Deep within the mountainous rainforest of Ecuador, many days walk from the nearest road, lives a tribe that call themselves Shuar ("the people"). Their homeland is a place of wondrous beauty and yet great danger, where anaconda lurk in the rivers and jaguar prowl at night. Spirit of the Shuar is a book that tells their story, in their own words. After you have read it, you will know why Spirit of the Shuar has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
The Shuar are proud people who are perhaps the only tribe remaining in all of the Americas who have never surrendered to any would-be conquerors. Until recently, the Shuar lived in a shroud of secrecy, fiercely protecting their lands and privacy. Twenty years ago it would have been unimaginable that Shuar warriors, women, elders, and uwishin ("the ones who know") would willingly and openly share their traditions, mysteries, and life stories with outsiders. But these are new and challenging times for the Shuar. They are struggling to retain their traditions as well as their right to survive in the face of the insatiable hunger of oil companies and lumber conglomerates for their lands. And missionaries who seek to save their souls and rescue them from ways deemed uncivilized. Too many outsiders have in recent years come to them with the intent to teach and reform, but not to learn. And, as you will learn from reading Spirit of the Shuar, the Shuar have much wisdom to convey.
In this spirit Mariano Chumpi, a Shuar warrior and co-author of Spirit of the Shuar, agreed to record on cassette tape the stories and wisdom, the feelings and impressions, of his people. The resulting transcripts were put in book form by Mariano's long-time friend, John Perkins. This collaboration resulted in a masterpiece! Spirit of the Shuar combines the colorful spoken language of a peoples reliant upon oral tradition with the skilled written craftsmanship of author John Perkins who first became acquainted with the Shuar as a Peace Corps volunteer over 30 years ago. It is a sensitive and revealing portrayal of the traditions, way of life, and spiritual practices of a people who proudly stand against the pressures of modernism.
The tales contained within Spirit of the Shuar are told in a direct and elegantly simple style. The pages come alive as the reader is given a glimpse into what it might feel like to live among the Shuar. Warriors share their experiences of participating in head-hunting wars. Shamans speak of all-night healing ceremonies during which both the uwishin and his patient typically consume a powerful medicine plant, ayahuasca. Later, the uwishin blows tsentsak, invisible darts, into the heart of his patient to aid him in seeing where the problem originates and how it must be healed. Women discuss how they prepare chicha, a fermented manioc beverage which serves as a primary food for the Shuar, which men are only permitted to touch with their lips. Intimacies about family living, courtship and sexual practices are openly discussed; such details are a natural part of living to the Shuar and there is no hint of embarrassment or withholding. Rosa Shakai, Mariano's mother, even explains how Shuar women "rein in their men" when they cut down too many trees or hunt more than need dictates.
Spirit of the Shuar also contains 12 pages of color photos of the peoples and places you read about. You will see people like Tukupi, the most famous of living Shuar warriors, who as a young man defeated and killed thirty-three enemies - mostly Achuar - in hand-to-hand combat. But now, as an elder, he is regarded as a great healer for Shuar and Achuar alike. You will see the Shuar dressed in their traditional clothes and in their missionary-approved attire. The intimacy of the words and pictures will make you will feel as if you have been invited into a Shuar home to share in a cup of chicha and animated conversation. I found delight as I was permitted a rare glimpse into the thinking and lifestyle of people who continue to live in much the same manner as did their ancestors hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before. I think you will too.
But Spirit of the Shuar is so much more than a well-told rendition and exposé of a culture and peoples different from our own. It is an appeal by the Shuar for our help...not in monetary terms, but in attitude. These proud, formerly secluded people opened their hearts and lives because it is their belief that when their ways are understood, and their humanity is accepted as equal yet different from our own, that their traditions and right-to-exist unmolested will be acknowledged and supported. For make no mistake about it...the jungles are shrinking and indigenous peoples such as the Shuar are fast disappearing from the face of the planet. If these peoples are to survive, if the very lands upon which they live are to remain pristine and a haven for a multitude of species (many of which are not even yet known to scientists), as a culture we must "change our dream".
Those individuals who contributed their thoughts and intimacies in the Spirit of the Shuar are explicit in their hope that those of us from industrialized nations who participate in the dominion and exploitation of nature and resources will come to replace this value by more earth-friendly dreams. The Shuar - who have never known defeat and who live in harmony with the dangers inherent in jungle life - do not give up, they adapt. Proud warriors who in earlier times would have fought to the death to repel an outsider are now revealing their secrets, willingly and freely. In reading their words you will fall in love with the beauty of the jungle and perhaps come to feel, as I do, that the peoples and the land in which they live hold a beauty that is worthy of our respect and protection.