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The Shaman’s Apprentice

by Mark J. Plotkin and Lynn Cherry


This story is about the perseverance of a culture even as people from outside attempt to change it.

A young Tirio indigenous boy is apprenticed to a shaman in the jungles of the Amazon rainforest. He learns about healing plants in the rainforest, but also about the importance of his community.

Read aloud video by Rebekah Wall

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The Shaman’s Apprentice, by Lynn Cherry and Mark J. Plotkin, is a story of a little boy in a Tirio village. Mark J. Plotkin is an ethnobotanist who worked in the village of Kwamala with the Tirio people. The Tirio people live in the northeast region of the Amazon rain forest. The village of the Tirio people is along the Brazil-Suriname border. They are an agrarian culture that utilizes the slash and burn farming method. They are also hunters and fishers. Currently, the Tirio people are being threatened by the gold miners and foreign loggers who have come into the area in recent years. Mark J. Plotkin was inspired by the medical practices of the Tirio people, which involve the use of medicinal plants by the tribe shaman.

In the book, the boy’s name is Kamanya, and he lives in the village of Kwamala. When Kamanya becomes sick, it is the shaman who heals him. Soon a person from the next village comes to be cured by the shaman, but he dies. When white people come to the village of Kwamala they bring pills that cure the diseases that the shaman can not. This causes doubt among the Tirio people about the strength of their medicine and religious beliefs. Ultimately, they regain faith when an ethnobotanist points out that the medicine contained in the pills came from the rain forest itself.

The Shaman’s Apprentice addresses epistemological issues. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which studies issues about the nature of knowledge. The epistemological issues raised in The Shaman’s Apprentice concern what we know – and how we know what we know. The book also addresses metaphysical issues. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of the world and covers such issues as theories of mind, religion, free will, time, and even scientific issues. The Shaman’s Apprentice addresses metaphysical issues such as belief in nature vs. man and differences in the perception of medicinal cures. Ultimately, this is a book about the perseverance of a culture even as a people from outside this culture attempt to change it.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Sickness and Health

When we get sick, we go to see a doctor, but Kamanya saw a shaman.

  1. Would you go to a shaman? Why or why not?
  2. What makes something a medicine?
  3. Can medicine come from plants?
  4. Do you know of any medicinal plants?

Exploration and Religion

  1. What are missionaries?
  2. What did the missionaries overlook when they claimed they were bringing religion to the village?
  3. It is good that missionaries shared their religion with the Tirio village?
  4. Can there be more than one God?
  5. Is a religion based on one God better than one based on multiple or many Gods?
  6. Is the missionaries religion better than the religion of the Tirio people?

Wisdom and Shamanism

  1. It is said that the shaman is wise. Do you think the shaman is wise?
  2. Do you know anyone that is wise?
  3. When attending school, you learn lots of things. Does this mean that you are wise?
  4. Is wisdom the same thing as knowledge?
  5. What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
  6. Is it important for the book of medicinal plants to be translated into Tirio for future Shamans?


Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Heather Slutz. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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Back to All Books Cover image for The Shaman's Apprentice featuring an illustration of two Tirio people, one a man and one a boy. They are both walking through a lush jungle and appears to be looking up at a bunch of white flowers. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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