Roots That Heal
Wellbeing

Roots That Heal

Indigenous Medicine in the Amazon
Sylwia Niemczyk
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time 6 minutes

When, in 2020, the Ecuadorian authorities refused to help the people of the Secoya tribe, they turned to the place that had always waited for them: the forest.

The canoes moved out into the Aguarico River at dawn. They had around 160 kilometres to go, fortunately downstream. The members of the Secoya tribe were headed for the floodplains of Lagarto Cocha – a sacred place from which their forbears had been driven out 80 years ago after the Peruvian-Ecuadorian war. The wetlands on which the tribe had lived for centuries were then classified by the Peruvian government as a national park and for many years were protected by border guards. Only recently were the Indigenous inhabitants able to visit them again.

In spring 2020, the Secoya made their way there for help. One of the canoes held, among other people, the herbalist Alfredo Payaguaje and community president Justino Piaguaje. They set off to find the leaves, roots and bark that Alfredo could use as medicine for COVID-19.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an exceptional toll on Native Americans, leading to twice as many deaths as in the rest of the society. Along with the passing away of the tribes’ elderly, we are witnessing the disappearance of the last link between knowledge, tradition and language. Aid proves harder than usual, owing to a lack of trust between people and a government that has a long track record of using modern medicine as a means of wielding power and effecting violence.

The Indigenous peoples of North America are currently developing unique ways of adapting to the modern world of technology without breaking away from what sustains and nourishes all people: the dynamic, evolving planet. This process is extraordinary, since it occurs after centuries of bloody conquests, thievery of land and resources, manipulation, lies and violation of treatises – not to mention brutal acculturation attempts, which continued almost until the end of the 20th century (including compulsory boarding schools for Native children in both Canadian and the US). Still, Indigenous cultures not only managed to survive, but have also enjoyed a dynamic revival. Tribal languages have been made part of school curriculums, while activists have battled to grant these societies the right to self-determination in political and cultural terms. Finally, efforts have been made to reinstate native legal systems, which take a different approach to Earth and its non-human inhabitants than those characteristic for Western thought.

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