Racism and the Discrimination Against Traditional Ayahuasqueros by Anthropology Users in Academia by Danny Nemu

amazon anthropology aya ayahuasca chacruna discrimination tradition

 Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT) - Creative Commons

We don’t talk to the lawn. We mow it—Jeremy Narby[1]

“Foreigners, and even Brazilians, often feel confused by the fierce accusations leveled by the members of different Brazilian ayahuasca religions against each other”, so anthropologist Edward MacRae has stepped in to clarify things with his recent article Racism and the Discrimination Against Cannabis by Ayahuasca Users in Brazil, published by Chacruna, an online magazine.[2] MacRae has a superb track record, having made key contributions to the CONAD study that paved the way for the legal protection of Daime in Brazil, and writing a fine history of this religious movement, which is one of the largest ayahuasca groups in the world. He didn’t choose the headline, and perhaps we can forgive Chacruna for its sensationalism given that they are competing with BuzzFeed for clicks. He’s right in pointing out that prejudice has wide-ranging effects on the cultural landscape of Brazil; but what about his claim that traditionalists who reject the adoption of cannabis and other variant practices by the ICEFLU branch of Daime are motivated by racism?

My article is longer than a Chacruna piece, but then the topic is more complex (and more interesting) than MacRae makes out. Bear with me, and I will attempt to reveal where his argument is incomplete, and how the anthropological gaze can sometimes obfuscate the nature of ayahuasca.

Possession Trance

Two “stigmatized traits” are brought up, namely spirit possession and cannabis, neither of which were part of Daime as created by its founder Mestre Irineu.[3] They were introduced as Padrinho Sebastião’s sect developed, along with different coloured shoes, a hexagonal rather than rectangular geometry of the session, dancing to the right rather than the left, and a different way of singing some songs. MacRae argues that the prejudice against possession is part of a general prejudice against anything from black culture, and it is true that racism is behind the stigma carried by the Afro-Brazilian possession cult of Umbanda. But there is more to it with Daime.

Mestre gave his blessing to his follower Daniel when he combined ayahuasca with possession trance into a new lineage he called Barquinha (not Daime)—though strictly speaking they work with “irradiação” (spiritual irradiation influencing the body), not “incorporação” (spirits taking possession of the body).[4] In Daime, the instruction remained “sem alteração”: no alteration of your normal composure. There may be a circus in your head, a riot in your stomach and caboclos in your shoes, but Daime practitioners (Daimistas) are to keep a lid on it, doing ‘mental’ rather than embodied mediumship.

Mestre regularly attended Barquinha, and his instruction to respect the lineage is still followed. The eye-wateringly beautiful format is completely different from Daime, with designated mediums dispensing advice and spiritual healing in a designated room, while others are “irradiated” within a circle of participants. Mediums undertake a lengthy regime of supervised training, as is the case in most possession cults. In Umbanda, a medium may be tested by extinguishing a cigar on their hand, and in Haitian Voodou they swig at bottles of ludicrously hot chilli sauce without flinching.

Some hybrid Umbanda-Daime (Umbandaime) groups take their training seriously, and unauthorised incorporação will be interrupted.[5] In others I’ve attended, over half the congregation were sobbing sofredores, preto velhos dragging ghostly balls and chains, or vaqueros tearing around the garden. Many “mediums” were complete newbies, and they even let me get possessed! Umbandaime is the fastest growing style outside of Brazil, and many traditionalists are not surprised at news of participants ending up in the psychiatric ward.

While both possession and psychoactive plants are commonly found in indigenous cultures, the combination is vanishingly rare; one survey found it in only two out of 42 tribes (one if tobacco is excluded).[6] It seems that those with extensive experience of plant teachers have overwhelmingly concluded that they do not mix well, and so have modern occultists.[7] Padrinho Sebastião went against the judgement of Mestre, against 40 out of 42 tribes, and against some of the most reckless punk wizards on the planet—and, he added a second psychoactive into the mix as well. If traditional Daimistas reject these changes, it may be because of reasons other than racism.


