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AmazonianIndigenous Spirituality and Care for the ‘Common Home’

Adelson Araújo dos Santos, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Sep 13th 2019


Definition of terms

In the dialogue between spiritual theology and anthropology the term “spirituality” is identified in the attitude of the human person in facing the finitude and radicality of human existence, referring to certain deep and vital values that lead us to think, feel and act.[1] In this respect, spirituality becomes an area that contains everything associated not only with religion or transcendence, but also with the desire for well-being, which can be described as a way of addressing anthropological issues and concerns in order to arrive at an ever richer and more authentic human life. In its broadest sense, therefore, it refers to any religious or ethical value that materializes as an attitude or spirit from which human actions arise.

This is the opinion of scholars of spiritual theology who argue that the concept of spirituality is not limited to any particular religion, but applies to any persons or group with a belief in the divine or transcendent and who model their lifestyle according to their own religious beliefs.[2] And it is in this context, therefore, that, as we speak of Christian, Zen, Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim spirituality, so we can also speak of “indigenous spirituality.”



What indigenous people are we talking about? As the title of this article already makes clear, our reflection focuses on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and, among these, in particular on those who are in Brazilian territory, the so-called “Indios” of Brazil, which now number about 900,000, but at the beginning of the Portuguese colonization were estimated at 11 million. Most of these original peoples are found in the so-called “Legal Amazonia” – which includes nine Brazilian states – and are made up of 305 ethnic groups with 274 different languages, according to official government data.

Taking into account this great diversity of ethnic groups, we immediately understand that it is always better to express ourselves in the plural when we speak of indigenous spiritualities, in the sense that each ethnic group has its own way of living this spiritual dimension and of establishing its relationship with the world, although it is possible to recognize many points in common between them.

Some characteristics of the indigenous spiritualities of the Amazon

As in other ancient cultures, indigenous culture also believes in divinities. The indigenous people living in Brazil and Pan-Amazonia therefore have a mythological legacy that remains alive. According to Danilo Cezar Cabral, at the time of the arrival of the European settlers, the indigenous peoples who lived in what is now Brazilian territory had a rich and varied pantheon of deities, all in close connection with the forces of nature.[3] In addition to the Tupi and Guarani, the two most important groups, also the Yanomami, Ara and many other peoples have left a mythological legacy that remains alive among the Indians of Brazil. Let us see now some of these gods.[4]

Tupã, the great “Spirit of thunder,” is the creator of the heavens, the earth and the seas, as well as the animal and vegetable world. In addition to teaching humans how to farm, do handicrafts and hunt, he gave shamans the knowledge of plants, medicinal herbs and healing rituals.

Jaci, daughter of Tupã, is the goddess of the moon and guardian of the night. Responsible for reproduction, she has the gift of arousing the nostalgia of the warriors and hunters so that they return home and take care of their families.

Guaraci, brother and husband of Jaci, is the sun god, the guardian of the day, who helped his father Tupã to create all living beings.

Sumé, god of laws and rules, taught the Indians how to cook cassava and use it in everyday life.

Akuanduba is a deity of the Araras tribe. He is famous for playing his flute to bring order to the world. It is said that he once threw an entire tribe into the sea to see if they had learned the virtue of obedience. Whoever survived had to learn to give a new course to their existence.

Yebá bëló, “the woman who appeared from nothing,” was responsible for the creation of the universe. From her quartz home she was able to give life to humans with a simple coca leaf (ipadu) that she chewed every day.

Wanadi, god of the Iecuan people who live on the border between Brazil and Venezuela, is remembered in a myth that says that the sun had first created three living beings to inhabit the planet. Only Wanadi was born perfect, while the other two brothers were created with deformities, representing the evils present on Earth (hunger, disease and death).

Already in the description of each divinity of the original peoples of the Amazon we can see that their spirituality is characterized by the natural and cultural relationship between them and the forest, the rivers, the land, the animals, in an intricate network of reciprocity. Indeed, indigenous people feel and see nature not as something alien to their existence, but as part of their society and culture, as an extension of their personal and social body.[5]

In fact, for the first peoples of the Amazon, nature is a living subject full of intentionality; it is not something objective, mute and without spirit. Nature speaks, and the indigenous Amazon people understand its voice and message. That is why they always listen to it and adapt to it in a complex set of relationships and interrelationships, with which they seek to establish a socio-cosmic balance and dynamic integration.

