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The Kaxinawá belong to the Pano linguistic family that inhabits the tropical forest of eastern Peru, from the Andean foothills to the border with Brazil, and western Brazil in the states of Acre and southern Amazonas, covering the areas of the Upper Juruá and Purus and the Javari Valley, respectively.

It is a tribe well known for its Ayahuasca and Hapé consecration ceremonies, where they receive visitors from all over the world.

The Pano groups designated as nawa form a subgroup of this family due to the close proximity of their languages and cultures and to their geographical proximity over a long period of time. Each group calls itself Huni Kuin, ‘true humans’, or people with known customs. One of the characteristics distinguishing the Huni Kuin from other humans is the name transmission system. This system exists among the Kaxinawá and the Sharanawa, Mastanawa, Yaminawa and other nawa.

They call themselves Huni Kuin because they reject being known as Kaxinawas which means “bat” or “cannibal”, but can also mean “people who walk at night”.

The fact is that they prefer to be called Huni Kuin.


The Huni Kuin claim that the true shamans, the mukaya, those containing within themselves the bitter shamanic substance called muka, have died out, though this has not prevented them from practicing other forms of shamanism, deemed less powerful but equally effective. Only removal of the muka, equivalent to the duri among the Kulina, seems to have been exclusive to the mukaya. Other capacities, such as knowing how to communicate with the yuxin, are possessed by many adults, especially older people.

Consequently, we could say that no shamans exist and – equally – that many exist. A salient feature of Huni Kuin shamanism is the importance of discretion in relation to the person’s potential to cure or cause illnesses. The invisibility and ambiguity of this power is linked to its transitory nature. I suggest, therefore, that the claim that contemporary shamans are not as powerful as those of the past must be interpreted in light of a de-emphasizing of the figure of the shaman. Shamanism is more an event than a crystallized role or institution. This fact also derives from the strict abstinence from meat and women imposed on the mukaya shaman.

Ayahuasca consumption, considered the preserve of the shaman in many Amazonian groups, is a collective practice among the Huni Kuin, practiced by all adult men and adolescent boys who want to see ‘the world of the vine’. The mukaya is one who does not need any substance, nor any outside help to communicate with the invisible side of reality. But all adult men are a little bit shaman to the extent that they learn to control their visions and their interactions with the world of the yuxin.

Two easily observable facts that point in this direction are the frequent and public use of ayahuasca and hapé (approximately two or three times per month) and the long solitary treks undertaken by some older people without any intention of hunting or fetching medicinal plants (the usual explanation for such walks). These two activities show an active search to establish an intense contact with yuxinity.

Yuxinity is a category that aptly synthesizes the shamanic cosmovision of the Huni Kuin, a vision that does not consider the spiritual (yuxin) as something supernatural or superhuman, located beyond nature and the human. The spiritual or vital force (yuxin) permeates all the living phenomena on the earth, in the waters and in the skies.

In everyday life we see a side of reality where this universal kinship of living things remains concealed: we see bodies and their immediate utility. In altered states of consciousness, however, humans are faced by another side of reality in which the spirituality inhabiting certain plants and animals reveals itself as yuxin, Huni Kuin, ‘our people’. Since it is manifested both as a vital force and as souls or spirits with their own will and personality, no term really captures the ephemeral and polyvalent nature of yuxin.

In the Purus region, the Kaxinawá themselves translate yuxin as ‘soul’ when referring to the yuxin who appear in human form at night or in the forest twilight. Use of this word comes from living close to the rubber-tappers, who also see and speak of souls. When speaking of the yuda baka yuxin or the bedu yuxin of the person, spirit is more frequently used: ‘It’s our spirit that sees, isn’t it? And that speaks’. Another translation used by the Huni Kuin is ‘enchanted’.

The activity of the shaman who seeks to learn about and relate with the yuxin is indispensable to the community’s welfare. The ultimate cause of every affliction, sickness or crisis can be traced to the yuxin side of reality in which the shaman, as a mediator between the two sides, is crucial. The shaman engages with the yuxin dimension of the world, with the category I call yuxinity. Places with a higher concentration of yuxin include river banks (where the mawam yuxibu live, identified by the place where they reside), lakes and trees.

