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The Achuar Dream Practices
Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D. & Frank Pascoe, Ph.D.
"The dream, for the Achuar, continues to be unimpaired. It belongs to us. We cannot say, 'Now I don't dream.' For example I cannot say now… I cannot say, 'the dream is not important to me.' I cannot say that at any time. Myself, as an Achuar, practice and have practiced and have experienced my dreams in the real life." Santiago Kawarim, President of the Nation of Achuar
Almost universally Native cultures recognized an intimate and contiguous relationship between dreaming and waking life (O'Nell, 1976). It has been found that to fully understand these cultures, their relationship to dreams and dreaming must be understood (Bastide, 1966; Bourguignon, 1972; O'Nell, 1976; and Shulman and Stroumsa, 1999). Tedlock (1991) has noted that simply considering manifest dream content limits full understanding of the role dreams and dreaming play within a culture. This full relationship includes and extends beyond the specific content of individual dreams to ritual dream-sharing, as well as to later activities that are determined and-or altered as a consequence of knowledge derived from the dream. Where, when, and with whom were dreams shared with are details of an overall context of the relationship dreaming plays within these cultures. Dream theory and practice derived from this is a psychodynamic communicative event. An appreciation of this context is an integral part of a "thick description" (Geertz, 1973) of the native people's view of reality. Price-Williams and Degarrod (1989), also commenting on the full context of dreaming noted in Amerindian cultures, stated that "the dream matters, and is considered just as important as any other human activity."
This paper describes the results of a detailed study of the Achuar people's dream sharing practices. It is based on field research and interviews conducted in the Amazon from 1997-2003. The purpose of this study is to create a detailed description of the Achuar view of reality through a greater understanding of their dream-sharing practices and use of plant medicines. A secondary goal is to compare and contrast the Achuar experience with the dominant Western perspective towards dreaming. Finally, a third goal is to record the Achuar "dreaming" for the future with regard to their interaction with Western culture.
The name "Achuar" is sometimes translated as the people of the lowlands and is the name they call themselves (Anonymous, 1993). In this case the lowland referred to is the western interior reaches of the Amazonian watershed in Ecuador. The name is sometimes translated as "lowland Shuar." The Shuar are a linguistically related neighboring tribe living in the eastern foothills (highland) of the Andes, west of the Achuar territory. Wise (1996) identifies five dialects of Achuar-Shiwiar language with wide ranges of pronunciation that are mostly mutually intelligible. The Shiwiar are a third related group that live to the northeast of the Achuar. Historically the Achuar people have been more isolated from Western contact than the other two.
The Achuar people are known to practice dream-sharing as a way of determining and-or shaping their waking activities. The people gather together in their village's households in small groups several hours before sunrise. They share a sweet tea-like infusion called wayús and begin sharing their dreams. This practice, called the wayusa, is based on the belief that individuals dream not only for themselves but also for the community as a whole (Schlitz, 1998).
For the Achuar people, who number approximately 3,000, waking reality is not a distinct "happening" from the sleeping, "dream" reality. Somewhere between the private, first-person experience and the shared, second-person experience of a remembered dream, an underlying level of meaning is discovered. This allows a co-creating by not only multiple individuals but also from within multiple states-of-consciousness of the "lived" reality. The full implication of this may be difficult for Western people/researchers to grasp.
Descola (1996) reported that the Achuar identify various different kinds of dreams. A kuntuknar dream announces a successful hunt. A mesekramprar dream foretells of illness, conflict, and unfortunate events. A karamprar dream is sent by guiding spirits, absent relatives, and the dead to transmit important messages to the tribe. Florencio Chuji Tukup Chiriap, a native Achuar student attending the Intercultural Achuar Bilingual College (CAIB), used different nomenclature for similar dream types (Mukuink and Chiriap, 1997). He identified Eamtanam ujuink as a dream announcing a successful hunt, tarimial kanamu as a dream that presages a good future, and mesekrammau or mesemamu as dreams that foretell unfortunate events. Dreams in which spirits communicate are called wakan mamu. He also identified Kara etserin as his way of naming dreams that identify forthcoming events. He clarified this by saying that this last name is not the common name used in his community (p. 78). Wise (1996) identifies the words karámratin as "to dream," mesékramratin as "to have a nightmare," and kuntúknarmau as "a dream that announces good hunting."
