June 5, 2015 by Christopher Herndon
Historic Meeting of the Remaining Matsés Elder Shamans Concludes with Completion of First Indigenous Medicine Encyclopedia
Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazon rainforest, the last remaining elder shamans of the Matsés tribe came together from distant villages in a quest to save their ancestral knowledge from the edge of extinction. This meeting concluded over two years work and culminated in the first encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge written by Amazonian tribal shamans ever produced.
On May 16th, after more than two years of work, the leaders of Acaté and the Matsés met to finalize the Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia. This historic meeting was held over a period of five days in the Matsés village of Puerto Allegre on the Rio Yaquerana, one of the most remote villages and the last settlement before the river’s headwaters, a vast territory that contains at least one ‘uncontacted’ tribal group living in voluntary isolation.
The meeting was lead by Daniel Vella Collantes, High Chief of the Matsés People and the Matsés Council. Chiefs from 11 of the Matsés communities attended along with 6 Matsés elder healers and the team members from each of the Encyclopedia chapters. Acaté was represented by Co-Founders Christopher Herndon and William Park, together with Field Coordinator David Fleck.
In typical Matsés fashion the introductions were short and the meeting turned to the first agenda item “How do we preserve and transmit the invaluable medicinal knowledge of the elders to the next generation as a living system of health provision.”In a world in which cultural change is destabilizing even the most isolated societies, the healing knowledge of the Amazonian shaman is disappearing.
The health of Amazonian peoples has always depended on the wisdom of their elders. Passed down through the centuries, the knowledge of medicinal plants and techniques of treatment that have been accumulated are a product of their deep spiritual and physical ties to the natural world. The Matsés live in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and have mastered knowledge of its healing properties.
Although the giant monkey tree frog was first described by naturalists in the 18th century, its chemical properties were unknown until the Matsés were first contacted and observed to use its skin secretions in hunting rituals.
It is hard to overstate just how quickly this knowledge can be lost after a tribe makes contact with the outside world. Once extinguished, this knowledge, along with the tribe’s self-sufficiency, can never be fully reclaimed. Historically, what follows the loss of endemic health systems in many indigenous groups is near total dependency on the rudimentary and extremely limited external health care available in such remote and difficult-to-access locations.
Health provision to remote villages such as the Matsés community of Estirón is challenging and limited.
The knowledge of the Matsés is still largely intact as sustained contact with the national cultures only occurred within the past half century. This presents a rare opportunity in the 21st century to be proactive. All the remaining elder healers were adults at the time of initial contact and had already mastered their knowledge before being told it was useless by missionaries and government workers. Sadly, due to these outside influences none of the elders have apprentices or younger Matsés interested in learning from them. Yet, at the same time, most villages still depend on and actively utilize the medicinal plants of the remaining few elder healers, most of whom are estimated to be over the age of 60. Their knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of generations stands on the very precipice of extinction. One of the most reknowned Matsés healers died a few years ago before his knowledge could be passed on.
The Encyclopedia is fully written by and from the world view of indigenous shamans, the first to our knowledge of its kind and scope.In 2012, Acaté and the Matsés elders developed a three-point plan of action to preserve and transmit their self-sufficiency and the knowledge of their ancestors. The first step involved documenting this knowledge in the form of the book written in their language. Each chapter of the Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia was written by a renowned elder shaman chosen by the community. Each elder worked together with a younger Matsés who transcribed the plant knowledge and photographed each plant. The photos and text were compiled by Wilmer Rodríguez López, a member of the Council and an expert in written Matsés.
Wilmer and Dr. Fleck review chapters of the Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia. Compiled together, the Encyclopedia is over 500 pages in length and written entirely in the Matsés language.
After two years the Encyclopedia includes chapters by five Matsés elders and is over 500 pages long! Each entry is categorized by disease name, with explanation of how to recognize it by its symptoms; its cause; and which plants to use, how to prepare the medicine and alternative therapeutic options. A photograph of each plant taken by the Matsés accompanies each entry in the encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia is written by and from the world view of the Matsés shaman, describing how rainforest animals are involved in the natural history of the plants and connected with diseases. It is a true shamanic encyclopedia, fully written and edited by indigenous shamans, the first to our knowledge of its kind and scope.
Each elder shaman contributed a chapter to the Encyclopedia, which was then compiled and edited collectively by the tribal shamans at the Meeting. The first of its kind, this initiative can serve as a replicable model for other indigenous groups facing loss of traditional knowledge.
Because the Matsés have very limited radio communication between the communities, meetings and word of mouth are the only means of sharing information. For this reason, it is very important during the meetings to ask for feedback and concerns from the community members. It was agreed by all participants that the completion of the encyclopedia is an important first step. As there are few opportunities for their generation to earn money, the elders pointed out the importance for their families of the payment stipends they received for their work.
During our Q and A on the Encyclopedia, the son of Alberto, one of the most knowledgeable elders, raised concerns over who was protecting the information on the medicines. Acaté President and physician Christopher Herndon took this opportunity to explain the safeguards Acaté and the Matsés have in place to protect the medicines from bioprospecting from pharmaceutical companies and other parties. He explained that the Encyclopedia is only written in Matsés, by and for the Matsés, and that no translations will be made into Spanish or English. It will be printed for the Matsés, at their direction, and neither published nor disseminated outside of their communities. In addition, no scientific names are included or photographs of flowers or other easily identifiable characteristics of the plants to outsiders.