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How do you tell the joshobo that their shinan is coshima? Translation and transculturality in ethnomedical tourism

Francis Jervis

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Notes One of the highest-profile practitioners administering ayahuasca to Westerners in the Iquitos area (Dobkin de Rios & Rumrill, 2005), Guillermo Arévalo Valera, is Shipibo,1 and it was while visiting his albergue in 2008 that the author met an indigenous community activist who was seeking support for a gathering of female shamans from the Shipibo people (on the role of female shamans, onanya ainbobo, see in particular Colpron, 2005, and Caruso, 2005). The author later had the opportunity to introduce the activist to the proprietor of an “ayahuasca retreat” (Winkleman, 2005) who was interested in working with female, indigenous shamans, and to propose the development of initiatives to raise awareness of both “native culture” and the social and ecological issues affecting the Shipibo people and other inhabitants of the Loreto region, funded in part by contributions from the lodge’s income. Joshobo (“whites”) is the conventional Shipibo-Conibo term for Europeans and North Americans.


He is perhaps also somewhat over-represented in the recent ethnographic literature on the Shipibo, eg. Caruso, 2005; the work of Tournon, the most prolific writer on this people, which refers extensively to both field interviews and Arévalo Valeraʼs own (1986; 1994) writing; Saladin dʼAnglure & Morin, 1998; etc.

Beneath the surface of ethnic touristic performances of whatever kind, there exists a radically indigenous discursive space, one where language barriers facilitate indigenous resistance to commodification and exploitation, and the performative aspects of social action in (ethnic) tourist spaces – “staged authenticity” (MacCannell, 1973) – are largely dropped in favour of a “backstage” mode of discourse not shaped by the gaze, or in this case, listening, of the outsider. The barrier between the worlds of touristic and native discourse, in the author’s experience, is generally linguistic, and it was this barrier which, it was clear, needed to be crossed in order for the interactions between visitors and native people to take place on a meaningful level: a common conceptual vocabulary (perforce, in this scenario, the native one) was required. The subjective value which many visitors gave to comprehension of the curing process as it was understood by the Shipibo was, it was clear to me, far higher than that which would be expected in other (observational) forms of ethnic tourism in respect of other practices. Tourism, it is argued, in which participation in curing ceremonies as a “patient” is the sine qua non of the visitor’s desired experience, produces a set of inter-actor relationships which, in the case of those between practitioner and patient/tourist, are radically different from those between performer and audience, or vendor and purchaser – the more familiar dyads of ethnic tourism. The field of ethnomedical tourism – here defined as travel undertaken with the objective of receiving treatments from native people, guided by their phytopharmacological and/or medical/magical traditions, in “exotic” locales (from a Western point of view) – is one which until now has been neglected by anthropology, and indeed other serious academic inquiries. This paper will outline the rationale for considering ethnomedical tourism as a distinct phenomenon worthy of further study in its own right, and examine the context of a particularly memorable episode from the author’s recent fieldwork which illustrates the notable difficulties presented by touristic activities of this type, and anthropologists’ involvement in them.

The opening lines of Urry’s The Tourist Gaze (1990, p.1), noting that tourism seems to have “nothing whatsoever to do with the serious world of medicine and the medical gaze that concerns Foucault,” give the reader pause when read in the context of discussions of ethnomedical tourism. In establishments like the one discussed here, visitors are apparently traveling to submit themselves to the gaze of indigenous medical–magical practitioners, as well as the reverse; at the same time, the significant differences between the shaman’s gaze and that of the Foucaudian medic must be noted, along with the need for a fuller theoretical approach to this question than is possible here. It is also worth noting that this form of tourism is neither “modal” nor, in most cases, what one could classify as a “rite of passage” (seldom, at least, with those life stages commonly associated with such rituals); arguably it represents a reaching for ritual as solution to a personal crisis, and, with its emphasis on the intervention of “supernatural” forces, is more akin to premodern pilgrimagemaking than modern bourgeois tourism (Graburn, 1983). One might argue that in contrast to MacCannell’s prototypical “pilgrim” who “attempted to visit a place where an event of religious importance actually occurred,” (1973, p. 593) those engaging in this form of ethnomedical tourism rather seek to experience such an event first hand. The liminal quality of the phenomenon is overdetermined: ethnomedical tourism lines in a zone between sickness and health, Western and native, real and imaginal, and in this case the a phenomenological account of the drama of the curing practices in question is further complicated by the immanent presence of the discarnate entities of Shipibo shamanic tradition, not to mention the induction of visionary states in both the indigenous and tourist actors. This liminality was also highly evident in the social context of the native participants’ involvement in the tourist industry.

