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“Ayahuasca healing beyond the Amazon: The globalization of a traditional indigenous entheogenic practice”.
Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs. 2009;9(1):117-136.
Ayahuasca commonly refers to a psychoactive Amazonian indigenous brew traditionally used for spiritual and healing purposes (that is as an entheogen). Since the late twentieth century, ayahuasca has undergone a process of globalization through the uptake of different kinds of socio-cultural practices, including its sacramental use in some new Brazilian religious movements and its commodified use in cross-cultural vegetalismo practices, or indigenous-style rituals conducted primarily for non-indigenous participants. In this article, I explore the rise of such rituals beyond the Amazon region, and consider some philosophical and political concerns arising from this novel trend in ayahuasca use, including the status of traditional indigenous knowledge, cultural appropriation and intellectual property. I discuss a patent dispute in Unites States and allegations of biopiracy related to ayahuasca. I conclude the article with some reflections on the future of ayahuasca drinking as a transnational sociological phenomenon.
In this article, I consider the globalization of ayahuasca (Tupper 2008), a sociological trend that presents a number of significant philosophical and practical issues for indigenous peoples, scholars and policy-makers. ‘Ayahuasca’ (pronounced EYE-uh- WAH-skuh) is a word that English (and numerous other languages) borrowed from the Peruvian indigenous Quechua language denoting a jungle liana and now more commonly the traditional entheogenic brew prepared from it.1 A number of types of ayahuasca drinking practices are contributing to its globalization; in this article I focus mostly on a type not much discussed in the academic literature, ‘cross-cultural vegetalismo’, or indigenous-style ayahuasca rituals conducted primarily for nonindigenous clients. I consider how novel forces of cultural and economic globalization have shaped the trajectory of ayahuasca’s expansion into modern contexts and examine some of the philosophical issues it raises. In particular, I explore concerns about some aspects of cross-cultural vegetalismo that relate to post-colonialism and cultural appropriation. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the future of ayahuasca as a transnational sociological phenomenon.
As a prefatory remark, and to establish my position on the research topic at hand, I begin by disclosing that I am a middle-class Canadian of Anglo-Scottish descent who in the past decade has had the opportunity to experience ayahuasca and its remarkable effects several dozen times. Experienced mostly in cross-cultural vegetalismo ceremonies (explained below), my encounters with ayahuasca have been somatically, cognitively, emotionally and spiritually rewarding. However, I have also struggled with political and social justice questions that have arisen as my knowledge of ayahuasca, its status as an exemplar of traditional indigenous knowledge, and its globalization grows. This article is a discursive exploration of some of these concerns, but does not explicitly attempt to resolve them. It reflects a tension between the benefits I feel I have received from drinking ayahuasca and the political sensitivities I perceive as a Euroamerican who is aware of – and seeks to redress – past and present injustices stemming from the colonial enterprise of my forebears.
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