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The Vision Seekers: Matses Indians of Peru

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The Matses grow easily tired of guests and have many ways to tell them that it is time to leave. They may stop inviting a visitor to their homes or fail to acknowledge his presence in the puebla. Or they may show an inordinate interest in, or even steal, a guest's possessions. They may simply point arrows and spears at the unwelcome visitor, or they may point down river and suggest a trip together. The Matses pile into their canoes while the guest climbs into his. Then, when the visitor leaves, they simply remain behind.

The Matses grow easily tired of guests and have many ways to tell them that it is time to leave. They may stop inviting a visitor to their homes or fail to acknowledge his presence in the puebla. Or they may show an inordinate interest in, or even steal, a guest's possessions. They may simply point arrows and spears at the unwelcome visitor, or they may point down river and suggest a trip together. The Matses pile into their canoes while the guest climbs into his. Then, when the visitor leaves, they simply remain behind.

The Matses want to be left alone.

They live in the Amazon jungle deep in the lowland rain forest of northeastern Peru. They are a nomadic society of hunters and gatherers, a primitive people whose ability to survive is dependent on their physical knowledge of the jungle and their system of beliefs, which is based on communication with plants and animals and on relations with a spirit world.

A branch of the Mayoruna tribe, the Matses Indians revere the jaguar's strength and hunting prowess. Their faces reflect this: Many adults are branded with a blue hash-mark tattoo that starts near their ears, cuts across the face like a cat's grin, and circles the mouth. Long palm splinters are embedded in their lips or noses to represent the jaguar's whiskers; the women, the bearers of the tribe, wear long reeds from their lips to represent prey hanging from the jaguar's mouth. The Matses believe that to look like the jaguar is to act like the jaguar.

The first known contact between the Matses and non-Indian groups occurred during the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century, when rubber tappers and skin traders arrived in Matses territories in such numbers that the tribe was nearly exterminated through a combination of diseases for which they had no immunities, warfare at the hands of the new arrivals, and enslavement to larger tribes.

In response to this encroachment, the Matses embarked (in the early 1920s) on what became a fifty-year campaign against other river communities, raiding them and stealing their women, guns, and metal tools. This was often accompanied by cannibal acts; the Matses are one of the few tribes to have actually practiced cannibalism in recent years.

The government of Peru attempted to halt the riding by building a road through Matses territory, but in 1973 war broke out after a scout patrol for the road builders was attacked. The government retaliated by bringing in vintage World War II Lambrettas to bomb the Matses camps. In the aftermath, more than two hundred Indian bodies were recovered. Following the war, most Matses acquiesced to the government's offer to place missionaries among them in exchange for a halt in the road building. Since regular contact with missionaries was established, some clothing, basic schooling, and a sedentary new life-style have been provided for the nomadic people. But some Matses, clinging to their former customs, left the larger communities to start scattered pueblos deep in the jungle, where missionaries and outsiders remain unwelcome.

Life in Tumi's puebla

High on a bluff overlooking a small tributary of the Lubo River is a horseshoe-shaped puebla, nine houses set around a common ground. Its perimeter is marked by posts--spaced at irregular intervals--upon which animal skulls are hung. This is the puebla of Tumi, a Matses Indian, reknown among his people for his fierceness. I first met him in 1984, while collecting artifacts for the Museum of Natural History in New York. He is small and strong, with deep almond eyes and an immense personal power. Tumi is among those survivors of the war who have chosen to flee deep into the jungle to live in accordance with the way of their ancestors, hunting and communing with the spirit world. At the time of my first visit, he had four wives and seventeen children and shared the puebla with his brother Chipiuch. Since then, two of his other brothers from a nearby puebla have joined him, he has taken a new wife, and has had two more babies. They are a small group, fierce and proud, their lives intimately connected with the primal jungle.

