Remembering Who You Are And Where You Come From…

Sometimes the origins of things, especially a name, can be difficult to know with certainty due to the fluid nature of knowledge. At times it can flow like a mighty river during the rainy season or it can dry up with only weathered channels leaving clues to a once vibrant past. The designed permanence of colonization and the nature of decay have made the physical artifacts of many cultures disappear from the earth. However, key artifacts –important and sacred knowledge– remain in the linguistic records of the words humans speak or have spoken.

To begin, let us examine the nature of a name or a title for a culture, a people, a nation. The modern names for many Indigenous nations of our planet have come from terms created by colonial outsiders. They are names that have helped outsiders describe, categorize, and segregate others.

The Diné, commonly known as the Navajo, provide an example from the lands known today as the United States of America. The word Navajo appears to have originated from an Indigenous Tewa term which describes the landscape where the Diné lived. Informants and translators used the word when working for Spanish expeditions and missionaries. The term Navajo soon became the official title of the people who lived there.

Now there is a revival and regeneration of their own term Diné. Such an action is a form of Indigenizing one’s own identity and one’s own self, one’s being. It is a way of starting at the core to help define who you are and where you are from; your physical, mental, and energetic and/or spiritual connection to place. It is a source and motivator of purpose.

Jónikon: The Original Term of Self-Identification

Entry from Diccionario Shipibo-Castellano (Loriot et al. 1993:231)

Entry from Diccionario Shipibo-Castellano (Loriot et al. 1993:232)

In contrast to outsider names, many Indigenous self-identifying terms from their own languages are the word for ‘person’ or ‘people’; like the term diné. The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo are no different. Their word for a ‘person’ and traditional self-identification is jóni.

Prior to colonization, they collectively referred to themselves as jóni (person), jónibo (people). When distinguishing themselves from other ethno-linguistic or cultural groups they used the word jónikon (true person). They call their family and allies kaíbo (those who go [with us]), and refer to outsiders as náwa ([person] from another place).

As their nation progresses toward self-government there will surely come a day when they will discuss reclaiming the term Jónikon, just as the Diné (Navajo) and other Indigenous nations have done. Or they may continue to use the name Shipibo-Konibo or simply Shipibo for their national self-identification. That decision is ultimately up to their nation and the personal desires of each citizen or family member.

Like many Indigenous identification terms, the names Shipibo, Konibo, and Xetebo may have come from third parties. One origin story for the terms Shipibo and Konibo proposes they came from each other. Their ancestral families may have begun calling each other these terms as jokes, which then became nicknames that have withstood the tests of time…

Origins of the Terms Shipibo and Konibo

Entries from Diccionario Shipibo-Castellano (Loriot et al. 1993:390)

Entries from Diccionario Shipibo-Castellano (Loriot et al. 1993:149). The ‘C’ and the ‘QU’ has been replaced by the ‘K’, while the ‘HU’ has been replaced by the ‘W’.

The following is adapted from a story told in 2004 by the Shipibo-Konibo primary school teacher Marcial Inuma Pezo; from the community San Francisco de Yarinacocha.

…Before the time of the first colonial náwa or outsider, there were two large clans on the Ucayali River. One clan up-river and another clan down-river. They had common ancestors, but it had been quite some time –maybe two or three generations– since they had come in contact with one another. The boundaries of their territories had not overlapped in all those years.

One day, a hunting party from up-river traveled far enough down-river to encounter another hunting party. They were from even further from down-river and had traveled far enough up-river to where their territories intersect. When such hunting parties meet in the woods it can be a tense moment to know if you are with friend or foe. Thankfully these two groups were able to understand each other’s language, even though there were differences with some words and accents.

After a friendly chat, the group from down-river invited their new friends to bring their families down for a celebration in their largest village. The group from up-river happily accepted and announced it to their village when they returned home after the hunt. When the group from down-river arrived home they announced to everyone that they had met some distant relatives from up-river. They would be coming down for a proper celebration during the following full moon.

Each group prepared for the celebration, collecting and curing meats, along with fruits and roots from their gardens. The hosts down-river had the obligation to prepare the fermented beverages of cassava and corn for everyone to drink.

The days went by and the moon grew brighter every night. Soon it was the time of the full moon and everyone down-river was on lookout and keeping their ears sharp for notice of the arrival of their distant relatives. However, they did not arrive when the moon was the brightest. Three days past and there was still no sign of their guests. They decided the next day they would drink the fermenting beverages and eat the food they had collected before it all spoiled.

The following day they started drinking early as they prepared the food and fires for a proper feast amongst family and friends in the village. Then, around midday they heard the first drum beat from up-river. The guests would be arriving soon!

When the guests from up-river arrived, they were slapping their ores on the water and singing a song of joy and friendship. The hosts also received them with welcoming songs, and dance, and drink! As soon as all the boats landed in the port they were led with a dance into the center of the village. The hosts sang to their guests to excuse them for having started before their arrival. Then they began sharing bowls of a fermented cassava and sweet potato drink called masato along with bowls of chicha, a sweetened corn drink.