MacRae discusses possession to support his argument about cannabis, which Padrinho Sebastião called “Santa Maria”. As I invariably get called a religious fundamentalist by anthropologists, social scientists and “progressive” Daimistas whenever I defend traditional norms, let me make it clear that I use this wonderful plant to stimulate my creativity, for spiritual ends, and also for fun. I have worked for both THTC and Industrial Hemp Club Japan,[8] [9] and last month I gave a talk about cannabis in the Bible at a hemp expo.[10] Ganja and I have benefitted a great deal from each other over our 25-year relationship, and it is like many of my relationships—often rewarding, sometimes problematic. The global prejudice against it is shameful, highly detrimental, and (as MacRae correctly notes) rooted in racism; but ganja is not without its complications. No weed smoker will be surprised that my hemp expo talk started half an hour late, as the previous speaker forgot his adapter, and the moderator was nowhere to be found.

Padrinho Sebastião himself described cannabis as like a beautiful woman with claws, from whose embrace it is difficult to escape—not the usual image of the Blessed Virgin Santa Maria.[11] He told my former neighbour that while Daime required a sexual dieta (i.e. no sex) for three days before and after, Santa Maria required seven days before and after.[12] He said different things to different people, but most people in his lineage don’t follow any Santa Maria dieta at all, and plenty consecrate a couple of joints first thing every morning (“consagrar” is their word, not mine—I was once corrected by a 12-year-old in Mapiá before breakfast for using the word “fumar” to describe what he was doing). Padrinho Sebastião also said that if it comes from the black market it is not Santa Maria, it is maconha (a pejorative term for ganja).[13]

While some people smoke two spliffs in the morning and function perfectly well, we shouldn’t pretend that power plants treated without respect are problem-free. Odemir Raulino da Silva, a follower of Padrinho Sebastião with his own centre in Amazonas, is fiercely critical of the current situation:

Regarding the use of Santa Maria, our spiritual position is very distant from the model consecrated, which should be the highest position in our consecration, and therefore we have lost our sensibility and respect for that divinity.[14]

Padrinho Sebastião’s eldest son Valdete has a hymn about it:

Here I left this plant
It was for everyone to respect
But they did not want to follow me.
They followed the phalanges of evil
Now the use of it is suspended
And it is my Father who gives the order.
Those who don’t want to obey
Get ready to suffer.[15]


If the prejudice against cannabis is internalised racism, do Odemir and Valdete share it? According to Daime cosmology, our hymns are not composed but “received” from the spirits—in this case from the big daddy himself. So is the spirit of Padrinho Sebastião, speaking from beyond the grave, motivated by racism?


When 19th century anthropologists engaged in discourse (logos) on mankind (anthropos), the “savages” in recently acquired colonies provided a window into past ages of their own race whose supremacy was unquestioned. In the early 20th century, anthropologist Madison Grant presented the “missing link” between apes and what he called “the white race”—a pygmy whom he displayed, caged, in the Bronx Zoo.[16] Though this kind of openly racist anthropology fell out of favour in the 1960s, subtler prejudices persist.

Jeremy Narby, whose Shamans Through Time documents both shamanism and institutional racism, is one anthropologist today willing to entertain the common indigenous belief that plants have spirits and spirits have personalities. Another is Jack Hunter, who this month had his chapter rejected from The Supernatural in History, Society, and Culture. Although “there were no major stated objections to the actual content of what you wrote,” explained the editors, “your status as a scholar should be called into question because of publications and associations in which you present information that supports claims to the ontological reality of supernatural phenomena”.[17] In other words, it is unacceptable to present data that supports beliefs common to non-white people in the global South.

Given the continuing prejudice, we should not be surprised when a professor of anthropology proposes that the character of a cultural phenomenon is rooted not in any specialised knowledge of its practitioners, but rather in the political machinations of white people and those trying to emulate them. MacRae is far from racist; his publications attest to the fact. He is, however, bound by strict taboos regarding the ontology of spirit intelligences, even as he discusses the taboos people have about engaging with spirits safely. If, however, we adopt the perspective of those for whom Daime is primarily a spiritual technology rather than a social construction, then different techniques present not just different flavours but different dangers.

