Thursday, April 04, 2013

Women curanderas? Why not more of them?

Someone wrote to ask if there were any female curanderas. I wrote that yes, there are, but then gave a very brief and abbreviated history of why there are not more of them. This is what I wrote:

Dear X: Certainly there are female curanderas. I work with Adela Nevas sometimes, and the indigenous Shipibo women rule the roost at a number of lodges. And there are others. 

   What you need to understand is this: The whole concept of curandero comes from someone in a given indigenous village--often the headman at a small village, sometimes someone else at a larger village--who know the plants and animals and can communicate with them to learn when and where and what to plant, when to go to war with the neighbors, where to hunt, how to heal, etc. That role generally went to a male because the males were the hunters who were out in the bush, while the women tended camp, gathered food, raised babies, cooked and so forth. It was pretty set, duty wise, in most of the villages I knew back in the 1980s and early 1990s before they had so much outside influence and more modern tools which changed the lifestyle from hunter/gatherer with a bit of agriculture to primarily agriculture with a bit of hunting/gathering. 
   And when I say "raising babies" what I really mean is that often a first wife of a curaka--headman at camp or hunter with multiple wives--would be the wife who went hunting with him. She carried/carries the animal back from a hunt, leaving the hunter free to continue hunting if he finds more game.
   The second wife--frequently the first wife's sister--ran the village (if it was small) or oversaw a large section of it if it were large. The third wife generally had the responsibility for gathering, sometime with a fourth wife, and the last wife breast fed and was responsible for primarily raising all of the wives' children.
   Now I only knew a couple of men who had that many wives--Papa Viejo and Pablo--though I know a great many with two or three. It's basically the same set up but with duties that overlap when there are fewer wives.
   Given that as an anthropological point of view, it would generally fall on the curaka to be the one in communication with plants and animals--though often his first wife, out hunting with him daily for the whole family--could do it as well. But the job of curandero fell to the man.
   My late teacher Julio's daughter Lady knows more about healing and plants than almost anyone I ever met. Why? Because Julio used to have her go get the plants he needed for curing--and she learned very well. She could do ceremony in a heartbeat if she would allow herself to imagine she could. But I don't think she ever would, as that falls to the males and Lady is pretty traditional that way.
   Don't misconstrue however: In my eyes most of northwestern Amazonia is a matriarcal society, and the curaka, while he looks like the boss, is really beholding to the several wives and couple of dozen kids he has. If he stops hunting sufficiently, the women will just make him poison soup and be done with him. Then they'll head off in search of a new man who is willing to hunt for everyone.
   Lady, for instance, allows my friend Juan, her husband, to be the boss--in public. But get them alone and she is in charge.
    Given all that, the women I've known who were willing to take the mantle of curandera were very very strong.
More than you needed?

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