Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman is a monument to the authors’ lifetime of friendship and collaboration and a searing testimony of indigenous worldview.
The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa & Bruce Albert
The Falling Sky is the most authentic account of Amazonian shamanism recorded. It’s the nearest thing to sitting around a fire and listening, uninterruptedly, to a shaman’s words. It’s more, and deserves to become one of the most important books of our time. The first book by a Yanomami, it has several stories to tell; one is that this Amazonian tribe has a way of looking at the world that could hardly be more different than ours, and they want to keep it. It’s a slap in the face to the West’s adolescent view that if we don’t yet have all the answers, we’re on the way to finding them.
Davi Kopenawa’s book is best described as four volumes in one. It was constructed by anthropologist Bruce Albert, who recorded Davi over a period of decades. He translated the book into French, and added much background which comprises the final part of The Falling Sky. It’s an impressive monument to a lifetime’s collaboration and friendship.
The opening volume is an account of Yanomami cosmology, a worldview as complex as any religion’s. This is no primitive nature worship, nor is it for the squeamish. It’s reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, of beauty and love, but also of dismemberment, “cannibalism,” death and destruction. Vulvas are “eaten,” which is how the Yanomami describe sex, and a bad-smelling penis leads to nowhere good.
“We shamans . . . are protecting ‘nature’ as a whole thing. We defend the forest’s trees, hills, mountains, and rivers; its fish, game, spirits, and human inhabitants. We even defend the land of the white people.”
The universe is multifaceted and multilayered, ever changing and full of hidden forces, helpful, mischievous, or murderous, all mutating depending on how they’re treated, and even on their mood. However unpredictable, they do stick to certain conventions – and that’s a point I’ll come back to.
What ordinary folk perceive of all this is just the tiny tip of a deeply esoteric reality. The shaman, “drinking” yakoana snuff (it’s actually blown up his nostrils), takes on the strength to enter this hidden cosmos. He becomes aware of its forces, good and ill, and can – indeed must – enlist them to defend his community.
The hidden universe requires constant intervention to maintain balance: The shaman has to work to keep life bearable, not only for his own people but – astonishingly – for everyone, everywhere. Davi says, “We shamans . . . are protecting ‘nature’ as a whole thing. We defend the forest’s trees, hills, mountains, and rivers; its fish, game, spirits, and human inhabitants. We even defend the land of the white people.”
The snuff is hallucinogenic, different from yagé, but powerful enough to ensure that what you see defies rational analysis. This is significant. Many of us are persuaded that science and industry are the key driving forces in life. The shaman, on the other hand, believes human society – the resolutely complex and logic-defying ways we treat ourselves and each other – is more significant to our well-being than is our “merchandise.”
It’s a brilliant illustration of how everyday reality merges with other dimensions, which are seen as equally real. That may be less understood in industrial societies than it once was, but it remains demonstrably true: In spite of the attempt to reduce everything to certainties, our “reality” really is that much of what happens takes place inside us. Unnoticed to all except the person affected, such things (love, for example) can be the most life-changing aspects of our existence. As Carl Jung said of his autobiography, his memories of what had happened were of little importance compared to his recollections of “inner” experiences.
Davi’s shamanic drawings are scattered through The Falling Sky, and his own autobiography comprises its second book. It’s of an Amazon Indian who straddles three worlds. Davi is an occasional world traveler; he’s also a recognized activist for indigenous rights, who has already played the key role in saving his people. However, first and foremost, he’s a child of the rainforest, who saw his people cut down by epidemics, embarking on his shaman’s apprenticeship as a response. He’s unschooled and has always lived in the forest. He’s visited tribes other than his own, including some very recently contacted. It’s a unique account, unlikely to be emulated.
This is just one echo of a litany of genocides that Indians of the Americas continue to face. Davi’s descriptions are the most detailed recorded from the victims’ side . . . a harrowing indictment . . .
Davi explains that when he saw a road cut into Yanomami territory in the 1970s, he realized it would destroy the Indians. At first, he didn’t know of the organization trying to save them, started by Albert himself, Claudia Andujar and Carlo Zacquini and pushed onto the world stage by Survival International. Its focus was on securing Yanomami territory and stopping the road was essential.
Davi first left Brazil when he was invited by Survival to stand with it when the NGO won the alternative Nobel prize in Sweden. Survival’s publicity catalyzed the issue in a way never seen before for any Amazon tribe.
By then, a new threat had arrived, an invasion of gold miners. Twenty percent of Brazilian Yanomami died as illness swept the region. The shamans saw it as “epidemic smokes,” against which they lacked power. They were a repeat of the diseases which carried off Davi’s mother when he was a child.
If the destruction of American Indians through illness might be thought to dilute the culpability of the invaders, there is certainly no mistaking the guilt of the miners who killed with gun and machete. A few such bandits were eventually convicted of genocide, but only after they massacred a community of women, children and the elderly, described by Albert in an appendix.
This is just one echo of a litany of genocides that Indians of the Americas continue to face. Davi’s descriptions are the most detailed recorded from the victims’ side: They are a harrowing indictment of the real price of the resources stolen from tribal lands, one never paid by those who profit.
Davi has visited foreign cities, which he finds inhuman, with their inequalities and overcrowding. He observes, “People constantly ask you for money . . . even to drink or urinate . . . their thought is seized with dizziness, and their eyes are always on the alert.”
In the Bronx, he tells of the houses “in ruins” and recounts, “The people . . . have no food, and their clothes are dirty and torn . . . they looked at me with sad eyes . . . These white people . . . are greedy and do not take care of those . . . who have nothing . . .They do not even look at them . . .They force them to camp outside in the rain with their children . . . It scared me.”
