With the Huni Kuin [1] people in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest

 

Located in the extreme north-west of Brazil deep in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, live the indigenous people Huni Kuin. Long it has been my wish to learn more about the culture of the country's indigenous peoples. Now the time has come and I embark on an adventurous trip to the jungle to visit them.

 

It was raining and I put on my rubber boots. It is my first morning in the village. I accompany the men and boys to their work in the forest. “We are in the process of getting material from the forest for the roofs of the malocas [2] that we are currently building,” says Teríano. Teriáno is one of the men who lives in the village with his family. I'm starting to sweat. Fortunately, I brought my water bottle with me. The earth has been softened by the heavy rain. It is very slippery and you have to be careful not to fall. 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!" one of the men 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. Thankful for this information, I plan to keep it in mind for the rest of my stay. 

Teríano shows me how they cut down palms and prepare their leaves for building malocas and for the handicrafts of the women. "We call this type of palm 'Urikuri", he explains. The men have a great knowledge of the plants and trees of the forest. "The forest is our pharmacy," says Leonardo. He is a medicine man and came into the forest with us. He shows me plants that offer help against any kind of suffering, for example in case of burns or problems during pregnancy. Leonardo plucks a leaf from a shrub and hands it to me. "Take it and smell," he says. "The smell and juice of this leaf help against the feeling of jealousy," reveals Leonardo.

The birds are singing. If you look up into the treetops, it is possible to see them sitting there. But otherwise it is difficult to spot larger animals. "They stay away from us humans. To see them, we would have to go much deeper into the jungle and that is dangerous,” explains Leonardo. Small insects and mosquitos are buzzing around us. Especially the very small and almost invisible mosquitoes are very persistent. They quickly leave many small red spots on the body. The repellent I brought with me doesn't help much. At some point I surrender. Shortly before it gets dark we go back to the village.

The arrival

We are driving down the river at a rapid speed along the dense rainforest. The intense sounds of the forest mix with the wind. I am in the boat with Sia and two of his daughters. Sia is the cacique [3] of the indigenous village where I will stay for three weeks. Sia's son, I estimate him to be about twelve years old, navigates the boat and has to be careful not to run aground. The river runs less water in some places. Suddenly the boat stops abruptly. We actually ran aground. Fortunately, none of us fell into the water. We all get out to free the boat again. The journey continues. The damp, warm wind blows in my face.

Tired from the long journey, I am anxious to arrive. It was a long way to get here. From my home town, I first traveled to Rio Branco [4] in Acre [5]. From there I went on by air taxi, a small propeller plane, to Jordão [6]. Jordão is a municipality in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. There are no roads in this region. Now only this two-hour boat ride ahead of me and the goal has been 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 hands me a pair of earrings and a bracelet - jewelry of their typical handicrafts made from Missanga [7]. I am very happy about this sign of kindness.

My new home

The house that will be my new home for the next three weeks is about five minutes from the center of the village. To reach it, Sia's wife Bunke and I go up a hill through thick underground. The house is simple, built of wood and stands on wooden stilts. "Here you will find a little rest from the hectic pace of the village," says Bunke and opens the door. The house has three rooms. We set up my sleeping place, which consists of a simple mattress. I fix my mosquito net over it. "Did you bring a flashlight with you?" Bunke asks me. She tells me that the house has no electricity.

The first night

Later that evening I make my way back up to my house on the hill. It is already pitch dark. My flashlight illuminates my way through the undergrowth and I hope that its battery doesn't suddenly fail. The path is wet. You have to be careful not to lose your sandals in the mud or to slip. The forest hums loudly and the frogs in the swamps are singing.

When I reach the house, enter and shine in, I see that two large spiders have settled inside on a wall. I'm scared. They are the size of a hand. I choose to leave them alone and hope that they are not aggressive. The house is teeming with other crawling animals and insects that are attracted to the light from my flashlight. Cockroaches crawl out of the slits in the wooden floor and walls. Some are huge. I feel a little uncomfortable. While I try to fall asleep, I still light my sleeping place every now and then to make sure that the spiders are still in place or that no other animal is sitting near my head.

During the night I suddenly startle from my sleep. It was a bad dream. I see that the spiders are still sitting at their place. Then I go out into the fresh air. It is foggy and damp. Everything is dark. A queasy feeling comes over me up here on the hill, but I try not to indulge myself in it.

The next morning at breakfast I tell Sia about the big spiders. "They are toxic," he warns me. "Don't try to reach for them. Just leave them alone. Then they won't harm you."

