The Amazon forest is home to several Indigenous communities, but many of them continue to shy away from the rest of the world. So, when Brooklyn-based cinematographer and adventure photographer Dan Lior had the chance to stay with one of the tribes, it proved to be an eye-opening experience.
His time with the Achuar tribe of Ecuador, who he described as the “dream people of the Amazon,” was immortalized in the beautiful documentary series he shot for the Tribal Quest project by family history platform MyHeritage.
“The Achuar community I stayed with was only 1 out of 6,000 communities thriving beneath the trees that act as the lungs of our planet. Their entire existence relies on the Amazon Rain Forest,” Dan shared in his project statement. “It is their apothecary, their source of nourishment, a spiritual guide, and most importantly, the place they call home.”
Following the dream
At first glance, Dan’s photos show us that the Achuar people have already integrated some modern influences in their way of life. It shows in how they dress, in some of the tools they use and perhaps even in the fact that they seemed comfortable having Dan around to take their photos.
However, Dan also tells us something unique and fascinating about the tribe: Dreams are a fundamental part of their world view. Each morning, a few hours before sunrise, they hold the Wayusa, a ceremony where they share and analyze their dreams to find out what they should do for the day.
“In the ceremony, each family gathers in their households to drink large quantities of herbal infused tea called Wayús which also acts as a stimulant. They will then clean their digestive system by regurgitating the liquid. Following that, both the men and women will share their dreams which will help determine their waking activities throughout the day.“
If the ceremony doesn’t lead them to an interpretation, they will spend the day actively seeking to understand the meaning of their dreams. Like dream detectives, they ask around the community, seek guidance from the shaman and take note of anything unusual that happens throughout the day.
The Achuar learn how to decipher their dreams from a young age, following the examples of their elders and practicing the craft with their family members.
The Achuar way of life
The Wayusa ceremony wasn’t the only noteworthy part of the Achuar culture that Dan was able to capture. He was also asked to join an early morning fishing expedition. Before they set out, everyone painted their faces red with the Achiote fruit to ward off the evil spirits of the woods.
The fishing method itself involved using the sap from a bunch of roots, which turned out to be a muscle relaxant that stopped the fishes’ gills from working.
“We reached a river when the dense forest opened up, a boy and his father arrived with baskets on their backs. They flipped the baskets and long, skinny roots came falling down to the ground. They then placed the roots against a big tree stump and started pounding them with heavy sticks. The roots bled white fluid, and were then placed back in the basket. The father then took the basket and made his way into the river. As he submerged the basket, the same white fluid rose up and washed down with the stream. I learned the liquid was a muscle relaxer which stops the fishes’ gills from working, leading them to drown and float up where they will be collected down the river by the second group who built a dam to collect the fish.”
He was also able to document other snippets of the Achuar way of life. These include preparations for the Ayahuasca, a ceremony that lets them enter a state of heightened self-awareness so they can communicate with entities which they believe to posses the human soul.
He was also able to show interactions between family members, how the welcome beverage called chica is made and how the women maintain the gardens for community resources and as sanctuaries where they can express their emotions in private.
Threats to the tribe
Dan’s work isn’t a mere introduction to the Achuar as one of the many tribes that call the Amazon home. It also brings perspective to the many challenges that continue to threaten these people today and cause their population to dwindle.
“Tribes aren’t only facing extinction from outside forces, but also from within as the new generations are leaving their communities in search of a more modern lifestyle. Some of them, will not return to their place of birth ever. And one day, all that history, all those stories, and all that ancient knowledge might be gone.”
He also notes that the portion of the Amazon forest which covers 40% of Ecuador is only 2% of the total forest area. However, it’s home to 14 distinct Indigenous communities. Therefore, whenever the Amazon itself is endangered, tribes like the Achuar are also significantly impacted.
This documentary photography project serves as an important reminder of how much of humanity remains deeply linked to nature: Our culture, way of life, duties and of course, our dreams.
All photos by Dan Lior. Used with permission.