The guests noticed that the strongly fermented masato had many of their hosts a bit tipsy already; it was three-days stronger after all. Many of the hosts had the white drink spilled around their mouths. So, in the playful spirit of their shírobewa joking songs, one of the guests sang a song to their hosts and referred to the hosts as the shípibo. The white masato beards and mustaches made them look like the shípi monkey; a saddle-back tamarin with a white mustache and beard. A shipi is singular and the –bo suffix makes the term plural; shípibo.

A Shípi saddle-back tamarin. Picture found at:

For these two groups and their cultures a good sense of humor is a necessity to wellbeing. It appears that everyone had a good laugh at the shípibo joke. Now, the newly anointed Shípibo would need an equally entertaining reply. The strong masato may have been influencing their talking and singing at that point. One of the down-river hosts then sang an entertaining song about the wide-mouthed up-river guests. Mouths like the infamous konínewa electric eel, these people must be the Kónibo.

A Konínewa electric “eel” knifefish. Picture found at:

The guests took no offence to the superficial observation and laughed along with their hosts. It was a compliment to have been compared to such a powerful being of the river. The two families then sang together of the renewed alliance between the Kónibo and the Shípibo. Everyone laughed, ate, drank, sang, and danced. This may have been the first reencounter between the two distant families!

To this day, the names have remained, as they were as complimentary as they were funny. After all, the shípi tamarins are a tight-knit group of intelligent and organized primates. Meanwhile, the konínewa electric eels are powerful and respected creatures of the river and mystical water world.

Origins of the Term Xetebo

Entries from Diccionario Shipibo-Castellano (Loriot et al. 1993:398). The ‘SH’ with ¨ over the ‘S’ has been replaced by the ‘X’. It is the retroflex voiceless fricative /ʂ/ of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

According to a Konibo elder who grew up in Shipibo territory, the Xetebo clan began a long time ago when a Shipibo family moved from their ancestral home. They went down-river to start a new village near the ancestral lands of the Kokama. Due to their proximity to the Kokama, the family may have had a smaller territory for fishing, hunting, and gathering to provide for themselves.

At some point, a family member came across a fresh carcass and decided to bring it back to their village to cook and eat. This is something that their original Shipibo family clan never would have done. They may have made a routine of collecting carcasses to eat and soon became known by the neighboring Shipibo as the Xetebo due to scavenging like the xéte turkey vulture.

The xéte is an esteemed bird within their oral tradition. The Jónikon ancestors first received fire from the help of a parrot and a committee of xétebo turkey vultures. The powerful Inka did not want to share the power of fire with the Jónikon. A parrot carried an ember in its beak to a dry shihuahuaco tree.

Seeing this, the stingy and miserable Inka became mad and sent a strong storm to extinguish the coal. The xétebo helped protect the precious fire. The burning embers made it through the wind and rain thanks to the xétebo committee that had spread their wings to create a waterproof container. The smoke blackened their once colorful plumage. The xétebo blew on the hot embers to keep the fire alight, which caused the feathers on their heads to burn away, leaving the exposed skin to reddened from the heat.

When the storm finally passed, the Jónikon families where able to receive the gift of fire from the parrot and the determination and sacrifices of the xétebo.

A Xéte turkey vulture. Picture found at:

Concluding Thoughts On Self-Identity

The Peruvian government officially recognizes the people as the pueblo Shipibo-Konibo and the language as Shipibo-Konibo. However, most people drop the name Konibo when speaking or writing in Spanish or English. Most speakers of the language call it non jói (our language) when speaking in the language. Meanwhile, the title Xetebo has only recently increased its status with the growing sovereignty cause of the Consejo Shipibo Konibo Xetebo-COSHIKOX.

There are some who self-identify with the official terms from the Peruvian government and others who follow their known roots, be it Shipibo, Konibo, Xetebo, or any combination; and some choose none. In the last official National Census in 2017 only 25,222 self-identified as ethnically Shipibo-Konibo out of 34,152 who responded that Shipibo-Konibo was their first language (INEI-Peru 2018). This was the first official census that specifically asked about perceptions of self-identity.

It is clear that these words, names, and titles have arisen from culturally significant origins. They include words to speak amongst other members of their family or nation; their kaíbo (those who go [with us]). This includes jóni (person), jónibo (people) and the term jónikon (true person) to distinguish themselves from other nationalities. They also include more nationalistic titles of self-identification (Shipibo, Konibo, Xetebo) that can be used with outsider náwa ([person] from another place), which appear to have origins in ancient, culturally significant, and sacred history.

In the event of a need for a universally inclusive self-identifying term a shared commonality is jónikon (true person). It is ultimately up to the individual and personal desires of each citizen or family member to make their own choice for self-identification. The beauty of their language and culture offer many options that can also generate a healthy amount of pride and purpose.