MacRae invokes indigenous wisdom, but mainly where it supports his argument. He argues that traditional Daimistas should accept what many see as the degradation of the lineage because:

if one looks a little further into the history of Amazonian Indian and mestizo shamanism, one will find many different plant species being used in conjunction with ayahuasca.

For a start, this isn’t history: shamans still mix those plants today. It also seems odd to assume that Daimistas are ignorant about the basic practices of other ayahuasqueros with whom they share the forest. Thirdly, what kind of debate can proceed when the crux of the matter—the existence of plant personalities and specialised knowledge about them—is non-admissible? If a blind academic presented sociological theories for why traditionally-minded fashion designers think that pink clashes with red, citing other designers who pair red with black, would we take her seriously?

Yes, there are shamanic traditions using other plants, including power plants like datura in specific situations (to gain powers of sorcery, for example). But it doesn’t logically follow that all combinations are appropriate in all cases. There are plenty of magic mushrooms in the jungle, but as far as I’m aware shamans don’t mix them with ayahuasca. Shipibo, Cofani and Peruvian Mestizo shamans almost universally prohibit cannabis in the ayahuasca dieta—including some who recognise its inherent value.[18]

Fourthly, even if indigenous shamans did use that mix, Daime is not shamanism—there’s no shaman selecting cures for specific conditions. Mestre composed a distinct ritual aimed at a distinct experience, and he named it Daime. He didn’t think that datura was conducive to that experience, nor mushrooms, nor any other power plant. He is documented as describing the spiritual, medical and social uses of cannabis, and he had nothing bad to say about it.[19] He just didn’t think that Daime required it.

Between the Lines

According to Daime legend, Mestre asked the Queen of the Forest to mix every single medicinal plant into the Daime.[20] You can believe that or not, it is your choice; and it’s also mine. Mestre removed the Apostle’s Creed from the litany, so Daimistas are not required to believe anything specific at all. Having met people who have overcome terminal cancer and epilepsy with Daime, I personally believe that it can be a panacea, and I followed that line of thought to the jaws of hell when using it to fight off a flesh-eating bacterial parasite, rejecting the advice of the doctors who warned me against it.[21] I don’t believe that cannabis improves the session. I believe it is a shame that newbies are often introduced to something so extraordinary as Daime in the presence of something as familiar as ganja.

Padrinho Sebastião put the Creed back into his lineage, so all over the world people begin sessions by affirming anti-Gnostic dogmas devised by the architects of the Roman Empire. Though the adoption of cannabis is often seen as part of a progressive outlook, Padrinho Sebastião was anything but progressive. He was openly homophobic, and said that evil spirits hid under the hair of men with long hair.[22] He forbade women from wearing makeup, and insisted they wore long skirts. He introduced passages of the Bible into the session, against the explicit instructions of Mestre, and he also thanked God that he didn’t know how to read.[23] [24] When Mestre lied about being able to read on one occasion, he felt obliged to remedy his dishonesty by learning.[25]

Despite Padrinho Sebastião’s unfashionable opinions as a man of his time, I believe he was a superb curandero, and that his hymn book is a thing of profound beauty and wisdom.[26] For me, however, he wasn’t of the calibre of Mestre—and even in his lineage, his advice has largely been abandoned. The dance was switched back towards the left, and some centres have reverted to singing songs without the extra repeats he added.[27] The prohibition on makeup has been forgotten, which is fine by me, but what about the rest of the changes? Most of his followers today drink Daime made by machines rather than wooden mallets, which both Padrinho and Mestre warned against, and in some cases they use a motorised wire brush to strip the bark (and thereby many of the alkaloids) from the vine.[28] Regarding cannabis, according to the internal logic of the sect, Padrinho’s instruction from beyond the grave is to stop—but that is ignored as well.

