indigenous chief
Photo by Gaby Arriola (

Exploring the Cultural and Healing Traditions of the Huni Kuin

The Huni Kuin people of the Brazilian Amazon are dedicated to preserving—and sharing—their culture for one main reason: Spreading the messages of the rainforest.

DoubleBlind Mag

Article by Emily Ana Levy &
Published on

The traditional medicines of the Huni Kuin from the Brazilian Amazon saved my life. On a pilgrimage to reclaim my physical health after enduring 15 years of chronic illness caused by Neurological Lyme Disease, tick-borne illnesses, and related autoimmune conditions, I took a leap of faith in embarking on a three-day boat journey to their homeland located in the heart of the Amazon, determined to regain my physical health. 

As the boat pulled ashore, brilliant hues of green were a backdrop to the smiling faces of the Huni Kuin people, singing, dancing, and welcoming me to their village of São Vicente. The reception was overwhelming, especially after three days and two nights traveling with a small group of fellow pasajeros, or passengers, on a narrow voadeira boat careening down the murky Rio Humaitá River. 

Taking in this stunning, vibrant community surrounded by lush tropical plants and trees, I felt like I was stepping into the unknown, while also surrendering my trust to nature and the Huni Kuin. I had a port catheter implanted in my chest for IV medication and for the year prior, I relied on a cane to help me walk as the myelin sheath in the nerves in my legs continued to deteriorate. I had exhausted conventional Western medicine options and was desperately hoping for this expedition to restore my physical well-being. I did not realize what a profound physical, emotional, and spiritual healing and transformation awaited me.

My experience in São Vicente gave me a second chance at life. It felt like a divine orchestration by the Forest highlighting the remarkable capacity of humans to endure, heal, and emerge stronger.

spinning circle

Chief Tuwe always welcomes people by saying “Haux Haux,” which is akin to a greeting or a prayer such as “Amen,” “Ashe,” “Aho,” and other similar expressions. His journey, he explained, is guided and supported by the wisdom of his ancestors and the solidarity of his community.

Translated, Huni Kuin means “true people.” Their culture, traditions, and spirituality are intricately woven with the lush landscape they have called home for centuries. Currently, the Huni Kuin population consists of roughly 10,000 people, scattered throughout 127,383 acres of lush, dewy jungle across five distinct villages. “We are distributed in 12 different lands,” Tuwe explained in a YouTube interview. “Even though everyone [of us] is Huni Kuin, when you go from one land to another, the reality is very different in various aspects.” 

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(Currently, illness is swiftly moving through the Huni Kuin villages, resulting in the deaths of babies and elders. You can donate to the Huni Kuin’s Emergency Medical Support fund here.)

Many of these villages are situated along the border between Peru and Brazil, a region—historically and currently—marked by environmental conflict. The Brazillian-Peruvian border was a hot spot for the rubber boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which European and North American industry folk settled in the area and extracted rubber from the Amazon for tires, shoes, and latex. This border region is also a common route for illegal loggers and miners who travel from Peru to Brazil.

Tuwe’s village is in São Vicente, part of what’s colonially referred to as the Kaxinawá Indigenous Territory. It can take up to five days to reach Tarauacá, a river town bordering Peru in the westernmost province of Acre, Brazil. The Huni Kuin consider themselves the original people of this region of the Amazon, and it is what Tuwe calls his ancestral home. 

Despite living in the depths of the rainforest, Tuwe is a passionate advocate of technology. He makes documentaries as a way to preserve his culture and bridge the gap between the modern world and the Indigenous way of life. In his film Us and Them, Tuwe sheds light on the Brabos, an Indigenous community that lives in voluntary isolation in the western Amazon along the border of Brazil and Peru. The Huni Kuin help protect and represent the Brabos politically. 

Political action is why Tuwe became a filmmaker. He wants to raise awareness about challenges faced by Indigenous communities, mobilize people into action, foster spiritual awareness and healing among non-Indigenous people, and spread knowledge about the Amazon’s immense value. Making documentaries, he explained, will hopefully get people involved in Huni Kuin activism. 

“The more people [who are] involved,” Tuwe said, “the easier it is for [us] to do work with more collectivity [sic] and more quality.” 

Tuwe is also an international messenger for the Huni Kuin, meaning he’s been entrusted by his community to spread their message around the world. His late father, Vicente Saboia Nawa Iba Nai Bai Huni Kuin, was also an international messenger and leader of the Huni Kuin. He dedicated his life to protecting the Rio Humaitá Indigenous Land and was the first member of the Huni Kuin to advocate for the rights of Indigenous people. The Brazilian government now protects the Huni Kuin’s land thanks to Vicente’s advocacy. 

The concept of wealth, according to Tuwe, means something different for Huni Kuin people: “For us, Indigenous peoples that live in the forest, wealth is not how much money you have. Wealth is to have an abundance of fish, game, a healthy forest, our medicines, and a life of quality in the forest. All this guarantees the future of the new generations. It is not worth it for us to think just about the present, we have to think as well for the future of our children.”

