“We are other people,” declares Davi Kopenawa, the Yanomami shaman, indigenous-rights advocate and narrator of the magnificent The Falling Sky, published late in 2013 for the first time in English by Harvard University Press. Compiled and edited by French anthropologist Bruce Albert, the volume is part testimony to the depredations our global civilization has inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, part compendium of Yanomami beliefs, and part paean for a way of life that has been all but lost forever.
Throughout, Kopenawa adamantly stresses the fundamental difference between his people and his intended readers:
White people don’t think very far ahead. They are always too preoccupied with the things of the moment. This is why I would like them to be able to hear my words … After they have understood my account, I would like the white people to tell themselves: “The Yanomami are other people than us, yet their words are right and clear. Now we understand what they think. These are words of truth! Their forest is beautiful and silent. They were created there and have lived there without worry since the beginning of time. Their thought follows other paths than that of merchandise. They want to live their way.”
Following an invasion of gold prospectors into Yanomami territory in the 1980s, and the concomitant atrocities it brought in its wake, the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments along with the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations have endeavored, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success, to preserve the Yanomami way of life. To allow them, as much as possible, to “live their way.”
Yet, as Albert makes clear in his thorough notes and appendixes, this is an impossible dream. “White” civilization has irreversibly penetrated Yanomami culture. (The term Yanomami is a shortened version of Yanōmami tëpë, or “human beings,” which is what some of the indigenous groups call themselves). Although direct encounters between whites and the Yanomami did not occur until the 1950s, indirect contact began as far back as the eighteenth century, introducing alien artifacts, and pathogens, into their communal heartland. Kopenawa’s telling of the Yanomami cosmology itself is thoroughly impinged by foreign notions and images. For instance, he describes the process through which the xapiri, the animal spirits of the forest, construct their celestial homes thus:
The spider monkey spirits grab the beams’ ends and bend them together with ropes covered in celestial pitch. Sloth spirits fire nails into them with their shotguns while the spirits of the white people’s ancestors we call napënapëri fix them in place with long metal pins.
Kopenawa, then, is not the spokesman for a people uncontaminated by modernity, but a representative of a hybrid form of semi-independent existence, which is only made possible by the protective shroud supplied by modern nation-states and international organizations. This raises crucial questions about the fate of aboriginal cultures across the world. The issue is not whether modern civilization’s grasp of metaphysics or morality is superior to that of the Yanomami. Obviously it is not. The early attempts by missionaries (whom Kopenawa calls the “people of teosi,” after Deus, the Portuguese word for God) to convert the forest dwellers to Christianity accomplished nothing but to replace one particular canon of myths with another. And while the Yanomami engage in some behaviors that “civilized” people might consider repugnant, such as revenge killings, the idea that Europeans or Asians are in any position to scold them for their violent ways is outrageous.
Is it not, however, also obvious that modern civilization possesses knowledge about the world—important, useful, demonstrably true knowledge—that aboriginal hunter-gatherers do not? Is it clearly the morally correct path, given the aforementioned hybridized status of such populations, to withhold these insights from the Yanomami with the goal of preserving their purity? Whose best interest is served by the perpetuation of a human population that has never heard of a gorilla, a rhinoceros or a kangaroo, that has no understanding of the structure of the solar system, of the workings of the human metabolism, of germ theory? This is not to say that all Yanomami are ignorant of such things. As can clearly be seen in The Falling Sky, many of them, almost certainly including Kopenawa, are not. The question remains whether having the Yanomami fully return to “their way” is a desirable goal to seek.
Entire libraries could be filled with the literature that explores these issues, which can be traced at least as far back as Bartolomé de las Casas’ accounts of the European conquest of the Indies. They remain relevant in our interconnected world. Consider the international campaign to combat the recent onset of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the worst outbreak of this disease in history. Many factors have contributed to the spread of Ebola. The disease, as anthropologist Crystal Byruk eloquently puts it, calls attention to the deep inequalities still prevalent in the world:
It exposes the political economy of health and illness; it illustrates flows and stoppages that direct the mobility of science and technology; it brings to light the shortcomings of “quick fix” or magic bullet solutions to structural problems; it draws attention to the health consequences of reconfigured social relations produced by health and development regimes of governance; and it tragically accentuates the racialized logics that have long determined which lives “count.”
At the same time, the question of culture and its impact on the response effort has been at the forefront of the fight against Ebola. It has been widely reported that, as in previous outbreaks elsewhere in Africa, local beliefs and customs have impeded the work of health professionals trying to minimize contagion. Traditional burial practices among several of the ethnic groups affected, for instance, necessitate a thorough cleaning of the cadaver. Since Ebola is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, such a practice is eminently risky. Perhaps more perniciously, in many areas the disease is thought not to exist at all, or to be the result of sorcery or demonic intervention, prompting many of those affected to reject medical assistance. Is it legitimate for government officials and health workers to repudiate local beliefs in an effort to save lives? Is recalcitrance a mark of ignorance and fear, as some adduce, or does it signal a loyal and legitimate adherence to a rich cultural tradition?
