Colonialism has often spread to areas where it is economically valuable for the colonizer to develop. South America was one of these places. First came the Spanish for gold, then for rubber. As colonization took place two cultures met, thinking they were opposites, but in reality they were very much connected to one another, their histories were now tied together.
In considering the question of how Indians have developed their healing practices and spiritual beliefs as a reaction to colonization, there are a number of areas we must explore. First, we will discuss how Indian and white cultures have integrated one another to the point where certain beliefs coexist or blend together. Secondly, we will look at the stereotype of the “wild savage” built up by the colonizers, and the creation of the colonial consciousness. Finally, we will examine the healer-patient relationship that exists within shamanism.
What happened within the culture of the South American Indians was syncretism, or the synthesis of both old and borrowed traditions, a common occurrence of colonization as one civilization dominates the other and forces conversion. (Keesing, 394). Because of pre-existing beliefs, Catholicism was accepted into the culture and combined with its original beliefs much more easily than other religions. “Catholicism embodied a rich pageantry and complex ceremonial cycle. It offered roles to men and women, young and old. Its priests, believing in the devil, spirits, and magic, could deal with the older religion in ways Mesoamerican people could squarely comprehend. And Catholicism provided, in its multiple manifestations of the Virgin and the Trinity, both an approximation of multiple deities and physical object for veneration” (Keesing, 394). One of the best examples of syncretism is in the images that are brought on by the hallucinogenic substance that is often used by shamans in curing rituals called yage. In these images we can see a blend of traditional Indian beliefs (i.e. seeing the shaman as the tiger) and Christian belief (i.e. receiving blessing from the Virgin), both symbols can coexist within the same image and are representative of the assimilation of Indian culture to particular Western ideas. Today, certain themes are shared by both cultures:
“New World version of the theme of descent, ascent, and salvation is the way by which the tropical hell of jungle and jungle Indians is so clearly opposed to the terrestrial paradise of the highlands above. The imagery proper to each realm, as well as the cycle of death and rebirth connecting them, reappear persistently down through the ages-as we shall see in curing visions of poor white colonists, Indians, and Capuchin missionaries in the twentieth century in the Putumayo” (Taussig, 292).
Another common aftereffect of colonization is the creation of myths that combine the deities, and people of the two cultures involved. This idea is not new; it occurred even in Ancient times when one Greek city-state would conquer another. Stories would be constructed that found a way to link together particular concepts of both the conqueror and the conquered into a form that both could identify with. In many of the myths regarding catholic saints in South America there is an Indian involved in some aspect of the story. One such example is the legacy of the Wild Woman of the Forest otherwise known as Our Lady of Remedies (Taussig, 188-189):
Just north of the city of Cali, in about 1560, an Indian told a missionary that there was a statue like the one the missionary was using for worship. The Indians believed that if they made offerings to her that she would make their hunting and harvests plentiful, they called her the Wild Woman of the Forest. They took the missionary to see her in the jungle. He ordered the statue to be cut down and brought back to the convent. A few times she disappeared only to be found in the jungle again until finally a chapel was built just for her. Because of the miracles she worked for the whites her name was then changed to Our Lady of Remedies, though today her statue is surrounded by figures of semi-naked Indians (Taussig, 188-189).
Tying Christian mythology to Indian mythology and therefore changing the course of remembered history symbolizes an attempt of both cultures to integrate or assimilate certain aspects of one culture into the other. “This seems tantamount to saying that the historical function of the Virgin is the political one of accommodating the pagan to the conqueror’s god and thereby, in this case, establishing the divine legitimacy of white rule” (Taussig, 196). It is also ironic that in most of the myths it is the Indian who discovers the catholic saint. “It is the Indian who is chosen by history to provide the civilized and conquering race with a miraculous icon. As a slave attends the needs of the master, so the conquered redeem their conquerors” (Taussig, 189).
What made the Indians “wild savages” was not what they were in reality but how people believed they were. “It is not the Indians’ belief that is here at issue, but the white’s belief of the Indians’ belief” (Taussig, 197). This image that was created by the colonizer was often used to justify the spread of imperialism and domination, as well as used to further underlying (economic/political) causes. “In thus using them Indians, the company objectified its fantasies concerning the people of the forest, creating very real savages from its mythology of savagery in order to coerce the people of the forest into gathering rubber” (Taussig, 391). The rubber boom is one demonstration of this technique and all of the atrocities that resulted from it.