Overseas it gets worse. No one in Japan told me there was a sexual dieta for three days after, because they didn’t know. People outside of Brazil sometimes command sessions without playing maraca, while in the Amazon you may not even join the line without one. As Padrinho Sebastião himself asked:

what kind of soldier goes into battle wearing odd socks and without a weapon?[29]

The ritual calendar has been abandoned in many places, so the night of São João is skipped while Father’s Day (invented by a card manufacturer) is celebrated. Groups regularly sing half a hymn book, which Padrinho never did—because to him it wasn’t an arbitrary series of songs! Once, when Mestre learned that his followers had sung only half a book with the intention of finishing it at a later occasion elsewhere, he demanded that they drop what they were doing and close the circle by finishing it where it had been started.[30]

A surgeon performing half an operation would be jailed. Even the most reckless occultist knows that once you start a spell you had better finish it—and you had better get your magic words right too. I once went to a session with the kindest, most earnest gringos, Daime initiates wearing uniforms who had practiced for years without once singing Mestre’s entire book. Most were surprised to learn that it has 132 songs, not the 20 odd they knew of. One they did sing is about pestling (pilando), but they had learned that it was about smoking ganja (pitando).[31] The Brazilian couple who taught their version of Santo Daime Lite to this country and bank the proceeds also do peyote vision quests—jacks-of-all lineages, mestres of none. I have been completely slated by academics for voicing my opinions on them. Imagine what Mestre’s widow thinks when she hears of people overseas singing half a book while getting stoned and possessed, along with stories of arrests, scandals and worse.

The schism that MacRae presents as antipathy between followers of Padrinho and followers of Mestre might be better characterised as Daime informed by the wisdom of its founder versus Daime after passing through various filters of modernism.

(T)he followers of the ayahuasca religions do not seek to question the basis of the restrictive legislation that they tend to generally approve. Instead, they restrict themselves to arguing, not very convincingly, that their sacrament “is not a drug.”

This is a rather broad brush stroke. Though traditionalists may choose not to publicly confront the state on behalf of a sect that has abandoned the ritual of its founder, many would resent being characterised as in favour of the War on Drugs. MacRae is right in that the argument is coloured by the rhetoric of prohibition, but so is Latin culture in general. My Bolivian T-shirt says ‘la hoja de coca no es una droga’, and when actors say ‘shit!’ in American films, the Portuguese subtitle reads ‘droga!Droga in popular Brazilian parlance is less a statement of the psychoactive or medicinal properties of something than a pejorative term for something nasty and taboo that destroys people.

Gossip between shamans has long been a feature of shamanism (and is one informal mechanism for regulating the industry and outing bad shamans).[32] Given this, and given that religious history is not without its schisms, should an argument between different sects of Ayahuasca religions be surprising? If the argument is conducted in the language of prohibition, that does not necessarily mean that it is rooted in prohibition. Indeed, groups whose traditions are threatened by modernity have few other weapons to hand—that is why Amazonian tribes still facing land grabs and massacres are struggling to have their territories legally demarcated, with progress rendering even blow-dart ambushes illegal.[33] What else do traditional Daimistas have to defend themselves with in a post-colonial world, where their knowledge counts for almost nothing, where even those paid to interpret their culture for the Western mindset are censored when they entertain the notion that their subjects might actually know something?

Personally I would be delighted if we could end our sectarian spats and, as MacRae says, “denounce the racist and conservative origins of the existing policies against the use of psychoactive plants in general”—and sink capitalism while we’re at it. But my dream might be a little way off yet. As a black man born only two years after slavery was abolished in Brazil, learning diabolical techniques practiced by tribes that had been oppressed since first contact, Mestre chose not to confront power structures directly. Though his hymns are occasionally critical of the state (its militarism, for example), he did many things to avoid being targeted.[34] He asked that his followers designate themselves as ‘Catholics’, and refer to their ritual space as a ‘centre’ rather than a ‘church’, so as not to compete with Church authorities. He also advised them to obey the law of Brazil, which may have been a matter of survival as much as conservatism.[35] The concessions he won, which to a great extent brought ayahuasca out of the jungle and into the cities of Brazil and beyond, were as a result of his impeccable conduct and persuasive manner. He won the respect of one of his most intractable enemies by saving his life from disease.[36] The story of him getting a bottle of Daime to the man who would later become the Brazilian Minister of Culture is straight up magical divination.[37]

When arrested, Mestre convinced the authorities he was doing good work, and he was given land rather than jail time (and on that land his followers went on to produce 40% of the food for the city of Rio Branco as its numbers swelled during a famine). Padrinho Sebastião convinced the local authorities that his ganja was not maconha but Santa Maria, which is impressive—but it doesn’t fly in the US Supreme Court. If Mestre stepped carefully among snakes in the jungle, it was because he understood the ways of the jungle. Many of his modern followers lived through a brutal dictatorship, and are watching another insult to Brazilian democracy arising today. If they follow quietly in his footsteps in their dealings with the law, it may not be because of internalised racism.

