This is the first of three dispatches from the 2016 World Ayahuasca Conference in Rio Branco, Brazil.
On a balmy Wednesday evening in the Amazon, Waxy Yawanawa led 100 people in a long-forbidden ceremony. Bright red paint cut her face in half, coating her nose and mouth. Her powerful voice rang off of the trees as she chanted alongside the tribe's 110-year-old medicine man and served a powerful hallucinogenic tea.
Known as ayahuasca, the tea is thought to bring knowledge directly from God and is central to the spiritual practices of several Amazonian tribes.
The Yawanawa, a tribe of 1,400 people on the border between Brazil and Peru, only came into regular contact with other Brazilians two generations ago, when rubber farmers ventured north in search of land and free labor. They survived for centuries by working in plantations but when the price of rubber tanked in the mid-20th century, they started to commercialize annatto, a spiky fruit with seeds that produce red dye used in lipstick, eyeshadows and bronzers.
Ayahuasca has always been central to Yanawana spiritual practices. For centuries leaders would turn to the tea and the visions it produces for answers on everything from illness to politics. A shaman, or spiritual leader, would drink the tea and touch the forehead of other village men, relaying the messages he received from God through the hallucinations.While tobacco and pepper were also thought to have mystical properties, ayahuasca was said to transport people to another world.
Ten years ago, Waxy would not have been allowed anywhere near this ritual. Women were considered too fragile for ceremonies and told to avoid coming into contact with spiritual leaders all together. Waxy and her friends are trying to change that—they pioneered a movement to bolster women's roles in spiritual ceremonies that has now rippled throughout the Amazon.
At first, the Yawanawa men laughed at the women's quest. After all, they reasoned, becoming a shaman required a show of commitment and discipline few men could muster. Shamen had to abstain from sex, meat, salt, sugar and fish, and live in isolation for a year before being anointed.
Then, after months of pleading, the tribe's medicine man, Tutu, allowed women to attempt the feat. The Yawanawa men suddenly realized they had underestimated their women.
"If the shaman told us to take one drink a day, we would take three. If he told us to not see our families, we would stay away from absolutely everyone," said Julia Yawanawa, 35, who, along with her sister Waxy, led the movement to include women in ceremonies. "We went above and beyond what they asked, to prove we were stronger than they realized," she said.
In 2006 the Yawanawa became the first tribe to consecrate a female shaman. Neighboring tribes, like the Katukina and Ashaninka, soon followed suit.
"If the shaman told us to take one drink a day, we would take three."
Elevating women in the spiritual realm reverberated in other spheres of life. The hallucinations the women experienced while drinking ayahuasca inspired them to make tribal chants more rhythmic, and craft work more intricate. They even improved upon centuries-old technology like tobacco pipes, an integral part of spiritual rituals for the Yawanawa, used by shamen to detoxify the body and align energies.
Today, Julia and the other Yawanawa women are fighting to help women of other tribes obtain the same rights.
"We want them to see that they can be women, moms, partners and at the same time be spiritual leaders. They can learn that spiritual power has no single race, tribe or gender," she said.
That process inherently requires convincing the men, who harbor centuries of information about the tribe's spiritual practices, that women have equal claim to that knowledge and can help preserve the rituals for future generations. For veteran shamen, it can be a tough sell. Many have denounced the female-led ceremonies as illegitimate.
"Women can't withstand the power of the medicine. The modern women who are trying to use the tea are not following our tradition. They are creating imitations of our ritual and don't understand how to perform it properly," said Gilberto Kaxi Nava, a 46-year-old ceremony leader for the Huni Kuni tribe.
Determined to give women an opportunity to participate in a ceremony of their own, Julia and Waxy planned a ritual celebrating female empowerment and invited women of all tribes to try the tea for themselves.
"The men who are against this still think they should have a measure of control over women," said 31-year-old Tatiana Marquez, a member of the Guarani tribe from eastern Brazil who participated in the female empowerment ceremony. "But the men are the ones who don't understand the strength of the medicine and women's ability to discover their own power through the tea."
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