This is a remarkable book*, unique in anthropological studies, in which Davi Kopenawa, a shaman from the 33,000-strong Yanomami Indian community that inhabits the frontier region between Brazil and Venezuela, speaks with great honesty about his life and  his culture. Because Davi has had considerable contact with the non-indigenous world, he is able to talk in terms that we non-Indians can readily understand.

Davi has a powerful intellect, and this, combined with his total recall of his earlier life and his skill in peppering his discussion with vivid images taken from the forest, makes his book (or, at least, most of it) an enthralling read.

I have never read anything that makes clearer the difference between the indigenous way of looking at the world and ours. Their explanation for the creation of the world, their views on the life of the spirit, their attitude towards consumerism and the accumulation of material goods, their approach to the natural world – all are diametrically opposed to ours.

Davi Yanomami Credit Survival InternationalOver the decades, Davi has made many trips to the USA and Europe, often with the support of Survival International, in his campaign to end the destruction of the Amazon forest. With each trip, his horror and outrage about the wanton damage we are doing to the planet has grown. We in the west can only hang our heads in shame.

The book is the result of a serendipitous decision, taken over 40 years ago by the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, to visit the Yanomami Indians. Hooked after this first visit, Albert became a regular visitor, learnt the Yanomami language and developed a close friendship with Davi. From 1989 to the early 2000s he recorded 100 hours of conversation, from which eventually this book emerged, first in French, then in English, and imminently in Portuguese.

The first section is a detailed exposition of the Yanomami’s spiritual life and the beginning of the world. It is fascinating, but at times dense. The most gripping part of the book for non-anthropologists is the subsequent section, in which Davi talks about his own life. Davi’s father passed away when Davi was very young, and then, in 1967, when he was 11, his mother died in a measles epidemic brought in by the evangelical New Tribes missionaries.

Because the missionaries were horrified by the Indians’ practice of gathering, cremating and pulverizing the bones of the dead before consuming them in a kind of gruel, they secretly buried the victims of the epidemic. Davi’s pain at not being able to accord his mother proper burial rites is still palpable today:

I was never able to learn where my mother was buried. The people of Teosi [“God”, from the Portuguese Deus] never told us, so that we could not gather the bones of our dead. Because of them, I was never able to mourn my mother the way our people usually do. It is a very bad thing. It made me feel a deep sorrow, and the anger from her death has persisted in me since that time. It hardened little by little and will only end with my own end. (p. 198)

At the time, Davi and many other Indians converted to Christianity, believing that Teosi must be stronger than their gods because so few of the missionaries died in the epidemic. It is chilling to read an extract from the diary written at the time by the missionaries Keith Wardlaw and his wife (whose daughter brought the measles into the village), and quoted by the ethnobotanist Glenn H. Shepherd in an excellent review of the book published in the New York Review of Books: “God never makes a mistake and now that the crisis is passed we can see how the Lord is working in hearts through the things that have happened…. The power of God is at work and it is a great and marvelous thing to behold.” Indeed.

For a while, Davi was fascinated by white society. He remembers arriving in Manaus:

By day there were so many people and so much noise along the river! A multitude of white peopple with a little fear. There were so many of them and they rushed in every direction like, like xirina ants! A multitude of white people bustled along it, coming and going as they yelled out the names of fish. All this to barter…for some old pieces of paper skin [money]. I had never seen so many white people! They were really everywhere! I told myself they must never stop copulating to be so numerous. (p.215) 

Davi’s conversion did not last long, and now, looking back, he feels furious at the way the missionaries treated his people:

The people of Teosi … kept telling the shamans that they were evil and that their chests were dirty. They called them ignorant. They threatened them: “Stop making your forest spirits dance. It is evil. They are demons whom Teosi has rejected!… If you remain so evil and persist in not loving Sesusi [Jesus],you will be thrown into the great fire.… Your tongue will dry up and your skin will crack in the flames! Stop inhaling the yãkoana powder! Teosi will make you die! He will smash you with his own hand, for he is very powerful!”