On the other hand, in their ancient rituals the Amazonian natives seek a harmonious connection with Mother Earth – Pacha Mama – and her spiritual world.[6] For them, there are spirits in the forest who can be allies or opponents, who can help or hinder, heal or cause disease, who must be appeased or instigated. You can enter the spirit world through dreams or visions. Through dreams you talk to ancestors, family and mythical entities; you can know the origin of things, how to cure diseases and dominate the magical forces that make up nature.

Therefore, for the people of the Amazon rainforest, God is not a reality to explain, but has to do with the religious wisdom that becomes resistance, coexistence with the cosmos and nature.[7] There are countless images to describe the experience of the transcendent, both to tell the origin and to illustrate the human condition and events. It is not a search for a rational interpretation of experience, but it is the daily experience of life, which is then expressed in a symbolic-mythical way.[8] In the vocabularies of the indigenous peoples there are various terms to designate the sacred and the divine. To indicate the mystery, they have a very rich language. In this sense and in general we can speak of a theological-spiritual nucleus, which can be more specifically called “theocosmology” or “cosmotheology,” because of its starting point.[9]

In fact, indigenous spirituality is strongly marked by cosmological mysticism, as sociologist Benedito Prezia demonstrated in his study of indigenous ethnology.[10] Cosmos, nature, community and the sense of interdependence with all beings are fundamental characteristics of these traditions. In this context, God takes on many forms and names. God is transcendent, above and beyond this world, but hiding in the immanence of all things and all beings present in nature. Mystical experience is not a disconnection and detachment from creation; on the contrary, there seems to be a fundamental understanding of humanity’s deep attachment to creation. As creatures, human beings live not only in the world, but especially with the world.

These indigenous myths stem from the transcendence of individual and collective humanity and have a vital impulse, which is revealed in the mystical experience, in inner peace and in the interaction with the symbolic. In order to be in relation with transcendence, the indigenous Pan-Amazonian peoples create their mythologies as a source of spirituality and expression of the transcendence of their humanity and of their bond with what is earthly and material. Myth is the means to give meaning and purpose to their lives in this world.[11]

In addition, indigenous spiritualities are markedly sapiential, that is, they teach the wisdom of living in harmony with nature. The latter, in its exuberance, becomes the basis for the opening of the heart to the transcendent, to generosity and gratuitousness in the relationship with the other beings who inhabit the forest. The indigenous child learns these virtues from childhood, contemplating and returning to the bosom of Mother Earth, constantly interacting with her.

Elements like these become the foundation of indigenous spirituality in the Amazon, like a kind of eco-spirituality or eco-theology, which we could call “theology of the earth,”[12] that is, a theology that reconsiders the relationship between God and nature, that incorporates the ecological element read in a soteriological perspective, that includes the ecological reflection on evil and sin present in the world, with direct repercussions on the community life of the indigenous peoples, on their relations with the natural world and on their search for the fullness of life.

The modus vivendi of the Amazonian peoples

Since the religious vision of indigenous peoples is based on a complex and heterogeneous mythical and utopian imagery, the explanation of the origins marked by evil is intertwined with the utopias of a happy, real life. This mythological-spiritual vision of the world has the fundamental function of giving meaning and solving the problems of existence. This is present in the modus vivendi of the indigenous community, where cases of murder, rape, street children, prostitution or any other form of social injustice occur very rarely. On the other hand, joy, good humor, indifference to an unnecessary accumulation of goods, and respect for the other creatures of the forest are all part of the indigenous ethos.

We now listen to the story of a missionary who has been working among the Amazon peoples for many years: “Many times we have found indigenous women in various villages who, in addition to breastfeeding their baby, have also given their breast milk to a monkey, a deer or a wild boar. A woman of the Kokama ethnic group, who was feeding a deer with patience and affection, offered us her wise words to understand: ‘My husband left early to hunt with other hunters in the village. The only thing they found was a deer mom and her baby. They had to sacrifice her because it was late and they had to bring home something to eat. If they found any other animals, they wouldn’t have sacrificed the mother deer. But they brought her baby, too. They didn’t abandon it. Because just as the mother deer had been sacrificed to feed my children, so I had to feed her offspring so that tomorrow my children and their children can continue to help each other.’”[13]

This example shows how the aim of the indigenous people is a life of full harmony with the forest – and its fauna and flora – which they consider a sacred place full of spiritual symbols. Therefore, these indigenous peoples end up playing a key role in preserving nature, since they protect the integrity of the sacred lands where they live, trying to hinder the woodcutters, the seekers, the grileiros,[14] that is, all those who consider the forest only as a source of profit, to obtain its wealth by exploiting it as predators.

