In Langscape Magazine Articles

Ainbon Jakon Joi: The Good Word of an Indigenous Woman

Chonon Bensho with Pedro Favaron

When I was born, my parents registered my birth in the town of Yarinacocha, giving me the name Astrith Gonzales Agustín. But in Shipibo-Konibo, my mother tongue, my name is Chonon Bensho, which means “the swallow from medicine orchards.” I am heir to the knowledge of my ancestors.

My husband’s name is Pedro Favaron, and we have worked on this text together, complementing each other, as it should always be when husband and wife think in a healthy way and act according to the ancient teachings. His Shipibo name is Inin Niwe, which means “scented wind of medicine.” That name comes from the Chaikonibo spirits, who are our ancestors and owners of the Medicine World. Such a name can only be given to someone who has been initiated in ancestral knowledge, has inherited the practices of traditional healing, and has completed the ascent to the perfumed worlds of the Spirit.

Chonon and Pedro

Chonon and Pedro, complementing each other “as it should always be when husband and wife think in a healthy way and act according to the ancient teachings.” Photo: Chonon Bensho, 2019

Although he was born in the city of Lima, my husband has spent many years researching and living with different Indigenous Peoples. Since marrying me, he has become part of my family. He no longer is a foreigner or a stranger, a nawa, as we say in the Shipibo language, but belongs to an effective network of relationships, of those who have a common origin and live together in the now, sharing efforts, sadness, laughter, and thoughts.

My ancestors devoted themselves to our traditional medicine from ancient times. Their knowledge was vast and profound.

My ancestors devoted themselves to our traditional medicine from ancient times. Their knowledge was vast and profound. Both my husband and I were fortunate to be trained in the modern academic system; but, at the same time, we went through the initiation process in the Medicine World, following the ancestors’ example. We walked the paths of the ancient Onanya healers and sages of the Shipibo Nation, connecting to the spiritual world to receive from them the light of wisdom that illuminates our souls and our lives. Our Elders have transmitted their wisdom to us; and in our dreams we have talked to the spiritual owners of the Medicine World, to the luminous Chaikonibo beings and to the Inka sages. With compassion and generosity, they have given us their teachings.

Chonon Bensho, “Rao Nete: The Medicine World,” 2018. Painting, oil on canvas, 120 × 90 cm. The Medicine World is a spiritual dimension with which the Onanya healer comes into contact in order to cure a patient. From this world emanates a spiritual healing force that is capable of regenerating a human being and bringing him or her back to health. The woman in the top portion of the painting is a medicinal spirit of vast healing wisdom. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2018

When a Shipibo woman knows the customs of her grandmothers and continues to practice them, when she knows the different medicinal plants and with her bare feet steps on the ground that her parents walked, she is not lost in the world. She is not like a mahua yoxin ghost, with no relationships or attachments. She is a person who knows where she comes from and intuits where she is going. In her dreams, she can converse with her ancestors and receive advice from them on how to live correctly, how to be a good wife, a good mother, a woman who fully realizes herself in the feminine sphere and who is united with her husband, in balance, able to live legitimately and promote her family’s well-being. One has to learn how to live wisely despite the confusion and uneasiness of this century.

Chonon Bensho drawings

Left: Chonon Bensho, “Nomabaon Nete: The World of the Sacred and Aromatic Women,” 2019. Drawing, ink over paper, 28 × 21 cm. The drawing represents the feminine spiritual world and the sacred ancestors who are the keepers of knowledge of the aromatic medicinal plants. The perfumed force of medicinal plants is the basis for the healing of patients. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2019. Right: Chonon Bensho, “Ani Xeati,” 2019. Drawing, ink on paper, 28 × 21 cm. Ani Xeati is an ancient Shipibo festival during which all relatives come together, most commonly for the rite of passage of a female adolescent who is ready for marriage. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2019

Our thinking is strong, koshi shina; our thinking is great, ani shina; our thinking is good, jakon shina; and our thinking is beautiful, metsa shina. Our word is strong, koshi joi, because it drinks from the same aerial and vegetal spring that fed the ancient Onanya.

One has to learn how to live wisely despite the confusion and uneasiness of this century.

