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A Call for Mutual Respect: Prioritizing Ancestral Knowledge in the 21st Century

Ava Christensen and Ksenia Smart

For centuries, the Indigenous people of Napo, Ecuador have relied on storytelling and the oral transmission of knowledge to keep their history and way of life alive. Since the colonial era, the forceful imposition of western ways of life has painted indigenous knowledge as inferior.

Today, modernity’s presence in these rural communities continues to threaten the passage of ancestral knowledge to future generations. The promotion of deforestation, mono-culture, and the use of harmful pesticides has resulted in loss of habitat, illness, and death within indigenous communities, driving cultural devastation. 

José, a shaman from the Kichwa community of Mushullakta, shares his insights on how this modern reality has affected his life and his community. José’s father was a shaman and from a young age he and his siblings learned the responsibilities associated with this way of life. José always imagined that he would be a shaman as well, carrying that knowledge into the next generation. 

However, through experiences with Westernized schools, working for the petroleum industry, and participating in government programs that incentivized deforestation, José began to struggle with alcohol. His lifestyle shifted away from the way he was raised, and he began to lose hope in his ability to help his community. 

“During that time did I lose the knowledge? No. What I did lose was the hope I’d had before, to be able to practice that knowledge.”

In this time when extractivism and deforestation were imposed on the community, José recalls the way people were consistently sick and unable to cure themselves as they had before. They would only take western medicine and go to the hospital. This shift away from ancestral medicine combined with alcoholism, led José to see a need for change, within himself and his community

José, along with the Puma Wasi Association of Mushullakta, led the shift towards reforestation. Through the incorporation of permacultural practices and the support of Humans for Abundance, José has created a model of reforestation and sustainable agriculture that has inspired many. This shift has allowed José to refocus on the ancestral knowledge he grew up with. Having already lived the reality of being in a community without ancestral medicine, José feels strongly about keeping this knowledge alive in his community today. 

“If we do not keep this knowledge alive, we stand to lose everything. Our food, our medicine, our health, our life. Everything.”

On a daily basis José treats community members, visitors, family, and friends using plants from the forest and his chakra (permaculture garden). He performs limpias (energy cleansings), prepares teas and salves, and keeps his practices within his direct community. While some local shamans travel and treat many clients, José believes in keeping his practice small and prioritizing the health of his patients. 

When asked his thoughts about western science and medicine, José shared a powerful call for mutual respect between ancestral and modern ways of knowing

I respect the professionals, scientific doctors, lawyers, architects -- their work and sacrifice. But also, they have to respect me.” 

This idea of achieving a balance between western and ancestral ways of knowing factors into José’s recommendations and hopes for his children. While he recommends his children pursue a western education, he feels strongly that his children also maintain ancestral knowledge.

José uses his time with his children in the chakra to share what he learned from his parents and grandparents, and answer questions as they arise. In this way, cultivating his children's interest and passion in the subject has become an important aspect of José’s life as a shaman. 

“I recommend that my children receive a western education, a bachelors and masters degree. But also that they remember the science and technology of our ancestors. That they work together, equally as hard as one another, to preserve our way 

of life.” 

José’s contagious hope in the future of his community and the planet stems from his belief in his community’s way of life, and his children’s power to make a positive impact on the world. When asked about the role of ancestral knowledge in his life, Jose’s son Bryan shared similar priorities for his future.

While he hopes to attend university and study botany, Bryan is currently enrolled in the Escuela del Bosque (Forest School) in Mushullakta where he is learning the importance of the biodiversity that surrounds his community.

Bryan’s ultimate goal is to live in Mushullakta and protect the forest he grew up with, carrying ancestral knowledge forward into the future. José and his family’s commitment to a healthier way of life serves as inspiration as we look towards an uncertain future. 

“My hope for my children is that they maintain our forest so that they have the power to offer a healthy life to the world.” 

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