The Shipibo2 today inhabit an example of the “polysemous, social space surrounded by tourism


Frequently referred to in older texts as Shipibo-Conibo, the term Shipibo will be used here, as it is by the people themselves, to refer to the now highly integrated group of Panoan-speaking peoples of the Ucayali and Pisqui valleys (Loreto, Peru) including the Shipibo, Conibo, and others. Tournon (2002) provides an excellent overview of the ethnohistory of the region, at least in post-Colombian times.

activities” (Grünewald, 2002, p. 1005) produced by ethnic tourism, and many highly acculturated individuals participate actively in the tourist industry. While the Shipibo people’s ethnobotany (eg. Tournon, 2005, 2006), mythology (eg. Roe, 1982 and others) and magical–medical complex (eg. Illius, 1994) have been fairly well-studied, and Dobkin de Rios and Rumrill (2008 and elsewhere), Winkleman (2005), Tupper (2008, 2009) and other researchers have explored the use of ayahuasca in non-indigenous (and non-traditional) contexts, little has been said about the novel transcultural field produced by the confluence of “ethnic tourism” and what, to spare the blushes of those involved on a participatory level, will be referred to as ethnomedical rather than “drug” tourism.3 It is the author’s view that this is an area which, in the practical interests of both the indigenous people and Western visitors involved (the dangers discussed by Dobkin de Rios in several of her publications on the subject being very real), deserves to be explored in considerably greater depth – indeed, it was impossible to resist a profound personal engagement with the ethical questions which arose. Although no hard data is available on the economic significance of this tourism subsector, the number of operations offering various ethnomedical tourism services centred on indigenous practitioners and practices which can almost instantly be located online suggests that several thousand visitors each year now take part in activities of this type in the Amazon region alone. The Shipibo’s involvement with “ayahuasca tourism” is an excellent example of the ethnomedical tourism phenomenon; the extensive accounts of their traditional practice facilitate comparison with “performances” in tourism contexts, and successful engagement with this aspect of globalisation seems likely to be crucial in their attempts to ensure the continuity of their traditional ethnobotanical knowledge transmission, medical–magical practices and curing songs.


The reader is directed to Shannonʼs outstanding 2004 work on the phenomenology of the ayahuasca visionary experience, The Antipodes of the Mind, for a convincing, rationalist account of the profundity and complexity of the state the brew induces. The term ethnomedical is arguably preferable to “spiritual” (a term more likely to be popular among participants), given the diversity of beliefs (including non-belief) among the Western/Northern visitors. The Supreme Courtʼs recent judgement on the First Amendment claim by an ayahusca-using church reinforces the legitimacy of the distinction between the consumption of the brew and recreational drug use.

The Shipibo are best known for their elaborate and distinctive polychrome ceramic ware and woven and embroidered textiles, invariably marked with kené (“designs”; for their significance in the Shipibo magical-medical complex, see in particular Belaunde, 2009, and Illius, 1994). Production of these items represents a significant source of income for the Shipibo, in particular for the women and especially those excluded from the mainstream of the Peruvian economy (Carpo, 2006). In recent years, the Shipibo use of ayahuasca (nishi or nishikon in Shipibo-Konibo 4, (Tournon, 2002)), a hallucinogenic tea, has led to their involvement in the development of a substantial tourist industry in and around Iquitos and Pucallpa (and, nearby, the heavily tourism-oriented Shipibo community of San Francisco de Yarinacocha). This phenomenon in general has attracted attention from both mainstream media (eg. Otis, 2009) and researchers in various disciplines, including anthropology (for a critical look at the phenomenon as one of “drug tourism” see Dobkin de Rios, 1994, 2008 (with Rumrill)), although no investigation has focussed specifically on the issues surrounding the involvement of indigenous people in this activity. The only work known to the author to explore these issues (Tupper, 2009), fails to escape the trap of universalism in its consideration of “indigenous” practice: Tupper does not draw clear distinctions between traditional mestizo and indigenous practices, and assumes a degree of commonality between indigenous groups (for instance, the universality of hereditary lineages in the transmission of shamanic practices) which is, on consideration of the ethnographic data, insupportable.

The majority of larger-scale tourism businesses involving the Shipibo are either wholly or partly owned by outsiders, or heavily dependent on them for marketing and other functions. Business partnerships between shamans and their Western “apprentices” were common; in many cases, the


Nishi means simply “vine” (ie. Banisteriopsis caapi); the suffix -kon, “true” (“legitimo”) (Loriot et al, 2008). To the vine material the Shipibo add kawa (Psychotria viridis, or chacruna in the local Spanish) prior to preparing the brew. The Quechua is more common in magical songs, or ikara (eg. Tournon, 1991, in Nete Vitaʼs invocation of the plants), which may be due to the “culture hero” status of the Inca, from whom the Shipibo believe they acquired the use of ayahuasca, the kené and much of the rest of their material culture (Roe, 1982).

accounts given either the apprentices themselves (implicitly) or other Westerners (explicitly) characterised these relationships as exploitative – with the naive gringo being relieved of substantial sums, or even, on occasion, their spouse. Convincing Western entrepreneurs in the indigenous tourism sector, even those operating with the best of motives 5, to genuinely engage with the social context of their activities can be challenging in the extreme; these tales of impropriety, which seemed to be one of the main topics of conversation among the expatriate community in Iquitos, did nothing to foster an atmosphere of trust between the groups involved. For the author, participating in the development of one of these businesses – even in a position forcefully defined as one of advocacy for the Shipibo people – remained a problematic position, to say the least. The act of dislocating Shipibo shamans from their homes in the Ucayali region to the boomtown of Iquitos never entirely shook its echoes of the dark days of the gaucheros, when the riverine tribes were mercilessly exploited by the patrones and many of them were forced into labour in the Maynas region (Tournon, 2002). However, seeing the significant improvement in the living standards of Shipibo friends which involvement in the tourism sector could bring – and the genuine pleasure which the onanyabo seemed to derive from their work – only foregrounded the urgency need to develop effective modes for anthropology to make ethnic, and ethnomedical, tourism a richer and safer experience for all concerned.

As Tupper (2006, p. 299) notes, “With growing awareness of ayahuasca in developed Northern countries has come the concomitant desire among some to seek “authentic” ayahuasca experiences in countries such as Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.” The complexity of the questions of authenticity produced by ethnomedical tourism has not, however, been discussed, and no attention has been paid to the interaction between native (as opposed to mestizo or white) people and visitors seeking ayahuasca. The author’s experience of the processes of “authentication” (by the proxy of 5

The lodge where the event discussed took place is a “not for profit” organisation, committed to re-investing the proceeds of its operations in the Shipibo community.

employment at the lodge) was troubling; the dominating factor on the indigenous side appeared to be (extended) family politics, and the level of direct communication between the individual onanya and (Western) management, largely due to language issues, did not appear to be high enough for any reasonable judgement of their skills to be made. Probably the most important criterion was the number of ikara each could perform (a common, and in the logic of the Shipibo magical-medical complex, reasonable measure (Caruso, 2005)): this criterion is consistent both with the notion of the songs being acquired directly from other than human helpers (classically, the spirits of the rao or magical plants (Tournon, 2006)), a more powerful shaman thus having more “plant allies,6” (ibid; Caruso, 2005) but, more problematically, in practice tends to emphasise the aesthetic aspects of the curing performance over and above their semantic content (“the words aren’t important, only the sound” was a constant refrain) and sociohistorical context. Tournon’s account (2002), it should be noted, makes the point that only some of the curing songs are, in the Shipibo sense, ikara (and hence potentially “received” rather than “composed”): while the regional Spanish icaro is generally used, particularly by the mestizo curanderos, to refer to any and all curing songs used in ayahuasca rituals, the Shipibo distinguish between these songs and other types, such as the masha, which follow traditional melodies.