Chief Tuwe, photographed by Gaby Arriola
Chief Tuwe and his nephew, Txana Ibâ | Photo by Gaby Arriola (

Txana Ibâ, the nephew of Chief Tuwe and grandson of Vicente, actively participates in preserving the Huni Kuin culture and medicinal traditions alongside Tuwe. He regularly accompanies Tuwe and other family members on travels beyond their village, sharing the rich ceremonial heritage of the Huni Kuin with the world. Txana Ibâ explained to me while in the Amazon that he was chosen by his elders to safeguard the sacred chants of the Nixi Pae, or Ayahuasca. He’s also responsible for preserving the healing wisdom of the culture. Holding the distinguished title of “Txana,” he serves as a ceremonial singer and guardian of ancient knowledge. Txana Ibâ’s dedication to preserving cultural heritage aligns with Tuwe’s goals for the present and future of his people.
“Nowadays, we are working for our empowerment, for our autonomy, and to represent ourselves,” Tuwe said in a YouTube interview. “We are also working on the cultural strengthening of language, our rituals, our ceremonies, [and] our cultural, artistic, and spiritual manifestations.”

spinning circle

Language is part of the backbone of cultural identity. It helps us define our perception of the world and our place within it. For the Huni Kuin, their language—Hantxa Kuin, which means “real words” in English—is an expression of their interconnectivity with nature. Their native tongue is essentially a code to understanding how people and the Earth can thrive together. Most Indigenous languages offer such insight, according to The World Bank, due to an applied understanding that nature is an integrated system of which humans, animals, plants, and the elements are a part.

“Hantxa Kuin, for us, is very symbolic and valuable,” Tuwe told Leia Friedwoman on her podcast, The Psychedologist. “It’s what represents our cultural identity, it is our mother tongue. The symbolism in Hantxa Kuin connects us to our heart and our consciousness.”

The Amazon basin is at risk of losing over 400 languages, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger. Indigenous languages are among the most vulnerable to erasure. Large swaths of South America—the central Colombian highlands and valleys, central Venezuela, eastern Brazil, northern Peru, and most of Argentina—have already lost almost all of their Indigenous languages without any significant documentation of them, UNESCO reports.
“When we have a circle and do a prayer in our mother language, the words that we are saying are not only talking about the water; we are calling the energy, calling the force from the sun, from the earth, from the wind, from all the elements,” Tuwe explained on The Psychedologist. “It’s very special and sacred, and it can only be expressed with words from Hantxa Kuin.”

indigenous chief serving hapé
Tuwe facilitating Hapé | Photo by Gaby Arriola (

Connection to spirit is intertwined with daily life for the Huni Kuin and guided by the use of sacred medicines from the Amazon. They work with various plants in ceremony as a community for collective healing and to enhance intelligence, foster spiritual growth, and connect with their ancestors and the land. They work with Hapé, a finely ground tobacco mixed with other medicinal plants, Sananga, a potent eye drop made from a root, Nixi Pae, or Ayahuasca, and Kampum, also known as Kambo, which is a peptide secretion from the Phyllomedusa Bicolor frog. Each plant and Kambo supports a unique purpose and is deeply ingrained in their cultural practice and cosmology. 

Each Indigenous culture has a specific way of working with sacred medicines, particularly Ayahuasca. The Huni Kuin, for instance, call the songs they sing during ceremony Huni Meka, while the Shipibo people call them Icaros. The Huni Kuin ceremony is also divided into three distinct parts: It opens with prayers and chanting to the medicine, ancestors, directions, land, animals, and spirits led by the ceremonial singer (Txana) and/or the Pajé, or members of the community who heal with the use of plants and facilitate medicine ceremonies. Then, there is a period of each person doing their individual work, followed by a period of group dancing and celebration. The latter portion of the ceremony feels like a celebration of life, characterized by movement, singing, and people playing instruments such as guitars, drums, and maracas. This is unique to the Huni Kuin, as some Ayahuasca traditions honor silence and stillness, while Shipibo curanderos chant Icaros in the darkness for the majority of the experience, for instance.

For the Huni Kuin, Nixi Pae has a unique power compared to the other plants. “It’s a medicine that comes from the jungle and it has its own time, [and] its own purpose,” he said on The Psychedologist. “We drink [Ayahuasca] in a ritualistic way, with a beginning, middle, and end according to our tribe’s tradition.” 

Tuwe believes that if the whole world had a chance to experience this medicine, the consciousness as a collective would greatly improve. He said that while “Ayahuasca is for everyone, not everyone feels called to work with it.” For those who feel called to sit with Ayahuasca, he believes that it must be approached with respect and responsibility, and in accordance with tradition. Exercising care for the culture from which these traditions originate is imperative to Tuwe.

