Mestizo shamanism of the Upper Amazon is closely associated with plant healing; indeed, anthropologist Françoise Barbira-Freedman speaks of vegetalismo as a syncretic mix of herbalism and shamanism. In this regard it is different from other Amazonian traditions, where shamans and herbalists occupy separate social and cultural niches. Shuar shamans, for example, have traditionally not used or prescribed plant medicine; such knowledge is widely distributed, especially among women, and herbal remedies have usually been tried before consulting a shaman in any event. Anthropologist Michael Harner, who worked with the Shuar in the 1950s and 1960s, is unequivocal: shamans, he says, never use herb remedies. Similarly, Aguaruna shamans are generally called in when a patient has already failed to respond to herbal remedies or commercial medicines.
The Cashinahua of the Purus River classify shamans into two groups — the dauya, the one with medicine, who kills and heals through the use of medicinal plants; and the mukaya, the one with bitterness, who heals and kills with the help of the yuxin, spirits, using a bitter substance called muka, which is the materialization of yuxin power. Among the Shipibo-Conibo, the raomi, herbalist, usually female, who works with the plants alone, is distinguished from, and has lower status than, both the onanya and meraya, shamans who work with plant spirits in their healing. Thus don Basilio Gordon, a Shipibo shaman, uses no physical plants in his healing practice. “If you know the icaro of a plant,” he explains, “you don’t need to use the plant.”
Similarly, among Arawak-speaking peoples in Guyana and the Venezuelan Amazon, there are several levels of shamanic specialization. At the lowest level is the biníji, who prepares medicines with plants and water; one step above is the makákana, the blower who cures by blowing tobacco smoke; then the uyúkuli, who cures by sucking; and then the sibunítei, who cures by dreams and divination.
Among the Desana, there are two sorts of traditional healer — the yee, jaguar-shaman; and the kumu, blower of spells. The yee derives his powers — including the ability to turn into a jaguar — from contact with spirits after ingesting hallucinogenic snuff, and cures by seeing the sickness inside the patient’s body, blowing tobacco smoke, massage, and sucking out the pathogenic objects from the body and spitting them away. The kumu cures by the inaudible recitation of highly formalized therapeutic spells over a liquid the patient then drinks, or over a plant that is then rubbed onto the patient’s sick body part. The liquid or plant gives the spell a material support and transfers it to the patient.
These disparate functions — preparing plant medicines, sucking out pathogenic objects, blowing tobacco smoke, singing icaros over medicines — are combined by the vegetalista, the mestizo healer.
The distinction between shaman and herbalist, however, is not universal. Among the Baniwa of Brazil, for example, shamans deal with manhene witchcraft — inflicted through secret poisonings — both by sucking out the poison, which then appears as monkey or sloth fur, and by recommending plant medicines, usually various types of root that counteract the gastric effects of the poison. César Zevallos Chinchuya, a Campa shaman, uses herbal remedies that do not differ from those used by other adults in his area.
And, among the Cashinahua, the distinction is not really as simple as presented above: plants themselves are imbued with and vehicles of yuxin, spirit matter and energy, in just the same way as the shaman is filled with materialized yuxin power.
And elsewhere, too, the distinction seems to be dissolving, under the influence of mestizo practices. Shuar shamans today, especially those who live near larger jungle population centers, increasingly incorporate Hispanic healing techniques from the mestizos — the use of Tarot cards for divination, cleansing with eggs and candles, and the use of herbs. Indeed, the Asociación Tsunki, a shamans’ organization within the Federación Shuar, has recently offered courses in Shuar and Achuar traditional medicine, open only to uwishín, shamans, which have included training in gathering plants and preparing plant medicines.