How I met the Shuar

Below is Juis Chuim. He is a 73 year old Shuar elder. Because of me he slept a night like this.

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Let me explain. I was making a third attempt at summiting a mountain I had coveted, the previous times the problem being unable to access on the approach. On this last attempt I noted a gravel road to the mountain’s east that is not on maps. This time I walked it, unknowing what I would find but after 15km I ended up in a village. There were no concrete buildings, only wooden with roofs of corrugated metal or ceramic tiles. The most dominating central feature was a concrete basketball court, with houses being glimpsed amidst the surrounding woods.

I was not sure where to go next for the trail split and headed towards private properties, but fortunately it was not just I who glimpsed houses but the occupants glimpsed me. Children popped in and out of view as I walked to the end of the road and soon the first adults appeared. They would sight me, shout the attention of someone else and then come over to warmly greet me in Spanish. This was a Shuar village (pronounced: schwa).

The Shuar are the main indigenous group for the Morona-Santiago province in Ecuador. They were historically a warring society, repelling the Inca invasion in the 16th century and resisted the Spanish in the 17th. It is said that they are the only Amazonian tribe to have never been conquered. What they were most famed for by the “civilised” world was the practice of shrinking the heads of their defeated enemies. These were not war trophies but were seen as a method for increasing their arutum, a spiritual force that men and women have which makes them excel in their duties. In the 18th century the Europeans developed a craze for obtaining tsantas, shrunken heads, so trade was opened to exchange such with firearms, which only ended in the 1960’s. The need for heads and the more effective weapons dramatically increased their warring behaviour.

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The desired mountain is on the right.

Due largely to Christian missionaries, these people have since forgone their violent tendencies. This settlement would have either been provided or modernised by the government as a means to integrate them with the colonials. The people keenly asked me who I was, where I was from, what I did for work (tough to answer in English!) and all matter of questions that you had learnt in secondary school language classes that you thought no one would ever ask. They wore trousers and shirts; some women wore perfume and some men wore watches. They looked colonial.

Stepping among the barrage of the same questions being asked by different people, someone identified themselves to me as “el presindente del pueblo” (the president of the village). Whether president is the actual title or just a title he was confident I would know I was unsure. He looked robust, stout like most people in this country but with a mass to him that was more than just gut. This middle-aged man was called Guido Chuim and upon learning of what I was trying to do, took me to see his father, Juis.

Juis Chuim received me warmly, asking how you would greet someone in England whilst a woman with babe to breast poured me some diluted squeezed orange juice. Introduced as an elder, Juis is of slight frame – emphasised by being shorter than five foot – but moved unimpeded by age, was alert and expressed juvenile-like joy. His thinning black hair was balding in the centre and his right eye had a cataract that was cloudy like a clairvoyants crystal ball.

The Chuim men and I talked in the house with three boys listening curiously, the woman, baby and an occasional adolescent pup that was repeatedly shoved out for yet to learn dogs were not allowed indoors. They were interested that I had a camera, keen to bring in tourism with photos because there are utterly no jobs for this way of life that now requires money. I was asked to take photos for them in the montane (mountain/forest, indistinct) but I should be accompanied not just for guiding but for protection. Jaguars and anacondas were apparently a danger, which I openly doubted.

Let me elaborate on my supposed arrogance to doubting local knowledge with three explanations. The first is that I know the statistic for jaguar fatalities are 0-3 a year in the whole of Latin America and that anacondas are believed to theoretically be able to eat an adult human, but there has never been a verified case. The second is that in Shuar beliefs, the jaguar and the anaconda are the most powerful warrior spirits and there is an intrinsic awe for them. Thirdly is that the Shuar language, although now can be written with our latin alphabet, has historically only been verbal. Knowledge can be passed on by stories and what stories hold the imagination most are the jaguar attack. They accounted to me three attacks in this area when I know that, although there are definitely jaguars roaming these hills, there has been nothing documented since documents began. The stories could be centuries old or transformed from truth such as how European bards would; the value was not in the fact but in the message. The message though was misguided for these cats are terrified of people.