The Huni Kuin say that the person is formed by flesh (or body) and yuxin. Animals have a corporal side and a yuxin side, so too plants. Among the animals, some have a strong and dangerous yuxin while others have a negligible yuxin power. The quality of the animal’s yuxin influences the diet and food taboos of human beings. The yuxin of plants are not usually noxious or dangerous. In many food fasts, banana and peanuts, for example, are allowed, even though the yuxin of these plants is regularly cited among the souls that appear in the village at the shaman’s request in order to cure. Amid all this ambiguity, the yuxin may appear as ‘real people’, Huni Kuin, as well as in the form of specific animals.

Muka: the power of the yuxin and the shaman

The power of the yuxin, revealed by its capacity for transformation, is called muka. Muka is a shamanic quality, sometimes concretized as a substance. Beings with muka have the spiritual power to kill and cure without the use of physical force or poison (‘remedy’: dau). The human being may receive muka from the yuxin, which clears the way for him to become a shaman, ‘pajé’, mukaya. Mukaya means a man with muka, or in Deshayes’s translation ‘pris par l’amer’ (‘caught by the bitter’). The shaman has an active role in the process of accumulating power and spiritual knowledge, but his initiation can only happen at the initiative of the yuxin. If the yuxin fail to choose or ‘capture’ him, his solitary treks in the forest come to nothing. Once caught, though, the apprentice becomes sick to the eyes of humans (‘they turn crazy when women come close’). While the weak point of the yuxin is the body, that of men is their yuxin; ‘yuxinity’ threatens the man’s body and his body, (female) blood, threatens the head of the yuxin.

A man who was caught who wishes to follow the path of a mukaya must submit to strict and prolonged fasts (sama) and find another mukaya to instruct him.

Another feature of Huni Kuin shamanism, expressed in the name mukaya, is the opposition between bitter (muka) and sweet (bata). The Huni Kuin distinguish two types of remedies (dau): sweet remedies (dau bata) are leaves from the forest, certain secretions, some animals and body decorations; the bitter remedies (dau muka) are the invisible powers of the spirits and the mukaya.

The speciality of the Huni Dauya (a man with sweet remedies, a plant healer) normally does not combine with that of the Huni Mukaya (shaman). The healer’s learning process is very different to the shaman’s. If he does not use poisonous leaves, the healer does not need to fast and may engage in his normal activities of hunting and married life. His knowledge is acquired through apprenticeship under another specialist and requires a good memory and keen perception.

The first sign that someone has the potential to become a shaman, a developed relationship with the world of the yuxin, is failure in hunting. The shaman develops such a deep familiarity with the animal universe (or with the yuxin of the animals), including being able to converse with them, that he is unable to kill them: 

“and walking in the forest, an animal speaks to me. When he sees the deer, he calls out ‘hey, my brother-in-law’, and he stopped still. When a peccary came, ‘ah’, he called, ‘ah, my uncle’, and he stopped. Then in our language he says ‘em txai huaí!’ (‘Hey, brother-in-law!’), so he doesn’t eat it” .

Consequently, the shaman doesn’t eat meat and not just for affective reasons. The impossibility of eating meat is also linked to the muka and to the change in the senses of smell and taste of the person with matured muka in his heart. The taste and aroma of meat become bitter.

The shaman

The shaman is feared for his capacity to cause sickness and death without the need for physical action. He can shoot his muka (which is invisible when shot) into his victim from large distances, or he can persuade some of the yuxin with which he is familiarized to kill a person.

The larger the number of yuxin allied to the mukaya, the greater his power. Indeed, his power to cure resides in his capacity to negotiate as an active agent of the cure (when he goes to fetch the lost spirit of his patient residing among the yuxin) and in the quality and quantity of yuxin that he can convoke for a curing session, where the yuxin (his friends) act as agents of the cure working through (or gathered around) the shaman’s body.

Even so, the shamanic voyage still remains a crucial feature of Huni Kuin shamanism. The bedu yuxin travels free of the body in dreams, or when the shaman is in a trance induced by snuff or ayahuasca. These journeys fulfil other objectives besides curing a concrete case of sickness. They are exploratory trips, seeking to understand the world and the ultimate causes of diseases. They explore the paths that the dead person’s bedu yuxin must follow to reach the sky and strengthen relations with the spiritual world for the community’s well-being.