 

Everyday life in the village

Everyday life in the village is characterized by a simple life. Showers and toilets as we know them do not exist. Dry toilets or the forest are there for those who need to relieve themselves. At the beginning this situation gives me difficulties, but with the days I get used to it. It is quite normal in the village. For taking a bath, the villagers go down into the river. There they wash themselves and their clothes. I also make this a daily ritual. The water is a little loamy from the mud of the river bottom, but I still feel refreshed afterwards. 

The village consists of simple wooden houses. Their roofs are made of dense straw from the Urikuri palm or occasionally made of aluminum. Recently the village has received solar energy. From 6:00 p.m. after the sun has set, the center of the village now has electricity and light for a few hours. Five families live in the village all the time. Sia as Cacique lives with his family in the center of the village. Here is a place for all kinds of meetings, a school, the kitchen and a building that serves as a canteen. The houses of the other families are spread a little further across the village.

The women cook on simple open fireplaces in large aluminum pots. There is a meal three times a day. Women and men eat separately in the village. For them, the meals consist of a lot of beef and fresh fish from the nearby river. For me as a vegetarian, on the other hand, there are mainly rice, beans, eggs, cooked or grilled bananas, corn, cassava and pineapple tea. Despite its simplicity, the food is delicious. The villagers drink the groundwater from the earth's sources. Their stomachs are used to it. To prevent illness though, I brought mineral water from Jordão with me. There is no internet access in the village. However, I get used to a life offline surprisingly quickly.

During the day, the noise of chainsaws often sounds. A lot of work is being done to further prepare the village for future visitors. Families from neighboring indigenous villages are visiting to help. The work is clearly divided by gender. The women cook, carry water in large kettles on their heads from the earth wells into the village, clean the houses, do the laundry and take care of the children. Some of the teenage girls already have small babies themselves. The production of the peoples traditional handicrafts is also part of the remit of women and girls. I spend a lot of time with them and watch how they thread the small round balls from Missanga partially with their children in their arms and thus 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 in Jordão and to tourists. The men, on the other hand, take care of building houses and buying food. To do this, they go fishing, hunting or doing shopping in the municipality of Jordão. They are also the political and spiritual leaders of the community.

I love going to the forest. A short way from the village there is a small covered and open place in the middle of the forest surrounded by plants sacred to the people. Here it is possible to withdraw and to be alone with nature.

 

Inflammation of my foot

After 8 days in the village and a restless night, I wake up and notice that my body is covered with small red and itchy pimples. They can be found on my feet and lower legs as well as on my arms and are bleeding a little. It is difficult to ward off the small mosquitoes that are attracted to the bleeding spots. Despair comes up in me. I suspect that I am allergic to a plant. 

Sia takes a look at the spots and we go into the forest to collect medicine for my skin. We wind our way through the hot and humid thicket on narrow paths. The pajé [8] and his wife, who came with us, collect leaves from the bushes and trees. The wife of the pajés crushes some leaves in her hands and rubs the juice over my lower legs, feet and arms. "This is a medicine for the itching" she says. "It will calm your skin.“

Sia suddenly disappears and comes back a short time later with an elongated fruit. "Here, try this fruit". He opens it and offers me its fluffy white flesh. I accept. It tastes good, very sweet. "The name of the fruit is Ingá," says Sia. "Almost like my name," I answer. We both laugh.

The next day, my skin really has calmed down a bit. But my fear of inflammation remains and I don't want to take any chances. We take the boat and drive to the small village hospital in Jordão. The hospital staff cleans the areas and injects an antibiotic into a muscle. "This is the best antibiotic we have. It will stay in your body for three weeks,” says the male nurse. He asks me if I live in one of the indigenous villages on the river. I say yes and he then tells me that the people who come to live here in the rainforest often have to leave prematurely due to illnesses. Life in the forest is really not easy. The mosquitos, the weather, possible allergies, the lack of clean water make it a daily challenge. Glad to no longer have to worry, I thank them for the quick and good treatment.

 

An evening with music

We sit together in a small group of men, women and children. Two young men play the guitar and beat the drum. The rest of us are singing. The children are playing vividly around us. It is an everyday ritual in the village and an opportunity for the Huni Kuin people to sing their songs of healing and to express their spirituality. I enjoy sitting in this group. When I pull out my camera to capture this moment, I am quickly surrounded by the children. They curiously take my camera and want to see all of my photos. I am very touched by their natural curiosity and attachment. I especially take a little boy into my heart. His name is Tsaná. He is quiet and seems 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 reaches for myhand and holds it as if he doesn't want to let me go nevermore. I feel his pure and real childlike affection and tears come to my eyes. This is one of the beautiful and magical moments in the village. 

