Ethnohistorical data show the Shawi people have been occupying the Paranapura Basin and it's tributaries between the Maranon and lower Huallaga rivers since at least 1644.
We do not have an exact translation of the Shawi creation myth. Like many indigenous mythologies, their story is that people grew from a plant- in this case a raw peanut, or "shawa-huita," in Shawi. Old people were identified as "campo piyapi" or simply 'our people."
While the Shawi do not keep records of how long they have been exactly where they are now, their narrative of why they exist as a people goes back to "a long long time ago, when there were many jaguars and black jaguars and the Amazon was not rainy but was only dry." The difficult climate motivated old Shawi villagers to strengthen social relationships and develop ritual practices to avoid threats and keep human life alive.
The Division of the Shawi
The villages of the Shawi Project in San Martin are a small group of 880 people who have resisted colonization and urbanization.
The Shawi as a whole are among those most impacted by missionaries and invaders. There are over 20,000 people in the jungle region who identify as Shawi although many have westernized and Christianized, renting their land to mestizos, and moving to local towns and cities. These lands have now been heavily damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices. Palm oil plantations are encroaching, as are coca growers producing cocaine. Many call the abused land "laundry soils."
The group of Shawi we work with in the San Martin district, because of their hard to reach location, missionaries did not reach them as early as the ones near Loreto district and the city of Yurimaguas. Those Shawi still share retain some cultural remnants, however Christian missionaries in the area since 1950 have demonized Shawi shamanism, and encouraged all traditional practices to be thought of as "from the devil. Several Shawi curanderos were brutally murdered in recent years after being accused of "devilish practices."
Because of this Shawi spirituality and practices are kept secret, and many traditional ceremonies are not held. Among those who have had more pressure from missionaries and outsiders, It is considered attractive and powerful to "look modern" and "act modern." These different groups of Shawi interact somewhat- elders and leaders as well as young people looking to date.
One of the goals of our project is to empower our small group of non- Christianized Shawi ( these in San Martin region) to become economically and technologically empowered - so that they might be proud of their culture and not feel pressured to throw it away to become successful.
While modernization and connection to the western world will doubtless affect future generations, our hope is that they might decide for themselves what aspects of their beliefs to change and what to keep- rather than it being imposed on them.
Cultural Practices, and Rituals
Living in the rainforest, and being very present with the spirits there, much care was taken to protect the clan- especially children- from malevolent entities. There is a hierarchy of spirits, from the most powerful to the most gentle, and it is considered important not to "cross" a powerful spirit of a river or mountain or one might become sick or die.
Elders are always very present, and especially with babies and children to avoid some bad spirit coming to them. They always smoke "Mapachos," (a jungle tobacco) to protect themselves and blow protective smoke and blessings on the bodies of children. Elders invoke spirits according to the location of the clan and if they are a river clan or a mountain clan.
In former days, Shamans would use strong plant medicine to protect their clan, cure illnesses, and avoid bad spirits, although these practices have been driven underground or to extinction.
The relationship between children and adults was very ceremonial. From birth, an adult was invited to cut the umbilical cord. Later, an adult would be invited to ceremonially paint a child's face (boys, or heels and legs (girls).
Coming of age ceremonies for boys and girls involved tests and challenges. Part of the ritual for girls was to harvest cotton, spin and weave the traditional skirt you see most women wear.
Shawi land had never had precise boundaries, but of the sprawling region that the Shawi have tended for centuries, thousands of hectares have been lost to the illegal mining and logging going on in the region.
More information about the Canadian mining company can be found here: These incursions have destroyed the habitat of animals and scared them off, and also directly threatened the lives of Shawi. Because of this, hunting has become difficult, and meat is scarce. This is one of two main reasons the Shawi have decided they must join the western world and begin to adapt.
Although the Shawi have faced numerous challenges due to outside domination by the Spanish "patrones," land lords, Jesuits, evangelical missionaries, loggers and miners, their society and culture continue to be strong. They rely on their natural environment to provide for most basic needs, and their concerns center on climate change, the loss of self-sufficiency because of the decline of population of the wild game, and decline of fish because of human pressures and sedimentation of the riverbeds.
Hillside erosion, a lack of suitable space for small farms, and the environmental impact of the logging, mining, and petroleum industries in the area.
Outsiders often characterize them as "indians," living in "typical poverty." However the Shawi have persisted in celebrating their land, their language, and culture. Weaving, decorating and wearing the traditional pampanilla skirts is a source of pride for Shawi women.
Their long history as important stewards of the biodiversity of the Cordillera Escalera region, and their devotion to maintaining the health of this ecosystem, make them crucial partners in protecting the Amazon for the well being of everyone on our planet.
The government of Peru has protected some of their land by defining it as a refuge, however more work needs to be done to ensure that the Shawi have land rights, and will be protected from illegal encrosion and threats of pollution.
The other reason Shawi are interested in more exchange with the outside world is modern medicine, which can heal acute trauma and severe infections that their traditional plant medicines can not. Also new infectious diseases have recently been identified in the area that historically were not, but have been spread by deforestation. Other serious problems like snake bites can rarely be treated with plant medicine alone, and for the health of clan members and especially children, there have been requests for health centers in every village.
Where We Are From
Where We Want to Stay
Shawi Territory -
the Cordillera Escallera Mountain Range
Traditional Shawi territory is in the cloud forest of the Cordillera Escallera Mountain range, West of what is now known as Yurimaguas. It is a four hour drive on dirt roads from Yurimaguas, and each village takes several hours to walk between.
On the map above, the cluster of villages in the top left are where the Shawi, and our project, live.