Ancient but Strong: The Yagua Indians’ Traditional Ways
June 5, 2015
2015 Amazon Workshops Student Field Reporter Project: We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and its impact on their lives!
Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland)
They really do make it look easy, I thought, as the wrinkled but wiry Yagua man handily cleared a patch of ground with his machete, slicing vertically just above the thick dirt and shearing away the grass. I have seen it done many times, but the technique and apparent effortlessness of lawnmowing via very sharp knife never ceases to amaze me.
It was our last full day in Peru, and we were back where we had started, at Explorama. We had spent the previous two days at ACTS, on the walkways or in the lodge working on research projects. We presented the evening we got to Explorama, demonstrating our findings to all travelers present. They went really well, considering we’d had less than a week to gather data and write up a report. Now that our scientific forays were more or less complete, we could focus on the other big aspect of the Amazon rainforest: indigenous culture. The tribe in our area is the Yagua, a people who have adapted well to modern society but still preserve their traditions. On the day they came to the Lodge to show us their old ways, bare-chested men with palm fiber hanging to their ankles and women wearing red skirts and palm fiber halters, all of whom wear modern clothes now with the exception of a few elders, paddled up in their dugout canoes. They set up stations around the lodge to show us how they had thrived in the rainforest for so long. Our school group split into two, one following Raul and the other with Lucio. For the whole morning we saw glimpses of the Yagua way of life.
The first station we visited was machete use. Two older men, withered with age but their strength apparent, were fashioning tools a blade. One showed us how to clear land with a machete, his movements practiced and sure. Raul invited us to try, and though those of us who had a go didn’t suck too badly, I felt clumsy and amateurish in comparison. Two other men then showed us how to make thatch for the junction of a roof, weaving two fronds of a certain palm together in an interlocking pattern to keep out rainwater. Another kind of palm was used for the rest of the roof, the weaving of which a Yagua woman showed us later on.
The rest of the walk included learning how traditional blowguns are made and fired (which we tried too), eating guava, the candy of the jungle, watching Yagua women weave beautiful purses and bags from palm fiber, and the natural dyes of the jungle, fingerpaintings of which we put into our journals. Raul then took us to the dining room, where we ate samples of Yagua food. Tamales, manioc and a peanut-candy melted on my tongue. We went next to the porch, where, Raul claimed, he had saved the best for last. Four Yagua men in modern clothing sat on the benches, instruments perched on their laps. One gripped a flute, two had drums, and one was on maracas. Across from them sat a few Yagua women and one man, all in traditional dress. An open space had been cleared in the center of the porch. Nerves and excitement sparked at my heels. The Yagua were going to teach us to dance.
Raul explained that down here, music is very local, with not many outside styles coming to the jungle. I had read that dance was a common occurrence amongst the Yagua, and the band here would be live. Raul asked us to please be polite and not refuse if we were asked to dance, and the four players started up. Their song was instrumental and with a fast, foot-stomping beat. The man and one of the woman dancers demonstrated the first dance, one of friendship. The band stopped, they took their seats, and Raul asked us to dance next. The players began again, and after a handful of awkward seconds Jack, Hanna and I hopped up and had at it. Pack instinct kicked in. The rest of the Americans stood and tried to mimic the Yagua’s fluid movements, and we grouped together, catching the rhythm. They showed us a few dances, and I got into it as best I could. I was no local dancer, but it felt great to move my body other than just walking. After five minutes of it I was drenched in sweat. When we finished, we thanked the dancers and musicians and took the hours before lunch off. We headed back to our rooms to pack our backpacks for this afternoon. It was time to trade.
Around 2:00, Raul led us along the short path between Explorama and the Yagua post that had been set up for trading. We came into a huge tapered hut whose roofing went all that way to the ground. Inside it was dark, the only illumination coming when the clouds rolled off the sun outside. Yagua, young and old, gathered on the benches inside. Raul told some of the history of ExplorAma, when Peter Jenson, an anthropologist, came over fifty years ago and saw a vision of an ecotourism lodge that interacted positively with the indigenous people. Explorama has expanded over the years, but the Yagua still come to show the tourists their ways and to trade or sell. When Raul finished, the Yagua stood up and invited us to dance as a group.
They led us through several dances, including the King of the Forest dance, which honored their highest god. We formed an undulating line, with our right hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us. Those in the front of the line set the beat, thumping the ends of their staffs into the hard-packed dirt. As the dance started, the Yagua began to sing. I could not understand the words, but their voices rose harmoniously in the darkness, calling on some ancient communal spirit that flowed through our ranks as we circled the center of the hut. I could feel the old power of the ritual, rising and falling with our movements and their words, and I knew these people understood things about this part of the world more than we scientists may ever grasp. We traded for the rest of the afternoon, bartering common American goods for seed bracelets and small blowguns, before running through a cool rain back to the lodge.
The Yagua have been in the Amazon for years beyond my knowledge, and they know the moods of the rainforest, its twists of fate and little nooks of gods. The tribe here is fading as elders die and young people leave to seek a change in the modern world, but the stories are not all forgotten, nor the old ways of doing things. The Yagua hold a jungle-taught wisdom, and they have reinforced my conviction that despite the perks of so-called “development” and the many allures of the modern world, sometimes the old ways really are the best. Even if it involves cutting grass with a machete.