Transforming Dolphins and Transforming Landscapes: An Ethnography of Contemporary Myth-Telling in the Colombian Amazon

By Camilla French • MSc Social Anthropology (alumnus)

Everyone wants to know about the dolphins. The truth is they are people. In fact if you see their bodies, they have a chest just like people, the female dolphin has genitals just like a woman. We are told to be weary of them because they are beings that seek out relations with us, male dolphins will seek out relations with women so we must be careful. When a woman goes to the river with her period, they say the smell of blood affects them, they don’t like it and one of them might send a dart with an illness to that person.

I am sitting across from Alba-Lucia, a Tikuna elder known as the community ‘library’ for her vast knowledge of local mythology. Her hands are dyed indigo from the huito fruit (Genipa Americana) and she is stretching out chambira plant threads over her legs to make bracelets. We are in Puerto Nariño, a small town located 87km from Leticia, the capital of Colombia’s Amazon region. Located along the Loretoyacu river, a tributary off the Amazon, pink river dolphins (Innia Geoffrensis) or bufeo in Spanish, are a familiar presence for residents here, seen migrating every day between their favoured feeding grounds. Conversations about the dolphin, and its mythical figure the yakuruna are part of daily life. In Tikuna cosmology bufeos are regarded as evil spirits, guardians of the subaquatic domain and mischievous seducers. The most common yakuruna myth tells of a dolphin that transforms into a handsome white man. He has a stingray for a hat, a crab for a watch, a boa for a belt and cucha fish for shoes. After dancing and drinking all night at the pelazon, a young girl’s puberty ritual, he will seduce an unsuspecting victim, stealing her away to an enchanted world beneath the river. 

Alba Lucia rolling chambira threads

These stories are found across Amazonia, but in Puerto Nariño the yakuruna myth has slowly become appropriated by the community, which is not only distinguishable in colourful murals dotted around the town but also told by local conservationists in their educational workshops, performed by musicians at cultural events, and whispered by guides as they accompany tourists dolphin spotting on Tarapoto lake. I had come to Puerto Nariño to explore the multi-dimensional relationship between the community, the dolphin and its myth which seemed to be both cosmological, ecological and economic.

A painted house depicting a boy and a dolphin

Alba-Lucia made a living from telling stories and selling artisan goods. When I confessed to her that I had been out on the river with my period, she insisted on making me a lucky charm to ward off the yakuruna. “People used to wear piri-piri” she told me “now people use garlic from the shop or copal, this is copal that you use to protect yourself” she showed me a small sticky substance which had a pungent smell, “I’m going to give you some, the bufeos are afraid of it”. She proceeded to crochet some dyed chambira threads around it, creating a small locket which she then tied around my neck. Alba-Lucia had good reason to fear dolphins. When she was younger, she had seen a yakuruna which she believed cursed her. “Ay it was a strange creature mamita. They say when the spirit is weak, they do bad things to you, and I was pregnant. After five days I got a pain in my stomach and it took away my baby. After that happened, I took care .”

Puerto Nariño’s port in the rainy season

Although some residents remain cautious about interacting with dolphins and even swimming in the river, many younger Tikuna now use the myth as part of their conservation efforts. The Natutama centre is an educational space with a number of art installations depicting the subaquatic world. Volunteers collect stories from elders within the community and use mythology and conservational activities hand in hand to educate children about protecting local species. The image of the dolphin, which for so long had been seen as a predator, was now also portrayed as a victim. I joined Marelvi during one of her classes which formed part of the yakuruna diploma, an initiative set up by Natutama to raise awareness about the pink river dolphin, an endangered species. We were sitting in front of two carvings inspired by the yakuruna myth, made by local Cocama elder Don Ruperto.

Don Ruperto’s carvings in Natutama

“Yakurunas have even been known to father dolphin children” she told the room of wide-eyed boys and girls. “Can these children survive? Who knows, but lots of girls wash their clothes in the river and suddenly a man appears, tall, white, with blue eyes, who falls in love with the girls and the babies look like this”, she pointed at the carving of the dolphin-baby and all the children laughed. “The babies are born deformed, and what do we know about dolphin teeth? It is said dolphins gift them to fishermen for good luck and the fisherman uses them as an amulet to help him fish better. But he has to be a good fisherman who doesn’t pollute the river but protects it. The dolphin will bite the boat and leave one of his teeth behind as a present.”

The yakuruna diploma

There are in fact a number of racy stories concerning dolphin teeth as love charms (see Slater 1994), but Marelvi was clearly focused on getting her conservational message out there. By bringing these stories into the public domain, people like Marelvi were able to extend the memory of Tikuna traditions such as the pelazon and frame the dolphin as both a supernatural and endangered being that needed protecting.

