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LATIN AMERICA
Women protect traditional medicine
Susan Abad
9/3/2009
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Women shamans debate how to improve health, education while maintaining ancient knowledge.

Women shamans from around the Americas met in Colombia in late August to try to outline how best to integrate ancient teachings and wisdom with Western practices to improve the lot of their communities.

The shamans, from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela met in the southwestern Colombian city of Pasto Aug. 25-30 in the first ever International Meeting on Andean Cultures.

Women shamans from the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuacos, Ingas, Amentsá, Siona, Huitoto, Maya Kiché, Kofán, Lakota, Guanano, Desana, Sicuani, Mapuche, Maya Mam, Kichua Inca, Kallawaya, Piapoco, Mexica and Wayuu communities used the meeting to promote their cultural heritage and exchange practices and teachings.

Community elders met with young people to discuss the interplay between the two groups in relation to the ancient teachings. Other participants attended an ayahuasca ceremony, a medicinal plant considered sacred by Andean-Amazonian communities of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Barbara Three-Crow, of the Lakota community in the United States, chaired a meeting of traditional medicine women that was marked by dances, ceremonies, sacred rituals and spiritual cleansings.

Women seek equal footing
“We don´t want to lose these wonderful traditions we indigenous people have,” Luz María Otavalo, a Kichua shaman from Iluman in Ecuador said, her son translating into Spanish. “We don´t go to the doctor, but we know how to cure ourselves.” She said that in her community, also called Otavalo, most of the shaman are men.

“Men and women are equal,” she said, adding that she works just as well as men do, whom she called her “compañeros.”

Leonor Viloria, of the organization Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, a women´s organization of the indigenous people that live between Colombia and Venezuela, said her community celebrates gender equality.

“The word ´shamanism´ has been demonized in the West,” she said. “We have our own spiritual authorities, which are called Outsuu. They play an important role in health.”

“Health for us is the relationship between the individual and his or her environment. It´s not just about ´I´m in pain and I have to cure myself.´ It´s a process that includes the environment, nature, everything that´s alive, animals, myself and my interior.”

She said that the women Outsuu are highly respected and play an important role in the community. They inherit their knowledge from their ancestors even before they are born, she said.

“There is a protector spirit, Seyu, who passes along the teachings to the Outsuu, and reveals them through dreams,” Viloria said.

“There are thousands of women who partake in the healing of their communities, in an experience that is not just formational, but transformational of some ways of life for the community and the surrounding environment,” said anthropologist William Torres, director of the International Center for Shamanic Research, and a descendent of the disappeared Panchis indigenous people.

Sacred mother
“Women´s participation differs in each community,” said Torres, adding that in some communities women are considered “sacred mothers.”

However, he said “there are communities that because of the education they have received, the Western cultural influence, women have been pushed to the background, and unfortunately are not highly esteemed. I couldn´t give a figure of how many communities value [women] or how many don´t, but I can say that in the communities that have seen cultural changes because of formal education — from the Western world and its religions — women´s value is almost nil.  Where our cosmovision is most pure, is where [women] are most valued.”

Often, it is the women the one tasked with maintaining cultural traditions.

Daisy Chávez Nabisoy, a member of the Inga community in Colombia said that at her age, 23, she is not ashamed to live in the city and use her traditional clothing of a long black skirt and a white blouse with numerous beaded necklaces.

“When one has the will, when one has the spirit, it´s not so complicated,” she said. “From the bottom of our hearts, we are indigenous and we feel proud of that.”

Participants signed a statement at the end of the conference that urged for women to be valued as “guarantors of life, transmitters of culture and caretakers of the wisdom and health of our people.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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Luz María Otavalo from Ecuador is one of hundreds of women shamans in the Americas. (Photo: Susan Abad)
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