While the ceremonia is undoubtedly a spectacle (and one visitor spoke of feeling like a “connoisseur” hearing master musical performers at work), the immersion of native and tourist in a visionary space in which sickness itself may be visibly beheld (vid. Narby, Huxley, 2001, for other examples of this phenomenon) marks the activities at the lodge out as quite different from those at other establishments where dance performances and the sale of handicrafts are the limit of the tourists‘ interaction. Yet the fact that the tourist-patients consume ayahuasca is itself a necessary


Despite this pervasive belief, a popular one with the tourists in particular, there was no clear association between knowledge of Shipibo tradition and knowledge of the songs! Discussion of the mode of composition of these often enrapturing pieces, necessary though it is before any informed statement can be made about this assumption, sadly cannot be accommodated here.

compromise from the point of view of Shipibo tradition: “In all western applications of pharmacological medicine, the patient – of course – takes the drug. In traditional nishi ŝheati7 sessions, he does not, by no means, but the healer does drink ayawaska.” (Brabec de Mori, 2002/2005, p.4). This profound dissonance between what are uncontestedly traditional practices and the practical requirements of participation in the tourist trade seemed, however, to generate little disquiet in the minds of either the vast majority of the lodge’s visitors, or in the expressed opinions of the indigenous participants in the activities. Indeed, when challenged by a visitor curious about this point, the explanation that “the (psychological) sickness of Westerners needs to be treated with ayahuasca directly” (as opposed to the treatment of sicknesses caused by supposed incorporeal entities or malevolent shamans among native peoples which was addressed through purely magical action) was instantly proffered by the Shipibo group, and largely well received by the audience.

The degree of consonance between this explanation and the tendency of Western, non-indigenous practitioners of “(neo-)shamanism”8 to account for the efficacy of the curing process in psychological terms, despite having no formal knowledge of either psychology (generally conflated with psychoanalysis, particularly among those visitors familiar with at least the title of LeviStrauss’s famous essay) or ethnography is striking. Indeed, the more acculturated Shipibo seemed to have elevated giving the answers most likely to be pleasing to their visitors to a fine art. The production of the tourists’ desired “truth”, which became at times a postmodern circus of endlessly shifting, ill-defined paradigms, was a troubling process to watch. In a context which, probably by nature, tended to attract visitors with highly disparate (not to mention, in many cases, idiosyncratic


The phrase means simply “ayahuasca-drinking”; cf ani ŝheati, “big drinking” (used to refer to the girlsʼ puberty – and circumcision – ritual (Tournon, 2002)). 8

Whether “shamanism” – as a coherent set of intercultural constants – actually exists has of course been called into serious question by Taussig, 1991, and numerous others, particularly critics of Harnerʼs “core shamanism” (Harner, 1980 and elsewhere), such as Wallis (2003). The term “shaman” is used here as the Shipibo themselves frequently use the words chaman or chamanismo when speaking Spanish; the word has a felicitous double meaning for them, given that the suffix -shaman in S-C means approximately “very much” or “very well”, eg. ani-shaman, “great” or “magnificent”.

to the point of eccentric) notions about matters “spiritual”, ethnographic and (pseudo-)scientific/ medical, interactions which appeared as perplexing for the Shipibo as they were visibly rewarding for the visitors involved were common. The introduction of indigenous concepts to the visitors was, in some cases, at least as problematic.

The “psychological sicknesses” with which the tourists almost (although not invariably; some had serious physical ailments, and some were seeking “spiritual growth”) presented to the healers are, in Shipibo-Conibo, referred to as those afflicting shinan: shinan es quien preside el discernimiento de aquello que es bueno o malo. La noción se refiere tanto al valor moral de la persona como a la capacidad de su entendimiento [shinan is that which is concerned with discernment between what is good and what is bad. The concept also refers to the moral strength of the person, as well as to his understanding.] (Bertrand-Rousseau, 1986, cit. Tournon, 1991, p.24) This quality, then, can best be rendered into English as “mind” or “intelligence,” with the added notion of “moral sense;” interestingly, it is also the term used for the shaman’s supernatural power, frequently invoked in the curing songs (Tournon, 1991 & 2005; Caruso, 2005; Loriot et al, 2008). One’s shinan may be ani (great) and coshi (strong, powerful) – a healthy, desirable condition – or it may be wekan and coshima9 (weak) (Caruso, 2005). A healthy shinan is seen as essential both to function as a kikin (correct, good – but also applied to well-executed kené, or material objects, in an aesthetic sense) member of Shipibo society, and also to be an effective onanya (“shaman” or curandero/a; lit. “one who knows”)10. Mens sana in corpore sano – a coshi shinan and a jakon yora – is very much the objective of their medical practices, and while ayahusca may be the contemporary prescription for ills of the mind, mental weakness itself is at the same time seen by 9

The suffix -ma is negativising, and is extremely widely used (eg. jakon, good; jakon-ma, bad).