As mentioned earlier there is a wide range of pronunciation differences as well as dialects that clearly mix casually within the Achuar-Shuar-Shiwiar communities. This makes the native nomenclature confusing to non-natives. The above examples of differences in terminology are an indication of this. As a further limitation on the researcher's understanding of the Achuar relationship to dreaming, it is likely that these various distinctions in Achuar language, at least in part, represent distinctions in meaning that are simply not being understood or are untranslatable. A possible example of this is the word kará which means "to sleep" while the word karámratin means "to dream." The authors were unable to determine what meaning the ending "mratin" (the suffix "-tin" indicates a verb) might have, yet this understanding could shed further light on the Achuar people's relationship to dreams. Another example of this is the word "nightmare" which is "mesékramratin", mesé most probably means "broken" (Wise, 1996) or "damaged" (Anon, 1993). Thus "nightmare" in the Achuar language is probably expressing the concept of "damaged or broken dream."
In this study five teenage Achuar boys were recruited to keep dream-diary journals for 12 months. In exchange for their collaboration, they were given a two year scholarship to the Indigenous University on the outskirts of the rainforest. They were instructed to keep track of their dreams and report on whom they shared the dreams with, when the dreams were shared, the "interpretation" of the dreams, and subsequent waking activities that related to this dream-sharing. The dreams were recorded both in Achuar and in Spanish. They were translated by a professional translator into English and checked for accuracy by an independent translator. The contents of the dream-diary journals of two of the men were subsequently analyzed qualitatively using thematic analysis; the remaining three were unable to complete the project. An attempt was made to bracket the men's experience of how their dreams were connected to their later waking experiences. Logistical details such as who was present during the wayusa and when did dream-sharing occur (other than during the wayusa) were tallied.
During this study period a semi-structured interview was also conducted in Spanish with Santiago Kawarim, the president and founder of the Interprovincial Federation of the Ecuadorian Nation of Achuar that goes by the Spanish acronym of FINAE (Federación Interprovinciano de la Nacionalidad Achuar de Ecuador). Questions were formulated to elucidate the Achuar understanding of reality as it relates to dreams and dreaming associated with the wayusa (normal dreams) as well as dreams associated with ingestion of hallucinogenic plants (vision-dreams). He was also asked to comment on the Achuar's vision-dreaming of the future with regard to the Achuar's relationship to Western (the North) people. This interview was used to supplement the information obtained from the dream journals.
In the Achuar perspective many dreams predict an outcome or relate to future waking life circumstances in some way. This relationship between dream and waking life is primarily revealed during the wayusa. Most mornings this occurs between 3 and 4 A.M. when the Achuar gather in small groups of 2 to 5 or more individuals. Commonly the group includes extended family. After drinking the wayús tea individuals take turns sharing their dreams. This is when most dream sharing takes place but it can happen in casual conversation at any time during the day. The elders primarily listen and interpret, with the eldest clearly having seniority over the interpretation. Younger participants mainly share their dreams and learn from the elders about what information lies in dreams. Both men and women were found to share and interpret dreams during the wayusa-an observation that conflicts with that observed by Descolla (1996).
Some of the participants made a point of mentioning in their dream-diary reports that they are awake early in the morning and wanted to use the time effectively by partaking of wayús and sharing their dreams. An example of this is: "The dream, as a custom of our ancestors, is still told during the wayusa hour, taking advantage of the opportune time before day starts," (Mario, 4/23/99). It is also stated that when there are no remembered dreams to share, other matters of importance to the family or community might be discussed. It appears there are no rigid expectations as to form the wayusa may take. On some days individuals may miss it altogether with no social repercussions. In some cases, members of the Achuar have begun to listen to a radio broadcast at the same time as the traditional dreamsharing, which has had a negative impact on the ritual practice.
Some descriptive statistics gleaned from the dream-diary reports follow. A total of 396 dreams were recorded and of these 305 had interpretations (77%). Most dreams were interpreted to mean something about hunting (22%), sickness/health (8%), death (7%), visitors (5%), and shamans/witchcraft (4%). The most common literal subject matter in the dreams was found to be river/water/canoe (9%), unknown men or women (5%), airplane/airstrip (4%), blow gun/rifle/knife (4%), death (4%), sickness/health (4%), and fish/fishing (3%).
Seventy-two (18%) dream interpretations were considered accurate in that subsequent occurrences were related as outcomes of the interpretations. Two (.5%) dream interpretations were considered inaccurate. Dreamers responded in some way to an interpretation in 53 (13%) cases.
