Sacred medicines shouldn’t be exploited

Isabelle Tavares

The earth’s powerful psychoactive plant, ayahuasca, has been used by indigenous tribes for centuries. Amazonians discovered that when boiled into a tea, this hallucinogenic vine produces profound visions, violent purging from both ends and a life-altering experience. Why then, are Westerners drawn to ayahuasca just now?

The D.M.T.-containing tea has numerous names, but is often called “la medicina” or “the medicine.” Traditionally, Shamans “prescribed” this tea to heal physical or psychological ailments, and it is sacred to indigenous tribes. Perhaps Westerners are searching for a remedy that western medicine has failed to provide.

Ayahuasca came under the microscope in the 1960s with the advent of psychedelics and indigenous tribes are now offering ayahuasca ceremonies as a tourist attraction. What lengths are people willing to go to exploit the most sacred part of another culture for personal transformation? For $1,380, apparently. The Arkana Spiritual Center offers ayahuasca tours in which paying participants work with Shipibo Shamans to guide their transformational experience. The 2015 National Ambulatory Medical Care survey reported 58.9 million visits to physician offices with mental disorders as the primary diagnosis. The high figures in this study suggest that Americans are not leading fulfilling lives, and more are turning to alternative medicines like ayahuasca.

Healing in various forms should be accessible to anyone, but not if it deteriorates the cultural significance of something. I am not indigenous. I am not a Shipibo Shaman. But I do recognize that tourism has opened avenues for exploitation and cultural degradation. The capitalization of ayahuasca is one of those avenues. You can put a price on a sacred experience, evidently, but it lessens the value. Groups in the Amazon are already at a high risk for exploitation with increasing ecological and cultural damage.

Participants in an ayahuasca ceremony should either be from that culture or be invited to partake. An old anthropology professor of mine worked and lived with an indigenous tribe for a year, earned their respect and at the end of her stay was offered ayahuasca because she was an asset to the community. The professor did not seek ayahuasca, it came to her through the communal ties and respect she built in those relationships with a shaman. Tourists may not have the opportunity to spend months on end earning the respect and trust of a tribe, but the transformative ayahuasca experience is something that should be heavily considered.

The legalization of marijuana in Michigan makes the possibility of ayahuasca retreats somewhat possible. While the ayahuasca vine is not illegal in the United States, it’s active ingredient, D.M.T., is banned as a Schedule I drug, the same category as heroin and ecstasy, said an article from Travel and Leisure. Places that offer ayahuasca tours in the U.S. are able to dodge the issue by categorizing themselves as an “independent Native American church,” the article said.

Will the integration of this sacred plant put it on par with other “common” hallucinogens? The use of marijuana dates back to 500 B.C. in Asia, where ancient cultures used the plant as a medicine, according to history.com. Now, in 2018, it will soon be smelled in the Michigan streets. Will the fate of ayahuasca be the same?