Catholic missionaries who’ve made themselves responsible for educating the Amazon’s Achuar people won’t get around to such subjects as Romantic poetry and John Keats any time soon. But when they do, it’s likely the Achuar will regard the poet as something of a kindred spirit. Keats developed the term “negative capability” to describe a kind of ultimate artistic license that’s intended to free the mind from its reliance on the ordinary. He also used it to explain an aspect of artistic inspiration: how imagery, stanzas and even whole poems come to poets in dreams. Keats could very well have been describing the way of life for the Achuar, who are something of an authority on the art and practice of dreaming.
The Achuar [pronounced in three syllables as A-chu-ar] are a primitive and clannish semi-nomadic people whose name means “the people of the aguaje palm.” They are believed to be the last of the Earth’s once-hidden indigenous people who currently number at about 11,000 individuals. The Achuar first made their acquaintance with Western man in the late ’60s when Catholic missionaries entered the deepest recesses of the jungle along the border of Peru and Ecuador to the Amazon basin, one of Earth’s harshest and most unforgiving ecosystems — a land of punishing humidity, floods and all manner of deadly reptiles, poisonous plants and insects. The fact that the Achuar have not only managed to survive but have actually thrived in the jungle for approximately 5,000 years is proof, they say, of their ability to commune with and receive guidance — often including detailed instruction — from the spirit world while dreaming.
It wasn’t long after anthropologists and ethnographers arrived on the scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s that they realized they’d hit proverbial pay dirt in the Achuar as a truly rare subject of study. Here was a tribe whose intense isolation from the rest of the world helped preserve a pristine cultural identity, language and belief system. One of the tribal practices that immediately caught the attention of scientists, and became the reason the Achuar were introduced in academic journals as “The Dream People of The Amazon,” was their unique daily morning ritual of “wayusa” or “dream sharing,” which has continued into the present.
Each day the Achuar rise somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m., gathering in family units around a communal fire. There they consume a special wayús tea, guzzling three or four gourds’ worth of the warm liquid and then promptly vomiting it up. This is done as a kind of purge intended to cleanse a person of any negative energy. It also provides focus for the critical interpretation phase of the ritual, which comes as they take turns telling each other what they remember of their dreams. The Achuar believe that dreams contain fragments of important messages from spirit elders or the powerful spirit of the rainforest known as the “Arutam” that sometimes manifests as a panther or boa.
“This is a serious social responsibility because they have a belief that no person gets all the information,” says Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D, a social anthropologist who has studied the Achuar, including their dream practices, over two decades. “Typically the elder person in the household acts as interpreter, piecing together the various parts of the dreams as a way to navigate their daily existence.”
Perhaps the first and most ancient bit of instruction the Achuar received, the one that’s passed from generation to generation, is to respect and live in harmony with nature.
“This is a system of living in right relationship with one’s community, one’s environment and the world,” says David Tucker, a former executive director of the Pachamama Alliance who has spent considerable time with indigenous partners in the Amazon and Andes and has studied earth-based wisdom and practices for over 20 years.
When attending to the sick, for instance, Achuar “shaman” — a term they’ve borrowed from Western visitors — will enter the dream world where they may be instructed precisely where in the rain forest to seek the kinds of plant medicines they need for healing. They’ll also be instructed how to prepare the medicine and how to administer the dosages.
“There is a really strong sense of connection to the plant and animal world, and they do not see themselves as separate from those worlds in the way that we objectify nature,” says Schlitz. “It’s much more of an embedded awareness and consciousness. There is the idea that there’s an intelligence that comes through plants and animals. The Achuar are very symbolically oriented, so they see a lot of meaning in their encounters in a way that we do not.”
Terrifying dreams or visions, those that we would characterize as nightmares, are considered the most profound of Achuar experiences because they result in personal growth. Such dreams are exceedingly rare, but when they do come it is entirely at a time of the Arutam’s choosing. Children are taught to “move toward” the dream threat or obstacle. If they can successfully grasp it while conquering their fears, then the frightening vision will collapse and reveal its true nature and message. To run away is to reject a gift and to miss a golden opportunity.
A view of nature as a sacred, life-affirming source and a reliance on dreams to set a course of action are principles that are intrinsic to many native cultures, but the Achuar hold a unique worldview that entirely upends Western definitions of “reality” and “consciousness.”
For starters, the Achuar go so far as to equate “reality,” what they consider their “true life,” with the state of dreaming rather than the state of wakefulness. They also believe that all of the inner qualities that make an individual unique, the mind and all its memories — which we call consciousness but the Achuar sum up simply as the soul — exist independently of the physical brain. On a nightly basis during dreaming, and also during visions, the soul departs the body and enters a multiverse where anything is possible and anything can be learned.
On these journeys, the soul may move forward or backward along the river of time that ebbs and flows like the Amazon. But unlike those of us in the Western world, the Achuar do not focus on the past. Instead, they live in the moment and each one that follows, concentrating on improving their future, which they insist is extremely malleable. Challenge an elder with the point that a recent dream prophecy did not come true and he will tell you that it is because his people were forewarned and took the proper corrective steps to change that version of the future.
“If, for instance, someone dreams about sex — one of the worst dreams you can have — it’s almost certain there will be a snake bite,” says Tucker. “If they have a dream like that, they won’t leave the house.”
But if Achuar elders interpret the day’s dream collective to mean that something awful is headed their way, particularly something that could affect the community, they may make an intense effort to alter the future by altering their dreams. Often this occurs in a sacred vision quest, the details of which they are honor bound to relate to the community.