The onanya smokes a pipe containing Nicotiana rustica (reg. Sp. mapacho) known in S-C as a shinitapon. The word tapon means “root” (in both literal and metaphorical senses): the shamanʼs pipe is thus the root of their power.

the onanyabo as the root of most of the difficult experiences which can occur during the effects of the brew11. A thorough exploration of the ethnodiagnostic characteristics of the concept of shinan has yet to be put forward, at least in English (although cf. Illius, whose (1987) doctoral thesis was entitled Ani Shinan: Schamanismus bei den Shipibo-Conibo); however, the general sense is clear enough for the purposes of the present work.

To be told that a visitor has had an unpleasant experience because of their coshima shinan is, then, a difficult message to translate in a discursive space where the relevant native concepts are highly marginal to the touristic experience, despite the centrality of indigenous culture in the image of the lodge disseminated to potential visitors12. Common decency – not to mention even the most rudimentary grasp of “customer service” – generally precludes announcing to guests that they are “weak-minded,” particularly in front of an assembled group of some fifteen Western visitors, and a radicalism which advocated verbatim translation at the expense of harmonious relations would clearly be ill-advised, and, indeed, represent an abrogation of the anthropologist’s metadiscursive position. It is hard indeed to imagine a situation as problematic arising in most areas of anthropological–interpretative work associated with “mainstream” ethnic tourism: delivering what was in effect a diagnosis – to someone whose confidence in ethnomedical practices was sufficient to justify substantial expenditure – lies far outside the generally accepted role of any ethnographer.

Being momentarily included in the privileged linguistic space of the Shipibo group, by virtue of the 11

Gableʼs recent (2007) review of research into the safety of ayahuasca (from a largely pharmacological/ toxicological perspective) provides support for the beliefs that the brew can cause-short term episodes of acute dysphoria, but is safe – even, perhaps, beneficial – in the long term. Interestingly, his source for the observation that “The hallucinogenic effect of ayahuasca and other tryptamine derivatives can precipitate severe adverse psychological reactions, and this is especially true when administered outside established ceremonial practices (p.30),” is Dobkin de Rios & Rumrillʼs interview with a Shipibo shaman. 12

The production of acceptable images was at times a highly contested topic. For instance, the author was asked to omit mention of the ani shreati (“big drinking,” the girlsʼ puberty rite involving submission, under the influence of a large amount of masato (yuca beer), to clitoridectomy performed by an older woman (Tournon, 2002)), from presentations to the tourist groups, a request which was refused given the centrality of the rite to Shipibo culture.

shaman women’s use of native terms which they knew I had at least some understanding of, highlighted the profound difficulties inherent in ethnomedical tourism. While this gesture of incorporation was rewarding on many levels, it only heightened my awareness of the degree of discrepancy between the worlds constructed the tourists and lodge workers, and that of the Shipibo. What it also revealed was the need, if ethnomedical tourism is to be conducted in an ethical manner, for an effective interpretative practice to be introduced: a working knowledge of the relevant ethnomedical concepts, on the part of the “workshop facilitators,” is essential if gross inauthenticities are not to be introduced due to the lack of a common conceptual vocabulary between the various groups involved. To this end, it is argued, anthropology urgently needs to develop strategies for an effective engagement with ethnic (and, particularly, ethnomedical) tourism. In this instance, along with the issues of metadiscursive practice and the production of authenticity discussed by Briggs in relation to the Warao (1996), the highly problematic relationship between indigenous practitioners, enthographers, and Western “neo-shamanism” enthusiasts adds considerably to the urgency of addressing questions of authentication.

