© Manuel de la Rua
“The resurgence of Western psychedelic research and practice has led to increasing concerns from many Indigenous Nations regarding cultural appropriation, lack of recognition of the sacred cultural positioning of these medicines, exclusionary practices in research and praxis, and patenting of traditional medicines. Indigenous voices and leadership have been notably absent from the Western psychedelic field currently widely represented by Westerners.” (Read more here)
Indigenous Reciprocity is a topic I have been desperate to highlight on Funga. Not only because it is something I am urgently seeking to deepen my knowledge about but also because I feel that these “uncomfortable” conversations need to happen in order to create awareness, respect for others and to bring about change. If we are afraid to have them, how can we expect people to be less ignorant?
I knocked on many doors to try and get someone to share their take on Indigenous Reciprocity with me, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Amánda Argot Efthimiou that someone answered. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview her and start learning more about the ethical principles and history of (indigenous) Reciprocity.
Below is an account of Amánda´s perspective of some indigenous peoples she has worked with and learned from. She does make sure to tell me, “I’m not of indigenous origin, nor do I claim to be an expert on these matters. I’m bringing my own perspectives as someone who is making an active effort towards listening and understanding indigenous experiences of reciprocity and how we can apply to our own lives.” It is also important to note that not all indigenous communities think the same way or have the same notion of reciprocity.
What does Indigenous Reciprocity mean?
For me the word reciprocity, and how it’s related to indigenous reciprocity, is about relationships. Reciprocity is this act of being in the right relationship with self, others, and nature. It’s this harmony between giving and receiving; the balance between the human and plant elements. From my perspective and from what I’ve learned from a few indigenous spiritual leaders who shared with me about reciprocity in relationship with plant medicine, it’s working with these medicines as an act of service — to others and to nature. It’s not to take some kind of medicine to heal only ourselves. What is our offering?
In terms of indigenous reciprocity, it is finding balance again for what has been imbalanced for centuries by the mistakes and acts of extraction and colonialism. In many ways, reciprocity is actually an acknowledgment and then a way of restoring that balance.
It is really important that we understand how certain indigenous communities see reciprocity before we try to help or take on a role of giving back without actually understanding what they mean by reciprocity. It is a broader sense of how all relationships are designed in harmony.
The psychedelic industry sees reciprocity through this act of giving back, which starts with acknowledging what’s been taken away. So before reciprocity can happen, there needs to be reparations or actual making up for the fact that we’ve extracted over years of colonialism. We make those amends, and only then, once we are in a space of harmony or balance, can we act in accordance with their notion of what reciprocity means, which differs across cultures. For us, our best way of ensuring reciprocity is that whatever we take, we make sure we replenish. So whether it is wisdom being understood or learned by these cultures, how can we then give back to them in a way that makes sense or that they wished to be received and understood?
Where do the largest indigenous communities live today?
I can speak to the indigenous populations in Brazil. The most recent stats are that there are 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil alone who speak 274 languages, and of the Amazon population, 1.5 million people are indigenous, distributed across 385 ethnic groups. (Read more)
In the Brazilian Amazon, Acre is the most diverse region for the number of indigenous cultures in a single area working with plant medicines such as ayahuasca.
Can you speak a little to the recent fight for introducing the Bill 490/2007 in Brazil that will remove indigenous rights and protections on the Amazon Rainforest?
Jair Bolsonaro, the former President of Brazil, initiated a bill that was still pending approval during Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency. Lula is much more sympathetic to the indigenous cause. However, the fact that this bill is even under consideration suggests that a significant portion of Brazil, including its government, may not support indigenous rights. Essentially, the bill proposes to strip a large portion of indigenous territories of their rights, making them vulnerable to exploitation by loggers and cattle ranchers. This poses a grave threat as it could lead to widespread destruction, and the indigenous communities would be left without legal protection or support. Numerous petitions have been circulated in opposition to the bill, and as of now, the outcomes of such efforts are yet to be determined.
I took a plane over the parts of the Brazilian Amazon that have been destroyed. You’re on a little plane, but you’re going fast enough, and, in your view, you only see burnt forest. Can you imagine? It is really hard to see with your own eyes only what you’ve seen before in the media; this experience truly woke me up to the realities of deforestation.