“I give this message to the people of the world who feel the calling of the medicine: Connect yourself with this medicine, because it is the connection to the forest,” he said. “The medicine removes people from the world of drugs and alcohol. She brings you to goodness, to the real world. It’s important that people connect themselves to this cultural and spiritual world that the medicine offers us.” 

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Kambo, or Kampum in Hantxa Kuin, is another sacred medicine of the Huni Kuin. According to various legends, during an Ayahuasca ceremony, the Pajé of the village learned to use the secretion of the Phyllomedusa bicolor frog to heal the entire village when they were afflicted with illness. It is said that when the Pajé passed away, his spirit became one with the frog, giving it its name. 

“We collect the secretion from the true frog and use it as a purgative, a cultural and spiritual vaccination for our people,” Tuwe explained in a Huni Kuin YouTube interview. The medicine is administered on an empty stomach in the early morning and is an integral part of their spiritual practice. “[Kambo] cleans us psychologically, materially, and spiritually, and it takes away the panema (or bad luck). We use Kambo to be a good hunter in the forest and to bring luck, peace, harmony, healing, joy… the Kambo cures us of many sicknesses.”

Working with plant medicine is among the most sacred traditions for the Huni Kuin, partly due to the majesty of the plants, but also because these traditions have been passed down by elders for thousands of years. They are considered the guardians of the culture. The Huni Kuin honor and celebrate their elders for this reason. This is why Tuwe emphasizes the importance of approaching plant medicines with integrity, especially as psychedelic use becomes increasingly popular around the world.

“[Plant medicine work is] very important knowledge,” he explained on The Psychedologist. “The way that we [learned] is from [our] elders…They are our leading files from the forest, like a library. If we worked in an isolated way [without our elders] we can’t advance in our purpose.”

Chief Tuwe and Nixi Pae Ceremony
Tuwe before a Nixi Pae ceremony | Photo by Gaby Arriola (

Huni Kuin culture places significant emphasis on improving the quality of life within the jungle by focusing on environmental sustainability. Tuwe is an agroforestry agent for Territorial and Environmental Management of Indigenous Lands, a body of the Brazilian government. His job is to help implement sustainable land and waste management systems. He’s also involved in supporting the thoughtful utilization of natural resources, such as sustainably harvesting materials for building homes, beekeeping, and conserving and revitalizing turtle populations.

Tuwe doesn’t do this alone. The whole tribe engages in the management of their territories. They strive to strike a balance between the use of natural resources and the protection of their ancestral land by utilizing composting toilets, solar panels, and rainwater capture techniques. They also work to eliminate trash and figure out ways to work within the natural systems of the environment. The goal isn’t merely to coexist with nature, but rather, to thrive within it. 

“There has been a great change from the moment we started to make contact with the outside world,” Tuwe said. The Huni Kuin lived in relative isolation from colonized society until 100 years ago. “Many things were good, but many things were bad as well… so many things have changed with global warming… there have been many climatic changes: It was cold when it wasn’t supposed to be, there have been many flooding events… everything has a balance on earth.”

Emily Ana Levy recieves Kambo in her left arm.
Tuwe applying Kambo to Emily | Photo by Gaby Arriola (

Reflecting on my journey to Tuwe’s homeland two years ago, I am humbled by the 180-degree transformation I’ve since undergone and the balance that has been restored in my life. As the Huni Kuin guided me through multiple ceremonies, their sacred medicines unraveled suppressed emotions within me and unveiled the origins of my affliction beyond tick-borne illnesses. Presently, I am in remission from all chronic conditions, as confirmed by my functional Western doctor and validated by my spirit. After my return from the Amazon, I had my chest port removed. A few months later, I permanently set aside my cane.

It was as if the rainforest itself, with her grandmother-like energy, cradled me toward rebirth. Emerging from this quest, I carried not only newfound health but a profound appreciation for the Amazon’s wisdom and Huni Kuin people. The plant medicines and Kambo, like ancient healers, orchestrated my journey into remission, revealing the interconnected dance between the natural world and my body’s ability to heal in the right set and setting

The overwhelming message of the Huni Kuin, Tuwe explained, is the interconnectivity between nature and people, and bringing harmony to all living beings.

“We ask for the power of the forest to bring [the world] more peace,” Tuwe prayed. 

We’re praying for this, too. 

Haux Haux.

Deeper Learning

Huni Kuin women are cultural leaders in plant medicine—but they haven’t been seen. Now, they’ve formed an association of their own.

The Union of Indigenous Yagé Doctors of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) represents five Indigenous pueblos (or “peoples”) whose mission is to conserve their cultures and the ancestral plant medicine, yagé (better known as ayahuasca). Learn more about them here.

Modern ayahuasca ceremonies draw from the wisdom of Amazonian cultures, Shipibo culture in particular. So why isn’t this common knowledge? Learn how the Shipibo came to be the most common group serving Ayahuasca to foreigners.

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