Certain rules were found to be commonly applied to illuminate how the dream relates to waking life. These were: 1) Sometimes dreams mean the opposite of what they appear to be about. A dream about something bad can mean something good will happen in the waking life or visa versa. An example of this would be a dream about "relatives having a party" which in turn is interpreted to mean "relatives sad because of illness," (Domingo, 5/18/98). 2) Many dreams contain symbols that relate in some way to waking life. People seen in a dream may represent animals encountered in the waking life and visa versa. An example of this would be a dream of "pass an angry Achuar on the trail" meaning "an encounter with a jaguar," (Domingo, 5/16/98). Another version of symbol correspondence would be when similar characteristics, such as look, feel, weight, or size, are shared between the dream representation and the waking outcome. An example of this would be where in the dream someone "picks up a heavy rock from the river" which is experienced in the waking as "bringing home a very heavy turtle," (Angel, 7/18/98).
Sometimes a dream is understood during the wayusa as predicting a future event, usually during the following day. The dreamer is not bound by this interpretation but considers it. Activities during the day may be altered because of this information. An example of this: In dream "his body was hooked by a butterfly fishing hook." This was interpreted to mean "if he were to go hunting he would be bitten by a fer de lance (a poisonous snake). As a result of this interpretation he stayed home and didn't go anywhere (Mario, 6/5/98).
Other dreams are not immediately understood in any concrete way during the wayusa. However sometimes a later waking experience is found to relate to the dream, leading to an after-the-fact understanding of the dream. An example of this: In a dream he was pricked by a needle. No understanding was found but later in the day he was stung by a scorpion. This waking event was understood to be an outcome predicted by the earlier dream (Domingo, 5/17/98).
Not all dreams are seen as being strictly personal. Some dreams may be interpreted to have a purpose for another person. An example of this: Another man in the village told Mario about a dream he had that was intended for him (Mario). In the dream he had built a canoe but when he went to pull it to take it home it was far too heavy. This was understood to mean that Mario would kill a tapir and wouldn't be able to carry it (Mario, 6/8/98). Some dreams are further interpreted to be meant for the greater community rather than only another individual. An example of this: Dreams of himself and his wife taking two unknown people across the river in canoes. This is understood to mean that the community should expect visitors the following day (Mario, 5/3/99).
Many dreams were interpreted with a vague understanding of when they would be fulfilled. This was typical of dreams interpreted to be about death. In another example, a dream that is interpreted to mean the death of the dreamer includes a prescriptive "action" based on erasing or prolonging the "time" of the dream: No decision was made based on the dreams. In this case, the person that dreamt this will have to find a way to make his life longer, this can be done by taking "wanduk" (possibly a river algae).
On days when an individual doesn't remember any dreams, waking events may still be attributed to a dream that was unknown but assumed to have occurred within the family or community. An example of this is: The positive result that happened to us was not predicted because I didn't dream, but because of dreams of other brothers we killed an agouti (Angel, 7/9/99). It is assumed that everyday is unfolding consequentially related to a complex interplay of spoken and unspoken dreams.
Interview with President Santiago Kawarim
In our interview with Mr. Kawarim, he outlined the Achuar people's relationship to dreams. There are "normal" dreams that are dreams that occur without ingesting any type of hallucinogenic plant. These are remembered upon awakening from normal sleep. Normal dreams are immediate in that they predict what will happen in the next day. Another type of dream is one that occurs when one uses a hallucinogenic plant (for the purpose of this paper these will be referred to as "vision-dreams.") Vision-dreams differ from normal dreams in that they forewarn of consequences that may occur in the long term, sometimes years later. According to Mr. Kawarim, this relationship recognized by the Achuar between waking life, normal dreams, and vision-dreams is not affected by changes in how daily life is organized and continues to operate regardless of changes introduced by Western contact.
The majority of the Achuar people can interpret normal dreams. They experience this relationship with waking life as being available to everyone. Children experience this. Vision-dreams, however are distinguished in that few people, generally elders, interpret and experience how they function. Occasionally younger people, 18 to 25 years old, can interpret vision-dreams.
Both types of dreams possess a type of "energy." The energy is accessed by the dreamer through the experience of the dream. In the case of normal dreams, the energy dissipates in the short run, commonly during the next day. Vision-dreams possess more energy and play out over much longer periods. This energy difference explains but is not the same as the different predictive natures of the respective types of dreams. An individual experiences this energy as elevated confidence in purpose. A normal dream encourages and empowers the dreamer as he/she experiences their day. They are sure of themselves as they engage in their activities. A vision-dream engenders a confidence of greater scope empowering longer periods of life experience. This dreaming energy is dissipated when the dream is fulfilled and it is prescient upon the dreamer to recognize events as they fulfill this.
