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Amazonian shaman accused in Ontario

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Sad news comes this month that a renowned Indigenous shaman from Ecuador and his helper son, called to Canada to help heal people with their medicines, are now charged with criminal negligence for a death that occurred during their ceremony.

The ceremony took place near Sudbury, Ontario. Juan Uyunkar, 48, and his son Edgar, 21, both from Ecuador, conducted the ritual, which allegedly included the ingestion of ayahuasca, a plant medicine widely prepared and applied for a variety of ailments by Amazonian shamans.

A severely ill practicant seeking a healing, Wikwemikong First Nation elder Jane Maiangowi, 71, died during the ceremony. The two Ecuadorian Indians have been charged with "criminal negligence causing death" and with "administering, trafficking in and importing into Canada a controlled substance."

The father and son team was invited last September to Manitoulin Island, where the band's health center had asked them to perform a healing ceremony. Their ceremony so impressed the community that they were invited back for more healing work. According to testimonies, numerous people reported improved health as a result of the ceremonies. Central to the shaman's Amazonian tradition is the ayahuasca drink, which they allegedly employed.

Ayahuasca is at the center of various controversies, like so many medicines that have been developed in both mystical, dream-world as well as direct medicinal healing traditions of specific tribes and cultures. There are more than 70 Native cultures in the western Amazon that use ayahuasca. The word describes a specific vine and also a blend of various plant medicines from which the ceremonial brew is made. The ayahuasca tradition is as established and respected a medicine in the Amazon region as peyote, tobacco, sweet flag and other such medicines are among Indian cultures in North America.

Used by over 70 tribes in the western Amazon, the applications of ayahuasca comprise an ancient tradition, dating back around 5,000 years. Amazonian shamans are very well recognized for the range and depth of their medicinal traditions and what the renowned French scholar Claude Levi-Strauss called "complete knowledge of the physical and chemical properties of their botanical environment." With a rich ecology of more than 80,000 plant species, the Amazon offers its 400 plus indigenous peoples a vast array of healing systems. Over millennia, a great amount of medicinal knowledge was gathered, some say by trial and error, others claim by a more direct interaction with the plants themselves. Ayahuasqueros are highly sought after in the whole region, often even by non-Indians who have learned to respect the results of traditional healing practices.

A recent international case tested the great appreciation of Amazonian tribes for their ayahuasca medicine. In 1986 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Loren Miller, a U.S. citizen, monopoly rights to commercialize a variety of ayahuasca given to him at an Indian community. As over the next decade this fact became more and more understood by the tribes, a great reaction arose against Miller and the whole idea that what is probably their most sacred medicine vine could now be "owned" by a complete stranger to its history, tradition and cultural relations. The largest representative Native coalition of the Amazon, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples' Organizations in the Amazon Basin (COICA) ? linking more than 400 Native nations ? vigorously protested, even labeling Loren Miller as a type of persona non-grata, for "whose physical security" COICA would not "be responsible."

These words ultimately cost COICA major funding from U.S. developmental agencies that had previously supported Indian institution building. But COICA refused to budge, as its member nations were fully scandalized by the notion of Miller's claim over their sacramental plant, which, as with so many such plants, they consider a relative, a "grandmother." COICA and North American allies challenged the Miller patent to the U.S. Patent office and ultimately won its cancellation ? not on grounds of Indigenous rights but, according to the Patent office, because what Miller described was already well known and in the "public domain."

The Amazonian shamans in Ontario are very far away from home. This is a sad situation because from all indications they are a sincere healing pair that traveled North with good intentions. But now the two healers are awaiting trial over what could be a long, cold winter of great anxiety and discomfort. Unfortunately, in the modern world of legal frameworks, particularly when dealing with medical practice and with plant substances that the official legal systems might consider "controlled," even Indian-to-Indian meetings can be assailed and countermanded if something goes awry. Of course, any death, particularly that of a respected elder, brings up many questions. A prosecutor, as it appears in this case, can decide not to bother to consider the cultural ramifications and/or the long-standing use of the particular plant within a bona fide Indigenous healing tradition and belief system.

As with midwifery and other practices that can be extremely beneficial, the reality of medical liabilities, even potential criminalizations, as in this case, must be considered. Not to do so can lead to these kinds of regretful situations. There is no doubt that in the use of plants that have hallucinogenic properties and are normally used for divination in healing practices that are deeply indigenous to particular areas and cultures, a lot can go wrong. While Indian people rightfully experiment and invite change and new prescriptions into their healing circles, nevertheless, the unexamined pursuit of such ceremonial and medicinal borrowings can be troublesome.

We hope for the best in the case of Don Juan Uyunkar, and son Edgar. The two Native healers traveled far from their homes at the invitation of First Nations peoples and now face the prospect of life imprisonment in a cold, far away land.

We salute Chief Glen Hare of nearby M'Chigeeng First Nation and his community for sticking with the two shamans and a translator, Maria Ventura, 32, who was similarly charged. The three were released on bail totaling $20,000. The bail money was raised from within the First Nations community and the three charged individuals are being housed by Native elders in the communities where they have held ceremonies.

While Native peoples in the North need to be more careful of how our Southern relatives will be protected in our company, i.e. how the supra-legalities of our times can clash and disrupt our most cherished medicine systems, it is important that the legal systems of Canada, the U.S. and other countries learn more and understand more about Native medicinal usages, the systems that underlie much of modern medicine, and take this other reality into account when judging such complex cases. Particularly in a case such as this one, when elders of the First Nations are continuing to vouch for the work of the accused, we join our Canadian Native relatives in urging the Canadian courts to see the case for what it is and consider its mitigating circumstances, particularly if, as the defense contends, neither the ayahuasca nor the ceremony contributed to the elder's passing.