Living Treasure Kapi Waurá

Kapi was born about half a century ago in the village of Piyulaga, among the Wauja people, speakers of an indigenous Arawak language. Wauja territory is located at the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest in Central Brazil. Her name is a traditional Wauja name inherited from her grandmother and refers to the coatimundi, a raccoon-like mammal found throughout Amazonia. Kapi was the youngest of eight children born to her mother, Apairumatumpalu, a renowned ceramist, and her father Karaputatumpa, a politically prominent man who died when Kapi was still a child.
Kapi Waurá in the thatched longhouse that is home to her extended family. Photo: Yaukuma Wará.
Kapi is a shaman of the yakapá type, which allows her not only to recite healing charms, but also to see spirits and other beings while in a tobacco trance. She became a shaman when, after suffering a lingering illness, she spontaneously had a vision and saw spirit beings associated with certain animals in the forest. One was the animal spirit that had caused her illness and the other was an animal helper that taught her to see.Her husband, Elewoka, who is himself a high-ranking shaman trained through formal apprenticeship, recognized that she was having a vision, and gave her some of his consecrated tobacco to smoke. Because Kapi had begun to see spirits directly as a result of her illness, the Wauja say that she was trained by the spirits themselves. A person who sees spirits during a lingering or grave illness is often thought to have been chosen for shamanism by the spirit beings they encounter during their vulnerable state.

After her initial experience, Kapi was able to use tobacco, as is the custom of Wauja shamans, to go into trance to encounter spirits and help heal members of her community. Kapi's family called on Kapi's brother, a renowned shaman who lives in a neighboring Wauja village, to come and examine his sister to determine whether she really had become a shaman trained by the spirits themselves. He found that she was on the right path and already was a shamanic healer. He advised her husband to teach her all that he himself had been taught during his apprenticeship, which he did.

Wauja tradition includes distinct healing specialties that address various conditions of mind, body and spirit. In addition to being a yakapá (seer of spirits), Kapi is also an ajatapá wekeho (master herbalist). Her husband Elewoka is, like Kapi, a yakapá (seer of spirits), as well as a pukai yekeho (master of the rattle), a specialist in incantations and rituals to protect and guide the spirit of a person who has just died.

Kapi is unusual among shamanic healers in that she will treat elders who are ill but cannot afford to pay anything. She is often seen around the village, visiting patients after treating them to find out how they are doing and to hear their problems and concerns.

Thanks to Emi Ireland, Research Collaborator, NMNH Dept. of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, for recommending Kapi Waurá as a Living Treasure. Our appreciation for facilitating Kapi's appointment to FSS Board of Trustees member Jeffrey David Ehrenreich, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and Doris Zemarry-Stone Chair of Latin American Studies, University of New Orleans.

Kapi and her husband Elewoka smoking tobacco. Note they are wearing necklaces of brown medicinal seeds that only shamans wear. Elewoka is the hereditary chief of Ulupuwene village. Photo: Yaukuma Waurá.
When Kapi performs the shamanic ritual that enables her to see spirits and potentailly remove sources of illness from a sick person, she smokes a long cigar like this one. Wauja shamans grow their own tobacco plants and carefully age the leaves. Photo: Yaukuma Waurá.