The Colonisation of the Ayahuasca Experience

Westerners contribute to the wanton commodification of the cultures whose practices they wish to insinuate themselves into, or to coopt.

Few people interested in ayahuasca see the value in pharmahuasca pills, or in tripping in therapists’ offices. Western medical approaches, most of them feel, are too sterile, too cut off from holistic views of world. Many want to take part in what they see as authentic, traditional ayahuasca rituals, whose structures they believe will give them the insight and guidance they need to unlock the brew’s true healing potential. That’s why thousands of Westerners visit Iquitos, Peru, the epicenter of ayahuasca ritual tourism, every year. It’s also why the people who organize regular ayahuasca rituals in major American and European cites often get a shaman from the Amazon, ayahuasca’s homeland, to run them. Shaman being a catch-all Western term for a broad variety of specialists, ranging from curanderos—folk healers steeped in highly local herbal and spiritual traditions—to ayahuasqueros—specialists in brewing and serving ayahuasca who are not necessarily healers—to vegetalistas—distinctly mestizo-syncretistic folk plant healers—and beyond. Peter Gorman, one of the first writers to cover ayahuasca in America, says enthusiasts have been touring Amazonian shamans around the country since at least 1994. (Gorman married into an Amazonian river tribe community and has done and run ayahuasca rituals many times.)

But the widespread belief in the power of authentic, traditional rituals and the shamans who led them is problematic at best, outright dangerous at worst. For starters, there is no true or authentic ayahuasca ritual, or even set of rituals. But more importantly, says Rubén Orellana, a Peruvian archaeologist and curanderof, ayahuasca traditions were developed for people coming from specific cultural backgrounds. As such, even though the brew itself, and even some of the ritual practices surrounding it, may have similar raw effects on anyone, they will likely generate very different overall experiences—different risks and benefits—for outsiders than for insiders.

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