Eco-tourism had soared in recent years, with both domestic and international tourists descending onto this small town to swim with dolphins. I had been staying with local guide Obsimar and his French wife Gaelle and joined them on an excursion to Tarapoto lake with a group of French tourists. We waited patiently for the dolphins to appear. Obsimar began to splash the water gently with his hands and let out a long whistle, a ‘dolphin call’, while everyone kept silent. Sure enough, a short while later, to the delight of the tourists a dolphin appeared close to the boat, “C’est incroyable!” the man sitting next to me said, referring to Obsimar’s ability to communicate with dolphins. Later that day Obsimar confessed to me that his ‘dolphin call’ was in fact just a simple whistle but the tourists loved it. Obsimar was one of the only local guides who had proper training and grew up speaking Tikuna with his grandmother in Brazil, “A lot of these guides have no idea what they’re doing, they don’t speak Tikuna and they don’t know any of the myths” he complained to me. 

Obsimar in the flooded forest

Although tourism was creating a space for local myths to be revived, the problem was the economical aspect, as Rocio, the head of tourism in Puerto Nariño explained to me. “Children might be learning about these stories in school and go to the elders to get more information and they’ll say only if you pay me so and so. Tourism has created this commercialisation of knowledge so it’s become a business which has cut the transmission of knowledge, it’s contradictory on the part of the elders”. 

I encountered a ‘corrupt grandparent’ as they are known locally, when I went looking for more stories about the yakuruna. I had tracked down Don Mauricio, a Tikuna elder known as one of the only ‘official storytellers’ in Puerto Nariño. When I arrived at his house and told him I was interested in his stories he proceeded to tell me his ‘rates’. “It will cost you 50,000 pesos an hour and each additional story also costs 50,000” he told me very business-like. As if to compensate for the large sum I was about to hand over he told me proudly “This knowledge is being lost, hardly anyone knows these stories anymore, I am the only one here who knows and has experience of these things”. He began to explain the difference between good and bad yakurunas.

The yakuruna is also known as the boa of the water, but we know it as yakuruna. There are two types of yakuruna, the good and the bad. The good one is the one that takes care of the fish, and the bad one is the one that entraps people. But it doesn’t kill the person, it enchants them. So it may appear that someone has drowned but in fact that creature has taken them. And we also have the Siren, those three kinds. The Siren will take any kind of person, adult or child, man or woman, it doesn’t matter, and she doesn’t eat them, she keeps them enchanted below the river forever. So the person is alive but can’t escape from the other world. They say when a person eats some food from the other world, they will slowly begin to adapt to life there and remain there forever, underneath the water, but alive.

The only way to escape this other world he added was to contract a shaman. “But those shamans don’t exist here anymore, they are only found in Peru. They are Cocamas, they will tell you that the water is a blanket, and if you lift it up there is a whole different world underneath”.

We had used up our one-hour slot, but Don Maurizio wanted to keep talking. “There are a few people who have ancestral knowledge here but they don’t pass it on to their children. These young guides don’t know anything, one guide got lost for three days with some tourists, just over there” he pointed in the direction of the jungle. “My granddaughters take care of Natutama but sadly none of them speak Tikuna, so we can’t converse in our language. I’ve been a curaca for five years I’ve worked hard, it’s a long story”. The story was more complex than it seemed though, ‘corrupt grandparentswere themselves accused of not sharing this knowledge.

Puerto Nariño town and the Loretoyacu and Amazon rivers in the distance

I met with Nover, the director of Puerto Nariño’s music school who had formed ‘Children of the Yakuruna’, a group of young dancers and musicians who reinterpreted the yakuruna myth. “The dolphin is really important to the Amazon. It holds a lot of value for the communities here because it’s related to the pelazon. Now it’s being exploited for socioeconomic reasons. Mass tourism is bringing traffic to the river and there is a lack of respect towards the dolphin due to its commercialization. The same goes for ancestral knowledge, it’s all being lost”. Nover’s concerns point to the changes engulfing the community. Music and dance he believed, were a bridge to Tikuna culture, and a way for traditions and cosmological beliefs to find a voice in a rapidly transforming landscape. “I’m inspired by my environment, the history of my culture and of course the dolphin which represents our mythology.”

‘Children of the Yakuruna’ performing the yakuruna myth on Mother’s Day

In Puerto Nariño the dolphin is a constant fixture on the riverscape, a mythical figure and endangered species who slips in and out of his role just as he appears and then disappears beneath the surface of the water. The myth is both an historical object that connects the listener to Tikuna cosmology but also an educational tool and cultural device, which has found its way into a public and performative space. Lastly it is a means for economic survival, navigating a landscape undergoing sociocultural transformation. These contemporary mythic narratives show us that there has been a profound shift in local perceptions of the dolphin, a being whose life is inextricably linked with the community. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1981) argued that myths ceaselessly transform to obliterate time, I would argue that in Puerto Nariño however, the yakuruna myth, rather than obliterating time, is being used to shape the future.

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