Here, we are not talking about reciprocity from the sole perspective of plant medicine; this is about helping indigenous people reclaim their lost territory and revive the lands that have been taken away and/or destroyed. Indigenous people comprise less than 5% of the world’s population but are stewards of more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. They are a small population around the world that really are guardians of nature, and so we need to protect them by protecting nature and for the natural world to continue to protect them.
What have you learned from your time spent with indigenous communities and what values and practices are most important?
Firstly, I have learned that there is no singular indigenous way. We often speak about indigenous communities and put them all under one umbrella of a single community or cosmovision. There are not only hundreds of communities around the world but within each community within a particular territory, there are multiple spiritual and political leaders with differing worldviews. When I learn from someone, I am learning from one specific individual who has a particular perspective and way of life, and they represent their own community in a way that is true to them.
It is very nuanced what I say, but it is important because when people ask, “What is the indigenous way of working with plant medicines?” the answer is that there is no singular way because of the vast differences in perspectives.
In terms of what I have learned, and again, I speak only from my own perspective and not on behalf of anyone else, is that the transmission of knowledge is often done without many words. So what I have learned from them is that you often don’t need to say much to understand. It’s really about listening to nature and what’s around you, tapping into your intuition. That reflection of what you’re looking for actually comes from within you and from what you see and observe. Often, whatever is transmitted is done by the way they are acting, the way they are preparing something, the way they hold space, and the way they are carrying themselves in a particular place. A lot is intuitive and embodied, and it is beautiful to witness how closely connected many of these communities that I’ve met are to nature and how little needs to be transmitted by the mind or by what we might construe from our own perspective.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?
Appropriation is an interesting topic because we may not necessarily be doing these things consciously, and there is a very fine line.
I myself am wearing a bracelet made from members of the Huni Kuin, and I met and bought it directly from the person who made it. This was an exchange for someone’s artisanal craftsmanship and dedication to her culture, and I can feel proud to wear it. That’s one thing; another is assuming the feathers of spiritual leadership, headdresses, or something of a very high significance. It’s not only not assuming to wear it because you may not understand that significance, but you are also potentially contributing to the destruction of the ecosystems from which these feathers come from. In principle, most communities pick the feathers off of dead birds, but the more people find these feathers trendy and want to buy them, there is a possibility they will be incentivized to start picking them from live animals. Some communities may choose to make adaptations to this demand. So, it is also our responsibility to ensure that we are not contributing to commercializing unsuitable or endangered products.
It’s appropriation when done without awareness or understanding, in the assuming of certain rituals and clothing without having had any initiation to do so or having a connection to them. We have attribution, which is very different from appropriation; there are instances we can attribute, pay respect for, and honor the traditions and teachers from whom we are learning from.
What are your thoughts on all the ayahuasca ceremonies being taken out of the context of where they are from?
My take personally is that I don’t believe that these medicines should be done in an urban context without the right container, safety measures in place, and the appropriate facilitation. The potency of these plants comes not only from the way the medicine is prepared but also from who is facilitating it and in what setting. I believe you’re really disconnecting the medicine from it’s essential source when you’re not in the correct environment.
There is a very big debate, specifically around ayahuasca, whether the medicine should leave the forest or remain in its place of origin origins. Some communities, like the Huni Kuin and the Yawanawá, travel outside their territories. They take the medicine with them and serve in beautiful places around the world. For many of them, it is a reasonable and sanctioned activity.
Then you have another community like the Cofán in Colombia. I’ve spoken with some members of Cofán on their view on cultural appropriation and medicine, and they disapprove of taking the medicine out of the forest. They say, “If you want to work with this medicine, you need to come to travel to us to learn, understand us, receive permission, and then we will engage.”
But, this spiritual tourism to the forest can be highly destructive to the ecosystem. It can be a huge carbon imprint, not to mention a disruption of local bioculture on a number of levels.
All this to say that there is a lot of complexity in the debate among the Amazonian communities around whether the medicine should leave the forest.
