Several weeks ago I published an article called “The Not So Sacred Valley: Decolonizing Plant Medicine in Pisac Peru,” that generated an outpouring of emotions, ranging from gratitude and praise, to anger and bitterness. This was honestly unexpected. It was read by 5,000+ people- more than anything else I’ve ever written. The response, and the ensuing shit-storm of online debate, has been wonderful. After much reflection, here’s my thoughts on the matter.
Generating dialog was my primary aim with this article, and I’m thrilled to see it has happened. Despite a few handfuls of oddly crafted personal attacks, the vast majority of responses have been delightfully positive. Out of the 40+ articles I’ve published online, I’ve never had so many people reach out and thank me, both publicly and privately. This was very touching, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who wrote me or commented with their support and gratitude. Though this was not why I published the article.
As expected, the most impassioned responses came from people living in the Sacred Valley themselves. This is great news, because at the end of the day, it will come down to this community itself to decide how they want to build relationships with local and indigenous people, how they want to craft their identity for the outside/touristic world, and what their best practices and ethics are.
I feel that I did my best to clearly outline the problems I saw existing in the Sacred Valley, and offered as many solutions as I could, given my experience.
With that said, I’ve decided to offer a few constructive avenues of inquiry that I feel would benefit this community, and perhaps be some key points to discuss moving forward:
- What does a genuine structure of accountability look like within this community?
- What standards (if any) do shamanic practitioners need to serve medicine to best ensure the safety and psychophysical health of participants? How to regulate this?
- What are some concrete actions that can be taken to build right relationship with the local (Peruvian) Pisac community? What do they want, and what are their needs?
- How to best give back and integrate the indigenous peoples whose traditions are being represented or appropriated?
- What is the future here? What are your goals? What would you like to see change?
To those who disliked my previous article, and will no doubt dislike this one, I apologize if I’ve offended you. And while the news of Facebook group moderators deleting dynamic comment threads generated by this article is upsetting, I can’t say I’m surprised.
The fact is that this industry is many people’s livelihood, and they obviously aren’t prepared to change, despite an equally obvious desire for more integrity and authenticity in the plant medicine community. Perhaps in this lies the problem.
Let me be clear- my intention was not to personally attack any individual in the Pisac community, or damage anyone’s reputation or business (despite how booming it may be.)
I am personally connected to many people in this valley, and know that even though I might disagree with the choices of some of these practitioners, that they have very big hearts. All the more reason I am appealing to this community to change, because I believe they can.
However, I chose to focus on the Sacred Valley Tribe because they are the most visible representation of what I see as problematic in Pisac, and in the international neo-shamanic community as a whole.
Let me tell you a quick story: during my time living in the insular expat bubble of Rinconada (aka Gringoville, just outside Pisac,) I lived with a lovely couple from Eastern Europe who would attend Sacred Valley Tribe ceremonies every week. They would come back in the best of spirits, and were, on the whole, truly beautiful people.
As everyone who has spent considerable time in Peru can tell you, sewage infrastructure is not this country’s strongest area. Every day or two you must take out the bin of dirty toilet paper that a full household quickly accumulates. It’s just a normal part of daily life, and after a time, you embrace it like doing the dishes.
Yet, despite the “cleansing” this couple received each week, despite the many “lessons” they may have been receiving from these ceremonies, they seemed incapable of ever taking out, or even noticing the bin literally overflowing with feces-encrusted paper. And believe me, my partner and I did our part, many times over…
In time, I came to see this as a metaphor for the lack of depth that these types of ceremonies achieve. Sure, you might come home all sparkly and sweet, but at the end of the day, if you can’t take care of your own shit, then what work is really getting done?
This is not a story about the validity of Ayahuasca or other shamanic medicines. It’s a story about a type of ceremony and facilitators that I came to view as profoundly problematic because of their lack of tangible, real-world results and integration.
Beyond just taking care of your own proverbial shit bin, the next step is taking care of your community. And in the case of Pisac, this community happens to be Peruvian.
In the wake of my initial article, I didn’t hear a word of negative feedback from a Peruvian person. In fact, every single Peruvian who shared his or her opinion on the article agreed with it wholeheartedly. The only people to take major issue with the points raised were foreigners. Let that sink in for a minute…
Additionally, the fact that this article generated so much heated (and often bitter) debate amongst so many people involved in neo-shamanic culture should be proof that medicines like Ayahuasca and San Pedro are not the miracle cures we think they are.
Ayahuasca was traditionally used as a diagnostic tool to tell or show the healer what was wrong with his or her patient. Everything that came next required an immense amount of effort, skill, commitment, and follow through on the part of both the healer and patient.
What’s needed now is that second phase of healing- the commitment and follow through- otherwise the same wounds will continue to be re-opened, and no healing or growth will actually occur. Perhaps integration and tangible action is what’s needed, now that so many of us have “seen the light”. There’s a reason it’s called shamanic work, after all.
I don’t claim to be any sort of authority on shamanic plant medicine, development or decolonization theory, or the community politics of a small town in Peru, of which I am decidedly not a local.
If I were a local, I’d feel a responsibility to address this situation and find ways to help it evolve. As it is, I feel I’m doing my part as a conscious traveler and someone who deeply values the shamanic traditions and indigenous peoples of Peru, to which I am personally indebted.
If anything, I’m an anthropologist, a journalist, and a guide. My job is to see the culture for what it is, or what I think it might be, and help other travelers make what I feel is an ethical choice when it comes to plant medicine. I’ve tried my best to communicate this as clearly and compassionately as possible.
Here’s the truth: You can’t give away your privilege. But you can choose to use it in a conscious and constructive way to serve those who have less.
The question we all must ask ourselves is, “can we do better?”
If, after an honest assessment, you conclude that you are indeed doing you’re very best, and cannot improve yourself or your work in any way, then great, though I doubt you’re being honest with yourself.
If, however, your conclusion is not clear, then you have work to do. This is an even better answer, because it means there is room for growth and change.
I know I have lots of work to do. We all do. It’s part of being human.
In my opinion, anyone signing up to to connect with indigenous cultures must realize that they are also signing up for the associated history of oppression and violence that virtually every native community struggles with today.
To simply engage with indigenous peoples and have no connection to their struggles is not only appropriative- it is shameful. I hope this hits home with those who only want to embrace the “light side” of indigenous cultures and disregard the heavy, or “dark” side of things. This is not a balanced view of native cultures, or of reality in general.
Finally, if I’ve learned anything from my time spent with indigenous peoples around the world, and if I can offer any parting wishes to the Sacred Valley community, it is this:
Slow down, be humble, and do your best serve those who need it most. Everything else, like psychedelic visions of talking snakes or feelings of boundless bliss- is just a bonus.