October 2, 2013

The Cheerful Pessimist: A shaman's farewell to Mariano Vicente Kicha

"Ariota pairani…"

'And so it was long ago…'

With those simple words in his rich, sonorous voice, Mariano began each one of the dozens of myths, folk tales and local histories that I recorded with him over more than 25 years of field research in the Matsigenka Native Community of Yomibato in Manu National Park, a tropical rainforest reserve in southeastern Peru.

Mariano Vicente Kicha was recognized as a true leader among the Matsigenka, and that is quite a distinction among this notoriously acephalous indigenous society that does not easily recognize political authority above the level of small, dispersed, autonomous residence groups. So intense was the Matsigenka's aversion to authority that the only leaders to exist prior to the 1974 "Law of Native Communities" (imposing democratic-style elections) were despotic, self-imposed opportunists, often outsiders, who took advantage of their knowledge of foreign languages and trade contacts to exploit remote Matsigenka communities, economically as well as sexually. The "Kurakas" -- the term itself is a loan word from highland Quechua peoples, reinforcing its exogenous nature -- typically maintained multiple wives and served as intermediaries with outside economic interests.

Mariano was a different kind of leader.

Mariano Vicente Kicha: 1930? - 2013

He was recognized among the Matsigenka throughout the Manu River as a shaman and herbal healer, and was respected for never using these powers to cause harm. His mother, Kicha, was a prominent shamaness herself, and Mariano apprenticed as a youth under Peremperem, a legendary Matsigenka shaman. Though he was hardly forthcoming (the Matsigenka never are), Mariano over many years and in many unexpected and subtle moments shared his deep shamanistic and botanical knowledge with me. 

Mariano was also one of a handful of the most respected Matsigenka elders known as Kenkitantatsiriri, the transmitters of oral tradition. The term in Matsigenka means literally, "those who pass on memory," though it was translated somewhat unfortunately by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa as El Hablador ('The Talker, Gossiper') in a novel based loosely on Matsigenka myth and history. 

On a trip back to the region in 2009 I took a stack of CDs containing digitized audio of a few stories from Mariano's vast repertoire. As I walked through the village, I heard his voice and his stories everywhere, pouring forth from battered boom boxes that moments before had been playing perky Peruvian huaynos.

In the Emmy-Award winning Discovery Channel film, Spirits of the Rainforest, Mariano takes center stage, sharing his knowledge of medicinal plants and telling numerous important myths and oral histories, truncated rather savagely by the feature-length television format. His mother, Kicha, makes a charming cameo appearance in the film reprimanding her husband, Manuel. A second film, The Spirit Hunters, was edited using some of the same footage, and can now be viewed online at Culture Unplugged

Mariano applying medicinal eyedrops to improve a hunter's aim

As a young man, perhaps in the early 1950s, Mariano and his step-father Manuel led a daring raid against the enemy Toyeri people. The Toyeri had been decimated by disease, rubber tapper massacres and inter-group warfare, to the point where only a single family was left in their traditional territory along the upper Manu. The Toyeri had taken to attacking Matsigenka villages and abducting girls in the hopes of re-building their population. After many deadly attacks, the Matsigenka finally decided to take revenge. Mariano and Manuel led a group that wiped out the final Toyeri outpost, rescuing two abducted Matsigenka girls. The older one was already pregnant with the Toyeri chief's last offspring. The younger of the two rescued girls, Justina, soon married Mariano.

Justina Shamoko and Mariano Vicente raised a large family, and the communities of Tayakome and Yomibato today are populated by a vast clan of their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren, many of whom occupy important leadership roles in the community. 

In the early 1960s, Protestant missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) contacted many dispersed, isolated Matsigenka families throughout the Manu headwaters and convinced them to settle at Tayakome. Although the missionaries provided badly needed health care and schools with native-language literacy materials, they also interfered with traditional practices, especially shamanism. In 1973, the Peruvian government established Manu National Park and expelled the SIL missionaries. 

The Matsigenka's health declined severely after the missionaries left Tayakome, and they were also victims of increasingly frequent and fatal attacks by the isolated and bellicose Nahua people of the Manu River headwaters, themselves subject to intrusion by oil companies and loggers. In the late 1970s, Mariano led a large contingent of his kinsmen to break from Tayakome and establish the new community of Yomibato, seeking refuge from disease outbreaks, social conflict and Nahua attacks in Tayakome. A mysterious and horrific epidemic of burning, gangrenous infections beset the new community during these difficult times, and Mariano identified and expelled the sorcerer believed responsible for causing it. 

