What is Rapé?
What is Rapé? When this question is asked online, answers tend to focus on the French origin of the word and its physical constituents: the fact that it is based on Tabaco powder and so on. That’s all true, but it doesn’t put Rapé into its wider indigenous context. A more pertinent question would be is: ‘what is real Rapé?’ Or ‘what is original Rapé in the indigenous context?’ And these are quite complex questions to answer because they raise further questions: ‘Is Rapé only real when it is made by someone with a tribal heritage? Is any Rapé made by any Indian authentic just because the person who made it is indigenous? And the ingredients: Are they all produced and planted and harvested by the maker?’ There are many questions that most Rapé users living far away from the source can’t easily answer, which may give rise to doubts.
Let’s start from the beginning: where does the Rapé come from? Different tribes have their own stories about where the sacred plants come from, although many have common elements.
The Yawanawá tell the story of their patriarch, the king Ruwa, who lived at a time when death hadn’t found humankind yet. The story goes that he was the first person to die and they buried him in the middle of their Shuhu – their Maloca, or Longhouse. After some time some plants started to grow where he was buried. A vine sprouted and they called it Uni, or Ayahuasca. Chili also appeared: a plant used in the old days for left-handed magic. Other plants sprouted, some now forgotten. And there was a plant with big leaves, The people didn’t know what to do with it, but their medicine man, who was wise, told them to dry it and beat it to a fine powder. He told them to take a reed or bamboo tube, and blow it up their nose, telling them it would make a person fly, and take them far. In their tradition, you can do good or bad with certain plants, depending on your intention. But with Tabaco you can only do good. That doesn’t mean that taking too much isn’t bad for your health – it means that it can only be used for healing and positive magic. From the time of Creation to their first contact with the outside world, the Yawanawá have used their Rumã, as they call Rapé, to elevate their spirit, to concentrate, to contemplate to heal and to bond.
Mainly the Pano tribes of Acre state use the Rapé we know. Tribes such as the Yawanawá, the Huni Kuin or Kaxinawa, the Nukini, Kuntanawa, Katukina, Shanenawa and the Shawãdawa. Apart from the Pano tribes we have in the same region the Aruak tribes, such as the Apurinã. They all made contact during the rubber boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which is quite recently when you think about it. Since that time they have been slaughtered, enslaved, hooked on alcohol and – perhaps worst of all – have had their cultural heritage destroyed, mainly through being converted by missionaries. These missionaries deprived many tribes of their language, their spiritual belief and their medicines, which were always a major part of their cultural heritage and spiritual identity.
Rapé, the comeback
Most tribes lost nearly all their plant lore and only a few members of the older generation kept the knowledge of which herbs to use to make Rapé, what trees to burn for ashes, and so on. We know that some of the Huni Kuin kept the tradition of Rapé alive and have been using it continuously, though even for this group it was only used by a minority.
The Katukina, who were the first to bring the Kambo medicine to the outside world, also brought Rapé with them quite early on. From the Yawanawá, we know that when the first white man arrived, the chief served him Rapé to see what he was made of. Since then, they have had a long and sad story of working effectively as slaves with all the hardship that entailed, and losing nearly all their culture, until a new generation started to restructure their community in the 80s and 90s, kick out the missionaries and bring back their medicines. When they brought back the last two living shamans, who had lived more or less as outcasts during the rubber days, they started to regain their identity, their knowledge and their medicines, including Rapé. And so each tribe has a story of regaining their identity and recovering their secrets.
Some tribes were able to keep their medicine lore more intact, including the Apurinã, who are from a different linguistic root(they are Aruak). Their Rapé is the same as it has always been: dried and powdered Awiry leaf harvested wild on the river banks.
The question of “What is real?” also applies to the ingredients. We are talking here about the Rapé snuff we know that comes mainly from the Acre state in Brazil. There are, of course, many other traditional snuffs from other indigenous groups like the Yopo from the mortheast of Brazil, all the way through the Amazon into Colombia.
There is the Virola snuff that we know very little about; and in Peru we have the Nunu, that is comparable to the Apurinã snuff, to name only a few. Probably there were many more that have since been lost.
Nowadays, most tribes obtain their Tabaco from roadside shops and non-indigenous farmers. The ashes they burn from trees in the
forest and the herbs they add are collected in the wild or sometimes grown in gardens. There is the local Mapacho variety, the so called Tabaco de Moi, that is grown in the region, and then there are the stronger Tabaco types such as the Corda, Arapiraca, Sabiá and other types that come from other regions where they have more extensive production. All varieties are Nicotina Rustica as opposed to the commonly known Nicotinia Tabacum.
In the past, the ashes used to make Rapé were made exclusively from bark, which are used as the basis for many types of medicine because they contain the bulk of a tree’s medicinal properties. Nowadays, however, there is so much worldwide demand for Rapé that the wood is often used as well to increase the yield from each tree. In indigenous communities, Rapé made purely from bark is considered superior and is preferred for personal use.