 

Samaúma [9] - the Queen of the Forest

The Samaúma tree is about a 15 minute walk from the village a little deeper in the rainforest. Inbuse, a brother of Sia, shows me the way. On the way we take a little break. Inbuse offers me some of his rapé [10]. The villagers use this holy medicine every day, which consists of the ground tobacco of the tobacco plant and the ashes of a sacred tree. As a result, they connect even more closely with nature. Together we take the medicine. I feel good and relaxed.

We continue to the Samaúma tree. As we enter the thicker forest, I notice again how the climate is changing. Then Inbuse suddenly stops. "See, there is the Samaúma," he says, pointing to the front. For the people Huni Kuin, the Samaúma is the “Queen of the Forest”. I look through the thicket and can see its mighty tree trunk. When we reach her, I take some time to let the moment work on me. I look at the majestic tree. It will take at least thirty people to fully embrace this tree trunk. The thick tubular roots of its strong trunk vehemently dig into the ground over several meters. Some of their roots also snake around their trunk and additionally secure them. Then I look up at its crown. I don't know how many meters. But there are definitely around 50 or 60. Its broad trunk points into the air and its green crown juts out into the sky. Inbuse points to a strut that hangs down from its trunk like a rope. "On this strut you can climb up to the crown. We call it the 'Ladder of the Spirits'," he explains.“ Up there in its crown all the spirits of the forest, plants, animals and humans are united. If you climb up there you will feel them.” I learn from Inbuse how sacred the Samaúma tree is for his people. For them, it is a connection between heaven and earth and a spirit of healing.

What a beauty, elegance and powerful energy this tree radiates. A happy and at the same time also a sad feeling spreads through me. Images of the unstoppable destruction of this rainforest come to my mind. Every day, yes every minute, trees are 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 1000 years old and brings good things for the planet and mankind.

 

"Festival de Legumes" ("Festival of Vegetables")

All the villagers are dressed up with their typical costumes and their typical body painting. Sia wears a headdress made of long white feathers from the harpya eagle and red feathers from the macaw parrots. In addition, the men have tied the leaves of the Urikuri palm around their upper bodies and foreheads and are holding their shrubs in their hands. They form a queue and hold their shoulders. The queue is led by the pajés. They start to sing and dance to the central square of the village. There also the women and children are waiting. The men reach the central village square and form a large group together with the women and children. They hold hands and dance in a circle singing. I curiously ask Inbuse what this ritual is all about. He explains to me that this festival is called "Festival de Legumes" ("Vegetable Festival"). "We perform this sacred ritual to support the growing and harvesting of the vegetables that we need in the village, such as corn, yam or cassava." The young men then sit down, make music and sing while the young girls are dancing around them. I watch this ritual curiously and admire how proudly they show their culture.

A little later I sit down with Inbuse to learn more about their culture. He is happy and begins to tell: “500 years ago, before our first contact with the Europeans, the entire village community slept on the floor in a maloca. We lived closer to nature than we do today. After our contact with the whites we started to wear their clothes and use pots and pans for cooking. We have also changed our diet. We now go less into the forest to hunt, but buy our food more often in Jordão. Nevertheless, we try to maintain our closeness to nature as much as possible, because nature presents our God to us.” “ But you were able to preserve a lot of your culture...”, I reply. "Yes, we are very happy about that," confirms Inbuse. “We still speak our language, even though it has mixed a little with Portuguese. Now it is our wish to further strengthen our culture for the coming generations and thus also to protect the forest and nature." 

Suddenly it starts to blow heavily. We look to the sky. A thunderstorm has brewed up. Heavy rain sets in. We are looking for protection in one of the malocas. The rain here in the forest is already heavy anyway, but the current rain is even stronger. The sky is black and there is thunder and lightning. In addition, it suddenly became unusually cold. The rain pours down on the roof of the Maloca like a machine gun. The violent wind that accompanies it blows the rain shower in, and we move further to the middle of the maloca so as not to get wet. The gusts of wind whip from left to right. The whole village has now sought refuge, and also the dogs are crouching in safety. Half-made thatched roofs of the newly built malocas are falling to the ground. Later in the evening after the weather has calmed down, the villagers tell me that in their entire life here in the Amazon rainforest they have never seen such heavy rain as today.

