In our second conversation with Steve Hupp of Aya Quest and Kentucky Ayahuasca, we discuss issues surrounding cultural appropriation, criticism on social media, and how having a live film crew impacts an ayahuasca ceremony. You can read our first interview with Steve where he shares his background story here.
Thanks again for speaking with us, Steve. You’ve lived a really incredible story, and I appreciate the grounded and honest way you relate to your past. After speaking with you and watching Kentucky Ayahuasca, it’s clear to me that you approach this work with sincerity and humility. But I know that not everyone will conclude the same thing, or bother to look beyond the surface before passing judgement.
Over the years I’ve noticed a growing number of haters in the psychedelic space who condemn anyone serving medicine in a way that does not resonate perfectly with them. Some hate on accepting money for ceremony, some hate on Western people appropriating Amazonian medicine, and so on. Yet there’s a good side to this as well. The ayahuasca scene in the United States is still the Wild West, and the community needs to self-regulate in some way. So I wonder, how can the ayahuasca community hold itself accountable to certain standards without condemning well-meaning facilitators who are doing safe and therapeutic work? And how do you personally deal with the haters?
First thing we do is we don’t focus on any negativity or negative comments; we’re not here to argue with anyone. If I ever got distracted by haters and keyboard warriors, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
I remember when I first started out, oh man did I get flamed on the internet: “He’s a felon, he’s a convict.” People made up all kinds of stories and innuendos, and you know what Mother Aya told me? “Just focus on doing what you’re doing. All that, don’t even give it a moments thought. If you keep doing ceremonies and do it with the right intent, you’re never going to have a problem.” So that’s just what we did. We kept doing ceremonies, we kept working with people who wanted to work with us. I’ve been very open about my past— I mean, my whole life is splayed out here. I wouldn’t change a thing either, because it’s been a tremendous growing experience for us, and for me especially.
As far as the haters go, I don’t focus on them, and I’m not going to argue with them. Will I make a point when it needs to be made? Yeah I will. We’re not defenseless, but the reality of it is we’re just here to work with people who want to work with us. You’re totally correct, it’s the Wild West out here, and the question is how we come up with a way to police ourselves. There’s no structure, and what I’ve tried to bring to our organization is structure. I really do believe the protocols I have in place are why we have not had a medical emergency when many other operators have had them, and far worse.
Safety is key, totally. What would you say to someone who says you should not be serving ayahuasca at all because you didn’t train in the Amazon for 30 years with a curandero?
My response is, first of all I respect all traditionalists. I respect everything they are doing, and I’m not trying in one way, shape, or form to imitate anybody or steal anything. We’ve developed our own tenets of working with the people who want to work with us.
If you don’t agree with what we are doing, I served in the military to make sure you had a right not to agree with me. But I also served in that military to defend my right to do what I think is right, to follow the religion that is calling my heart and calling my soul. As long as I’m doing that and not hurting anyone, I’m doing nothing wrong in my opinion.
I respect all groups and cultures and religions and races out there— all. I have no quorum with any of them, none. And I definitely do not have any problems with the people who are representing the indigenous populations. But please recognize my right to exist as a modern contemporary shaman, and I will respect your right to your opinion.
Let’s imagine there’s some young buck in Kentucky who comes across the series, and says “Man, that’s so cool” and starts trying to emulate you. What words of wisdom or words of warning would you put out there to someone who’s trying to follow suit?
Words of warning would be that I got incredibly lucky. I was having spiritual guidance when I was not even able to recognize it or be aware of it. Where I got lucky, someone else out there may not be so lucky. And for advice, well it wouldn’t take you near as long to get to where I’m at today if you worked with someone with experience. I stumbled through it; the only way I learned was by beating my head against the wall.
Being a shaman is a lot more than pouring a glass and sliding it across the table and pouring out a puke bucket. There’s so much that goes on that you don’t see, even on the show, both energetically and logistically. Just to set up a church, you need sincerity of belief, because that’s how they will come after you if they think you are weak. Can you prove your sincerity of beliefs? Fortunately I could and I can, but that’s rare.
What I would say is go slow, take your time. Could I tell someone it’s impossible? Absolutely not— I did it, and I’m not the brightest guy in the world. I’m not the smartest, and I’ve got the record to prove it. But that doesn’t mean you can do it. There’s a lot of risk with this. We risk everything we own with every cup we pour. Everything my family and I own is on the line every single day. Are you sure you can carry that weight?
How has filming impacted these ceremonies for you, and what challenges has it presented?
Fortunately for us, the production company that we are working with is phenomenal. This is something that’s never been done before. First of all, no bank robber has ever portrayed himself, and no shaman has ever allowed this much access to this many ceremonies with follow up interviews weeks and months later. We were fortunate to have a very gritty and tough network that allowed us a lot of free reign. In fact, many of the producers, camera technicians and sound engineers who have been in the business for 20 years have told us they’ve never been on a set like this where we had that much free reign on site. That took a network with a lot of nerve, to jump out there with a convicted felon who is out here slinging the strongest psychedelic known to man.
We were very fortunate that we had a production crew that was incredibly open minded. This crew was hand selected by an executive, and one of her first questions to everybody was “Can you find neutral?” Because that was one of the biggest things in ceremony on set- everyone had to be able to find neutral, they couldn’t get invoked into the process. We also have in our contract that I can remove anybody from the set for any reason. It didn’t matter if it was the executive producer or the president of Vice, that’s how we’ve moved forward.
I can tell you, I’ve never seen that many people coming from that many parts of the country and world, who’d never worked together, and had it flow so well. I’m not saying we didn’t have some bumps in the road, because man, you can’t do something that large, that new, and that big and not have a few skips. But they were very minimal, and the ones that we did have were addressed immediately by all parties and we worked as one fluid team. It was off the chain, literally.
That’s awesome. Sounds like you went into this very thoughtfully, and it’s great that Vice respected the sanctity of the space and your caretaking of it. Are there any closing thoughts you would like to share with our audience?
Just watch the show with an open mind and an open heart before you make a judgement. Every episode will show a different flavor and different way of working with the medicine. Even if it isn’t for you, look at what it does for the people that it does do miracles for.
And trust me, we’re on the path towards a better world. I’m not doing this because I think the world is ending— I’m doing this because I think the world has a future. I think we have a future, and I think we all have to start thinking like that and start really striving for that. How do we build our future, our children’s future, our grandchildren’s future? Once we earnestly get going down that path, there is nothing that we can’t overcome.