About the Huni Kuin Tribe
The Huni Kuin tribe (huni “man”, kuin, “true”) extends from the foothills of the Peruvian Andes to the Brazilian borders, in the states of Acre and southern Amazonas, encompassing the area of Alto Juruá, Purus and the Javari valley.
Their mother tongue is Hatxa kuin, “the language of truth”, although practically all of them are bilingual (Spanish and Portuguese, depending on the country). This tribe is divided into small communities or villages that have remained isolated until 1946 in the virgin forest, far from the rivers that the merchants sailed. In recent decades they have experienced a great change both in terms of internal exodus (many Peruvian populations have moved to the Brazilian side), and in their way of life.
The Huni Kuin are also called cashinahuá (or kaxinawá), perhaps because of their ability to move at night in the jungle, since kaxi means “bat” in Hatsa kuin.
Social structure and worldview
The ecosystem in which the Huni Kuin (or Kaxinawá) live is divided into three well-marked areas. On the one hand, there is the town, made up of single-family houses that rise on pillars, and malokas, roofed but open common spaces, without walls. All the constructions are entirely made with materials from the jungle. Next to the houses are the farms, cultivated areas. Then we find an area of the jungle still with a lot of human presence with open roads. Finally, there is the deep jungle, the largest virgin forest in the world, in which it is so difficult to enter. If a village emigrates to other lands and leaves the village, it will be eaten by the forest and will disappear completely under its thick green mantle in a maximum of five years.
The social life of the Huni Kuin is highly marked by their sex. Man is the predator, the hunter, he is the one who brings the meat and the raw material from the jungle. He is the nomad, the intrepid who ventures into the thick of the jungle. The woman is the one who transforms what the man brings from the outside and converts it for his inner use. She is the one in charge of handicrafts, gathering vegetables, cooking food, raising children. The man is in charge of building the house and the woman is in charge of decorating and caring for it. The man is the one who prepares and plants the farm and the woman is in charge of taking care of it and collecting the food. The woman, in principle, never goes into the virgin forest.
However, although her tasks are separated on the material and practical plane of life, both men and women are closely united on the spiritual level of all these tasks. It is a very dual organization, but neither of the parts is superimposed on the other, neither is subjugated, the two are part of the one, of the whole.
There is no marriage ceremony among their rites. The union of a couple is consecrated when the young man prepares the farm for his lover. Although parents intervene for their own interests in these unions, they cannot force young people to be together against the will of either of them. There are, however, many ceremonies that are carried out methodically, such as that of fertility, or such as that of the passage from childhood to adult life.
The Huni Kuin do not have a word for humanity or the human being. They distinguish, on the one hand, the kuin (themselves) and, on the other, the bemakia (“the other, the others”). The Huni bemakia are for them both the Incas and the whites. There is an intermediate group between them, which are the Huni Kayabi, indigenous to the same linguistic group, Pano. So, to say “all of humanity”, the Huni Kuin would say dasibi huni inun betsa betsapa, which we could translate as “all of us and others who are different”.
In their worldview, they imagine a hill that represents the world. At its top is the center and all the rivers are born from it, stretching out until they can not see its other shore. In the lower part lives a tarantula owner of cold and death. The sky extends below the earth until it meets the horizon. The Huni Kuin imagine living at the top of the hill, while the Incas and the whites, the Huni Bemakia, live below. Currently, they are both in closer positions, as the Huni Kuin have descended from the top and the whites have managed to cross the serpentine rivers thanks to the help of a large crocodile.
The Huni Kuin (or Kaxinawá) faced violent assaults by rubber tappers in force in the early 20th century and did not maintain peaceful relations with the white man until the 1950s. Then, the Huni Kuin began to maintain a relationship of exchange economy with the non-indigenous society of Brazil and Peru. The Kaxinawá, great hunters, obtained skins, feathers, and seeds in exchange for manufactured utensils. Over time, they stopped using their arrows and started using rifles for hunting, so they relied on the cartridges that the settlers sold them. The Huni Kuin thus lost their hunting autonomy, since the new generations were not instructed in the realization of arrows or in the learning of traditional hunting. When the prices of the cartridges stopped being profitable for the tribe, they began to dedicate themselves to the coil and pig farming, which drastically changed their way of life.
In 1951, the arrival of the filmmaker and anthropologist Schultz brought with it a measles epidemic that reduced the indigenous population, killing 80% of the Huni Kuin.
For the Huni Kuin, the person is made of flesh (or body) and Yuxin, a word that could be translated as “the ability to establish communication with the animals and plants of the jungle. Likewise, both animals and plants have a body side and a Yuxin side.
The tribe claims that the true shamans, the mukaya, died. They had within them the bitter and shamanic substance called muka, to communicate with the invisible side of reality, and they did not need any external substance to enter that state. Indeed it seems that many died in the 1950s, during the so-called “Schultz flu”, and it seems that many villages have cut off their relationship with the shamanic world. Some communities, however, continue to practice other forms of shamanism considered less powerful but also efficient.
The use of ayahuasca, a privilege of the shaman in many Amazonian groups, is a collective practice among the Huni Kuin, experienced by all adult and adolescent men who wish to see “the world of ayahuasca.”
The first sign that someone may be a shaman, and develop a relationship with the world of yuxin, is failure to hunt. The shaman develops a great familiarity with the animal world and by empathizing with them and seeing them as his fellow men, he can no longer kill them. Therefore, the shaman does not eat meat.
For the Huni Kuin, there are several ways to get started in shamanism. Some result from a deliberate search on the part of the apprentice, and others occur spontaneously due to the initiative of yuxin. The presence of the muka in the heart of the apprentice is an essential condition for any exercise of shamanic power, which ultimately depends on the will of the yuxin.
The specialty of huni dauya (“man with a sweet remedy”, herbal) is not usually combined with that of huni mukaya (shaman). The process of learning from the herbalist is very different from that of the shaman. Unless dealing with poisonous leaves, the herbalist is not subject to fasting and can perform normal hunting and marriage activities: he gains knowledge of it through learning with another specialist and requires keen memory and perception.
Today the spirituality of the Huni Kuin (or Kaxinawá) resonates throughout the world. This began a decade ago, with the arrival of three young Huni Kuin leaders in Rio de Janeiro with the idea of holding ceremonies outside their home area for the first time. Today many leaders travel to the five continents to offer rituals.