Typically an Achuar man takes maikua and experiences a vision-dream which assures his life will unfold in some acceptable way. If he dreams an unacceptable vision-dream he must dream again. When a vision-dream is fulfilled an Achuar man will find he is lacking energy and feeling no direction in his life. This is also an indication that he should seek a new vision-dream. No such re-dreaming exists in the case of normal dreams. For a positive normal dream the participant simply encourages the interpreted outcome and when it is fulfilled the dream is satisfied. For a negative normal dream the participant can only avoid the circumstances that will satisfy the dream.
Mr. Kawarim identified ayahuasca, maikua (also known as malicaua or uantu) and tobacco as examples of plant-spirit medicines used by the Achuar for vision-dreams. These plant-spirit medicines are used in different ways. Ayahuasca can be taken alone or in a group. The ayahuasca is prepared differently for these respective vision-dream rituals. He identified the group ritual with ayahuasca as natemamo.
Ingesting maikua, on the other hand, is an individual sacred ritual which is strictly respected. It requires the participant to prepare by fasting for a day and then traveling at least an hour from home to a sacred place found in nature. The individual reflects on themself, on what is happening in their life, much like in a Western "spiritual retreat." The participant must have faith in the plant maikua, and in Arutam.
Arutam is the Achuar people's protective spirit that is responsible for giving them spiritual power, the vision-dream energy. Arutam is found embedded in natural places, especially places with large trees or waterfalls which are considered sacred spaces. It is for this reason that an individual must travel away from home. Once maikua is taken Arutam can appear to the participant. Arutam appears in many forms, often as the boa or jaguar but is considered to be in everything.
Occasionally before taking maikua, Arutam will appear as an animal behaving in an unusual way or as some supernatural occurrence. If this is witnessed, the witness should face this without fear and scare it off. If it is Arutam it disperses. At this point the witness should take tobacco or maikua and Arutam will appear in a vision-dream giving advice on how the future will proceed. Such advice for example, can give information on whether an individual will be successful in life, have a good job, be an important person, or whether their children will be successful. Awareness of Arutam is enhanced by taking maikua because through maikua the Achuar believe their spirit travels to a spiritual world. Here they can view the Achuar's natural connection to nature.
Perhaps what distinguishes most the Achuar perspective towards dreams and dreaming from the Western perspective is the notion that dreams are not necessarily personal. President Santiago Kawarim made it very clear that the dream and dreaming is a central quality describing what it means to be an Achuar. Whether a dream is considered good or bad, dream-sharing is considered a social responsibility since anybody's dreams may have an effect on some other party's daily life. In only a few situations would it be considered appropriate to not share specific dreams or to share them only with close family or perhaps the shaman. Generally these are especially propitious dreams regarding success in hunting and are shared only after their fulfillment for it is believed that their energy may be dissipated before it is manifested.
At the same time, the meaning of the many dreams in any specific circumstance is an ongoing experiential event for the individual and-or the community. Many dreams are simply interpreted as a question mark. Whatever possible interpretations discussed (there may not be any interpretation) are not set in stone and are the subject of daily experiment. Dreamers actively watch their day unfold, attempting to see how the dream manifests.
There is an overarching informality to the wayusa and its ramifications. Perhaps no interpretation is ever absolutely set since the complex interaction of the community's dreams creates interactions knowable only in retrospect. Outcomes, especially negative outcomes such as the death of a family member for example, may be postponed into an indefinite future blurring direct correspondence. Other outcomes perceived as changeable are remedied, such as staying indoors for the day to avoid a dream interpreted-predicted injury outdoors or avoiding a specific person who is dream interpreted-predicted to be "envious" of the dreamer for some reason.
President Kawarim explained that the sacred vision-dreams associated with plant-spirit medicine are a very different type of dreaming in that they are considered much more sacred to the individual. As such if it is to be shared, it is only shared with a shaman or intimate family members such as spouse and-or parents. As with the propitious "hunting" dreams it is considered that there is an "energy" that can be dissipated if the vision-dream is shared indiscriminately. What is considered important is that the individual be aware of when aspects of the vision-dream are being fulfilled. The vision-dream may be announced at that time.