As the sun sets in front of the puebla, four men of the village squat on their haunches and watch the sky meld in red and blue washes. The dense banks of the Lubo glimmer a hundred shades of green and the jungle comes alive. The falling night is filled with the hoots and cries of monkeys and birds, the sway of grass and trees, the grunting of peccaries, the thunderous and stupid tramping of tapir en route to the river, and there is the perpetual undercurrent of the chirping of crickets and the insistent sounds of mosquitos and ten thousand other species of insects.

Everyone keeps one eye open at night in the jungle. Even in a puebla the presence of a group is no assurance of safety. From the river come ominous sounds: an awful scream as a huge black caiman grabs a wading animal and drags it to the river bottom, the rush of thousands of piranha boiling the water in a feeding frenzy, the growl of a cat announcing a successful kill. The puebla's inhabitants do not venture out onto the water or into the jungle at night. They understand that even with their skills, at night the hunter becomes the hunted.

Dawn breaks in the jungle an hour after first light; mist rises from the ground, the huts, the river, from everything. The women of the puebla, led by Ma Shu, Tumi's primary wife, rise early and gather firewood; each makes her own fire in her own home from the coals of the previous day's blaze. After the fires are lit, the women take the children to the river to bathe, carrying the morning water back with them in metal or earthen pots. If there is yucca or meat, they will boil it; plantains, they throw onto the ashes to roast.

With the rising of the sun, the hunting dogs begin to bark and the parrots and macaws sing their morning songs. Tumi and the other men each take one wife into the jungle to hunt for breakfast--a bird, an armadillo, a monkey. If there is no game, the morning hunt is used to look for signs of larger game to be hunted later in the day.

The morning meal is eaten quietly; only after it is finished does talking begin. The Matses language is guttural and sparse: Sounds convey entire ideas. Everyone comes together at Ma Shu's house and the day's plans are made. In moments they decide who is going to get new thatch for a hut, who will gather nuts, whether visitors are still welcome, or what the meaning of a vision dream is. Soon everyone leaves the puebla: They will not return until they have found what they have gone into the jungle for.

The women direct the gathering at Tumi's puebla. After breakfast, while the young boys go with their arrows to hunt at the river's edge, the women and girls go either to the chacras (the fields) for yucca and plantains and pineapples, or into the jungle. Except for the few things they grow, some stolen clothing, and what we bring--matches, a machete, a pot--hunting and gathering provide for all of the Matses' needs. There is I-san (a palm-nut that grows in huge vinelike clusters), hearts of palm, worms, grubs, wild berries, and fruits to eat. Ma Shu and the other women are master gatherers. The jungle is a benevolent ti-ta (mother) who provides for them; the belief among the Matses is that the jungle offers itself to them with only one condition: that they take no more than they need.

The men gather nonfood staples: building materials, medicines, and copal (a tree sap used to make torches), though their primary task is seeing to the provision of meat. Like the women, the Matses men believe that in hunting they must take no more than they need. Tumi has seen that those who hunt indiscriminately no longer have any game to hunt at all.

To see the little Matses men or the wide-hipped Matses women move, one could hardly guess with what grace they should be associated. Their upper bodies sway, their legs seem disconnected, and their splay-toed feet appear to be part of a different mechanism altogether. But first sight is misleading; the odd motion is suited to their environment. Feet must avoid spiny things and serpents and roots tangled on the jungle floor; legs and hips stay loose to avoid hard contact with low thorny bushes; the upper body sways to avoid hanging vines and the ticks and insects living in them.

But there are moments when the three pieces of the walk become one--when Matses see or sense danger or game. It is a moment of absolute stillness, of predator silence. If there is danger, they avoid it. If there is game, they go after it, leaping over obstacles and flying through the brush. The dogs have yet to identify the scent and already the Matses are twenty yards away and nearly invisible in the deep jungle. They whistle to one another, direct an attack, and disappear. Suddenly it becomes apparent why they admire the jaguar. Nothing moves through the dense green like the Matses.