Beyond the Lines

MacRae wrote an admirable study of Daime, and knows far more about it than I do, but his article does not bring up any of the cautions that the luminaries of his own lineage have raised about cannabis. He does not describe the complexity of the relationship between the different sects, nor between them and the state. He does not distinguish between irradiação and incorporação, though the distinction is fundamental to practitioners. He sidesteps crucial issues about how different entheogens interact, and how different spiritual techniques interact. He homogenises both the traditionalists (as pro-Drug War) and the progressives (as pro-cannabis). Is such simplistic polemic appropriate for anthropological discourse in the 21st century?

Furthermore, it is standard practice in academia to state potential conflicts of interest (or their absence). MacRae’s authoritative credentials are listed above the article: “associate professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Bahia, researcher at CETAD/UFBA and NEIP… [who] has written extensively on LGBT rights, AIDS, harm reduction and ayahuasca”. But there is no mention of the fact that he is initiated into the lineage in whose defence he cries racism.

I am assured that Chacruna was seeking to provoke debate, but between whom? How many traditionalists know enough English to defend themselves from this charge of racism beaming across the interwebs? How many are willing to engage in anthropological debate against one of its champions, in an arena where there are strict taboos against violating the tenets of relativism, social constructivism, objectivism and dispassion—none of which are part of Amazonian life? Amazonians gossip, and bicker, and do a different type of sorcery—which is why Mestre advised against all three. I can’t let MacRae’s article go unchallenged; but I don’t relish the battle. Nor do I enjoy being dismissed as a dinosaur at conferences and on the forums when I reject Santo Daime Lite, or challenge the social constructivist dogmas that facilitate the obliteration of traditional knowledge (along with its safeguards). Of course, ritual is socially constructed, to a certain extent—that’s why Daimistas wear neckties and shamans wear feathers. If prejudice influences that construction, any meaningful discussion about the extent of it must consider other factors. Flattening the issue and making logically tenuous accusations of racism can only generate further division.

From my very first Daime session 18 years ago in Japan, in Padrinho Sebastião’s line, I took issue not with ganja but with the Creed. It seemed out of place, where everything else was pregnant with truth and beauty. I could never bring myself to recite any of it, and only after years of internal conflict did I learn that Mestre had done away with it. Perhaps more anthropologists could show comparable insight into the dogmas at the root and in the branches of their own discipline.

Racial science has fallen from grace, and anthropologists discoursing about mankind have limited options. They can maintain the taboos and prejudices and habits of their own tribe, seeking scientific respectability by rejecting the epistemologies of those they study. Or they can “go native”, leaving the comfort of their ivory towers and embracing the knowledge systems of indigenous and mestizo people.

There is, I believe, a third way between the extremes, marrying the best of both and leaving unexamined prejudices and bad habits behind. As the good people of ICEERS discovered in the opening few minutes of the international Ayahuasca conference in Rio Branco—when the gloves came off and various Daimista groups, indigenous nations and anthropologists began shouting each other down—such an initiative is extremely timely.[38] Chacruna sits between the worlds of ayahuasca and academia, and is therefore ideally situated to exploring new paradigms of discourse about humankind, to seek common ground rather than conflict, to deal in cures rather than curses in the scarred landscape of post-colonialism. An editorial policy favouring a little more nuance might be a good place to start.


Neuro-Apocalypse by Danny NemuFor more examples of unexamined prejudice in the academic study of ayahuasca, see the talk I gave at AYA2014.[39] This article originally appeared in the Psychedelic Press Journal XXIIAuthor: Danny’s fascination with all things apocalyptic began over twenty years ago, whilst baiting Jehovah's Witnesses on his doorstep. He regularly gives talks on ayahuasca and Santo Daime, on revelation in the history of science and cognition, and other wonderful things. He is the author of Science Revealed and Neuro-Apocalypse


Note on the notes: An oral tradition is passed down in the course of conversation. I have noted where my pers. comms. came from when I can remember, but in the two and a half years I spent in Brazil and the 17 years with Daime, I can’t remember exactly who told me what and when.

[1] Intelligence in Nature Narby, J. Talk given at Club Imaginal, Brighton, 27 April 2016

[2] http://chacruna.net/racism-discrimination-cannabis-ayahuasca-users-brazil/

[3] http://chacruna.net/racism-discrimination-cannabis-ayahuasca-users-brazil/ 

[4] Healing in the Barquinha religion Frenopoulo, C. in Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil

Labate, B. C. & MacRae, E. (London: 2010)

[5] At Padrinho Nonato’s centre in the Amazon, for example, I have seen the fiscal or guardian of the session intervene and ask people to stop incorporating. Baxinha’s place is pretty solid too.

[6] David Luke’s chapter in Talking With The Spirits

[7] In Chaos Magick, a modern occult movement born in a disused ammunition dump, where “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted”, the founder recommended psychoactives only for evocation, not invocation http://www.ain23.com/topy.net/kiaosfera/caos/history.html

[8] The Hemp Trading Company, https://shop.thtc.co.uk/

[9] http://mixi.jp/view_community.pl?id=1116500

[10] https://www.productearthexpo.com/seminars-by-category.html
I gave a talk on the same subject at Breaking Convention: https://youtu.be/wgn_ddrdHKI 

[11] Someone from Cinco Mil (pers. comm.)

[12] Donna Elza of Cinco Mil (pers. comm.)

[13] Someone from Cinco Mil (pers. comm.)

[14] From Odemir Raulino’s Facebook post—translation mine

[15] O Chicote Padrinho Valdete #32

[16] Ota benga: The pygmy in the zoo Bradford, P. V. & Blume, H. (New York: 1992), pp. 173–175

[17] Jack Hunter (pers. comm)

[18] Several people who have lived in those places (pers. comm.)

[19] http://afamiliajuramidam.org/english/personal_accounts/luiz_mendes.htm (Santa Maria subsection) Padrinho Luiz Mendes was nominated ‘mestre conselhero’ by Mestre himself, on account of his skill with words, so I’m inclined to believe this story.

[20] Saturnino Brito do Nascimento (pers. comm.)

[21] http://realitysandwich.com/220989/taboo-from-the-jungle-to-the-clinic/  

[22] Someone in Cinco Mil (pers. comm.)

[23] Comentário geral sobre os Hinos Novos: http://afamiliajuramidam.org/liturgia/hinos.html   

[24] O Evangelio Segundo Sebastião Mota (Polari, A. ed) (Amazonas: 1988), p. 56

[25] In the forward to the English translation of Alex Polari’s Forest of Visions, Stephen Larson assumes that Mestre was illiterate. He is wrong. http://www.mestreirineu.org/luiz-eng.htm 

[26] Number 67, for example.

[27] A Chilean Daimista (pers. comm.)

[28] I discovered this when I went to the fetio house where the Daime is made in Cinco Mil to ask why the brew they gave me kept making me sleepy. Before I could ask, they proudly showed me the new machine. These things make a difference to those who are sensitive to what proper Daime is like.

[29] Some guy in Cinco Mil, I forget who (pers. comm.)

[30] Eu venho de longe: mestre Irineu e seus companheiros Moreira, P. & MacRae, E. (Salvador: 2011) p. 352

[31] Diversões do Mestre #1

[32] Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond Labate, B & Cavnar, C. (Oxford: 2014) p. 195

[33] https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/11810 

[34] Mestre Irineu number 43.

[35] Professor Emilio (pers. comm.)

[36] Eu venho de longe: mestre Irineu e seus companheiros Moreira, P. & MacRae, E. (Salvador: 2011) p. 245

[37]  http://lougold.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/daime-caetano-veloso-gilberto-gil.html 

[38] Jerónimo M.M. (pers. comm.)

[39] https://youtu.be/xp-kFYGpcwA 

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