Setting off, Juis and I were accompanied by his 25 year old grandson who held an unhappy looking single-barrelled shotgun on his shoulder to protect against jaguars. He had one cartridge in the barrel and only one extra in his pocket, but to even fire a single shot at a jaguar would be miraculous. It’s generally accepted that these cats are only seen when they want to be seen, which would mean that you’d be a 0-3.

IMG_0687We walked though their pasture to approach the mountain. As part of the governments effort to integrate the Shuar they are encouraged to clear forests and are given cattle in exchange. Growing crops does not generate money for there is no one to sell to, but beef cattle fetches a good price in the cities. As unfortunate as clearing rainforest is, with the added hurt of cattle being particularly bad for the environment, this is the only source of income they have. They’ve been sold a way of life with no other means to pay.

Their greater family are dotted all around the montane, so there are generally tracks which only require light bushwhacking to keep open. They however wanted to show me their waterfall, a place they had not visited in a long time so required much hacking to reopen. Waterfalls are a sacred place to the Shuar for it is where Tuntiak, the spirit of the rainbow resides. Standing under the torrent is said to impart arutum, with initiation in to manhood being a week of touring different waterfalls whilst eating no food and taking the hallucinogenic “teacher plant” ayahuasca every night.

As my original plan was to summit this mountain they accompanied me off track (or should I say, I them). They’d hack a trail suitable for their smaller size but my gigantic 5’10” self had to crash through to make wider, like an Indian elephant. We walked on massive fallen trees like highways that supported their lesser weight but my gigantic 80kg self crashed though one rotten tree with comical results. The grandson and I enjoyed laughing at each others calamities, our shared dark humour transcending language.

Then the mood changed, there was some hushed talking amongst themselves and the shotgun was cocked. Seeing how we’re more likely to win the lottery AND get struck by lightning on the SAME DAY, I was right in my assumption that we were hunting rather than being hunted. The elder mimicked the simple whistle of a bird in the canopy but alas to no avail. We continued up and on a forested ridge we spent fifteen minutes hacking down trees just to get this view and confirm where we were.

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The hacked view.

This summit intimidated my Shaur amigos although I was not sure why. It looks at most to be a Grade 1 scramble and in any case I’d want to approach closer to make that assessment. With only two hours of light left I declared I was going to camp here for the night, assuming this would prompt them to depart in what already was too late to make it back before dark. I wanted to push on without their superstition so I was surprised when only the grandson departed. Juis said that he would be staying with me tonight and had sent his grandson down (with the shotgun) as it was too dangerous to stay. Unable to convince him that I’d be okay, I helped him chop down palm trees to build a lean-to shelter in the matapalo pictured at the beginning. He marvelled at my hammock, stroking the material and asking was I really go to sleep in that; whilst I marvelled at his lean-to, stroking the palm, asking the same.

This cultural resilience made them a valuable asset during the 1995 war with Peru. Ecuadorian special forces and the Shuar regiment were deployed to combat the Peruvian conscripts in the disputed territory. The Shuar welcomed the opportunity to grow their arutum and become kakaram (a great warrior). They were deployed with more munitions than nutritions; four grenades, four-hundred rounds compared to only two tins of food – per month. The Ecuadorian government does not comment but it is well known among them that tsantas were taken.

In the morning I was hoping to either be able to politely bid adieu or convince Juis to come with me to the summit, but he knew what I was thinking and strongly recommended I didn’t make the attempt. So close to the summit but not wanting to be rude, I agreed to head down. Back at his house we sat on his veranda eating bananas and reminiscing about the time I fell through a tree with dramatic reenactment (more him than me). I was given Guido’s email address and have since sent them many photos to use for tourism. Juis is an incredible person, not just for his bush skills, not even for his humour, but for his selflessness. We departed with an embrace, he encouraging me to visit again and I began the 17km walk back to where I am based, happy that I did not summit.

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