Searching for the river people

An orphaned rubber boot swirls underneath our canoe, hitting the bottom as we pass over it and echoing in my headphones.

We’re slowly revolving in the strong current of a whirlpool near the Kukama Indigenous community of Santa Rita de Castilla on the Marañón River in Peru’s northern Amazon region.

Everyone calls it ‘La Muyuna’ (The Whirlpool), but it’s really a series of interconnected eddies that form one large spinning mass of water hundreds of meters long.

La Muyuna is an infamous place that locals fear and worship. Countless people are lost when their boats capsize and they are sucked into the vortex. Some of the bodies wash up downstream hours or even days later. Others are never found but their families do not hold death rituals for them. Soon there may be a sign that their relative is still alive.

A bereaved wife, mother or brother will receive a message from their loved one in a dream telling them not to be sad because the person has transformed into a Karuara, meaning person of the water.

A magical universe

It’s common knowledge among the Kukama that whirlpools are gateways to the spiritual world beneath their river.

This magical universe is ruled by the Karuara, and their communities mirror human society with an aquatic twist: spirits lounge in hammocks made of boa constrictors, smoking sardines and wearing stingray hats and catfish shoes. Laughing Karuara children ride to school on giant turtles or play football with an inflated blowfish.

Behind their playfulness, the Karuaras are powerful spirits. When a human is ill, Indigenous shamen call on Karuara healers to cure their patient. Fishers must ask the river spirits for permission before casting their nets or risk the consequences: an empty stomach or worse.

The Karuaras are metaphysical ecologists; they maintain the delicate balance of life in the Amazon’s waterways.

But oil spills, industrial contamination, planned hydroelectric dams and other modern so-called developments threaten the revered spirits and their habitat. The Kukama people depend on the rivers and their spirit protectors for survival.

This is why nine years ago Leonardo Tello, the director of an Indigenous radio station in the Amazon, asked my husband Miguel and me to make a film with his team about the endangered Karuaras.

The final shoot

Today, after years of investigation, training, fundraising, writing, filming, creating animations of the river spirits, surviving the pandemic, editing and reediting with our Indigenous partners, we’re finally on our last shoot. It is fitting that our filming should end here, in La Muyuna, twirling in a slow-motion trance.

La Muyuna is a key element in the film so Miguel is determined to capture the whirlpools from every angle. This is our third day floating in the vortex, flowing with the current. We’ve filmed with a drone and two video cameras, while being attacked by bloodthirsty horseflies and mosquitoes in the relentless jungle heat.

Still Miguel persists, searching for the perfect shot.

I begin to enjoy the meditative rhythm of the whirlpool as we run over random objects caught up in the swirl: driftwood, plastic soda bottles and a sandal with a fluorescent pink flower.

As I gaze into the impenetrable mud-brown water, I wonder what lies below? My grandmother’s first husband disappeared while fishing on a lake in northern Ontario in the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg people.

Two decades later his son, my Uncle Lonny, was lost while boating in Lake Ontario near land stolen from the Mississauga and Chippewa nations. Their bodies were never found.

Would their loved one’s grief have been lessened if they believed in water spirits? Would my widowed aunt have escaped the mental illness that consumed her after his death, often leaving my cousins to fend for themselves?

Whether my uncle and his father transformed into lake spirits, or simply decomposed and were eaten by creatures, they became part of Canada’s fresh waterways. Physically or spiritually, they are in the lakes. And since roughly 60 per cent of the human body is water, in essence we are all Karuara.

Isn’t it time we joined our cousins in the Amazon region and started protecting our sacred home?