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Gold Medal

2009 Winner - Wade Davis

Shamans and secret societies

Photo: Wade Davis

Wade Davis (ABOVE) has studied and photographed indigenous peoples around the world, including this Yagua shaman (TOP) in Peru. (Photo: Ryan Hill)
Shortly before he embarked on his first journey to the Amazon as a restless 20-year-old Harvard University student in 1974, Wade Davis wrote in his journal, “Risk discomfort and uncertainty for understanding.” Those words proved to be prophetic. Throughout his career as an anthropologist and ethno-botanist, Davis has often risked uncertainty — and sometimes even his life — in his quest to learn about the world’s indigenous cultures and their traditional uses of medicinal and hallucinogenic plants.

Knowing little about the South American rain forest and even less about plants, Davis set out to study coca (the source of cocaine) in some of the most remote reaches of the Andes. Over three years, he lived with 15 indigenous groups in eight Latin American countries and gathered 6,000 botanical collections. But his most notoriously dangerous venture was to infiltrate the secret societies of Haiti — he may be the only white man to have done so — to uncover the formula for potions used in creating zombies. Within 24 hours of landing in Haiti, Davis watched people handle burning embers the size of apples in their mouths during a voodoo ceremony.

“Haiti, more than anything else, taught me that different cultural beliefs manifest themselves in unique and remarkable ways,” says Davis, who detailed his surreal Haitian sojourn in The Serpent and the Rainbow.

A Vancouver native, Davis grew up in the Montréal suburb of Pointe-Claire and obtained a Ph.D. in ethno-botany from Harvard. He has travelled and lived with aboriginal peoples from the Canadian High Arctic to the jungles of Borneo. For his extensive ethnographic fieldwork and his contribution to our knowledge of indigenous cultures — many on the brink of disappearing — Davis will be awarded the Gold Medal from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Davis sees himself as a storyteller. He has published more than a dozen books, is an accomplished photographer and has hosted and written numerous documentary films, many in his role as an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. This fall, Davis will deliver the 2009 Massey Lectures in five locations across Canada. He will also speak at the Society’s 80th anniversary dinner in Ottawa on November 5.

His mission, he says, is to help “change the way the world views and values culture” by telling the stories of living and dynamic societies. It’s a topic that fires his passion, as he laments the loss of half the planet’s 7,000 languages in the blink of a generation. “Culture is not trivial,” says Davis. “It is the blanket of moral and ethical values that allows us to be civilized. If you want to know what happens when culture is lost, just look around the world.”

— Monique Roy-Sole

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