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Ayahuasca, Colonialism, and the Death of a Healer
Kevin Tucker ~ ATTMind 96

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***See below for a complete topic breakdown.***

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About This Episode

Theodori de Bry's illustration for Las Casas 1598 book
Conquistadors’ abuses of Amerindians

Our history in the Western world is one of institutional accomplishments, technological ingenuity, and intellectual grandeur. It is also a history of theft, enslavement, and the biblical-level devastation of peoples, places, and livelihoods.

We, born and raised here in the Western world, are the bastard children of cultures warped beyond recognition by the influence of Western colonialism and all its great feats, for good and for ill, as it spread across the world. This is our history, whether we like it or not, whether we want to hear or not.

This is not a call to guilt. It is a call to clarity and, in many ways, a call to grief. For when we allow the grief contained in the death and destruction of so much before us, we can gather the capacity for understanding how we might conduct ourselves as if all that was taken and twisted is a lesson in responsibility, maturity, and humanity. Something that, in our current era, we not only need but may very well have socially evolved to be capable of… maybe.

Either way, this responsibility starts with knowing our history. It is said that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. As accurate as that may be, a truer statement might be that those who think history is behind us are doomed to perpetuate its worst, ongoingly and ignorantly.

Artwork by Luis Tamani
Artwork by Luis Tamani

In 1492, Christopher Columbus brought European colonialism to what we know of today as South America. In 1839, Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered the vulcanization of rubber. On April 19, 2018, Canadian Sebastian Woodroffe murdered 81-year-old, highly respected Shipbo healer and ingenious activist, Olivia Arévalo Lomas over a dispute regarding, ultimately, ayahuasca. It doesn’t seem at first that there might be any direct thread between these three events; however, what appears at first is rarely the actuality of what is.

According to the guest of this episode, Kevin Tucker, these three events are directly related and not only is there a direct line of causal events from Columbus to the murder of Arévalo, but that her murder is the ongoing, living history of colonialist extraction of Amazonian, indigenous resources, now acting itself out through the Ayahuasca cultural boom. Spiritual Extractivism.

Kevin Tucker is a writer and advocate of primal anarchy and rewilding. His work focuses on blending anthropology, history, and ecology to expand the critiques of civilization and colonization, exposing how domestication channels the nomadic hunter-gatherer within us into individualized consumers. He is the author of The Cull of Personality, Gathered Remains, and For Wildness and Anarchy. He founded Black and Green Press in 2000 and was the editor of Species Traitor (2000-2005), a frequent contributor to Green Anarchy (2000-2008), and is the founding editor of Wild Resistance (2015-, formerly Black and Green Review). He hosts the Primal Anarchy Podcast.

Kevin Tucker Black & Green Podcast

Tucker is on the show to talk to us about the history of resource extraction from the Amazon, the devastation it wrecked on the indigenous people of the Amazon, and how he sees that history of extraction alive in the present in the form of the spiritual extractivism around ayahuasca, with the murder of Arévalo as an example.

This is a difficult episode to listen to as it contains a lot of hard to hear information such as explicit descriptions of horrendous violence, the unimaginable costs of our modern comforts, and some very divisive perspective on the global spread of ayahuasca.

**featured image is a mirrored version of a “reproduction of Theodori de Bry’s illustration for Las Casas 1598 book. It illustrates Las Casas’ extravagant depiction of the Spanish abuses to the American Indians”. It is Public Domain.


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Episode Breakdown

    • The thesis of the conversation – Ayahuasca as a part of colonialism
    • The impact and history of colonialism in South America
    • 70-90% reduction of the indigenous population — the incredible violence of the first wave of occupation, Pizzaro
    • The difference between colonial settlement and colonial extraction
    • The impact of European arrival on existing tribal warfare
    • The role of missionaries in the slave trade and ethnocide, past and present
      • New tribes mission, “brown gold,” and yerba mate
    • The Hubris of Modernity
    • The discovery of vulcanizing rubber and the horror of the rubber boom
    • Mental health break, cause this is difficult
    • The dissatisfaction of modern life; enter ayahuasca
    • Sebastian Woodroffe’s intention
    • The ill consequences of domestication and the primacy of the individual
    • The murder of Arevalo and its connection to spiritual extractivism
    • What about the positive benefits of ayahuasca industry offers to ingenious people and culture?

Relevant Links

KEVINTUCKER.ORG

This is Tucker’s main page where you can find his other books, his podcast, and general access to a catalog of his work.