The Achuar report a feeling of assuredness with normal dreams regarding mundane daily activities. Their day unfolds with confidence for their planned activities as a consequence of having dreamed them. Likewise, the Achuar report possessing a confidence in knowing what their direction in life entails as a consequence of having experienced a plant-medicine induced dream-vision. In the first case this feeling of confidence is in the short-term, commonly the next day, while in the later case it may extend years into the future. This experienced "power" in both cases is fragile in that it can be wasted or lost if not protected or used wisely. Likewise the "power" is consumed-used in either case when the dream is fulfilled. In the case of normal dreams an individual simply dreams another dream the next night. In the case of vision-dreams the individual knows it is time to partake again of sacred plant-medicine and procure another vision-dream. To not do this will leave the individual without energy or direction for anything meaningful in their life.
As mentioned, the wayusa includes consumption of a decoction called wayús. Lewis et al (1991) identified the plant origins of wayús as Ilex guayusa, Aquifoliaceae, commonly known as Stimulating Ilex, in the Holly family. They reported that up to 2 liters of a decoction made from the leaves would be consumed by men during the wayusa, followed by profuse vomiting about three-quarters of an hour later. They identified the active ingredient as trimethylxanthine (caffeine) and noted that the Achuar identified two other types of Ilex sp. as "bad- wayús" which contained higher levels of this stimulant. They also noted that the observed emetic reaction during the wayusa was not due to any specific property of this decoction but a learned response presumably to reduce the physiological response of the caffeine. They concluded that individuals would be over-stimulated by the caffeine otherwise. The bad- wayús was found to contain such high levels of caffeine that emesis was not an effective method of limiting its effects. Wise (1996) found that at least six types of wayús have been identified by the Achuar people. These are: chamár wayús, chúurim wayús, íkiam wayús, tsarútsut wayús, úchir wayús, numpá wayús. Although it is not clear what these distinctions are it appears that they have to do with color variations (chamár = white or pale?, numpá = color of blood?), age of the plant (úchir = young?), preparation method (tsarútsut = dried or brown?), and location where variety grows (íkiam = hillside?). All of these were identified as Ilex guayusa (Wise, 1996).
It is widely known that caffeine can produce a feeling of focus and ability to concentrate on tasks at hand. It is commonly described as a "powerful" feeling. In the case of the wayusa this may be a part of the experience of confidence as one heads out into their daily activities. However it is by no means clear that this is the whole experience. Vision-dreams create purposefulness that may extend for years. Many plant substances are ingested in the rituals resulting in these vision-dreams. They are not all associated with caffeine-like effects. North American native cultures' dream quests also elicit similar feeling of power of purpose in one's life without wayús. These dream-visions are encouraged through various practices such as sleep, food, or sensory deprivation. It is clear that more research is needed to understand the fine relationship the Achuar have with wayús.
The quality of purposefulness and determination for a task is not unlike anecdotally reported creative energy and its relationship to dreaming in Western culture. Many highly creative people who use dreams in their process recognize the same fragility of the embodied energy of excitement that emerges as a result of dreaming an idea. They report that if they talk about the dream-idea too much, if at all, they loose the energy, the will, to bring the idea to fruition physically. Typically these experiences are considered personal within Western culture while the Achuar have extended this quality to include social interactions.
It is up to the Achuar dreamer and his-her interaction with the community to understand when to encourage the normal dream energy when its promise is positive and when to amend or remedy the dream energy when it is of a negative nature. This is daily happenstance and is a significant force in the determining of the Achuar's lived reality. Even in the case where no interpretation for a given dream was determined during the wayusa, the Achuar actively seek to understand their dream by conferring with people they interact with during the day and-or carefully noting any unusual occurrences. In this way, the subjective experience of dreaming has a decidedly intersubjective nature. Speaking in Spanish, President Kawarim states that the Achuar "experiment" with their dream. This is a very active daily process. Encouraging circumstances dictated in the dream, such as going hunting on a day of a propitious hunting dream, as well as avoidance of circumstances, such as not going out on a day when injury is predicted, are both equally a changing of a future outcome not unlike any purposeful activity any Western person may undertake. This is the Achuar perspective, and only for the Westerner would it occur to question the dream source. For members of modern industrialized society, this reliance on dreaming may seem quaint. But it may also be a key to creating a more sustainable collective dream for a society that has grown increasingly fragmented. We stand to benefit from an approach in which we dream, not only for the individual, but for the good of the whole.
Anonymous. (1993). Diccionario Achuar-Castellano. Morona Santiago, Ecuador:
Centro de Promoción de la Cultura Achuar, WASAKENTSA.