It is important to note that the Indians were not the only ones to synthesize new customs into their culture. At times whites would rely on Indian shamans for such things as healing illness, curing their farm, or helping them figure out a problem. How people’s concepts of “Indian” affected their perceptions is illustrated by the following:
“As with their manual labor, skills, and land, this power of the primitive can be appropriated, in this case by grafting it onto the mythology of conquest so that illness can be healed, the future divined, farms exorcised, wealth gained, wealth maintained, and, above all, envious neighbors held at bay. But unlike land and labor, this power did not lie in the hands of the Indians or the blacks. Instead it was projected onto them and into their being, nowhere more so than in the image of the shaman. In attempting to appropriate this power, we see how the colonists reified their mythology of the pagan savage, became subject to its’ power, and in so doing sought salvation from the civilization that tormented them as much as the primitive onto whom they projected their anti-selves” (Taussig, 168).
With colonization comes the creation of the colonial consciousness (Keesing, 402-412). This consists of two main parts, one psychological, the other more economically based. First, is that the natives begin to associate themselves with the colonizer’s concepts of being “native” and these often take on a negative form of meaning. This is due to the fact that it is hard for one group to dominate another unless it is under the belief or impression that it is superior in some way to the group that it is dominating. “It was more reassuring to deny the humanity of the natives and decry the barbarism of their customs, and then seek to uplift them. One could rationalize exploitation with a sense of moral responsibility” (Keesing, 412). If stereotypes exist long enough they become accepted and believed by many as social facts. Secondly, with economic development and the introduction of a world market changes occur within the society. These changes often create capitalism and class systems. It is generally the “elites” of native society, the ones who went to the missionary schools, or who assimilated the most with the colonizers that go on to achieve in this system.They eventually become the upper class and set up a neocolonial form of rule in which they imitate the values and life styles of the former colonists.
Finally, we need to look at the healer-patient relationship is so essential to shamanism.Instead of using the shaman for some purpose, or to some end, the patient and the shaman rely on one another. The patient needs the shaman to see, and the shaman needs the patient to be his voice in what he sees. “Yet both figures, that of the shaman as certainty and that of the patient as doubt, only acquire this configuration by their coming together, because both contain within themselves, taken as individuals, the same vexation with regard to the credible impossibilities that course through life’s contingencies as much as through the ambiguities of social relations” (Taussig, 462). Shamans become shamans to heal themselves, but they need the patient in order to do this.
There is also another idea involved in shamanism that is important to understand. This is the use of yage to “see”, to cross over into the death space, to use information and knowledge that is not merely physically existing but is spiritually existing.
” The healer-patient relational model also differs in that included in the ‘sense data’ of raw experience are not merely sensory impressions of light and sound and so forth, but also sensory impressions of social relations in all their moody ambiguity of trust and doubt and in all the multiplicity of their becoming and decaying. By excluding the sensateness of human interrelatedness, the ‘knowledge’ with which traditional Western philosophy from Plato to Kant is concerned cuts itself off from the type of sensory experience and power-riddled knowledge-implicit social knowledge-on which so much of human affairs and intellection rest. Sorcery and (so-called) shamanism, on the other hand, present modes of always locally built experience and image formation in which such social knowledge is scored by two forms of looming Otherness, the envious other and the colonial other” (Taussig, 463).
In this area shamanism goes beyond what we can see, hear, or take for granted. It relies on something deeper, almost like an instinct. It believes in the intangible, it puts faith in the symbolism of dreams and yage visions, and in what our selves are trying to tell us.
In conclusion, it can be said that to some extent there has been an adaptation on the part of the colonized Indians to Western culture.This adaptation coexists or blends with their own original beliefs to create new combinations of traditions and customs, and new ways of spiritual thinking. In some ways it is like a collage made up of little pieces of religion and science, economics and politics, shamanism and Christianity, colonized and colonizer, Church and yage. The greatest symbolization of this can be none other than the christianized Indian shaman.
It is so important to realize the impact that the colonizer’s preconceived images of the Indians had in creating a powerful reality that affected both the colonizer and the colonized.In understanding the psychological and spiritual developments that the Indians have created in order to preserve a space for themselves in the midst of European domination it is essential to take into consideration the blend of beliefs, the stereotypes involved, and the relationship between shaman and patient that combines physical and spiritual experience into meaning. Two cultures, one trying to dominate the other through colonization, find themselves in the end very much connected and dependent on one another.
Keesing. Cultural Anthropology. Ch.19.
Taussig. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Ch. 7-10. 18, 23-24, 28
Keesing. Cultural Anthropology. Ch.19.
Taussig. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Ch. 7-10. 18, 23-24, 28