Our grandfather’s name was Ranin Bima: a great healer, an enlightened and generous man. He took care of me since I was little, cured me with medicinal songs, transmitted his knowledge to me, and taught me how to dream. Our mother, Isa Biri, was also an extraordinary woman, educated in the old ways. She advised me from my early age. She got up to work before sunrise, tended the farm, harvested, embroidered clothes, prepared the masato (fermented drink from cassava), and fed us. Now she lives in the spiritual world, but we continue to listen to her advice in our dreams.

Thanks to the wisdom of the ancients, we know who we are, we do not allow ourselves to be fascinated by foreign fashions, and our life has meaning and direction. Our bond with the ancestors and with the spiritual world is the origin of our strength, our clarity, and our security, and protects us from the prejudices of society.

The women and men of my family have been, and continue to be, artists and artisans, knowers of plants and territory, healers and sages. There are great masters of design and embroidery in my family, like my sister Panshin Same; my grandmothers were skilled potters and weavers. Thanks to my training as a professional artist, I have been able to complement this heritage with the techniques and methodologies of Western modern art. Little by little, I have found my own artistic language to express the beauty of my culture and the depth of my spiritual world, nokon metsá nete shama.

Shipibo-Konibo artist, Chonon Bensho

Shipibo-Konibo artist, Chonon Bensho, portrayed against the background of her 2018 painting “Jene Ainbo: The Woman of the Water World.” The woman in the painting is a mermaid who, according to an ancestral Shipibo story, gave people the inspiration for the geometric forms they use on fabrics, ceramics, and other artifacts. She also symbolizes the vital connection between people and the water world. Photo: Marcio Pérez, 2019

I am a modern Indigenous woman, embodying the contradictions and possibilities of our time. I do not deny the importance of knowing the modern sciences and the wisdom of different philosophical and spiritual traditions, but remain rooted in the wise words that I received from my mother and my grandparents, in the strength they transmitted to me. I remember what my grandparents taught me; and together with my husband, I have dedicated myself to investigating the customs and knowledge of our Elders. From the spiritual world of my ancestors I receive teachings that allow me to respond to the challenges that arise every day.

One of the main motivations for my artistic and intellectual work is to promote appreciation of the value of our ancestral wisdom among youth from different Indigenous Peoples. I want to help them recognize that much of that knowledge can still guide us to live the present in a dignified way, with a sense of belonging. It is essential to bequeath ancestral knowledge to new generations: our Elders’ wisdom is like nourishing springs from which we can draw the grounding and sustenance we need to live a good, fully realized future.

Although Indigenous Peoples have been and continue to be discriminated against, marginalized, and abused, we continue to think, create, feel, and love, because our roots are strong and from them flows a living and inexhaustible water.

Although Indigenous Peoples have been and continue to be discriminated against, marginalized, and abused, we continue to think, create, feel, and love, because our roots are strong and from them flows a living and inexhaustible water. The ancestral wisdoms are dynamic and persistent; drinking from our cultural and spiritual roots provides resilience in the face of adversity. If we do not lose our connection to our ancestors, we can teach other peoples and modern civilization itself that there are more beautiful and balanced ways of living on this earth, without destroying it and by respecting all living beings.

Chonon Bensho, embroidery

Chonon Bensho, “Maya Kené,” 2018. Embroidery, colored threads on tocuyo cotton cloth, 90 ×120 cm. Maya kené means “circular design.” The complex symbolism of this artwork represents, among other things, the fundamental circularity of everything in life, the connectedness of people and the rest of life, the equilibrium achieved through a harmonic tension between complementary opposites, and the vertical path of the soul from the water world through the terrestrial world to the sky world. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2018

As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book Buda Viviente, Cristo Viviente (Living Buddha, Living Christ, published in Spanish in 2006), for us not to live lost in this world we need to know the heritage of those wise men and women who preceded us, those who continue to guide us so that we can cross the abyss and the dark night of our time:

“When we respect our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors, we feel rooted. If we can find ways to care for and develop our spiritual heritage, we will avoid that kind of alienation that destroys society and we will feel whole again. We must encourage others, especially young people, to return to their traditions and rediscover the jewels they keep. Learning to enter into deep contact with the jewels of our own tradition allows us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, a benefit to all.”

Our ancient wisdom can help generate a more open, less greedy and destructive society, with greater respect for different ways of life. The ancient Shipibo established a sacred bond with the beings of the territory, recognizing that every living being is sentient and deserves to be respected. Onanya healers knew how to converse with the spirits of plants, of animals that live in Amazonian rivers and lakes, of animals that fly, and of those who live in the rainforest. We believe that these vital notions show ethical and practical alternatives to the ecological and spiritual crisis that has led us to the irresponsible and immature modern way of preying on the world.

