themselves. In addition to work, the hierarchy in the village is clearly organized according to gender. It is the men who are in charge politically and spiritually.

As the cacique, Sia lives with his family in the centre of the village. Here is a place for all kinds of meetings, a school, the kitchen and a building that serves as a canteen. Five other families live with him in the village all the time. Together we sit in the anteroom of his house. He offers me some of his rapé [8]. A sacred medicine for them, consisting of the ground tobacco of the tobacco plant and the ashes of a sacred tree. Together we take the medicine. I let it work on me and feel good and relaxed. "Tomorrow we go to the forest," says Sia. "It is time for you to meet the 'Queen of the Forest'."

 

In the rainforest

On narrow paths we wind our way through the hot and humid thicket. The earth has been softened by the heavy rain. I am looking for a hold on the branches of the shrubs and plants. While doing this I take care not to reach into one of the many spider webs that line the edge of the path. "Careful!" Sia calls suddenly, "be aware of these ants. A stab of them means a lot of pain.” I look at a branch, startled. A gigantic deep black ant is walking along it. The pajé [9] and his wife, who came with us, are collecting leaves from the plants for their medicines. "The forest is our pharmacy," says Leonardo, the pajé. His wife crushes a few leaves and rubs their juice over my hands. "Smell," she asks me. "The scent will relax you." And indeed, it works. Leonardo shows me plants that offer help against any suffering, such as burns, hair loss, pregnancy problems or even jealousy. Small insects and mosquitos are buzzing around us. In particular the tiny, almost invisible mosquitoes are very persistent. They quickly leave many small red spots on the body. Butterflies in a bright blue color are gliding through the thicket. The birds are singing high up in the treetops. But it is difficult to spot larger animals. "They stay away from us humans," explains Leonardo. 

Sia disappears into the forest. A short time later, he comes back with a handful of bright red pepper buds and an elongated fruit. "We need the fresh red pepper for a sacred ritual that we will perform with you," he says. I am listening attentively. Then he opens the fruit and offers me its fluffy white flesh. It tastes good, very sweet." The name of the fruit is Ingá," he reveals. "Like my name," I answer. We both have to laugh. At the same time, however, Sia becomes serious: “We try to stay close to nature because it represents our God. Every day we fight to strengthen our culture in order to protect us, the forest and nature." 

Finally we go back on the path to the queen of the forest. It is a little deeper in the jungle. But unfortunately, we don't get very far. A fallen tree blocks our way. I feel disappointment. Suddenly it starts to blow heavily. We look to the sky. A thunderstorm is brewing up.

An evening with music

Fortunately, we make it back in time before the rain starts. The entire village community gathers in one of the malocas. The drums are being struck intensely and powerful songs of healing are being sung. A daily ritual through which the people express their spirituality. The kids are playing around us. When I pull out my camera to capture this moment, I am surrounded by them in a minute. They eagerly want to see all of my photos. I am moved by their natural curiosity and affection. Especially a little boy I take to my heart. His name is Tsaná. He is quiet and appears very sensitive. He tells me that he is ten years old. Seeking my closeness, he sits next to me. I hold him in my arms. He firmly grabs mine with his small hand as if he would never want to let me go again.

 

"Festival de Legumes" ("Vegetable Festival")

The entire villagers are dressed up with their traditional costumes and body paintings. Sia wears an impressive headdress made of long white feathers of the harpya eagle and red feathers from the macaw parrots. Also the leaves of the Urikuri palm is decorating the upper bodies and foreheads of the men. With palm leaves in their hands, the men are holding their shoulders and are forming a queue. Led by the pajés, they move to the central square of the village singing and dancing. The women and children are waiting here. Together they form a large group, take each other's hands and dance in a circle. I ask curiously what this ritual is all about. I am told that it is called the "Festival de Legumes" ("Vegetable Festival"). It is carried out to support the growing and harvesting of vegetables that are consumed in the village, such as corn, yam or cassava. Impressed I am watching the ritual. I admire how proudly they show their culture.

 

Samaúma [10] - the "Queen of the forest"

A few days later. The fallen tree has been cleared out of the way. The sky is bright blue. No rain in sight. Sia, his brother Inbuse and I set off into the forest. As soon as we enter the denser jungle, the climate changes noticeably. It is oppressive. The energies are strong. After a while Inbuse stops abruptly and points to the front: "Look, there is the Samaúma, our 'Queen of the Forest'." I look through the thicket and can see its mighty trunk.

Short time later we have reached it. I look at the majestic tree. Its thick tubular roots vehemently dig into the ground over several meters. Some of them also wind their way around its broad trunk and thus additionally secure it. At least thirty people are required to completely encompass this tree I guess. I look up. I don't know exactly how far, but it's certainly around 50 to 60 meters. The intense green of the crown rises high into the sky. Inbuse points to a strut that hangs down from the trunk like a rope. "This is the 'Ladder of the Spirits'. On it you can climb up to the crown,” he explains. “All the spirits of the forest are united up there, that of plants, animals and humans. There you can feel them.” The Samaúma tree is sacred to the Huni Kuin people. For them, it is a spirit that brings healing, a connection between heaven and earth.

What an enormous beauty, elegance and powerful energy this tree radiates. I put my hand on its trunk. At that moment I feel all the magic of the forest, its healing energies and its strength. I'm happy to be here. But at the same time a sad feeling spreads in me. Images of the unstoppable destruction of this rainforest come to my mind. Every day, yes every minute, trees are being cut down here in the rainforest and die. Trees like this Samaúma tree, which draws water from the depths of the soil and thus not only supplies itself but the entire surrounding plant kingdom. A tree that is 500 or maybe already 1000 years old, provides rain and thus brings good things for the planet and mankind. Sia suddenly wakes me from my thoughts: “It's time to go. But we will return tomorrow.”