Conversing with animals

For Tumi, hunting often involves conversation with the animals, invitations to them to provide him with meat. For this he uses special medicines to make contact with the animals on levels difficult for those of us who are not part of his world to understand. Two of the most effective medicines used in hunting are nu-nu (a hallucinogenic snuff) and sappo (a preparation of frog secretion mixed with spit and burned into the skin).

The hallucinogen is a fine green powder made from the leaves of the rare nu-nu tree mixed with the ash of the bark of the macambo tree and infused with the spirit of the maker of the drug. Both trees are so vital to the Matses' life that when they are searching for a place to build a new puebla, both trees must be within a few hours' walk of the intended home; their presence assures the Matses that the surrounding jungle will be benevolent.

Nu-nu is a vision drug. A "giver" puts a little of the powder into one end of a hollow bamboo tube; the "user" puts the other end of the tube to his nose. The powder is then blown into the user's nose, where it explodes into his face, burning his nose and eyes and blurring his vision. He chokes up green phlegm and his blood pulses as though his body were short-circuiting. Over and over, the process is repeated until his eyes glaze over and he can no longer stand. Numbness replaces the sharp pain. He falls to the ground and his visions begin.

Animals appear: tapir and peccary, monkeys and jaguar. The user sees himself walking in the jungle, and the animals there come to him. He communicates with the jungle animals, telling them that he is hungry and they are needed for food. He announces his intentions for hunting them and notes the location and time of day he sees them. Within a few minutes, the visions fade and a pleasant drunkenness washes over the user. If the nu-nu was especially potent, the visions may return unexpectedly for hours.

In the morning the hunter will go to where he "saw" the animals and wait for those he spoke with. When they arrive, he hunts them. The Matses believe that the animals are offering themselves freely to the slaughter.

The Matses say the jungle taught them the secret of nu-nu. In return, they never cultivate the plants whose leaves and bark are used in its preparation. They fear angering the animal spirits by having too much of an advantage over them.

The second hunting drug is not a vision drug and its use is not limited to hunters. Sappo is made from the secretions scraped from the dav-kiet (a sacred swamp frog) onto a bamboo palate and dried over a low heat. When the frogs are plentiful, several palates are made and the resin is stored in a leaf bag for later use. The scrapping is a gentle process and the frogs are never hurt.

To use the drug, Tumi (or one of his brothers) moistens a bit of the resin with spit. The user's arm or chest is burned with a smoldering twig and the sappo is introduced onto the freshly opened skin. Instantly the body heats up, burning from within, and the user begins to sweat. His blood races and his heart pounds rapidly! He feels his veins and arteries opening to allow for the pulse of the rushing blood. Suddenly he cramps and vomits violently. All control of bodily functions is lost and the user falls to the ground. In his unconscious state, an animal side of his nature emerges. He may bark or crawl about on all fours. For fifteen minutes the rushing of his blood grows faster and louder before the pounding begins to level off; the user gasps for air. He may wish that he could die, but he does not. As the pounding becomes rhythmic and steady, he knows that he will live. He might defecate on himself, but it does not matter; it is enough to be alive. Finally, the pounding subsides altogether and the user, overcome with exhaustion, sleeps.

There are no dreams or visions. Instead, when the user awakes, he feels like a kind of god. Everything about him has become larger than life: He sees in the dark effortlessly and his physical strength is overwhelming. He can run through the jungle for hours without tiring and go without food for two or three days without hunger. He sees animals before they see him and senses which plants are benevolent and which are not. Each of the user's senses is sharpened and in tune with his surroundings--as though the sappo put the rhythm of the jungle in his blood.

For most people in the puebla, sappo is used sparingly to cleanse the body and heighten the senses, to give strength to the lazy and replenish the sick. But, for the hunter, it is used in massive quantities, and, for him, its use goes beyond the physical realm: The sappo is his communicative link to the animals and plants. It allows him to project an animas (three-dimensional spirit) who can stalk the jungle at night while he sleeps; an animas to lure animals into traps or near the puebla, to talk to plants and learn their secrets.

