Meeting Arutam

My name is Anank Nunink Nunkai and I am a man of the jungle in Ecuador. The name of my culture is Shuar, and our culture has existed for thousands of years in the middle of the jungle. We have the custom of making a spear for the really young children because the spear would be a friend of the child and his defense. If it’s a young girl, we make her a basket. This is also a defense for her and for the house. Deep in the jungle there is a lot of danger, so the parents teach the children how to defend themselves against any kind of incident that may occur. And the Shuar children become experts at a very young age.

Arutam is a Holy Spirit that is all-powerful and can transform into any kind of different form. Arutam is the holy power of the Shuar and it is the hope for the Shuar. In our culture, to encounter Arutam, we have to choose it. When you’re living in the jungle together with nature, at any moment there could be an enormous, powerful storm. This kind of storm can be like a hurricane. At this moment, a father can say to his son, “Today is your day.” Of course, in this monstrous, strong storm, a child would be afraid. The child needs to take his spear and go into the jungle in the middle of this powerful storm. The boy has to walk into the jungle, right into the middle of the storm. As the child is searching for Arutam, he will encounter a huge monster in his path. This monster can make the entire universe dark. It is total panic. But this child cannot be afraid. One false move and he could lose this whole experience. He knows that his defense is this spear. He has to fight against this monster that has presented itself. He is there with the spear in his hand. As he inserts the spear into the monster, he speaks these Shuar words: "Chaii Apachi Iwitkata," which means, “Give me your power.” At that moment the monster disappears, and the child is in another world. He has received the power of Arutam and he is in a completely different space. In this space, the monster is not really a monster; it transforms into this beautiful image and begins to speak to the boy. It tells him, “You are a very strong boy. For this, I’m going to give you all of my power.” The monster begins to tell the boy all of the things that will happen in his future life.

After the monster has spoken to him and told him all of the things he needs to tell him about what will happen in the future, it disappears. Then the child returns to this world and begins to recover his energy and returns to the house. The father is ready and waiting for the child to return to the house. The father can recognize the child from far away, but the child cannot enter the house yet. He waits outside while the father prepares the sacred plant Natem. Then, together they enter into the jungle and go to a sacred place called Ayamtai. He gives his son the sacred plant, and when the plant takes effect, the Holy Spirit, Arutam, presents himself to the boy to continue telling him what is going to happen in the future. After this, the child will have a long life.

Another way we encounter the sacred Arutam is in sacred waterfalls. Every family goes to the waterfalls to bathe and purify themselves. We do this once or twice a year. When the people are prepared, we go on a trip together to the sacred waterfalls. During the night, everyone that is there drinks the sacred plant. The next day, we have to prepare ourselves. There is one adult who is the leader of the group, and before we go into the sacred falls, he needs to sing to ask permission of Arutam to enter into the sacred waterfalls. This song is a sacred song. This sacred song says, “Father Arutam, come with my children and open your doors.” When he’s finished singing, we begin walking toward the sacred waterfalls.

Just before we enter into the sacred waterfalls, the leader takes a little ball of Tsaank (a sacred plant) and puts it in our mouth in between gums and cheek. This is our protection. Before we finish all of this, the leader talks to us about these sacred things, about the waterfall and how it is sacred. This is the house of the Holy Spirit, Arutam. And Arutam lives inside of the waterfall. Each person brings a walking stick. As soon as each person’s foot touches the water, he has to take his stick and start yelling loudly and poking the stick into the rocks and the water. They hit the rocks with their walking sticks. It’s like they are knocking on the doors, for the doors to open to their power. As the cold water is falling on them from above, they are yelling loudly and hitting the rocks with their walking sticks, asking to receive the power. Some of the people, who have been educated by Arutam, can see different images. If one of these people sees a certain image, he cannot yell out or say anything at all. He cannot speak of it. He fights with this image and talks to it and asks it to give him the power.

We are in the waterfalls for just a short time. Then the leader begins to leave and we all have to follow him, with a strong warning. More than anything in our tradition, this is the most important thing: When somebody is leaving the sacred waterfalls, he can absolutely never look back. He has to walk looking down at the ground, always together, not walking alone, but in a line, quickly. It’s a bad sign if you trip and fall as you’re leaving the waterfalls. It indicates a bad decision from Arutam, and you probably won’t live many years. In our tradition, this is something that is extremely important. That is why we look at the ground as we are walking away. This is how the Shuar meet the Holy Spirit.

To see video of Anank Nunink Nunkai’s talk, go to the Cultural Survival website at

CSQ Issue: