October 31, 2012

Between the Cross and the Pleiades: Missionaries, museums and a Baniwa shaman's heritage

"Right there in that deep pool," she pointed a weathered brown hand across the sand towards a bend in the river.  "That's where she told him to dump it."  She counted the items out on her fingers, "Virola snuff, a snake's head, a jaguar tooth, an earth-spirit crystal, yopo snuff.  All of his shaman's instruments.  Sophie made him do it."

Baniwa shamans use crystals and other magical materials to enter the spirit world and transform into various beings.

Ana, a septuagenarian Cubeo woman from Colombia now living among the Baniwa people in Brazil, describes how an American Protestant missionary named Sophie Muller convinced her uncle (now long deceased) to throw his shamanistic paraphernalia into the river and convert to Christianity in the 1950s.  Shamans of the northwest Amazon use hallucinogenic snuffs and other psychoactive plants to enter the spirit world, employing various minerals, animal parts and other magical materials during trance to transform into different animals and spirit beings[1].

"And he regretted it, too.  Says he wished he had thrown his instruments in the woods, so he could go back and get them later.  But at the bottom of the river!  He was finished.  He was the last one."

"All of his shaman's instruments. Sophie made him do it...  At the bottom of the river! He was finished."

I met Ana on a recent trip to the Içana and Ayari Rivers, tributaries of the Upper Rio Negro in the northwest Brazilian Amazon.  Concluding a three-year long project of exchange between the
Goeldi Museum and several indigenous peoples, I traveled to the Upper Rio Negro carrying digital photographs of ethnographic objects collected in the region over a hundred years ago and deposited in museums in Brazil and Europe by German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg[2].