Why is indigenous reciprocity such an ethical landmine that people in the industry find it difficult to comment on publicly?
People might be more fearful because the psychedelics industry knows that they are part of the system that is inherently extractive. They know that, in some way, they are because in some cases this would mean stopping their extractive practices. To avoid this, many may choose to bring awareness to the problem, and they’ll do what they can to fix it, which can look like donating to nonprofits acting in the service of and driven by indigenous peoples. Some nonprofits are governed by indigenous leadership working to promote bio-culture regeneration and preservation. That is wonderful, but how much of these organizations’ donations are considered greenwashing, or are the intentions pure?
People are afraid to say something because they might be on the dishonorable side of the equation. It’s a risk to share these perspectives. For example, I am speaking from my perspective, always, yet I might say something that will offend an indigenous person, community or that may bring a negative impact on a drug development company or other psychedelics organization. I take that responsibility, however, but some people don’t want to go there and engage because that would require a process of listening, thoughtful communication, and an understanding of entering into a dialogue that might be uncomfortable.
I do recommend anyone who wants to enter into dialogue with any of these topics to just do so with an incredible amount of humility and also an acceptance that you might make a mistake, you might say something unintentionally offensive, but that is how we learn. We need to listen to different perspectives and not enter a dialogue with a preconceived agenda.
In what ways is teaching Indigenous history different from teaching other histories?
From what I have understood, a lot of knowledge, history, and tradition is passed down orally from indigenous elders of a given culture to future generations. They’re not written in textbooks in the way we receive knowledge in the Global North. For them, it is a beautiful system of tradition carried down by one person to another, so the elders hold the knowledge and pass it through stories, songs, and medicine to others. This is also why it is so important for us to listen to the elders in our own constellation so we make an active effort to preserve that knowledge.
What actions need to be taken to forge new relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?
Invite them in and bring them “around the fire.” If you are in an organization or business that is working in any way in the space and you have some inquiry whether what you are doing is extractive or considered cultural appropriation, seek out what they have to say, and don’t assume that you understand based on just your observation. Approach the organizations that do grassroots work with local communities and have personal relations with stakeholders that are really doing that bridge-building work.
These types of conversations we have are really important. To spark similar dialogues in your own communities is also critical. And if you choose to do a sacred plant medicine ceremony with indigenous people, go beyond the transactional. Seek to understand more of what’s happening in that space from a place of deep humility. For them, as for us, it’s about cultivating deeper relationships.
Organizations doing great work with indigenous reciprocity in the psychedelic ecosystem:
You have worked with Woven Science. What is the intention behind the project El Puente, and what steps were taken to support the indigenous community they work with?
When I joined Woven Science, a for-profit company that invests in and incubates psychedelic therapies, one of their key pillars was Reciprocity and the inspiration to form El Puente, which later became its own nonprofit foundation. What’s interesting is that from the beginning, the founders wanted to have this core idea of Reciprocity in place so no matter what they were investing in and building, there would always be an awareness, understanding, and education component to reciprocity efforts by bridging traditional wisdom and the contemporary application of psychedelics.
El Puente Foundation now supports indigenous communities and ecosystems by facilitating access and benefit sharing and making grants that promote bio-culture preservation, ecological restoration, and environmental education in the Amazon basin. El Puente is a big part of my experience working on the ground with the local communities of the Amazon.
Any last thoughts or comments on Indigenous Reciprocity?
I recently attended a talk in New York City given by an indigenous environmental activist named Txai Suruí. She gave a compelling speech about what’s happening in Brazil. A woman in the audience asked her, “How can we support you?” and she said (I am paraphrasing), “The cause that I am speaking of is actually an indigenous cause around the world. You can support by looking at your own land, connecting with it and your local indigenous communities to find the ways of being in service.”
For example, if you are in the United States, you don’t have to go as far as the Amazon rainforest to make an impact. Instead, you can connect with Native American communities and understand their challenges.
We start with where we are and who we are actually affecting in our day to day. It is very easy to get lost in the global crisis and to understand what is happening halfway across the world, but we need to start with the relationship to our own land first.