The Guardians of Amazonia

Acre, Brazil

/December 2019 – January 2020/


1. Huni Kuin people have been living in the Amazon jungle for over 1500 years, always calling the forest their home. Huni Kuin translates as “true people.” The tribe speaks its own Kaxinawá language, specifically Hancha Kuin, meaning “true words.”


2. When Huni Kuin people speak about plants, they address them as spirits. Every healing herb is a transformation of their ancestors, turned into remedial greenery. After death, great curanderos or pajés, as they call the shamans, reincarnated into their plant double to help future generations of healers. To see, feel and hear more, so they can understand the underlying forces that propel the world better.


3. The ceremonies and rituals are an integral part of Huni Kuin culture. Through them, the tribe strengthens and opens the connection to the invisible realms and other dimensions, where nature knows more than humans could ever imagine. Awakening the forces with icaros, sacred songs, is not just for special occasions, every moment can be a time for gratitude, a prayer or a blessing. 


4. The history of Huni Kuin people tells a story of five different periods. Starting with the time of maloka (before 1540), the tribe lived together under one roof of round maloka house. In the time of contact (1540 – 1600), the first interactions took place with the outside civilizations. In the time of repression (1880 – 1910), the indigenous people became enslaved by rubber plantation owners, exploited almost to extinction. In the time of demarcation (from 1970 on), the jungle came to be Huni Kuin’s official home again. They slowly started to develop new social systems, such as healthcare and education, with the modest help of the Brasilian government. In recent years the time of connection arose, a time in which merging two cultures, the indigenous and the western one, will give birth to a new world, inclusive to all.


5. The sacred Samaúma tree represents a living heart of the jungle and Huni Kuin tribe, almost every village having their ancient plant. The majestic tree is known as the Queen of the Forest, the great mother of all trees, protecting its surroundings and forest inhabitants. Expanding deeply to the earth and eminently to the sky, Samaúma symbolizes the dual nature of human being, living in the material world but crossing continuously to metaphysical realms.


6. The forest is not only a place of inspiration; it supplies the tribe with resources they inevitably need to survive. Food, wood and straw are used for daily necessities, never lasting long in the harsh Amazon environment. But there is a pharmacy in the forest too, with hundreds of species, known only to those who know how to see. By testing a patient with different plants and their parts, the pajés identify what a person responds. The herbs heal not just through their active substances, but they awaken the spirits, which help the person to heal themselves.


7. It is said the jungle is like a woman. They were both made to create life. But never on command, their magic can grow only when they are left free to expand, breathe and evolve in secret internal rhythms, sometimes in chaos and holy mess. The moment a woman is left without space to explore her being, she starts to crumble inside, slowly losing her power. Because everything, which doesn’t belong to the jungle, destroys it in the end.


8. Weaving is an essential part of Huni Kuin culture, principally carried out by women. Myths, stories and symbols come alive through colourful patterns, with every line brimming with meaning. Although wool is mostly bought in stores today, accessories for this ancient practice are found in the forest. Women locate, gather and refine thin wooden sticks that help them to set up a portable loom. Looms can be used on any occasion, preferably in a good company of other females. While many Huni Kuin people wear weaved clothing and accessories daily, selling artisan products to people outside the community represents an essential way of gaining financial means for women, who have no personal economic stability.


9. Time runs differently deep in the forest. Sharing is a way of life in the jungle, with whole families partaking in daily cords and rituals together. Living conditions impose a constant struggle to keep at least some of the inventory’s usability, with always something more to be done or be repaired. Constant effort is balanced by the consistent support of other villagers, who share the similar task list. But continuity in work does not determine a faced paced life tempo, quite the opposite, there is always a time for a chat or a prayer, reviving the community’s core.


10. Food is scarce and runs out fast. With many mouths to feed and not much farming assets, the diet mostly consists of rice, corn, cassava and bananas. Animal protein is rare, with occasional fish from the river, eggs, chicken and sometimes beef. Vegetables are not a common sight on a plate, and fruits are mostly eaten as a dessert. The distance between a village and a town, where one can buy food, depends on the location of the village and the state of a river, which can be quite unpredictable.


11. Huni Kuin people speak about the Times of maloka, the period before contact with the Western civilization, with great nostalgia. They don’t like to reminiscence about the years their ancestors spent enslaved by conquistadors and rubber plantation owners, nor years their community was torn apart by violence, prohibitions and exploitation. Instead, they focus on what they’ve managed to preserve – their sacred knowledge of the forest, unique but equally encompassing.

Not every village has such unbroken spiritual tradition as Huni Kuin Aldeia Sao Joaquim, proud of their Centro de Memoria, an hommage to late pajé Augustinho Manduca Mateus Ikamuru. The great pajé wrote Una Isi Kayawa, the unique book where he documented over 350 plants and practices of the Huni Kuin people. 


12. Since 2016, the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is reaching alarmingly high numbers. Clear-cutting rose more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same three-month period last year, which marks the 13th subsequent month of increased desertification. At the beginning of May 2020, Jair Bolsonaro’s government fired two IBAMA, environmental agency coordinators with a history of significantly reducing deforestation in indigenous territories.


13. “We are the forest; our families are the forest; we transformed into nature a long time ago. This plants that surround us are our guides, our doctors, and we have no plan of giving up on them. It’s a part of our guardianship, and there is no way for us to detach from the jungle anytime in the future. With a lot of respect, we are the caretakers of the Amazon forest, and this is how it was since the creation of the planet earth itself. The guardianship is our duty, and we will always be bound by this powerful bond.”

Siã Txana Huibei Huni Kuin