Around 16,000 indigenous Achuar live in small villages along the rivers and in the headwaters of the Pastaza, Corrientes, and Morona river basins on both sides of the Peru–Ecuador border. In this remote and biodiverse area of tropical rainforest the rivers and forests provide the Achuar with water for drinking and bathing, fish, animals, wild fruits, insects, mushrooms to eat and all the materials they need to build and thatch their large oval houses and to make the canoes, baskets, stools, ceramic bowls, bags, feather crowns, musical instruments and all the other items they need and use on a daily basis.
They also have large gardens where they grow many different agricultural crops including plants for eating, making drinks, painting and adorning their bodies, making household utensils, medicines, poisons and some with special powers that help you dream, communicate with the spirits, see your future or bewitch and seduce a desired lover. Amongst all the species the Achuar grow, wayus, manioc and tobacco are three crucial to nurturing the Achuar mind, body and spirit.
“Wikia achuar aintsuitgai” “I am an Achuar person”
For many years these Achuar communities have dreamt of introducing themselves, their way of life and the beauty of their ancestral lands to the rest of the country and the world. For the Achuar, a dream is not simply a passing, nocturnal illusion without relation to one’s waking life. On the contrary, dreams are gateways allowing communication with the spirits of their ancestors, who come to visit and talk to the living, giving them advice and a vision of their future so that they can tread a clear path in life.
The vision which the Achuar share is to protect their ancestral lands and leave them healthy and intact to their children and grandchildren. Although very few city dwellers have heard about them, the Achuar know about life in the cities, and their own lives are far from being cut off from the pressures of the world economy, and its impacts upon the environment. The Peruvian State has categorised their lands as open for petroleum exploration, however in doing so it has not taken into account the vision which the Achuar share and which they have received through dreams from their ancestors.
Both boys and girls undertake a special ritual around the age of puberty to ask for a vision to guide their lives. It is a ritual undertaken alone, and is a test of bravery.
The child leaves the village early, fasting from dawn and walking into the forest singing or whistling special tunes to call the spirits close and ask them for a good vision. They walk for several hours until they reach a water source, where they build a small lean-to. Then they clear a straight path going away from the lean-to in both directions, and finally bathe in the stream or pool.
As night falls they drink a bowl of tobacco juice, previously prepared by one of the elders of the community. The elderly man or woman prepares the tobacco by chewing it, as this releases its power and the visions they had in their childhood may be passed on to the next generation through contact with their saliva.
The tobacco provokes vivid dreams; dreams with the spirits of the Achuar ancestors known as Arutam. They say that the Arutam come along the recently cleared path so it is important that not a single stick is left, upon which it could stumble. The Arutam appear in their dreams as a powerful or dangerous animal, such as a jaguar, an anaconda, an alligator or an eagle. The child must not be scared, but must welcome the spirit, who will then show them the vision of their future they have been seeking.
The Arutam gives different visions depending upon the form it takes when it appears, it could be that of a long life, power to lead, to be a fearless warrior, bravery, a love for travel or a large, united, healthy and hardworking family. Of all the places in the forest, waterfalls are the best places to go to search for a vision as this is where the Arutam reside, and as such they are sacred and treated with special respect.
The songs which call the Arutam and ask for their power to be passed on are called anent. Anent are charms with the power to attract a desired thing or being and ensure that events work out favourably, working in the physical and emotional worlds. There are anent for searching for a vision, anent to ensure the growth of plants, anent for curing the sick, anent to attract game animals and anent to make someone fall in love or return home if missed.
Anent can be sung aloud softly, whistled or simply recited in silence. Children learn anent from their parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents and so these songs, which allow the Achuar to communicate with all the beings that surround them, pass from generation to generation.