 

„Hãpaya“, The baptism ritual

I get my face painted with the red color of the fruit "urukum", which also grows here in the rainforest. “This is a preparation for a ritual that will be performed with you today. It’s a ritual de batismo. In our language it is called 'Hãpaya' and it is very sacred in our culture,” Sia explains to me. He also explains that this ritual will take place at the Samaúma tree and that I will then have to follow a special diet for three days that prohibits salt, sugar, meat and fish. A little later we set out in a small group to the Samaúma tree. We are all prepared for the ritual. Sia wears his harpya eagle and macaw parrot feather headdress and the women and children wear colorful headbands with the drawings typical for their people. I also have a headband tied around my forehead. 

Once at the Samaúma, Sia pulls out red pepper, which he previously had collected in the forest. I learn that red pepper is a very sacred medicine for the Huni Kuin people. Sia puts the red pepper on the floor. With one hand he begins to grind the pepper with a wooden stick and speaks a prayer in his language. In the other hand he holds a dead Japinim bird. Sia tells me that this bird mimics the song of all other birds and is very sacred to its people. Then he asks me to sit down. He puts a small bowl in front of my feet and tells me the meaning of the ritual. “In the legend of the Huni Kuin, this ritual means initiation. The initiate who goes through this ritual receives an initiation and is thus enabled to become a healer himself or herself. He or she should learn to sing through the spirit of the holy pepper and the holy bird Japinim and receive sacred songs of healing in his or her visions."

I have to open my mouth and stick out my tongue. Sia wets the holy bird's beak with the ground fresh red pepper and begins to dab it on the tip of my tongue. The small bowl in front of me serves to catch my saliva running down. Sia dabs the pepper on my tongue for a few minutes, saying a prayer in his language. "Now the energy of the pepper medicine has to act on your tongue for 40 minutes," he says after he's done.

I am sitting on a root of the Samaúma tree. My tongue hangs out of my mouth and saliva is dripping down. The pepper burns on my tongue but it is bearable. I pull myself together not to swallow or spit saliva during this time. I really want to go through the ritual. When the 40 minutes are over I spit the saliva that has accumulated out of my mouth and blow my nose. The energy of the pepper is very strong.

After the ritual has officially ended, we leave the forest. I go up to my house. It is exceptionally hot today, definitely over 30 degrees. Only a few clouds are in the sky. The sun is burning relentlessly on the village. In the house I lie down on my mattress. Here I am alone and can let my emotions run free. The energetic effect of the ritual is very intense. Suddenly I feel the strong urge to sing. Different melodies are shooting through my head and I start to sing. Like in a delirium I have to laugh and cry at the same time.

Then suddenly I feel very hot. My whole body feels like heated up. My pulse is accelerating. I look in my pocket mirror and see that I'm fiery red. I lie down and wait for the sun to set and it will get cooler. Maybe it's a reaction to the antibiotic that was injected two days earlier. When the sun sets, I go down to the village. A villager sees that I am not well and rubs me with cold water. Now I'm starting to feel better again. I go to Sia and ask him if this heat is a normal reaction to the ritual. He answers that it is a strong reaction, but that the power of the ritual is strongest on the first day. In total, it will last for three days.

 

The farewell

The batismal ritual and the three days of the diet are over. I feel cleansed internally and strengthened. For the future, I have decided to sing more and learn to play the guitar.

The three weeks of my stay with the Huni Kuin people are now also over. I say goodbye to everyone in the village. Dani, a young villager asks me if I would like to exchange some clothes for handmade jewelry. I bring her my rubber boots and a few T-shirts and she gives me one of her handmade Missanga bracelets. She tells me that she is six months pregnant with her third child and wishes for a girl. When I ask her how old she is, she replys that she is twenty years old.

Tsaná is playing with some boys. He sees me with my bags coming and immediately knows that I want to say goodbye. He turns away from me and I see tears gushing into his eyes. I take him in my arms. I am also very sad about this farewell. In the boat I wait for the departure with Sia, Bunke and Inbuse. They will accompany me to Jordão. Tsaná is standing at the shore, looking for me. I wave to him. Then we drive off. Txaná runs along the bank until we can no longer see each other. I wave to him one last time before we finally lose sight of each other.

 

I am glad that I lived with the Huni Kuin people for three weeks and experienced this intense adventure despite all the difficulties. The wonderful people and the magical moments will remain in my memory and in my heart.

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

[3] The political leader of an indigenous community.

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

[5] 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/

[6] 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/

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

[8The spiritual leader of an indigenous community.

[9] 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

[10] 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.

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