These evil words, repeated increasingly, finally frightened all the shamans and they no longer dared to take the yãkoana or even sing during the night. They only asked themselves who this Teosi could be to mistreat them so.… These new words of Teosi left them baffled and anxious. Then, one after another, they rejected the xapiri [spirits of the forest] and their spirits ran away. The last great shamans [from this group] did not even have the courage to bring them down to treat the sick any more. They also became mute. (p.188)

Shaman taking yãkoana Credit: amazon.indiansBack in the forest, Davi trained as a shaman:

When we become young men, we spend our time walking through the forest, tirelessly tracking game. This is when our thought begins to focus on the xapiri. Little by little, we fall in love with them, as if they were young women! We begin to see the images of the animal ancestors trekking through the forest with us in dream. First we see the images of the wakoa hawk and the kãokãoma falcon.… Then we see the jaguar, peccary, spider monkey and tapir spider spirits.… When the xapiri take such an interest in us, we see them dance as soon as we are asleep.… Then, once we are adults, we will be able to take the yãkoana [hallucinatory snuff] with elders who really know them and will open their paths to us.

Davi became increasingly disturbed by the damage being caused to the forest:

These white people are truly enemies of the forest. They do not know how to eat what comes from it. They can only clear it like it like koyo ants. And all this not to grow anything there! Just to sow weeds they abandon as soon as they become stunted and their cattle grow skinny! (p. 252)

All they [the white people] think about is making our land as bare and blazing as the savanna that surrounds their city of Boa Vista. This is their only thought about the forest. They probably believe that nothing can exhaust it. They are wrong. It is not as vast as it seems to them. In the eyes of the xapiri, who fly beyond the sky’s back, it appears narrow and covered in scars. Its edges bear the wounds of the settlers’ and cattle ranchers’ deforestation and fires.… All this devastation worries us. The shamans clearly see the forest is suffering and sick. They fear that it will finally return to chaos and that all humans will be crushed. (p. 255)

The damage caused by mining is particularly severe, and may bring about the end of the world:

By digging so far underground, the white people will even tear out the sky’s roots, which are also held in place by Omama’s metal [Omama is the creator of the world]. The sky will fall apart again and every last one of us will be annihilated. These thoughts often torment me. This is why I carry Omama’s words in me to defend our forest. The white people do not think about such things. If they did, they would not unceasingly tear everything they can out of the earth. I want to make them hear the words the xapiri gave me in the times of dreams so these thoughtless outsiders can understand what is really happening. (p. 296)

Davi has always been aware that the Yanomami share a common humanity with us. “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!” In another great review, Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, points out that here Davi unknowingly echoes Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

In time, Davi also realised that he had friends among white people and, as mentioned above, he began to travel abroad to appeal to western governments to stop financing forest destruction. I translated for him during his first trip to London, in 1982. His Portuguese was still halting and he was, not surprisingly, perplexed by much of what was going on. In particular, I remember he was asked on a live TV interview to talk about the role of television in getting his message across, this to a man who at the time hardly knew what television was!


Yanomami woman and child Credit: WikipediaHowever, perhaps because when he is at ease Davi exudes great personal warmth and a sense of playfulness, I was not aware at the time that these trips were made at considerable personal cost:

I can never think calmly in the city, people constantly ask you for money for everything, even to drink or to urinate.… The people work in a ghost state and constantly swallow factory and machine fumes. These get into their noses, their mouths and their eyes and stick to their hair.… This is why white people are so often sick, despite all their medicine. Their doctors may open their chest, stomach or eyes but it doesn’t help. The sperm of fathers whose flesh is tainted by this epidemic smoke becomes sick and their children are born in bad shape.… Their cities are vast and full of a multitude of beautiful objects they desire but as soon as they are old or weakened by disease, they suddenly have to abandon all that, which is quickly erased from their minds. All that remains is for them to die alone and empty.… If they thought about all that, perhaps they would not be as avid for the things or our land and so hostile towards us. These are the thoughts that occupy my nights in those big cities where I can never fall asleep. (p. 354)

Davi also found it difficult to understand the income inequalities in western society:

Yet while the houses in the centre of this city [New York] are tall and beautiful, those on its edges are in ruins. The people who live in those places have no food and their clothes are dirty and torn. When I took a walk among them, they looked at me with sad eyes. It made me upset. These white people who created merchandise think they are clever and brave. Yet they are greedy and do not take care of those among them who have nothing.… They do not even look at them and are satisfied to keep their distance. And call them “the poor”. They even take their crumbling houses from them.… It scared me to see such a thing. (p. 349)

The last section of the book contains a warning:

Later perhaps all of us who inhabit the forest will die. But the white people should not think that we will perish alone. If we disappear, they will not live very long after us. Even if they are very numerous, they are no more made of stone than we are. Their breath of life is as short as ours. (p. 407)

*Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky – Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Translated by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy,The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013′