. . . The animals, it turns out, recognize a “hunter who generously gives away all the prey he arrows, they fall in love with him.” Yanomami boys are taught that they will never become good hunters unless they are generous.
This is no cartoon primitive ogling our wondrous creations, as invented by colonial travelers. The Falling Sky is far from simple diatribe, and Davi’s visits to rural areas provoked a different reaction: for example, he gives his view of the purpose behind the Stonehenge megaliths. But he’s happiest at home, traveling occasionally to talk to the “people of merchandise.” He wants us to know that we are destroying the world with our insatiable hunger for more possessions.
His worldview is in diametric opposition to mercantile trade and profit, which have become our measure of “progress” now that government and business force everyone away from their former self-sufficiency into total dependence on money and goods. This brings up an important point, both about tribal societies and what we think of them. For example, we learn that Yanomami hunters never eat their catch: they give it away, relying on what others give to them. It makes no commercial sense: the best hunters derive no benefit.
Such explanations are often met by a sneering, “noble savages” riposte from uninformed cynics. But whatever else giving away your food might be, it’s a sacrifice to the community’s well-being above the personal. Davi has his own quite different explanation: the animals, it turns out, recognize a “hunter who generously gives away all the prey he arrows, they fall in love with him.” Yanomami boys are taught that they will never become good hunters unless they are generous.
It turns out that this is the most fundamental of all Yanomami codes and extends beyond life. Davi explains, “Since we are mortal, we think it is ugly to cling too firmly to the objects we happen to possess. We do not want to die greedily clutching them in our hands.”
The third book in The Falling Sky comprises essays on Indian life and on our own. It includes a chapter on “war,” which is important in the row over one man’s characterization of the Yanomami as “fierce people”: Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon built a career on his accounts of Yanomami raiding. Although he has been refuted by practically every other scholar to work with the tribe, Chagnon has become a cornerstone for damaging claims about tribal peoples. His allegations are repeated by writers like Steven Pinker to resurrect the archaic – and unscientific – view of brutal savages, waiting to be tamed by the colonial enterprise. Chagnon wrongly alleges that 45 percent of Yanomami men are killers and that chronic warfare reigns. He further claims that women are the cause of all this brutal savagery.
Davi doesn’t deny that Yanomami fight. They hold duels with clubs, which can be vicious, but are not intended to be lethal. They also occasionally raid houses to arrow “one or two reputed warriors.” This is done out of revenge for a previous killing, whether “real” (in our terms) or brought about through sorcery.
Davi relates, “White people’s elders drew what they call their laws . . . but to them they are only lies! They only pay attention to the words of merchandise!”
Such raiding has all but evaporated in areas where the Yanomami face threats from outside, but Davi is scathingly dismissive that the Yanomami were ever more violent than “whites.” The latter, he reminds us, “constantly tell us that it is wrong for us to arrow each other for revenge. Yet their ancestors were so bellicose, they traveled great distances to plunder the land of people who had done them no harm!”
He explains, “We never killed each other without restraint, the way they do. We do not have bombs that burn houses and all their inhabitants . . . we do not kill . . . for merchandise, land, or oil . . . We fight about human beings . . .[we] would never kill women and children.” He is similarly contemptuous of the claim that the cause of “war” was women.
Davi is also unequivocal about the rules of raiding. For example, enemies’ bodies must always be recovered by their families. This raises a point about whether tribal, as opposed to industrialized, societies abide by their own principles. Although Chagnon condemned the Yanomami as “treacherous,” one might ask which society is more hypocritical. After all, do we not pontificate about human rights and the law, and are not both violated as much by governments and corporations as they are by outlaws and terrorists? Davi relates, “White people’s elders drew what they call their laws . . . but to them they are only lies! They only pay attention to the words of merchandise!”
It is these goods which most perplex Davi, and few will deny his observations:
“Merchandise is . . . like a fiancée to them . . . if they damage it while it is still shiny, they get so enraged that they cry . . . They go to sleep thinking about it . . .” “I fear that this euphoria . . . will have no end and that they will entangle themselves . . . They are . . . constantly killing each other for money in their cities and fighting . . . for minerals and oil.”
Although The Falling Sky leaves no doubt that the Yanomami “way of being” is very different than ours, our shared humanity is also reflected: “We have a mouth and eyes, blood and bones, just like white people . . . We all have same fold behind our knees so we can walk!” The Yanomami, together with most indigenous peoples, are still seen as less than “us,” so it’s understandable that Davi unknowingly echoes Shylock’s, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Although the campaign for Yanomami land was won in 1992, other threats remain: Miners continue violently to take the gold. There is also a threat to all Indians in Brazil now that the escalating price of raw materials increases: the incentive to steal indigenous land.
The battle is between those who exploit the idea of “development” to increase their own short-term wealth at others’ long-term cost, and those who yearn for ideas about human rights to mutate into living facts. The latter include some who believe that justice is not simply an option, but is vital in saving the world. Davi’s book is an invaluable tool in this everlasting struggle; but, primarily, it’s a searing testament to the immense variety of human genius which has blossomed over thousands of generations.
Our planetary garden still grows many flowers, many different ways of looking at the world. Are we really intending to mow down every one except our own; are we really going to allow none other ever to seed again – just so the vultures can grow fleetingly fatter from the spoils?
As well as an unconscionable tragedy, wouldn’t that be a dereliction of duty to our descendants? Davi Kopenawa thinks that if we destroy the Yanomami, we destroy ourselves. He might have a point. For readers who can cope with prejudices being rattled, Davi’s message deserves to be heard.
Davi Kopenawa will visit the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of April. For details, go to www.survivalinternational.org/davi.