 

"Hãpaya - The Baptism Ritual"

The next morning. I receive a face painting with the red color of the rainforest fruit "urukum". "This is in preparation for a baptismal ritual that we will carry out with you today. In our language it is called 'Hãpaya' and it is very sacred to us,” Sia explains to me. I also learn that this ritual will be followed by a three-day special diet, in which salt, sugar, meat and fish are strictly prohibited. A little later we go into the forest to the Samaúma in a small group. Sia wears his harpya eagle and macaw parrot feather headdress and the women and children who accompany us wear colorful headbands with the drawings typical for their people. I also have a headband tied around my forehead. Once at the Samaúma tree, Sia pulls out the red pepper. A very sacred medicine for his people. He puts the pepper on the floor. With one hand he begins to grind it with a wooden stick. He speaks a prayer in his language. In the other hand he holds a dead Japinim [11] bird. A sacred bird that mimics the song of all other birds. I sit on one of the thick roots of the Samaúma tree. Sia puts a small bowl in front of my feet and reveals me the meaning of the ritual. “In the legend of the Huni Kuin, the initiate who undergoes this ritual receives an initiation and is thus empowered to become a healer him- or herself. He or she should learn to sing through the spirit of the holy pepper and the holy bird Japinim and receive songs of healing in his or her visions.“

I have to open my mouth and stick out my tongue. I'm excited. Sia wets the holy bird's beak with the ground pepper and dabs it on my tongue for a few minutes, accompanied by another prayer." Now the energy of the pepper medicine has to act on your tongue for 40 minutes," he says after he's done. 

Saliva drips down from my tongue and is caught by the small bowl. The pepper burns but I pull myself together not to swallow or spit. I really want to go through this ritual. As soon as the 40 minutes are over I spit the accumulated saliva out of my mouth and blow my nose. 

The ritual has officially ended. Buoyed, I go back to my house. It is exceptionally hot, definitely over 30 degrees. The sun is burning relentlessly on the village. The energy of the ritual and the pepper is very intense. Here in the middle of the forest, all effects seem potentiated. In the house I am alone and can let my emotions run free. Suddenly I feel the urge to sing. Different melodies shoot through my head and I actually start to sing. As in delirium, I have to laugh and cry at the same time. Then suddenly I feel very hot. I look in my pocket mirror and see a fiery red face. As soon as the sun goes down I leave my house. A villager rubs me with cold water. Now I'm cooling down a bit. I go to Sia and ask him if this heat is a normal reaction to the ritual. "It's a very strong reaction," he replies to me. “But the power of the ritual is most intense on the first day. Overall, it will last for three days."

 

The farewell

The baptismal ritual and the three days of the diet are over. I feel inernally cleansed and strengthened. I am determined to sing more in the future and to learn how to play the guitar. The three weeks of my stay with the Huni Kuin people are over now. One last time I go into the forest to the Samaúma tree before I say goodbye to Sia, Inbuse and all other villagers. In the boat I'm waiting for the departure. Tsaná is standing on the slope of the shore, looking for me. I wave to him. Then we drive off. Tsaná runs along the bank. I wave to him again. Then we finally lose sight of each other.

[1] The Huni Kuin people are one of the most present indigenous peoples in Brazil. It lives on the border with Peru in the lower reaches of the Jordão River, in Acre, Brazil. The term "Huni Kuin" (Kaxinawá) means something like "homens verdadeiros" or "gente com costumes conhecidos" which means "real people" or "people with known customs" in translation. More detailed information about the Huni Kuin people can be found under the following link (in Portuguese): https://pib.socioambiental.org/pt/Povo:Huni_Kuin_(Kaxinawá)

[2] The political leader of an indigenous community.

[3] Capital of the Brazilian state of Acre. The straight line distance to Rio de Janeiro is 2,987 km.

[4] A state in the extreme northwest of Brazil. Its vegetation is almost exclusively shaped by the Amazon rainforest and its population is made up of indigenous peoples and settlers from the north-east and south of Brazil. See: https://www.estadosecapitaisdobrasil.com/estado/acre/

[5] A small community in the State of Acre in Brazil that is cut by the rivers Jordão and Tarauacá. More than two thousand native people of the Huni-Kuin ethnic group live here. The municipality that is located directly in the amazon rainforest has a total of 7000 inhabitants and is about 640 kilometers as the crow flies from the state capital Rio Branco. Without land access, Jordão can be reached either by a 3-day boat trip or a 2.5-hour flight by air taxi. See: https://www.agencia.ac.gov.br/jordo-uma-pequena-cidade-amaznica/

[6] Small pieces of glass, stone or similar material that are rounded and perforated so that they can be threaded with others.

[7] Malocas are the traditional houses with thatched roofs of the indigenous peoples.

[8] A snuff that consists of dried and finely ground Mapacho tobacco, as well as the ashes of a sacred tree, such as the "Mulateiro tree" and is blown into the nose with the help of a pipe (Tepi). The goal is to experience a physical and energetic cleansing and to establish a deeper connection to nature.

[9] The spiritual leader of an indigenous community.

[10] The Samaúma tree grows between 60 and 70 meters tall. However, some specimens can reach a height of up to 90 meters, making it one of the largest trees in the world. The Samaúma tree is native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America and West Africa. The word samaúma is used to describe the cotton fibers that are obtained from their fruits. This tree can draw water from the depths of the soil and not only supply itself, but also share it with other species, as its roots known as Sapopemba burst at certain times of the year and irrigate the entire surrounding plant kingdom. It is therefore also called the "tree of life". See: https://www.iguiecologia.com/samauma/ and 

https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mafumeira

[11] A sacred bird for the people of Huni Kuin, who imitates the song of all other birds.

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