Various types of sickness exist: material (poison) and spiritual (power). Poison-induced sicknesses are caused by the dauya (healer), while illnesses provoked by spiritual power (muka) have an enemy mukaya (shaman) at their source. A third type also exists: diseases caused by the yuxin, which involve the patient’s loss of his bedu yuxin. Diseases caused by the yuxin at the demand of a mukaya also mean a loss: the shaman’s muka may be stolen.

The two types of sickness caused by humans are treated in different ways. Poison provokes a loss of liquids and vital forces (the patient vomits, has diarrhea and becomes anaemic). In this case, the shaman cures with his force: he inhales a type of snuff prepared especially for curing and blows it over the patient. When the cause is muka, the problem is not loss, but the presence of a negative force that takes the form of a foreign body that acts to destroy the body from the inside. Muka-provoked sicknesses include acute pains in the liver, stomach or heart (three important organs in the Kaxinawá view of the human body). In this phase, a cure is still possible. The shaman sucks the painful area of the body to remove the invading object – the muka which the enemy shaman sent into the patient.

Shamanic thought among the Kaxinawá acts in permanent, omnipresent form. Although public rituals and curing sessions are no longer performed, we need to consider their cosmovision within the wider context of the practices of their neighbors (Yaminawa, Kulina, Kampa), with whom the Huni Kuin have had increasingly close relations since ceasing to be enemies. Exchange between the groups is intense and may act as a stimulus for the Kaxinawá to revive their spiritual powers, stored in the memory of the forest.

For the Huni Kuin, the human person is conceived in three parts: the body or flesh (yuda), the body’s spirit or shadow (yuda baka yuxin) and the spirit of the eye (bedu yuxin). Flesh or any living body transforms into dust when its yuxin aspect is removed.


Most of the origin myths linked to a cultural item (fire, weaving, painting designs, pottery, planting etc.) tell how this item, or the art of producing it, was given to humans by an animal. But not just any animal. This animal ‘is an enchanted Huni Kuin’. Consequently, the yuxin within this animal communicated its qualities to humans. Not by chance, it was the squirrel that taught humans the art of planting (the squirrel has the habit of stocking food for lengthy periods, a practice necessary for planting). The capuchin monkey taught human beings how to copulate. This monkey adopts a face-to-face position during coitus, an exceptionally rare behavior among animals. To ‘translate’ this animal habit into human behavior, the yuxin transformed into people from a human perspective. Animals who lived in this form for some time among humans included the midwife rat (xuya), the weaver spider (Baxem pudu) and so on.

Kene Kuin, the true design, is an important emblem of Huni Kuin identity. Neighboring peoples (the Kulina, Yaminawa and Kampa) have no designs comparable to kene kuin. For the Huni Kuin, these designs are a crucial element in the beauty of persons and things.

The body and face are painted with genipap during festivals, when visitors arrive or for the simple pleasure of dressing up. Small children are not painted with designs but are blackened from head to foot with genipap. Boys and girls have just part of their face covered with designs while adults paint their entire face.

Painting with genipap is an exclusively female activity. On days without any festival, they walk around unpainted, but when one of the men from the house brings genipap from the forest, there is always someone eager to mix the paint and invite the others to paint themselves. Young women are the most likely to be seen painted with designs, men less frequently, unless they are acting as hosts.

The kene kuin style contains a variety of named motifs. When a motif has two or more names, this is generally because of the ambiguity between figure and ground typical to the Huni Kuin aesthetic. The same motifs or basic designs used in face painting are found in body painting, pottery and weaving, basketry and stool decorations.

Just as not all bodies are painted, or not some bodies all of the time, not all keneya objects have designs. Cooking vessels are not painted, though the plates for serving food may be. Painting is associated with a new phase in the life of the object or person, a phase in which it is desirable to emphasize the smooth and perfect surface of the body in question. The design calls attention to new visual experiences, which announce crucial life events. The design vanishes with use and is only reapplied during festivals. Hence things with design occupy a special place in Huni Kuin culture, as in other cultures of western Amazonia.

It is a very rich culture and to learn more click here

Source: Povos Indígenas no Brasil.