The need for representational–interpretative approaches to be brought to bear in the ethnomedical tourism field which can resist the naive neocolonialism of the new age movement is, sadly, clear from almost all the popular media (including “participative,” so-called “Web 2.0”) representations of the phenomenon. The production of an image of the healing process in the touristic space which is quite at odds with that produced by professional ethnographers can be seen in the discrepancies between a recent New Age travelogue (describing a visit to the lodge) and Tournon’s transcription of, and limited commentary on, a Shipibo shaman’s curing song (Tournon, 1991). In the former, the shamans’ songs are experienced by the writer “interweaving with each other in arcane Shipibo language that washes over us like waves from the deep sea of the unconscious” (Razam, 2009). In this description, we can see the extent to which the indigenous discursive space is, for the

visitors, one of radical and impenetrable otherness. Tournon’s translation of Nete Vita’s song, in fact, suggests that the language used is far from “arcane,”13 and all the Shipibo I questioned on their ability to understand the ikara said that they were for the most part easily intelligible. In the description of the sound of the songs as “waves from...the unconscious” we encounter a more troubling tendency in this kind of ethnic tourism: the reduction of indigenous peoples to depersonalised, ahistorical figures in the ethnocentric psychodrama of affluent spiritual adventurers. While the subjective meaningfulness ascribed to experiences like this by visitors to the lodge was unquestionably genuine, the tendency for the indigenous actors supposedly at the centre of the experience to be excluded from the Westerners’ discursive domain, in the absence of a common language (most of the older practitioners speaking very little Spanish), was pervasive. Thus excluded, their indigeneity often became no more than a screen onto which a grab-bag of New Age, neo-shamanic and other ideas, most at the fringes of conventional Western thinking, were projected. Even if the Shipibo’s “cultural heterogeneity” is not, in this case, “turned into recreational exhibition” (Bruner, 2005, p. 212), and instead was the site of a much more intense contemplation by the amateur participant-observers at the lodge, the tendency for popular representations of ethnomedical tourism, particularly those produced by particpants, to perpetuate simplistic, even patronising images of indigenous people, remains.

Despite the frequent difficulties in communication, there was a degree of profound emotional engagement between the visitors and the onanyabo which is surely rare in any tourism context, which Razam describes eloquently elsewhere in the piece cited above. The shamans showed genuine concern for the visitors, for the most part, and these feelings were reciprocated to the extent that, during the period I was there, a medical bill amounting to several thousand dollars was paid for 13

It is worth noting, though, Brabec de Moriʼs remarks on “encryption” in Shipibo curing songs: Level and methods of coding differ individually. For example an often recorded healer-witch sings very directly, mentioning all the dark and evil things that he extrudes from the patients body. However, his elder brother sings in difficult metaphors and sometimes in unintelligible tongues. (Brabec de Mori, 2005, p.4)

one of them by a past visitor. The level of interest in indigenous medical concepts among the visitors was high, and the brief presentations I gave to the tourist groups on the subject were warmly received. However, even the presentation of a comprehensive account of this topic based on ethnographic sources to visitors by a non-native cannot be seen as a truly radical approach to ethnic tourism: the imaging of indigenous culture through the lens of even an avowedly emancipatory and anti-colonial practice remains problematic.

The transmission of cultural knowledge as it relates to the built environment – or, particularly in the case of indigenous peoples, the lived natural world and the ethnobotanical and zoological expertise associated with it – in touristic contexts has been studied extensively (eg. Graburn, 2000). While their ethnobotanical knowledge is extremely important to their participation in the ethnomedical tourism phenomenon, we should note that visionary world of the Shipibo onanya as described to ethnographers (eg. Caruso, 2005) seems to be at least as rich as the material one (and indeed, in many respects, is extremely similar in organisation (Roe, 1982)), and, in the context of ethnomedical tourism involving ayahuasca consumption guided by these practitioners, this intangible heritage is what, in marketing terms, differentiates the lodge’s offerings (and that of other onanyabo working in the industry) from those run by practitioners of other ethnic origins.