“They will go out and pick wild jungle tobacco, one of their most sacred medicines, and they’ll also make Ayahuasca or Maikua (powerful hallucinogenica) and go out in the forest and fast,” says Tucker. “Then they’ll ingest this plant medicine as a way to induce a vision and actually exchange their dreams. In the Western world we feel like we are at the effect of the world. Some of us believe we are masters of our own destiny but mostly we believe we’re just kind of moving along. But the Achuar are very clear that the future can be changed.”
Two decades ago, the Achuar people experienced an unprecedented number of bad dreams. They interpreted them to mean “the people of the North” — their term for those of us in rest of the world — were coming. This arrival would not be on par with the visits from missionaries and scientists to which they had become accustomed and welcomed. It, their dreams told them, was something monumental that could threaten their existence.
So the Achuar did what they do best — which was to “dream on it” with a goal of transforming this dark future into one that did not include a return to their spears, machetes and blowguns. To see this out, the Achuar did something they had never done before: they organized.
First, they put aside their internal squabbling and united their clans to form The Achuar Federation. Then they sought partnership with neighboring tribes like the Shuar and Shiwiar and called upon the scientists and missionaries they knew — and anyone else who from around the world who cared to join them — to help form an international coalition that is known as the Pachamama Alliance. Then the Achuar waited patiently for the coming of the people of the North.
What their isolation prevented them from knowing at the time they first began dreaming their apocalyptic dreams was that the governments of Ecuador and Peru were in the early stages of talks with big oil companies over some mighty big dollars. The plan was to slash and burn the parts of the Amazon rain forest that were thought to contain the greatest deposits of crude oil and natural gas — the two million acres or so that the Achuar call home.
But in a way that is typically Achuar, they exchanged this disastrous future for a brighter one. As they watched and waited for the North, they busied themselves with preparations, building the Pachamama Alliance’s global infrastructure and strengthening its diplomatic ties. Somewhere along that path, or maybe because of it, the Achuar’s dreams became a revelation: the universe was aligning to accord with the ancient prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor.
“This prophecy says that the people of the North, who are the people of the eagle, the people of technology and the mind, will not dominate the Condor people, who are the Achuar, the people of the heart and spirit that are integrated into their environment,” Tucker explains. “It’s been prophesized that around this time the people of the Eagle and the people of the Condor will discover that they are related and will fly together and not have this imbalance. And we’re seeing that happening in many ways. We have been told by the Achuar that the Pachamama Alliance is evidence this prophecy is fulfilling itself.”
How else to explain that a poor people with little knowledge of the outside world had managed to raise their voices above the jungle canopy to be heard by world leaders and even acknowledged by the United Nations? How else to explain the fact that the Achuar have managed to stave off oil development on their lands for the 20 years the Pachamama Alliance has been in existence?
The miraculous aside, Tucker is forthright in explaining that these were hard-fought political victories that have come despite some concessions in regions of the Amazon that are further from the Achuar. Tragically, the extraction of five million barrels of crude oil from the Amazon’s Northern tip has turned the region into an ecologic disaster area. And now, Tucker warns, “there are more concessions and there is more pressure than ever.”
If their rights are not respected, the Achuar pledge to fight for their land. That’s a threat that South American governments and the oil companies are taking extremely seriously, says Tucker. The two entities have done their homework and are well aware of the Achuar’s reputation as precision marksmen and fierce warriors. It’s a difficult juxtaposition to consider that, despite their dream wisdom, the Achuar remained a warrior culture until very recently.
In fact, until the Catholic missionaries taught them how to negotiate, one out of every two adult males met his grisly end in battle. One missionary in particular, Padre Luis Bolla, who lived with the Achuar for roughly 25 years, used a cassette tape recorder to broker peace. His method was to record one side of a clan grievance and then play it for the other side, going back and forth again and again until an understanding and a truce was reached. Eventually, he helped to bring peace to the entire region. And now the Achuar hope to honor Padre Bolla by reaching a nonviolent solution with the South American governments and the oil companies.
“The story of the Achuar is an amazing one, and not just for their beliefs about the power of dreaming,” says Tucker. “Within a period of 30 years these people went from being a warrior culture to one of peace. They are people who got organized and prepared for a threat before it even showed up — so that in the mid-90s they called a group of Westerners to come down and basically insisted that we partner together. How the Achuar developed and organized has become a model of productivity.”
Much of that productivity has to do with the fact that the Achuar do not see themselves as the sole beneficiaries of saving their rain forest homeland. Although only handfuls of their tribesman have ever left the jungle for some place else, their dreams have informed them that the world’s fate is inextricably tied to ecosystems like the Amazon. That’s why one of their current mottos is this: “If you are coming here to help us, don’t bother. But if you see your fate intertwined with ours, perhaps we can help each other.”
It remains to be seen if the Achuar continue to receive the kind of political support they are now getting, and for how long such a primitive people can hold out against the increasing pressures of faceless government bureaucracy and the interests of well-funded big business. But this is for sure: chemicals from the Amazon’s oil-damaged Northern regions have already impacted the Achuar’s water supply, and medical tests have revealed a high concentration of damaging cadmium collecting in their bloodstreams.
The Dream People of the Amazon know all this. But if you ask them they will tell you that they have hope — and they have their dreams, too. And if they are right that dreams can be used to manipulate the future, then they have nothing to fear. The Eagle and the Condor will eventually take flight, together and in peace.