The Cull Of Personality: Ayahuasca, Colonialism, and the Death of a Healer [amazon link]

“Cull of Personality is the story of civilization, showing how a conquering society, so depraved of meaning, will seek to destroy the world to find its purpose. And when it is fought and resisted, even the coping mechanism of those who have fought it is still up for sale. “


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2 Comments

  1. Helmut Hansen Reply

    Thank you James and thank you Kevin.
    The next time I’m able to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony, I will do so with a different attitude of intent and gratitude.

  2. [I ADAPTED THIS COMMENT FROM THREE COMMENTS INITIALLY POSTED IN THE AYAHUASCA GROUP ON FACEBOOK.]

    I listened to this excellent podcast yesterday and enjoyed it a great deal. This is all in my wheelhouse so to speak, so I’ll share a few thoughts here. I could write a book in response to this but will off a few highlights only:

    1. I enjoyed the first hour or so in which Tucker reviews the brutal colonization of the Americas. I guess my decades as a journalist has made me unflappable in the face of those sordid and sometimes gory tales. When I was in Iquitos in 2013 I stumbled upon an excellent photo exhibition of the era of the rubber barons, with photos of enslaved natives. I recall the punishment for running away was having the soles of one’s feet cut off. Truly horrific. I was prepared for some of this from having listened to four-part The Conquest of Mexico series on Daniele Bolelli’s History on Fire podcast, which I recommend. (Note that the archives are being moved to the Luminary platform.)

    2. I don’t know if the book delves into this further, but one reason the Spanish were able to oppress and colonize the Americas (beyond that European diseases wiped out most of the population before they ever saw a white person, as Tucker relates) is that there were already systems of oppression throughout Central and South America. The Inca had pacified a vast region cantered on Cusco, and the Triple Alliance of the people we call the Aztecs were a brutal military force. I refer people to Graham Hancock’s historic fiction books about Cortes and Montezuma with their rich descriptions of prisoners being held in “fattening pens” in preparation for ritual sacrifice. When the Spanish arrived touch affairs had reached an industrial and genocidal scale.

    3. As a side note, Hancock’s latest book on the Americas reminds us that the Clovis culture paradigm has collapsed and civilization is likely much older and different than what we’ve thus far assumed. Ground penetrating radar has found enormous structures in the rainforest, and there’s other evidence (including DNA) that a developed civilization existed there that practiced permaculture and built elaborate water systems to capture fish in weirs. Indigenous people like the Shipibo-Conibo are among roughy 50+ tribes of the Upper Amazon and may be the scattered descendants of such a culture. Our ideas about their ancestry may be set to overturn.

    None of this negates the complete legitimacy of Tucker’s observations that the modern Ayahuasca industry is to some extent another colonial enterprise. I’d add that (predatory) capitalism could as easily be substituted for the word “colonialism” as these are often synonymous. In Spiral Dynamics terms, we have a Stage Orange industrialized society extracting cultural artifacts and experiences from a Stage Purple one (if we’re talking about truly remote jungle tribes) or perhaps Stage Blue if it’s Mestizo people closer to urban areas.

    4. I support Tucker’s observations about the neo-colonial spiritual or cultural extraction dimension of the ayahuasca retreat center industry. I wondered, however, if he’d ever taken ayahuasca himself. Also (and this could have been the flow of the interview, and not the same as the book) I wondered if Tucker was confusing the Santo Daime syncretic religion format of this medicine and what I call the “Peruvian” style where we rest on mats and follow the icaros sing by the curanderos. In the latter we don’t get the mashup of Portuguese Christianity, African spirit systems and Amazonian healing modalities.

    5. I know it’d be a colonial attitude to say that the arrival of people from industrial countries revived what was a dying tradition in some places, but there is at least some truth to it. In his book True Hallucinations, Terence McKenna recounts the difficulty he and his brother Dennis had locating ayahuasca in the region in which they traveled. It had fallen almost completely out of use. (This was not the same area as Iquitos, etc.) There are also many different uses of the medicine among different groups. It’s true that some of what we consider traditional is an invention: whether that new construct is a wholly bad thing is a matter of opinion.

    6. I was already aware of the union of curanderos who hope to reclaim their culture and protect it from the worst forms of commercialization. This is a huge step in the right direction. I think Tucker’s simple prohibition, that we should stop drinking ayahuasca, is unrealistic at this point. I feel we need to implement new strategies to address the legitimate concerns (see next points) which I have started doing myself.

    7. Ayahuasca vine is now being grown on different continents and this should be encouraged, to take the pressure off the Amazon rainforest, where it also needs planting and protection. In Canada I drink ayahuasca only seldom now, and it comes from outside South America. (I won’t name the country here as I don’t wish to out my facilitator or their source.)

