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Excerpts from Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice.
On one of my last nights in the village, I was up late pressing plants. Most of the Indians had retired to their huts and I was alone with the old Wayana, who seemed lost in thought.

`Grandfather," I asked, "does it bother you that the younger Indians do not learn the old ways? That you have no student to learn your plants. That your medicine is not be given the respect it is due?"

The old man did not answer right away, and I wondered if he had even heard me, or if he found my question impertinent. Then he sighed deeply.

"It is true the youngsters do not want to learn. That is not my problem, but it will be theirs. One day the medicines that the missionaries send from the city will no longer arrive. The people here will come to me to relieve their pains, to protect their crops, to conquer the evil spirits that kill their children. But I will be gone and I will have taken my plants with me."

I spent the better part of the next twelve months in the United States plotting my return to Tepoe; I was obsessed with working with the old Wayana again and learning more about the Indians, their rituals, and their way of life. The medicine man constantly appeared in my dreams, silently beckoning me to return to the healing forest.

I had followed the old shaman through the jungle for three days and, over the course of our trek, we had developed an enigmatic relationship. The medicine man obviously resented my desire to learn the secrets of the forest plants that he knew and used for healing purposes. Still, he seemed pleased that I had come from so far away -- he called me the pananakiri ("the alien") -- to acquire the botanical wisdom that the children of his tribe had no interest in learning.

I did not yet speak his language; an Indian from a neighboring tribe served as our translator. At the end of the third day, the old shaman turned to the other Indian and said, "Tell the pananakiri that I have taught him all that I am going to teach him. Tomorrow I am going hunting." I had no objections; there were other shamans in the village with whom I wished to work and I returned to my hut with the medicinal plants I had collected.

That night, I had a terrifying dream. An enormous jaguar strode into my hut and stared deeply into my eyes, as if trying to divine my thoughts. Powerful muscles tensed in its back as it arched its body to spring.

So vivid was the apparition that I awoke with a scream. I sat upright in my hammock trembling, my body soaked in a cold sweat. Carefully, I looked around the hut: I saw nothing -- no footprints on the dirt floor, nothing disturbed or overturned, nothing to indicate the presence of an unwanted visitor. The only sound was the rustling of palm fronds as a gentle breeze blew through the village.

The next morning, just after sunrise, the young Indian who had served as our translator came to my hut. "Shall we go into the forest and look for more plants?" he asked

"Before we do," I said, "find the old shaman and tell him that last night I saw the jaguar." I gave no details, and the Indian left. He returned a few minutes later.

"Did you tell him?" I asked


"What did he say?" I asked.

"He broke into a big smile and said, `That was me!'"

Reprinted with permission from Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice by Mark Plotkin, 1994. Viking-Penguin Press. Available from ABC BookStore #B086.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Mark Plotkin