And since the greatest threat to living species is the deterioration of their environment, the role that these indigenous peoples play as defenders of Amazonian biodiversity is crucial. Just look at the maps or satellite photos to see how the areas where the natives live in the Amazon suffer less deforestation than the others. In addition, the role of indigenous peoples as defenders of the forest has a second dimension, because, being so intimately aware of the present biodiversity, they have a very early perception of all the environmental changes taking place, and they know how to deal with them. Therefore, the indigenous people are an essential factor in the efforts made to preserve these same lands where they have lived for thousands of years. The lands continue to be used for their productive activities, which are fundamental for the conservation of the natural resources necessary for their well-being and their physical and cultural reproduction, according to their habits, customs and traditions.

What can the indigenous spirituality of the Amazon teach us?

Indigenous spirituality is based on the experience of the forest peoples: their myths, rituals and their way of relating to nature. As in Christian spirituality, it is also from the religious experience of the indigenous people that we can derive the basic elements and paradigms of the elaboration of their understanding of God and of themselves. Contact and dialogue with indigenous spirituality offer us the opportunity to understand its importance in preserving life in our world, which is threatened and often anguished by the lack of existential and religious meaning and where humans become predators of the environment.[15]

The sapiential language present in indigenous mythological narratives offers us some lessons that we should learn in the face of current environmental threats, such as not conceiving Mother Earth as something inert, with unlimited and inexhaustibly available resources for our needs. On the contrary, the Earth is seen as a living creature, the mother of all biomes and ecosystems, which must be respected in its entirety. In fact, indigenous rites always evoke respect for creation. Thus, among some Amazonian tribes, if a tree is cut down, an apology ceremony is celebrated to save the alliance of friendship, demonstrating the need for a harmonious relationship with life in all its biodiversity.

Inspired by this, as Christians, we too can find elements of an ecological spirituality that teaches us to embrace the cosmos (the universe as a whole) and the God of the cosmos, as Manuel Gonzalo says when he highlights the possible mutual contributions between Christianity and ecology.[16] The Magisterium of Pope Francis confirms the importance of this sapiential dimension of indigenous spirituality when, speaking to the indigenous peoples of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, he states: “Those of us who do not live in these lands need your wisdom and knowledge to enable us to enter into, without destroying, the treasures that this region holds. And to hear an echo of the words that the Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’ (Ex 3:5).”[17]

On the other hand, in the dialogue with the various indigenous spiritualities, the presence of God among these forest peoples is rediscovered even before the arrival of the missionaries. And sometimes one can even find in some way a resemblance to the word of God. In fact, living with the indigenous Amazonian people allowed the linguist Álvaro Fernando Rodrigues da Cunha to identify the, according to him, “unexpected” similarities between the indigenous oral narratives and the biblical stories of the Old Testament.[18]

It is possible to recognize in some way the signs of the presence of the Trinitarian God, the Creator God, the God of the Incarnation and of salvation, who was already there from the beginning. Unlike what was thought when the missionaries arrived among these peoples, today we are much more aware of the immense spiritual riches of indigenous religious traditions that, in their own way, have the same essential values as the message of the Good News, namely the practice of love and justice to arrive at the kingdom of God announced by Jesus, or at the “Land without evils,”[19] an expression of the utopia of the Tupi-Guarani people.

For all these reasons the pope emphasizes the ethical and spiritual values of indigenous peoples, stating that “their cosmic vision and their wisdom have much to teach those of us who are not part of their culture.”[20] In fact, the encyclical Laudato Si’ begins with the canticle of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Canticle of Creatures. This reminds us that the Earth, our “common home,” is also like a sister with whom we share our existence, and like a good mother who welcomes us into her arms: “Praised be you, my Lord, for our mother earth, which sustains and governs us, and produces various fruits with colorful flowers and herbs” (Saint Francis).

Ignatian spirituality also has a profoundly integral aspect, as the Jesuit Josafá Carlos de Siqueira points out.[21] For Saint Ignatius of Loyola the anthropological dimension is closely related to the theological and environmental dimensions. The question of the meaning of human life and its supernatural goal is connected with the existential exercise of reaching the love present in all created things. In the Spiritual Exercises, the human being is not separated from the divine, not even the Creator from the creatures, because only together can reality be understood globally: “Consider how God works and works for me in all the things created on the face of the earth […], in the heavens, in the elements, in the plants, in the fruits, in the herds, etc.” (No. 236).

Today, as the awareness that it is essential to create a new worldview to save the planet grows, we know that religions have a great responsibility in this process, because “they have taken a leading role in helping to become aware of the implications of the ecological issue,”[22] helping the human being adopt a new vision of the cosmos, which makes us more aware of the divine dimension present in creatures and enables us to renew our commitment to the preservation of the “common home.”

In all this we are convinced that the indigenous spirituality of the original peoples of the Amazon has an enormous contribution to make to Christianity, in memory and confirmation of what our spirituality teaches us about how we must treat divine creation, but also about a new ecological vision of the world, through the concept of “well-being” (Bem-vivir). This emphasizes the quality of life, and yet it is not reduced to consumerism or the concentration of material goods, but promotes the community dimension of existence and the achievement of a quality of life through dignified death, loving and being loved, a healthy growth of all in peace and harmony with nature, for the preservation of human cultures and biodiversity.[23]\

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 8, art. 4, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1908.4

[1] Cf. J. M. García, Teologia spirituale. Epistemologia e interdisciplinarità, Rome, LAS, 2013, 42-50

[2] Cf. J. Aumann, Spiritual Theology, London, Continuum, 2006, 17.

[3] Cf. D. C. Cabral, “Quais são os principais deuses da mitologia indígena brasileira?” in Superinteressante, March 23, 2016.

[4] Information about the divinities is taken from Laboratorio de Educação, “Conhecendo os deuses da mitologia indígena brasileira,” in

[5] Cf. C. H. Díaz Franky – A. Cáceres Aguirre, “Espiritualidades, religiones y ecologia,” in Ecoteología, um mosaico, Bogotá, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2016, 105.

[6] Cf. A. H. Victoria Carrasco (ed.), Espiritualidad y fe de los Pueblos Indígenas, Quito, Instituto de Pastoral de los Pueblos Indígenas – IPPI, 1995, 66.

[7] Cf. G. Damioli – G. Saffirio, Yanomami indios dell’Amazzonia, Turin, il capitello, 1995, 208-215.

[8] Cf. A. Lopes da Silva, “Mitos e Cosmologias Indígenas no Brasil: Breve Introdução,” in L. B. Grupioni (ed.), Índios no Brasil, Brasília, Ministério de Educação e do Desporto, 1994.

[9] Cf. National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, Texto-base da CF-2002 – Por uma terra sem males, São Paulo, Editora Salesiana, 2001, 36.

[10] Cf. B. Prezia (ed.), Caminhando na luta e na esperança, São Paulo, Loyola, 2003.

[11] Cf. D. O’Murchú, The God Who Becomes Redundant, Dublin, The Mercier Press, 1986, 32 ff.

[12] Cf. C. H. Díaz Franky – A. Cáceres Aguirre, “Espiritualidades…”, op. cit., 99.

[13] F. López, “Pueblos indígenas de la Amazonia, presente y futuro de la humanidad y del planeta,” in Dimensión Misionera, No. 323, 2013.

[14] In Brazil, this is the name given to those who forge documents in order to illegally acquire possession of free land and third parties, as well as buildings or indivisible buildings.

[15] Cf. H. M. Cabrejos Vidarte, Motivaciones de fe para el cuidado de la creación, XIX Congreso Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Caritas, Tegucigalpa, Tegucigalpa (Honduras), 2019.

[16] Cf. M. Gonzalo, “Ecología y cristianismo,” in Revista Electrónica Latinoamericana de Teología, 2000, 10.

[17] Francis, Address at the Meeting with the Peoples of the Amazon, Puerto Maldonado, January 19, 2018.

[18] Cf. A. F. Rodrigues da Cunha, Teoria de Cruzamento em Oralidade e Escrituralidade, Doctoral Thesis, São Paulo, 2012.

[19] Cf. Cimi – Aelapi, A terra sem males em construção, IV Encontro continental de Teologia Índia, Belém, Pará, 2002.

[20] Francis, Address at the Meeting with the Peoples of the Amazon, op. cit.

[21] Cf. J. C. de Siqueira, “Olhar a realidade socio-ambiental ao luz da espiritualidade inaciana,” in ITAICI – Revista de Espiritualidade Inaciana, No. 89, 2012, 15.

[22] C. H. Díaz Franky – A. Cáceres Aguirre, “Espiritualidades…,” op. cit., 95.

[23] Cf. A. T. Murad, “Ecologia, consciência planetária y buen vivir,” in Ecoteología, um mosaico, Bogotá, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2016, 36 ff.

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