    8. The plant medicine retreat network in Peru and elsewhere needs to be decolonized as much as possible. It’s not realistic to imagine these shutting down, and they perform a great service to people who experience healing and spiritual connection. Instead I’d like to see a levy applied any time the medicine is served, and the revenues flow back to the indigenous communities. I’d like to see greater involvement and higher wages paid to indigenous healers at these places. In other words, listen to the people and address their concerns.

    9. After Olivia Arevalo was murdered, a group of us in Toronto who work with these medicines held a fundraiser and raised over $1,200 that we sent to the family via a trustworthy custodian. I also raised some funds online for the family of Sebastian Woodroffe to help defer the costs of repatriating his body. (Some people objected to this, saying I was helping a murderer, but a group of us felt differently: that we as the extended ayahuasca community should offer a gesture of kindness to this family whose son had lost his way and lost his life. It was about total accountability.) We put out the challenge in this very space for other groups in other cities to also fundraise for the family of the murder victim.

    10. I have established a small bursary with a facilitator friend to help bring First Nations people to local ceremony in Canada who don’t have the financial means to participate otherwise in gatherings that cater to middle class urbanites. Much more of this kind of thing needs to happen. (And again, the medicine does not come from the Amazon and is grown sustainably elsewhere.)

    11. Where I differ with Tucker is in his dismissing that there’s some kind of secret for which these indigenous people are the caretakers — part of colonial myth making. My experience was, from the first time I drank ayahuasca, that they are indeed the caretakers and officiants of exactly such a thing. From the first time I drank ayahuasca a vast other dimension opened up, that is somewhat accessible via other psychedelics, that nevertheless has unique qualities. I felt connect to what McKenna called the Gaian Oversoul — some motherly planetary force. And I was brought back to my deepest humanity. With tears streaming I encountered the numinous in a way that’s beyond words.

    12. Related to this, my mind was decolonized by the medicine itself. I believe it was my second ceremony in Peru (unsure) where I was shown in excruciating detail how I manifested the colonial project, and also my white ancestors who had lives in Australia, and the UK before that. I was so ashamed I left the ceremony and returned to my Rambo and removed my Shipibo-pattern clothes and put on ordinary clothing. After a time someone came to fetch me and, having seen my humiliation and humility, the medicine welcomed me back and resumed the teachings, of which there were many that night, and every night since.

    This is important to understand, and I know it may not happen to everyone, but this medicine is a Trojan horse: the retreat centres may be part of a colonial capitalist project, but ayahuasca itself is one of the most profound tools to strip away the arrogance and mental conditioning of industrial society and the late-stage predatory capitalism that is destroying life on Earth. Can we afford to eschew it from fear of offending the (legitimate) sensibilities of indigenous people? I think not. Our planet is out of time. A recent article in the journal Science (I believe it was) reported an assemblage of studies that show 6 to 70 per cent of all life that was on this planet in 1970 has vanished! We’re already two-thirds the way through a mass extinction event, and aren’t doing nearly enough to avert disaster. Some reports say within one or two decades our oceans will be devoid of most life, and filled with red algae blooms.

    And the military-industrial complex in the United States and other technocratic societies is doubling down on trillion-dollar investments in new nuclear weapons, space weapons, and endless dirty wars that have destroyed or degraded whole societies like those in Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen (where over 80,000 children have died) and most recently a coup is being attempted in Venezuela, always under the pretence of it being a “humanitarian intervention” against a “brutal dictator murdering his own people” when it’s always about hegemony and control of oil and other natural resources.

    13. I’ll close by saying we can and must work with our indigenous brothers and sisters in knitting together the fibres of different races, cultures and religions into a tapestry of one human family, all of us guardians of our sacred garden planet. Without ripping off indigenous cultures with “plastic shamanism” and engaging in cultural appropriation, we can instead truly learn from the tribal and indigenous people of this Earth, have them teach us their songs, dance with them, sit in authentic ceremony conducted inside genuine and fair information and energy exchanges. In other words, it’s not only about what we must not do, what we must stop doing, but also about what we must start doing: we must build a different society, or societies plural, that are local and truly democratic, and not manifestations of yet-another 19th-century style empire based on boom-and-bust sociopathic capitalism.

    All the mystical and healing cultures and their teachers and medicine holders need to be engaged, and the people of industrial societies need to listen, pay heed, become humble, and make serious changes. Ayahuasca is only one medicine and one tradition(s) of many, which include the spiritual modalities of the East. (We could have a similar conversation about the need to decolonize yoga.) There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and we need to learn and respect it.

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