The Role of Narrative in the Peruvian Matsigenka’s Cultural Perception of Well-being


In the following paper I will examine what well-being means to the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon and how narratives are an essential part of their culture leading to a feeling of well-being. Though rates of disease have significantly decreased in recent years, the perceived well-being of members of the population has decreased. The change in the use of cultural narrative can be considered a major contributing factor to this decrease. By obtaining a better understanding in how health and happiness are connected to story, we can help to facilitate a sence of well-being among the Matsigenka that aligns with both biomedical standards and their own, changing communication strategies in biomedical education and practice.

I will be looking into the relationship story narratives have with the concept of health and well-being in the culture of the Matsigenka people of Peru. The way Biomedical personnel communicate with the Matsigenka does not always align with their beliefs and values. If we can gain a better understanding of what constitutes health, and how it is obtained among the Matsigenka, we can more effectively and compassionately provide care and bridge the gap between traditional cultural ideas of heath and western ideologies.  

Theory and Methodology

 I will include the symbolic meanings of narrative in the Matsigenka culture and concepts of cultural constructions of illness. I will take a critical biocultural medical anthropology theoretical approach to demonstrate the failure of cultural communication between biomedicine and the Matsigenka people. Biomarkers can help to indicate the disconnect between biomedical measures of health and the perceived health by individuals within the Matsigenka population. You can also draw on the narrative analysis approach in anthropology discussed by Jessica Hardin in the ethnography we are reading, Faith and the Pursuit of Health, on pages 112-113.

 Data was gathered from my review of the literature focusing on healing practices of the Matsigenka including available health biomarkers and ethnologies. Ethnographers tend to lump Amazonian cultural groups together based on geographic area. Due to potential confusion and conflicting reports of rituals that are dissimilar to those of other cultural groups, I have drawn only upon literature that mentions the Matisengka specifically, rather than as a group within the Amazon river basin geographic area.

Data and Analysis

            Though biomarkers of health indicate that the Matsigenka have greatly improved health over the last 20 to 30 years, they report a significant decline in well-being according to Carolina Izquierdo (2004). Matsigenka perceptions of health, she says, are in opposition to what western biomedical practitioners believe. The World Health Organization says that health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

            The perceived decrease in well-being is primarily attributed to the influence of outsiders by the Matsigenka people. (Izquierdo, 2004) Peruvian ideals of modernization and acculturation have reached the Matisigenka through means such as governmental education programs, religious missionaries and eco-tourism.

            Healing is an important part of the Matsigenka cultural identity. They are known to use chanting, folktakes and illustrative story narratives when discussing well-being. Often illness is attributed to sorcery used as a result of envy or conflict among members of a community (Izquierdo, 2007)

I intend to begin with definitions of well-being as defined in the Matthews article and the WHO. Key ideas include healing ceremonies, and how narrative plays a role in them. Communication styles of the Matsigenka people, biomarkers, cultural ideologies and the disruption of biomedical intervention into Matsigenka society. I’ll also examine the role of the traditional healers and their ethnopharmaceutical knowledge, mental health perceptions and ethnogenic practices.


I have long been interest with the cultural practices of the people of the Amazon. As an herbalist and student of ethnobotany, the role that herbs play in one of the most botanically diverse regions on the planet has always been a draw in my studies. My original encounter with the Amazonian healing practices was in discovering the use of ayahuasca (Banisteropsis caapi) ceremonies, a current herbal trend in medical tourism. However, the way in which westerners approach the ayahuasca ceremonies is removed from how and why the Matsigenka approach them. This cultural context is what drew me to this topic. My career and experiences led me to carry some level of pre-conceived notions of experiences of healing, particularly by botanical means, and my lack of first-hand knowledge of the culture and language limits my understanding of their ways. I must rely on the research of others in the field in order to gain knowledge about the Matsigenka and their culture.  surprise findings gained from the literature review.


The role that narratives take in the Matsigenka culture are much more important than in western culture.  I have attempted to place emphasis on the cultural ideas of well-being and the value of narrative in the Matsigenka culture as it relates to health specifically. Social, medical and cultural recommendations for future health-based communication with Matsigenka people can be drawn by considering the role of narrative as expressed here.


Black, S. “Ícaros: The Healing Songs of Amazonian Curanderismo and Their Relationship to Jungian Psychology.” Psychology 2014.

Glenn Harvey Shepard Jr, by. “Pharmacognosy and the Senses in Two Amazonian Societies.” Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, 1992.

Izquierdo, Carolina, and Allen Johnson. “Desire, Envy and Punishment: A Matsigenka Emotion Schema in Illness Narratives and Folk Stories.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 31, no. 4 (December 24, 2007): 419–44.

C. Izquierdo, A. Johnson and G.H. Shepard Jr. (2008) “Revenge, envy and cultural change in an Amazonian society.” In: S. Beckerman and P. Valentine (Eds.) Revenge in the Cultures of Lowland South America. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 162-186.

C. Izquierdo and Glenn H. Shepard Jr., Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology: Health and Illness in the World’s Cultures. “The Matsigenka”

Mathews, Gordon., and Carolina Izquierdo. Pursuits of Happiness : Well-Being in Anthropological Perspective . Chapter 3, Well-being among the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon New York: Berghahn Books, 2009. Print.

Peluso, Daniela M. “‘That Which I Dream Is True’: Dream Narratives in an Amazonian Community.” Dreaming, June 2004.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. Chapter 4: New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

Rosengren, Dan. “Seriously Laughing: On Paradoxes of Absurdity among Matsigenka People.” Ethnos 75, no. 1 (2010): 102–21.

Shepard, Glenn H. “Psychoactive Plants and Ethnopsychiatric Medicines of the Matsigenka.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30, no. 4 (1998): 321–32.

World Health Organization, Constitution


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