Curing songs, the outward semantic–performative manifestation of power acquired through the rigours of the sama (generally rendered in regional Spanish as dieta, “diet” (Loriot et al, 2008)), are the symbolic capital par excellence of the Shipibo shaman. This has the effect of making possession of knowledge of them a potential key to considerable material wealth (in many cases, for some of the most marginalised individuals in modern Shipibo society); however, outsiders face a considerable challenge if they are to establish whether any given practitioner is “legitimate” based on this criterion. The author heard several accounts of unemployed residents of San Francisco de

Yarinacocha learning a handful of songs, purchasing ayahuasca from dubious sources, and enthusiastically offering their services as shamans to tourists; despite their ability to provide reasonably convincing “staged authentic” experiences, the judgement of the onanyabo (who had trained, in many cases, for decades) was a resounding “ellos no saben nada” – “they don’t know anything,” or, “they are not shamans!” One employee of the lodge had even conducted a “folk experiment” consisting of playing digital recordings of some of these “fake” onanyabo to the practitioners at the lodge; they had, she claimed, immediately recognised the songs of one such alleged impostor, saying they “had no healing power.”

What, then, can the role of anthropology be in this problematic field? We have, fortunately, moved beyond the days when its position would be to issue an imprimatur of authenticity on native practitioners whose activities conformed to academic notions of what their actions “ought” to be like. Nor can moral relativism be a viable response to many of the deviant practices observed on both sides. Guided by the idea of the anthropologist as compañero/a, rather than disconnected observer (Scheper-Hughes, 1995), and actively resistant to abetting the exploitation of native peoples or traditions by outsiders, the author’s practice in the field was aimed at improving the depth of communication between the Shipibo group and the Western contingent on an interpersonal level, and when delivering material derived from ethnographic sources, emphasising its secondary nature.

The anthropologist’s role in ethnomedical tourism, it is argued, must be as a mediator between discourses: much more than a resort translator, but far from a figure of hegemonic interpretational or authenticating authority, and at the same time acknowledging their privileged metadiscursive position (Briggs, 1996). A role in the production of “high quality” experiences for ethnic (and ethnomedical) tourists should be one which is primarily shaped by the needs of the native people

involved, and the goal should in many cases be for the control of these enterprises to be, as far as possible, in indigenous hands. Moreover, ethnomedical tourism, being intensely dependent on both indigenous expert knowledge and local biodiversity, deserves to be recognised as a potentially significant contributor to the sustainable development of the Amazon basin and other regions; there is, as such, a strong practical, not to say moral, case for the discipline to involve itself with the industry. To this political end, the distinction between ethnomedical and more common modes of ethnic tourism, and Dobkin de Rios’ notion of ayahuasca tourism as “drug tourism,” are important to draw, as both may lead to underestimates of the sector’s potential benefits to indigenous peoples by institutional assessors and in the public eye.

Let us turn, in conclusion, from the vital practical role which anthropology can play in ethnomedical tourism to some brief theoretical considerations of the curing process as performed at the lodge. Briggs, in reference to Warao curing, suggests that “the semantic content of the [curing] song and the way it is used in performance have a great deal to do with the performative effects that discourse can exert on bodies” (1995, p.150). Given the lack of a common semantic field occupied by “patient” and shaman in most ethnomedical touristic scenarios (particularly those where curing songs performed in a native language are central), some parallels could be drawn to the practice Briggs describes, where “the [Warao] patient can hear but cannot understand” (p. 153) the anobahatu nominal lexicon of the curer, although it is crucial to note that “while names almost always draw on curer's lexicon, many of the words that make up the path are in everyday Warao” (p. 154). With the exception of occasional borrowings (notably medicina and ayahuasca), the tourist cannot hope to guess even the vaguest meaning of the curing songs. Furthermore, Shipibo curing practice seldom features many of the “theatrical” elements (sucking, spitting and

vigorous physical manipulations of the patient’s body 14) to which symbolic–therapeutic power, operative in the absence of linguistic communication, might be ascribed. The participant structure of curing rituals performed in ethnomedical touristic contexts is, it is quite clear, profoundly different from that described in indigenous societies; equally obviously, producing an adequate account of the process – encompassing both the native and tourist actor–subjects – would be a substantial task, and one far beyond the scope of this paper.


Massage – kimosti – is extremely important to Shipibo medical practices, but is often performed by specialists who are not onanya, and never in ayahuasca sessions. At the lodge, the shaman women performed these traditional massages in the daytime, some hours prior to ingesting ayahuasca.


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How do you tell the joshobo their shinan is coshima?  

Translation and transculturality in ethnomedical tourism

How do you tell the joshobo their shinan is coshima?  

Translation and transculturality in ethnomedical tourism