- Created by an indigenous anthropologist, the Centro de Medicina Indígena Bahserikowi offers residents of the Brazilian Amazonian city of Manaus traditional healing and protective treatments by shamans from the Dessana, Tuyuka and Tukano ethnicities.
- Known as kumuã, the indigenous shamans apply the Bahsessé, a type of blessing from the Upper Rio Negro region that evokes the presence of rainforest beings who, according to them, hold all knowledge about humanity.
- In the nearly three years it’s been operating, the center has treated 2,700 people. One of its objectives is to teach the general public about traditional indigenous medicine, a practice that’s losing its foothold in the rainforest.
A large house in the historical district of the Brazilian Amazon city of Manaus is helping keep indigenous traditions alive through the practice of alternative health therapies. Here, three shamans, or kumuã, from the Tukano, Tuyuka and Dessana peoples offer treatments based on years of forest-based knowledge passed down through generations.
The Centro de Medicina Indígena Bahserikowi was created by Tukano native João Paulo Lima Barreto, a doctoral student in anthropology at Amazonas Federal University (UFAM) in Manaus. His father, Ovídio Barreto, was a kumu (the singular form of kumuã), and Barreto says the only reason he didn’t become one himself was because he left his village as a child to study at a boarding school run by the Catholic Salesian Order.
In the nearly three years that the Centro has been operating, it has treated 2,700 people through the practice known as Bahsessé, loosely translated as “blessing,” Barreto explains: “Bahsessé is the power of being able to join curative substances contained in the vegetal, animal and mineral worlds through the knowledge that the kumu acquire.”
Manoel Lima is one of the kumuã who practices here. An ethnic Tukuya from the Upper Rio Negro, in the northwestern corner of the state of Amazonas, his indigenous name is Dühpó, though he also goes by Mr. Mandu. He speaks very little Portuguese during the Bahsessé, a practice that involves the use of water, tobacco or products made from medicinal herbs. He appears to “talk” with these elements, then encircles the patient with tobacco smoke, or offers them water to drink that has undergone the ritual.
Aside from being a health treatment, Bahsessé also serves as protection, Dühpó explains. According to the tradition in his village, for example, women receive this protection when they go into childbirth through a blessing in the form of smoke from plant pitch common in some regions of the Amazon.
“It is very difficult for white people to understand our knowledge,” Dühpó says in the Tukano tongue, with Barreto translating. Barreto says the objective of the Centro de Medicina Indígena is more than just to offer complementary treatments in combating diseases. His idea is to “provoke” the non-indigenous part of society to understand how traditional knowledge is used by his people.
His decision to use the word “medicine” is a deliberate part of that: “It’s an opportunity to make traditional indigenous knowledge visible and even debate its relationship to scientific knowledge,” Barreto says.
A little help from the forest beings
Dühpó says he was raised by kumuã from early childhood to carry on the tradition. It takes long preparation and a restricted diet, and there’s much transfer of knowledge about the rainforest. When he turned 15, Dühpó underwent an initiation ritual involving a rigid diet of thin manioc flour pancakes moistened with foam from manicoeira (a manioc root byproduct), açaí palm hearts, and ants. He also had to do stomach cleanses with tea from a bitter plant called sopodá and learned to play ritual instruments; Bahsessé training takes place together with learning Bahsamori, the dances, songs and rhythms played during large parties.
Barreto says that in the Tukano belief system, the Bahsessé is a mechanism for communication with the Waimahsã, beings who live in the rainforest and are keepers of all knowledge about humanity. The contact the kumuã make with the Waimahsã is activated by these rituals in which plants like paricá are used (a powder called rapé is made from the paricá plant).
“One time I asked my father if it’s possible to learn how to perform the Bahsessé in the city and he said no, because there are no Waimahsã in the city. So, as long as we destroy nature, we are destroying our school,” Barreto says, adding it’s important to share the work of the kumuã in a big city like Manaus. It’s also a profession that’s becoming rarer all the time, he says. “There are few, and they received their training before the missionaries arrived in their communities, an event that led to the distancing of some people from the profession.”
The inspiration for the Centro de Medicina Indígena came from a painful experience that Barreto says is typical of what indigenous people go through under Brazil’s public health care system, known as the SUS. Twelve years ago, one of Barreto’s nieces, then 12 years old, was bitten by a snake in her village, a week’s boat ride away from the municipal seat in São Gabriel da Cachoeira. Because of the severity of the wound, the girl, Luciany Trurriyo, had to be transferred to a hospital in Manaus, the Amazonas state capital, where the doctors declared her leg would have to be amputated.
At the time, the doctor wouldn’t allow a kumu to accompany Trurriyo’s treatment with the Bahsessé. It was only after the Federal Prosecutor’s Office intervened that access was finally authorized, and in the end the girl didn’t have to undergo the amputation. Today, she is 24 years old.
“The doctor said he had studied for eight years and knew what was best for my niece, and that he wouldn’t permit rituals in the hospital. I saw it as severe discrimination,” Barreto says.
Whether the complementary treatment contributed in any way to Trurriyo’s recovery is debatable. But the fact remains that in 2017 a federal decree was instituted that allowed for, among other things, the facilitation of help from indigenous healers within the SUS via the Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI). The kumuã who treat people at the Centro in Manaus are available through the city’s Special Indigenous District (DSEI) for treatment of indigenous people there.
Luciany Trurriyo, now living in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, remembers being in the hospital and still bemoans the lack of understanding on the doctors’ part at the time. “I hope no other indigenous person has to go through what I went through and that the doctors can learn from my story,” she says. “For us, the blessings are very important, and the doctors need to learn to ask patients before starting treatments, out of respect for our culture.”
The Centro de Medicina Indígena strives to be the first step in educating the general public about traditional treatments. The latter are still not included, for example, in the 29 Integrative and Complementary Practices (PICs) offered under the SUS as preventive and therapeutic resources in the treatment of diseases such as depression and high blood pressure. Instead, among the accepted practices are Chinese acupuncture and Indian Ayurveda; no treatments with indigenous Brazilian origins are on the list. In addition to offering treatments from the kumuã, the Centro de Medicina Indígena sells medicinal herbs and crafts. It aims to increase production of the herbs and derivatives in collaborative projects with indigenous communities in São Gabriel da Cachoeira. It also hosts special events including expositions and discussion groups.
Watch the introduction video on the Centro de Medicina Indígena Bahsrikowi, produced by in-house indigenous employees:
This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on March 9, 2020.