Hunting and trapping

The Matses' arsenal contains a number of weapons. If they have cartridges, they will use old trade guns they might have or borrow one from visitors. If there are none, they will use arrows or spears. When they are following the visions seen while using nu-nu, they will wait for their prey to arrive, having fashioned pit traps or made vine lassos to strangle the animals. Sometimes they will make clubs from branches or use sharp sticks to stab fish or manta rays in shallow pools. Once I saw them hunt low-flying birds with clumps of dirt: Everyone threw dirt at the birds and one of them fell, stunned.

If there is no meat for a meal, the Matses will immediately kill the animals they have hunted. But if there is meat, or if they are far from the puebla and have no fire to cook, they will often keep an animal alive until it is time to eat it. They will wound it with their weapons, bring it to whatever camp they are near, and break its limbs to keep it from crawling away. This is not an act of wanton cruelty: In the heat of the jungle meat spoils quickly. Therefore, nothing is killed until it is time to use it. But the brutality of the Matses is startling to an outsider. I observed an animal, caught after the evening meal, that was set near Ma Shu's house. Its limbs broken, the animal cried through the night. In the morning, it was killed over a fire by Ma Shu, oblivious to the crying of the animal as she burned it alive.

The Matses are not always successful hunters. If the river is high, the game moves deep into the jungle to drink and feed at seasonal lagoons and small rivers swelled by summer rains. At these times, there is very little food at the puebla. This is tapping time--a precarious season for the Matses, one reserved for the power of animas. Lack of game dictates the setting of traps, which temporarily changes the routine of the peubla. Only one man is permitted to set traps at a puebla, and during this time he will have no sexual relations with his wives, for fear their scent might frighten the game. (In the polygamous Matses' society this abstention often leads to adultery, a problem remedied only by killings.)

During this season, also, the trap setter must take massive doses of sappo to provide his animals with the power needed to lure the tapir into the traps. He will severely restrict his diet, as well. All other hunting in the puebla is stopped, lest the spirits of the hunted animals seek revenge and warn the tapirs of the spirit animas masquerading as one of them. The Matses trap setter cannot afford the ill will of the animals that he believes speak with one another. Even if an animal walks into the puebla on its own accord during this time, it is not harmed.

There are two exceptions to this rule. Large river turtles and tree sloths may be eaten during trapping season. Turtles can be eaten because they do not speak with other animals and these present no danger; sloths, because they speak so slowly that by the time they warn the tapir, the season for trapping will be finished.

To set a trap, a hunter first finds a marshy place seen in a nu-nu vision. He goes there the next day with several men who watch as the trap is set. The trap setter finds a path between two trees and begins collecting the things he needs for his spring trap: vines, branches, a strong sapling, and leaves. He fashions a fierce spike from the wood of the spine palm and covers it with leaves; even the bovine tapir can recognize the trap if the spike is exposed.

He works quickly. The sapling is lashed at the top to one of the trees on his path; a tripod is constructed opposite it. The spike is lashed to the base of the sapling and the sapling is bent across the path and fixed to the tripod. Across the path he fixes a trip vine--a pull on the vine and the vine and the tripod will release the sapling, which snaps across the path and impales the tapir on its spike.

The trap setter chants while he works, calling the tapir to come to him. He rubs mud from the path onto the parts of the trap, erasing his human smell. He chews a handful of leaves and spits them out across the trip vine as a signpost for his animas, to insure that it will find the trap easily when it returns at night while he sleeps. And, when his finished, he urges everyone to leave the area quickly so as not to disturb the magic that he has set in motion No one will return to the area of the trap until a nu-nu vision shows the hunter that the trap has been sprung.


Copyright © 2007 The World & I Online. All rights reserved.


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