Over time, health workers have reduced aggressive reactions against their efforts by engaging in widespread education campaigns coupled with increased cultural sensitivity. The World Health Organization, for instance, recently instituted a new protocol for burying victims of Ebola that, as much as is prudent, incorporates traditional burial rites. Likewise, anthropologists have begun to accompany health workers in order to facilitate communication along the lines of the protocols developed by, among others, Barry and Bonnie Hewlett following previous outbreaks in the continent:
All healthcare should be aware of and expect sorcery explanations for Ebola … Respect and understanding of the social-economic spiritual context of sorcery is essential to develop rapport and trust in the community. Also, healthcare workers should be aware that people may be open to biomedical care even though they view the cause of the illness as sorcery. … Health care workers and health educators should be aware of local criteria for distinguishing sorcery from epidemic illness and be able to use the local criteria to demonstrate that this illness is epidemic, not sorcery.
Anthropologists, then, help mediate between Western-scientific practices and traditional beliefs, in a way that aims to ease the implementation of the one while not appearing to reject the other. The result seems a reasonable compromise through which the legitimacy of both worldviews is affirmed. On the other hand, it is difficult to forgo the suspicion that this is less a win-win outcome than a casuistical effort designed to pacify the recalcitrant victims, with the undeniably laudable goal of saving lives.
Kopenawa’s narrative in The Falling Sky is not altogether free of such sophistry. The Ebola outbreak is in many ways reminiscent of the cataclysmic explosion of epidemic illness among the Yanomami during Kopenawa’s formative years—with the crucial differences that the epidemics that decimated his people were caused by the arrival of “the whites,” and that their scale was much larger. The belief that diseases have spiritual or supernatural causes pervades Kopenawa’s account of Yanomami culture. “The shamans of old” knew how to use appropriate substances available in the forest to combat infection and disease. Their arsenal of cures also included hiding sick individuals’ “images in the tapir spirit’s pirogue to protect them from disease” or placing them on the afflicted body, as well placing “parrot feathers” through patients’ earlobes and “white down feathers” on their hair. Prayer and sorcery as the main weapons to combat disease were, according to Kopenawa, amply sufficient for the needs of his people:
Before these strangers arrived in the forest, people did not die very often. Once in a while, a very old man or woman would pass away, when their hair had become really white, their eyes blind, their flesh dried up and flaccid. … They died the right away, at a very advanced age. Sometimes enemy oka sorcerers killed an elder, a woman, or a young man. … And occasionally enemy warriors arrowed one or two people at dawn. … Though our ancestors mistreated each other from one house to another with their sorcery, they always recovered because their shamans were able to pull the harmful things out of their bodies and throw them into the underworld.
In this telling, it was only the arrival of the “strangers” that brought diseases that traditional methods could not combat, and which made necessary the use of “the white people’s medicine.” Certainly the introduction of deadly new diseases created the need for the use of modern medical techniques. It appears, though, that this was on the whole welcomed by the majority of the Yanomami, striking a blow against Kopenawa’s dream of autonomy. As Albert documents, the most densely populated settlements became those near government outposts or Christian missions, where medical care is most easily found.
The fact that the grievances of the Yanomami against their invaders are legitimate should not negate debate over whether Kopenawa’s idealized version of the past is helpful for understanding the culture he claims as his own, or for protecting his people in the future. Neither should it obscure the cognitive dissonance required to embrace the help provided by Albert and the other friends of the Yanomami while at the same time decrying the evils of the world that produced them. Kopenawa is not shy about expressing his disdain for worldviews other than his own:
White people do not become shamans. Their nōreme image of life is full of dizziness. The perfumes they rub themselves with and the alcohol they drink make their chests too odorous and too hot. This is why it remains empty. They do not possess spirit houses or songs. … They do not really know how to dream.
What if a disease such as Ebola, a homegrown affliction that was transmitted from local wildlife to humans, appeared in the Amazon? Would it be appropriate for the “white” governments that surround the forest and for international organizations to intervene in order to save Yanomami lives? It is hard to imagine that Kopenawa or anyone else would reject such assistance, or that the outside entities would allow them to do so even if that was their wish. The attempt by Kopenawa and Albert to shed light on the lives and beliefs of the Yanomami is doubtlessly necessary and admirable. It also calls for a genuine reflection on the rhetorical and conceptual inconsistencies that are often required to understand and conduct ourselves around the remaining independent, or at least semi-independent, human societies on our planet.