[More details on the history of Matisgenka communities of Manu Park can be found in the article "Trouble in Paradise," Journal of Sustainable Forestry 29(2): 252-301]

I first went to Yomibato in 1987 -- I was 22 years old -- just two years after the Nahua's final attack against the Matsigenka at Herinkapanko, a settlement upstream from the main Yomibato community. During the raid Mariano's stepfather, Manuel, took seven arrows to his body, but miraculously survived. In The Spirit Hunters, Manuel shows these arrow wounds to one of his great-grandchildren. The Nahua were "pacified" in 1985 by loggers and soon succumbed to overwhelming epidemics, losing nearly half of their population: the Matsigenka blame the Nahua's decimation on the same sorcerer Mariano had expelled from Yomibato.

In Yomibato, 1992

Since my first days in Yomibato, Mariano adopted me into his family, and thus began over twenty-five years of research, mentorship and friendship that has marked my life. 

I learned much from Mariano, including the Matsigenka's characteristic dark humor encapsulated in an endearingly fatalistic attitude that I have described as "cheerful pessimism":

Matsigenka discourses of farewell demonstrate this outlook quite clearly. Whenever I leave a village to travel elsewhere or return home, Matsigenka friends go into an elaborate enumeration of all the misfortunes that might befall them: “I might get bitten by a snake. My canoe could turn over and I could drown. Or I could fall from a tree harvesting sweet fruits.  An epidemic of colds or diarrhea could take me.  If you're gone too long, I could even die of old age.” The tone, half earnest, half joking, belies both fatalism and a rather dark sense of humor. I respond with my own litany:  “The motor could stall and the boat turn over in the rapids. The airplane might fall from the sky. I could get highjacked by terrorists or mugged in Lima...” After registering such hyperbolic, albeit plausible, considerations, the farewell concludes: “But if I am still alive when you return, I'll be happy to see you again.”

[excerpted from "Three Days for Weeping: Dreams, Emotions and Death in the Peruvian Amazon" Medical Athropology Quarterly 16(2): 200-229.]

I returned often to Manu and to Yomibato on various research grants, community development projects and films through the 1990s and 2000s. However as Mariano got older, he began to spend more and more time at a distant settlement, some four hours' walk from the main community. I think he wanted to get away from the bustle of the quickly growing and changing community, as well as to spare himself the increasingly frequent waves of respiratory epidemics that beset the village as the Matsigenka greatly intensified their contacts with outsiders through an ecotourism project. I made the trek once, just to visit him, around 2006. As we said our goodbyes that time, he went through the fatalistic litany that had become so familiar to me:  "An epidemic of colds or diarrhea could take me.  If you're gone too long, I could even die of old age...”  

I made a few shorter visits to the community through the end of 2011, but Mariano was never in the main community and I was frustrated that my schedule didn't leave me time for the long walk to his house. I always inquired about his health and sent my greetings. Everyone told me that he was getting quite old, and I wondered whether I would see him again. 

I recently received news from Yomibato that Mariano passed away on June 15th. As much as I was saddened, having hoped to see him one last time to say goodbye, I noticed -- in a kind of unanticipated emotional double-take -- that my sentiment stopped short of regret. After all, we had already said our goodbyes, in the darkest, most hyperbolic and pessimistic terms, over and over again, for years. 

I suddenly understood the profound wisdom contained in the Matsigenkas' fatalistic salutations of departure. To Candide's affirmation, "You're a hard man," the pessimistic Martin replies, "I've lived." Pangloss's manic optimism, on the other hand, sows only regret and disillusionment. Little wonder the Matsigenka have always cultivated their gardens.

Mariano in an old garden site, 1999

And yet Matsigenka shamans, unlike ordinary mortals, never really die: they walk off into the forest and ascend the sky, shedding their old skin to join the ranks of the immortal shamans who protect the Matsigenka from evil; they inhabit the magical forest clearings where invisible guardian spirits convene and share their knowledge with apprentice shamans. 

In recent years, ever since the last time I saw him, I sometimes look up into a clear night sky or into the depths of the forest and can almost hear the rich baritone of Mariano's voice.

"Arioro," he would always say at the end of each story:

'And so it was.'


In memory of Mariano's passing I also posted a previously published piece about how he initiated me with "Dream Tobacco"