Julia Velásquez Runk
University of Georgia & Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, USA


Ethnographic work on Wounaan, often erroneously grouped with Embera, has had an emphasis on shamanism. Today Wounaan recognize the beseeching ritual to the creator, the haaihí jëeu nʌm ritual, as their most culturally important. I combine indigenous studies and ontology literatures to argue for shamanic and haaihí jëeu nʌm rituals as requisite moral exchange among reality’s human and non-human realms. Based on over twenty years of socio-environmental research with approvals from Wounaan authorities and communities, I use oral traditions and participant observation to explore both rituals. I show how the rituals are part of exchanges, enabling the caretaking of Wounaan, other beings, and their place. Skilled embodied care is critical for the rituals and emphasizes nurturing ancestors, people, spirits, and other non-human beings. I conclude with a prompt for Wounaan to explore the sociolinguistic complexity of their oral traditions and rituals to correct ontological simplifications.

Keywords: ritual, shamanism, caretaking, ontology.