Although most of the herbs used to make Rapé are gathered from the surrounding area, certain non-native herbs are used, such as Eucalyptus. Some of the best Rapé makers like to put a few leaves in their medicine to create a fresh scent to mask the smell of the tobacco. Like everyone, indigenous people evolve their customs over time and make use of new ingredients that become available. In terms of the consistency of the ingredients, the most authentic Rapé is produced by the Awiry of the Apurinã and the Nunu from the Matsé.
When you go the Yawanawá, the older, more traditional men say that the only real Rapé (their Rumã or Rumé) is made with Tsunu ashes, but there are others who sometimes like to use sometimes Mulateiro since it is a tree that makes a good ash and grows abundantly in their territory.
Then there are many indigenous youngsters who are from various tribes but burn whatever wood they can find to make their Rapé. Some simply want to make Rapé to get money to buy alcohol, while others go on long diets, study their traditions, conduct ceremonies and are fully dedicated to their spirituality. We all bleed red, whether we’re white, black, or yellow: indigenous or any other ethnic group are just ordinary people and some like to do the right thing and others don’t.
There are also questions about who or what can truly said to be indigenous. Can indigenous people move forward in time to live like modern people, or should they stay stuck in the Stone Age? Most of the indigenous I know and work with like a nice pair of jeans or sneakers, enjoy a good phone and have a Facebook account. Does that make them less indigenous? I don’t think so: living in the 21st century doesn’t mean you cannot maintain your traditions. All my friends and contacts are youngsters and very dedicated to their spirituality. While they are modern, they also live their traditions. They eat what they hunt and fish, grow their food, do long diets deep in the forest and so on. I am from the Netherlands, I don’t wear wooden shoes and I don’t stick my finger in dykes, but that doesn’t make me less of a Dutchman, even after 25 years of living around the globe.
Then we have the non-indigenous Rapé makers. Some are true masters: among the best and most dedicated. One of my dear friends is a top Rapézeiro, makes a medicine superior to most indigenous makers, and can recognise most types of ashes by looking at them and feeling their texture between his fingers. Would I say his Rapé isn’t real because he isn’t from any tribe? In the Amazon, the question of belonging is often relative because most people there have quite a high percentage of indigenous blood running through their veins. But even outside the Amazon there arenow good Rapé makers. I myself am a gringo and make quite a decent medicine that some of my indigenous friends consecrate with pleasure when I present it to them.
So let’s summarise: What really is Rapé? And which Rapé is ‘real’ and which isn’t? We will only consider here the indigenous types:
What makes Rapé real in the first instance is how you use it. If you apply a medicine made by the greatest shaman alive but you take it in a bar while drinking alcohol and talking while taking it you are definitely not consecrating Rapé as a shamanic tool but are just using snuff as a substance, like smoking a Marlboro. If, on the contrary, you take any old snuff but go sit in a quiet spot, preferably looking at nature, calm your thoughts, state your intentions and take it with concentration then you are using Rapé as it should be used. I would say the number one factor determining whether or not it is ‘real is how you use it.
Then there is the indigenous question: ‘If a native makes it, is it real?’ Indigenous are human beings like all of us: some are good, some are not; some are competent, some are not, and so on. It is true that we find the most knowledgeable people amongst those tribal people who have maintained their traditions. Although it is also true that there are many indigenous people who don´t know how to make it properly, who do not act ethically, and who will, for instance, burn any old wood to make ashes because most people cannot tell the difference. There are many who just do it for the money and won’t spend it on their families but instead will waste it in town on booze and girls.
There are also very capable Rapé makers who are not indigenous but who are dedicated to the medicines: mostly people who drink Ayahuasca and who have a certain commitment to moral conduct. Many are from the Amazon region and have some of the indigenous heritage in their veins and the forest in their being, but not all. Rapézeiros can be from anywhere nowadays…
Rapé, like all medicines and food, absorbs the energy that the person who makes it emanates, what he thinks, what his intentions are, what his state of mind and level of spiritual evolution is, and so on. In the tribes, people generally like to make their own medicine so it has their energy and their intention in it. Many times they make two Rapés: one to keep for yourself, and one to share with your friends.
When obtaining Rapé , it is important to know who made it, and what his state of mind was. Apart from that, it is important to know whether the maker was competent and knows the correct technique; whether the ashes were well prepared and actually made from the correct wood as claimed; was it well sieved so it has a good, fine texture; and a few more key points that are the hallmarks of a well-made product.
And I cannot say this enough: it is very important where and how you use your medicine. Rapé, like other sacred medicines, opens your energy body so you become more receptive to absorbing energies from outside. Make sure the energies you will absorb are actually the kind that you want to open yourself to and that are beneficial for you.
Make sure to be in a comfortable place with good people. Rapé is powerful so use it well, use your common sense and use it with respect!