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Learning about the context of women’s lives, Alaí and Elena Pérez under a cacao tree in the Dominican Republic. PHOTO ID: WebsiteMaterials-Methodology-CompartiendoAlaiElena

Walking together through town. Ana and Eugenia on their way to visit with women elders from Eugenia’s community. PHOTO ID: WebsiteMaterials-Methodology-Walking_EugeniaAna

Beginning in 2016, we conducted interviews with women healers in rural and urban communities in the Dominican Republic, the Pacific Northwest, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In these interviews, we focused on the world views of our elders. Our approach was (and continues to be) grounded in a critical indigenous approach (Smith 2011) whereby the elders determined the parameters of shared knowledge, and in conjunction with us, determined the kinds of questions and methods by which those questions would be answered. This approach was not only critical, it was absolutely required. As younger women engaged in respectful relation with elders, we could open the possibility of conversation, but they were the ones who would determine what it was we should, could and needed to know.

Critically engaged methods include the collection of oral histories (Smith 2011), observant participation (Emerson et al 2011), and transparent data collection (Smith 2011, Simpson 2014) in ways that prioritized the locations and points of views of our elders. Gathering this knowledge took place in the midst of healing sessions, at family gatherings, hanging out in peoples’ patios, at the dinner table, at dance parties, hiking, resting, and just spending time together, compartiendo. We spoke with regla de osha priestesses, servidoras ofla 21 división, sobadoras, and other healers drawing from their indigenous and Afro-descendant ancestral knowledge; women we have met as we heal ourselves, while dancing at the rhythm of Caribbean batá or atabales drums, or just walking down the street in a place that was new to us.

These methods soon transformed into a practice of deep listening.

The first thing we were taught was deep listening. Over the last decade, we have learned to understand deep listening as a practice that is central to the pedagogical methods of Caribbean religious traditions. It involves listening with the whole body, to what is both articulated and unarticulated, and paying attention to what is seen and not seen. Deep listening is about observing collective ritual behaviors and the utterances that take place between people. To listen deeply is to be a part of, extending beyond ethnographic participant observation and into the realm of being in loving community. To listen deeply is to also listen to dreams, to listen to “the counsel of spirits and ancestors” (Abebbe Oshun 2016), to dance to music, and to be present to the ups and downs of our elders’ (and their families’) lives. Deep listening changed us, as researchers, because it changed our orientations to “being,” to space-time, and to our relations.

By engaging in a practice of what we call deep listening, we first learned that all of our elders have unique and powerful understandings of the divine, known variously as Bondieu, Papa Dios, Olofi, Ometeotl and Gran Espíritu. We then learned about the unspoken understandings of our elders’ relationships to their ancestors, to our ancestors, and to all living beings. These relationships are the primary sites for healing. We learned about the parameters of what is considered “alive” and “dead” (e.g. all of existence is alive, but plastic is dead). We learned about the context in which life is prolonged and death is accepted- or not. For Adela, death comes when she may – for Abebbe Oshun, death is someone to bargain with. We learned about how current economic, political and social conditions are understood in relationship to the prolongation and/or decimation of the lives of our elders, their families, their communities and the land itself. We learned that in different traditions, healing is directed either towards the prolongation of life, or toward the aversion of death. These distinct orientations translate into relationships with the plant world, relationships with the spirit and ancestral worlds, and relationships to living, breathing human beings.

In addition to deeply listening, we also walked. Miriam Ricourt (2016) describes walking as a practice of disruption and meaning-making (p. 76) that was and continues to be a central praxis of maroon peoples (cimarrones). Walking was critical to our understanding of elders’ worlds. We walked with them through their communities, through their forests, within their churches, homes, and ceremonial grounds. Walking together, and being together in walking, allowed us to assert our mutual humanity (we were all hot) and limitations (when we got tired, for example, much to the amusement of those who could keep going). Walking together allowed us to understand how our elders move through space and why. Walking enabled us to understand their specific geographies – the trees, plants, and places where they make meaning on an on-going basis, the ways they tended these spaces, and the sense of loss that is an increasing part of the human experience in the face of rapid climate change. In walking, we photographed plants, groups of plants, and we simultaneously listened to the stories that were shared with us about the specific places. There were stories of disappeared species, of disappeared peoples, of new constructions and new economic forces. There were stories of successful healings, and of challenging circumstances. There were stories of plants transplanted and of the spirits who reside among them. All of this was possible to learn when we walked together.

Deep listening and walking required us to shift from an emphasis on video clips in our original project description to audio clips that are not completely clean of contextual noise. We found that the requirements of the microphone to secure sound from our interviewees created an uncomfortable situation in spaces where knowledge is mostly produced through communal conversation, questions, and interactions with the human world and plants. Moreover, most of the women we interviewed did not feel comfortable being recorded on video, and shared their most insightful stories while receiving patients or taking a stroll to show us specific plants. To produce a website with equal representation, we decided to privilege audio over video to share information. Audio clips are short and speak to specific themes relevant to the project. And we left contextual noise in them to enable the listener to get a feel of what it was like to be in conversation with the healer in their everyday practice, and subtly convey the context in which we found ourselves. We are not documentary filmmakers and were aware that we were not seeking to produce documentary-like material. We were documenting some of the wealth of knowledge we have received over the years from elders and share that knowledge respectfully with others seeking to value it, research it, and connect with it. We hope to create entry points for other people seeking to decolonize how we have come to construe knowledge in the Americas and what our elders have to offer as we approach a variety of social and environmental challenges into the twenty-first century.

Lastly, working with our elders in a transparent way that honors the sacrifices they continue to make to sustain their knowledge means that nothing presented here has not been discussed there. At each step in the process, we printed photographs, shared audio clips and received the authorization to continue not just from our elders, but also from the guardian spirits that guide them. This multi-layered process of knowledge ratification extends beyond the ethical boundaries of university human subjects committees, and is directly and permanently rooted in the ethical parameters of the traditions themselves. 

Researching within and with traditional ceremonial and healing communities carries with it the ethical obligation to not only cause no harm (American Anthropological Association), but also the additional ethical obligation of honoring the self-determination, and affective and spiritual priorities, of our communities. The values that undergird an ethical code of conduct among those Caribbean Afro- Indigenous communities with whom we worked include:

Antes que todo, Dios (“Gracias a la Misericordia.”)

Humility before Creation, and with each other as manifestations of Creation

Todo Vive

All of Earth is alive; All of Earth is life.


To Honor ancestors and elders and all of those who have enabled our path.

Obedi ka ka, obedi le le

Knowledge was shared throughout the world.


To be in relation with each other across a long span of time.


To generate intimacy and authenticity in our relations through storytelling, laughter, sitting together, eating together, etc.

Cara a cara

To see each other’s faces, to know the truth of our experiences in each other’s gazes/eyes/faces

Ser generosa.

To never arrive empty handed, to never let someone leave empty handed, either.

Ser recíproca.

Enabling balance in the universe between all living beings, material and immaterial, even in the creation of knowledge.

Hay que fluir

To be flexible and easy-going in the rhythms of life’s chaos and unexpected events.

These values all communicate “respeto,” that is, respect for the basic dignity and collective rights of persons, communities and all beings. Within our communities, it matters less that we have doctoral degrees, and more that we conduct ourselves with respeto. This is generally the case. Unlike the values that guide Western society more broadly, the “what we do” of daily life, means little in the context of traditional communities. What matters more are questions of how we conduct ourselves in the world how we treat people, if we are capable of holding relationships with each other.