American Shaman: The Incredible Story of Lucas Weiss

I first heard about Luke Weiss from an elder of the Waorani, a tribe scattered along the Amazon tributaries of northeastern Ecuador. He spoke of a white man living with the Secoya, a small tribe settled on a nearby river, but one who had ceased to be a white man. This man had become Secoya. He practiced the tribe’s oldest and most difficult traditions. He spoke a pure, antiquated Secoya dialect. What’s more, he had achieved something no outsider ever had among the tribes of the region: He became apprentice and heir to the tribe’s renowned healer, a 103-year-old shaman named Don Cesario. When people from local villages and distant towns seek out Cesario for healing, it is Weiss who prepares the ritual potions.

Weiss, it turns out, is about to enter his second year of a master’s program at the Yale School of Forestry. His research project: figuring out how to cultivate yoco, a caffeinated vine that suppresses appetite and provides a sustained energy boost, making it the go-to energy drink of the northern Amazon. Weiss wants to crack yoco’s code. If it can be cultivated more easily at scale and turned into a marketable drink like yerba maté, then yoco could become a viable, sustainably produced cash crop — and the Secoya’s only chance for cultural and economic survival. Young Secoya are leaving San Pablo for the cities or taking jobs with the oil companies. Because the tribe has few practical alternatives, there is a growing resignation among members to lease their land to polluting industries. It adds up to an existential threat to the ancient Secoya culture for which Weiss has become an unlikely champion. As the elders begin to pass away, Weiss is among only a handful of younger Secoya committed to keeping alive their knowledge and rituals, including the most difficult and demanding of Secoya traditions, from hand weaving hammocks with palm twine to undergoing the grueling discipline required for shamanic training.