Chonon Bensho,

Chonon Bensho, “Samatai Jonin Nama: The Dream of the Apprentice,” 2018. Painting, oil on canvas, 150 × 90 cm. In this painting, an apprentice Onanya healer is seen in the dream state in which he receives transcendent revelations from the spiritual world that confer strength and knowledge to him. The Onanya must use these powers in a generous and beneficial way to heal rather than destroy the community. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2018

Our intimate conviction is that the ancient wisdom of the Onanya healers has a vital philosophical contribution to make, which can help an unbalanced and unenlightened humanity to find its way back to a more harmonious, luminous, coherent, and healthy life. In this sense, our artistic and intellectual work seeks to generate a dialogue, a call to the sciences to converse with the ancestral knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and collaborate on the challenge of rethinking modernity and imagining alternatives to the current crisis. We must not continue to work in isolation, on separate paths. We must come together for the common good of humanity and of all life. In the Shipibo language we use the word akinananti to describe work that is done together with love and joy, work that does not pursue selfish ends but seeks the benefit of all.

We must not continue to work in isolation, on separate paths. We must come together for the common good of humanity and of all life.

The Onanya healer is not related to a world full of inanimate objects that he or she can subdue, as if the human being were the owner of everything that exists and could ruin it according to his or her own cravings. On the contrary, our ancestors taught us that all living beings possess intelligence, have language, experience affection for beings of the same species, and have a spiritual dimension. All living beings come from a common source and participate in an intricate web of relationships. No one is in solitude. Rather, we all are in relationship, in bond.

Chonon Bensho embroidery

Chonon Bensho, “Koros Kené,” 2018. Embroidery, colored threads on tocuyo cotton cloth, 90 × 120 cm. Koros kené means “cross design.” The cross symbolizes a center, a meeting point, most commonly associated with the Ani Xeati festival. In this artwork, it also represents the complementarity of human beings and other living beings in the ancestral Shipibo territory. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2018

In the ancestral wisdom of Indigenous Peoples, ecology can find concepts and practices that offer a deeper and spiritual dimension to that discipline, with as yet unimagined practical implications. It is unwise that we excluded the spiritual world from our vital ecological, artistic, and intellectual projects. Ancestral thought teaches us that there are higher forces, beings, and spiritual worlds from which all force, all beauty, all knowledge, and all harmony flow.

In the Shipibo language we use the word akinananti to describe work that is done together with love and joy, work that does not pursue selfish ends but seeks the benefit of all.

The voices of Indigenous sages, their thoughts and experiences, and their philosophical reflections have the same value as knowledge produced in a modern university, although they find expression in different ways and use different modes. Cultural studies must foster a crosscutting dialogue among different discourses and languages—a dialogue that must be respectful of differences and know how to accept, with humility, the limits of academic sciences.

Our work is imbued with the voices of the ancient sages, with their thoughts and temperaments. We endeavor to create a space in which the ancestral thoughts can be expressed in fruitful freedom, without being regimented by repressive jargon that works against the cultural wealth of the peoples. We seek to live, to the best of our ability, following the example of our ancestors, who were supportive and respectful. We don’t want to be part of the modern desecration, of the competitive selfishness and cruelty that mercantilism has cast upon us. Returning to our origin, living in the present with the strong thought of the ancients, we can imagine a more harmonious future for the next generations. That is our inescapable responsibility and commitment.

(Translated from Spanish by Tirso Gonzales)

Chonon and Pedro (fifth and sixth from left) with family in the Shipibo-Konibo community of Santa Clara de Yarinacocha. Photo: Violeta Percia, 2017

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Chonon Bensho is an artist and a descendant of the Onanya (traditional medical sages) and of Shipibo-Konibo women who have preserved elaborate artistic legacies. She was raised in a traditional environment, in her own language, and received a spiritual initiation to the mastery of traditional Kené designs for pottery and weaving.

Pedro Favaron is an academic researcher, poet, writer, audiovisual artist, and social communicator. A member of the Indigenous Shipibo-Konibo people of Santa Clara de Yarinacocha, he holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Montreal. He also holds a Master of Communication and Culture from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires.