I'm a White Woman who Pours Ayahuasca. Queue the Healthy Debate.

Art by Trevor Hamlett

Art by Trevor Hamlett

About two years into my oh-so intimate relationship with Ayahuasca, I started having serious, unshakable feelings about devoting my life to her. I had already committed to the role of marketing manager, agreeing to passionately share her magic with anyone who would listen, but I had consistently tossed away the thought of working with her directly--you know, as that word that starts with sha and ends with man. Not only did I battle significant self-esteem issues at that time, I also had a core nagging concern:

Can a white woman from Montana pour Ayahuasca?

But she haunted me. I thought of very little else other than a life devoted to plants. I had a tremendous amount of fear around even the idea of pouring a single cup of medicine, and what the path would require, but I felt completely consumed with the possibilities.

My genius mind (or was it a genius heart?) conjured up a safe way to compromise; I decided to be an organizer and hostess of ceremonies. That felt grand – I could welcome her and an incredible sha-person into my home on the regular, watching the magic unfold for myself and my tribe, all while owning my power as a master networker and connector of awesome peeps.

And so it began. The plan worked like a charm – kind of. I hosted ceremonies on the regular. I drank for free and met incredible people. I sat with gifted facilitators and did everything before and after ceremony, with only the requirement of doing my own work and helping on the sidelines during the actual soiree. Crafty, no?

I called myself the Vanna White of shamanism. Da-ding (hands outstretched) – look everyone, a SHAMAN!

Only I still couldn’t dodge the dream of going deeper with her.

And then one day I sat in this amazing Shipibo Maestro’s ceremony. Within 15 seconds of hearing him sing, I knew I was meant to work with him.

An apprenticeship was born that day. I had every right to be utterly terrified, as this path as a medicine woman—specifically as an Ayahuasquera—has been devastatingly challenging. And mind-blowingly magical.

Yet there remains a truth I can never shake, nor hide from:: My body and physical lineage do not match the traditions I practice every day. Without outside influences, I would never deem this as an issue, for it’s so innate and authentic inside me, yet I hear now and then from those that disagree.

So I felt called to explore this. Is it really advantageous that Westerners step up as Ayahuasca practitioners?

The Debate: What Do White People Know About Indigenous Ceremonies?

There’s a lot of fire around the audacity of so-called white privileged peeps stepping up and taking ownership of carrying an indigenous lineage. I deeply understand this conundrum. I battled it so much in my own self-worth that I delayed honoring my calling for years. It was the medicine that encouraged me to pursue this, and she taught me a couple of core things.

A sacred moment at the medicine altar - my happy place

A sacred moment at the medicine altar - my happy place

First of all, I took an oath with her and my Maestro that I would honor the lineage to the best of my ability. That I would put the medicine and the gift of being her carrier above all other aspects of my life. I’ve given up a marriage, a years-long career, a consistent source of income, and an overall sense of real-world safety for this path. I’ve given up normalcy in every sense.  It’s also dangerous to do what I do, and to speak out about it, because it is not accepted by the powers that be. It’s not a stretch to say my freedom is at stake every day.

Most importantly, I am extremely reverent and respectful to the fact that I am so unspeakably blessed to be a medicine carrier. I have never forgotten that she chose me, and as long as that invitation stays, I’m all-in to being her protector.

She’s taught me that doing my best is enough. Holding this reverence and sacredness in every ceremony keeps me safe, and protects the lineage I carry. She also undeniably uplifts everything about me that is unique. She uses every gift, every aspect of my shadow – ALL of me – to do this work. There is nothing about me she would change. I know that unequivocally. This is why she is such a goddamn perfect Mother.

Above all, I have learned that the sacred medicines we work with are the ones in charge. They choose us. And they are color blind. They create partnerships with our souls, not our DNA. She has assured me I have lived the life of an indigenous being many times over; this time Montana won out as my soul’s first home. Why? Because it was exactly where I needed to be.

When I went to her in ceremony ready to humbly accept her offering, she just waved a flag – with an image of the Earth. That’s our nationality – earthlings. Everything else is division.

(And then she lined up a seemingly endless stream of medicine men and women from every conceivable tradition and dimension that were both welcoming me, and also giving me that “Do you know what you just fucking agreed to oh my god girl hold on to your pigtails.” look.)

That said, it’s not OK for any of us to dismiss the importance of understanding and respecting the lineage we carry just because we feel chosen. I am constantly a student of all who came before me. I still have mentors and elders that teach me ancient wisdoms. I have a lot to learn still, and always will, but I’m damn glad I didn’t let my birth heritage scare me away from following my soul’s path.

I Am Accepted By Those That Came Before Me. That Means So Much.

Here’s the biggest argument for why I finally surrendered into a space of acceptance with my skin color, and my path: My teachers embrace me for all that I am, too.

Guillermo Arevalo

Guillermo Arevalo

My teacher’s teacher is Guillermo Arevalo, a Shipibo Vegetalista who is one of the pioneers that chose to pass along these traditions to people of all races and lineages. He recognized that the Western world needed Ayahuasca’s assistance so much more than the indigenous cultures, and therefore knew in his heart it was the plant’s wishes to teach people of all races how to work with her. It’s because of his integrity and courage that I am blessed to walk this path, and I will never ever be able to properly express my gratitude. (Yes, I know his shadow has been published far and wide too, but I’m choosing here to just honor this very special aspect of his being-ness.)

When I first met in ceremony the man who would become my teacher, I knew within fifteen seconds of hearing his icaros that he was the one to show me the way. When I expressed this post-ceremony, he laughed and called me a bimbo – he was sure I couldn’t hack it and dismissed me. Since that wasn’t the first time the masculine misjudged my outward persona, I didn’t take it personally, but I gave up the notion that he would ever take me on as a student. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Most Importantly, I am Accepted by Ayahuasca.

A few months later, this Maestro called me, stating that Ayahuasca kept saying my name. He planted the seed during that phone call that I might have the opportunity to train with him; an honor I knew dozens, if not hundreds, of people were desiring.

I will admit that I still had a very strong urge to run from this calling. To be real, I still battle that at times; the fear of the responsibility, the intensity, the danger, the constant shadow work. But then someone shared a book on shamanism with me; it fell open to a page about the repercussions of denying a partnership with a Plant Spirit who has claimed you. If the plants know you have a soul contract with them and you spend your life avoiding it, misery will prevail.

I felt this in my very core.

And so, I surrendered.

Because the teacher manifested, and the medicine keeps finding me, I know it is her will. She doesn’t care about my skin color, my gender, my physical DNA. She cares about the commitment we have to each other. She cares that I own my integrity and never give up the necessity to do my own shadow work. She cares that I serve her with love, to responsible seekers. And that I do my very, very best.

Here’s What Indigenous Cultures Are Really Worried About. And It Isn’t Skin Color.

An amazing woman named Gayle Highpine has written a profound article about culture appropriation regarding white people drinking Ayahuasca. In it, she shares an essential bit of wisdom that I also have been continuously struck by in my time in the Amazon. She writes:

Amazonian indigenous people are not concerned about the ethnicity of practitioners. Amazonian indigenous people are concerned about the degradation and devaluation of their profession by practitioners they consider imposters, regardless of skin color.

To her first point, I have personally spent months and months of my life in the Amazon and Andes, studying the ethical and traditional methods of working with Ayahuasca and Huachuma. During no occasion did I ever receive anything but love and acceptance by the tribes that carry this wisdom. That includes the members of the tribes who don’t identify as medicine people; they still hold reverence for anyone preserving the sacredness of these practices. It was in fact my first indigenous teacher – the great Don Rober Acho – who looked me in the eyes and called me a shaman.  I have been moved to sobbing tears by his and others’ generosity and acceptance. I sincerely have never felt judged. And believe me; my sensitive, self-loathing nature was sniffing it out for years. It never came. That spoke volumes.

Art by Jandamarra Cadd

Art by Jandamarra Cadd

That said, what Ms. Highpine states about the concern they carry for imposters is very, very real as well. It’s a concern that burns deep in me too. It is an incredible insult to assume you know what it takes to honor this unbelievably holy and difficult path just because you’ve had a handful of ceremonies, and you feel the call. That isn’t enough to justify taking the plunge and leading a ceremony. It IS enough to justify a sincere interest, and an invitation to do the work to become a legitimate practitioner.

In the Shipibo-Conibo tradition that I studied, tradition states the apprentice shall not pour a single cup of medicine in at least the first seven years. Typically it takes twelve. I met one amazing shaman that apprenticed for twenty-five years before he poured for anyone. I f’ing BOW to his integrity. (It took me ten years, for the record. I drank hundreds and hundreds of times – both in ceremony and alone, under the guidance of my teacher – before I was even close to owning that responsibility.)

I will go into detail as to why this is so integral in a future article, but all I wish to emphasize here is this: The people entrusted to protect and honor these traditions are willingly sharing the ancient knowledge with sincere, responsible people of all skin colors. If the calling is there, and the integrity to be of service is felt, they are truly color blind. But we are expected to do the work. Whoever we are.

That work never ends.

Why Are So Many People Angry About White People Pouring Medicine?

I’m writing this article because not only have I been the recipient of many comments from Haterville (Ignorant Gringa! Know it all white trash! etc.), I’m also seeing an astounding amount of racist comments in the medicine community at large. It does make perfect sense, as that aspect of our shadow is loud and proud in the Western world at the moment--which is wonderful as we are given the opportunity to feel it and heal it. This is just a small contribution on my part to keep the dialogue going, as that is an essential element of integration and healing.

None of us can undo the color of our skin. That’s why it’s such a painful thing to feel judged for; it’s based in pure innocence. We are who we are. I do hold tremendous responsibility as a medicine carrier and a human being – to remain honest, authentic, and continue to do this work with pure intentions. But I will not be coerced into feeling guilty, shamed, or someone less-than because I wasn’t born in another part of the world.

That said, white privilege is a very real condition; it’s a shadowy aspect in many of us that have been consistently given opportunities that others have to work ten times as hard for based upon the existing prejudice and systems that uplift some and suppress others. It’s hard for many of us to truly grasp the reality of this condition because it’s literally the antithesis of our experiences - myself included, though I have a bit more empathy with minorities due the fact that I’m a woman. But I still don’t really know what it’s like to be anything else but white in America; yet I know enough to be extremely sensitive to the fact that I have indeed benefited.

Want to learn more by someone who is far more articulate and educated than I? Read this amazing article by Claudia Rankine—she teaches at Yale about this very subject, and her perspective is essential reading to grasp the oh-so complicated nature of the current state of US race relations.

The prevalence of spiritually-bypassing white people showing up in yoga studios with medicine they procured on the interwebs after a few less-than-authentic ceremonies, proclaiming authority to hold sacred space for innocent trusting souls, and the horrific repercussions that often result, is precisely the reason so many people are angry. That is straight up arrogance and entitlement. And you know what? I’m pretty fired up too.

But in the end, this isn’t so much an issue of race as it is an issue of respect, and hard work. You don’t get to bypass med school and decide you’re a doctor. You shouldn’t be able to bypass indigenous training and still pour medicine.

Westerners need and deserve the medicine too, so it’s only natural that some of us learn the art of being a carrier. I had one indigenous Maestro giggle at me once that, “I’m glad it’s you who has to pour in that loco world and not me.” Hahaha Maestro - touche.

Art by Luis Tamani

Art by Luis Tamani

When I was ready to really manifest my teacher, I wanted him or her to be from the Western world, but traditionally trained. I found that my amazing Shipibo shamans could not relate to my particular kind of crazy; it’s a different world out here than the one they encounter in the jungle. I found there was a certain plateau to working with them that was simply out of the lack of ability to relate. And that’s absolutely essential in the space of healing.

I found exactly what I had hoped to find; my main teacher is Western, and yet he spent two decades in the Amazon studying, drinking, and training. He was literally my dream come true. He deeply understood my psychosis, as a person who dealt with addiction and darkness himself. So I felt safe in that I was seen. And there was that sense of – well shit, if he can do it, so can I. That was a game-changer for me. And I assume those I am blessed to pass on this information to feel the same.

A Call Out to Every Single Medicine Carrier

I figuratively and literally bow to everyone who walks beside me, who came before me, and who will continue long after me to carry on these traditions. It’s going to take a massive tribe of us to continue to lift the vibration of the planet – we are all HER children in the end, and she needs us in a big way right now. My prayer is this: That we can all learn to be more supportive of each others’ differences in this work, and bring less judgement, less containment, less same-ness, and instead honor the wishes of the plants. It takes all kinds to create a shift in consciousness. That’s why all kinds of us are called.

In the end, it’s integrity that matters. Not skin color. Gender. Financial status. Age. Just our willingness to do the work, to be as honest as we can about our shadows, and to make a daily commitment to be of service in the highest way possible. In other words, let’s just do our best to come from love.

I’d love to hear your thoughts; even if you violently disagree. Let’s keep the conversation flowing – that’s an essential part of illumination and healing.

Thank you for reading, and for doing the work.

NEXT BLOG: What it’s Like to be an Ayahuasca Shaman 

About the Author

Tina “Kat” Courtney, The AfterLife Coach, is a traditionally trained Ayahuasquera + Huachumera and a vocal advocate for safe and effective usage of psychedelics in sacred and ancient rituals. Kat has trained with various Shipibo-Conibo Maestros and Maestras, and is wholly devoted to the ethical and reverent usage of all plant medicines.