The Sky Is Falling in Brazilian Yanomami Shaman’s Book

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami ShamanIn the first book ever written by a Yanomami Indian, Davi Kopenawa – shaman and leading spokesman for his people – describes the rich culture, history and ways of life of the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest.

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman is a unique account of the life story of Davi Kopenawa, who heads the Yanomami Association Hutukara and who continues to defend the rights of the tribe around the world.

In his book, Davi recounts his initiation as a shaman and his first encounters with outsiders – including the gold miners who flooded Yanomami land during the 1980s and caused the death of 1 in 5 Yanomami through disease and violence.

He vividly describes his impressions of western culture on trips abroad, such as his first journey outside Brazil when he visited Europe.

The Falling Sky is an impassioned plea to respect his people’s rights and preserve the Amazon rainforest.

Davi said, “This book is a message for the non-Indians. We want to teach people about our shamanic dreams … I hope that the non-Indians will learn from the book and make them think about our history.”

The Falling Sky also challenges wide-spread perceptions that the Yanomami are “fierce” and violent, as promulgated by the highly controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.

The book was written in collaboration with French anthropologist Bruce Albert, Research Director at France’s Institut de Recherche pour le développment (IRD) and Vice President of Survival France, who has worked with Brazil’s Yanomami since 1975.

The Falling Sky was originally published in French by PLON. The English translation is published by Harvard University Press ($39.95/ £25.00/ €30.00).

Excerpts from the book:

In the time of our ancestors, the white people were very far away from us. They had not yet brought measles, coughing disease, and malaria into our forest. Our people were not sick as often as we are today! They were in good health most of the time and when they died their ghosts were not tainted with the fumes of epidemics. Now, when someone dies of white people’s diseases, even his ghost gets sick and returns to the sky’s back with fever. His breath of life and flesh are soiled all the way there! In the past, people never all got sick at the same time! They did not die as much as now.

Our fathers and our grandfathers did not trust the white people and had always feared their epidemic fumes. Yet they never really tried to find out what had brought them to their home. They did not know that they had come to mark the edges of Brazil in the middle of our land. They made themselves available and friendly. They readily gathered to accompany the white soldiers and transport their food and metal tools in big carrying baskets. They merely looked on with curiosity when the white people cleared large paths and erected big stones at the sources of the rivers. They never imagined that later these people’s children and grandchildren would come back in large numbers to dig gold from the rivers and make their cattle eat in the forest. They never thought that these outsiders would one day want to chase them from their homes to take their land! On the contrary, once their initial fright passed, our elders were happy about their visit. Day after day, they examined the big wooden boxes full of machetes and axe heads that these white people had brought all the way up the Rio Demini. A single thought was on their minds: “From now on, we will never lack for metal tools again!

Much later, once I had become an adult, I began to ask myself what these white people had come to do in our forest. I came to understand that they wanted to know it and plot its limits in order to take possession of it. Our elders did not know how to imitate these outsiders’ language. This is why they let them approach them without hostility. If they had understood their words as well as they understood ours, they would probably have prevented them from coming into our forest so easily! I also think these strangers duped them by flourishing their merchandise with good words: “Let’s be friends! See, we offer you so many of our goods as presents! We do not lie!” This is always how the white people start talking to us! Then the xawarari epidemic beings arrive in their footsteps and we immediately start dying one after another! Our elders did not know anything of all this yet. They simply wanted to trade for machetes, axe heads, clothes, rice, salt, and sugar. They spoke to the white people by joyfully repeating a few of their words like parrots. They told themselves: “These outsiders are truly friendly, they are very generous!” But they were wrong! Once they obtained the precious things and food they coveted, they soon fell ill, then perished one by one. It makes me sad to think about it. Our elders were taken in by all this merchandise, and that killed every one of them. This is how my older relatives disappeared, wanting to make friendship with the white people. And after their death, I remained alone with my anger. It has never left me since. It is the anger that makes me fight today against those outsiders who think only of burning the forest’s trees and soiling its rivers like hordes of peccaries! I always feel sad when I see the emptiness of the forest that my elders traveled, for the xawara epidemics never left it. Since that first time, our people have continued to die in the same way.

Now we fear the garimpeiros’ malaria, which is also very fierce. It is so. The people of the forest’s breath of life proves fragile in the face of these epidemic fumes. It takes a long time before our flesh learns to harden and resist them. But this did not happen without reason. Our ancestors had never breathed their odor. Their bodies had remained cold. When these fumes appeared, our long-ago elders did not have any strength to defend themselves. All burned with fever and entered a ghost state at once. Then they perished rapidly, in great numbers, like poisoned fish in a dry pond. This is how the first white people made nearly all of them vanish.

What we call xawara are measles, flu, malaria, tuberculosis, and all those other white people diseases that kill us to devour our flesh. The only thing that ordinary people know of them are the fumes that propagate them. But we shamans, we also see in them the image of the epidemic beings, the xawarari. These evil beings look like white people, with their clothes, their glasses, and their hats, but are wrapped in a thick smoke and have long, sharp canines. They are the t[^h^]okori beings of the cough, which slit our throats and chests, and the xuukari diarrhea beings, which devour our guts, but also the tuhrenari nausea beings, the waitarori scraggliness beings, and the hayakorari weakness beings. These evil beings do not eat game or fish. They only starve for our fat and thirst for our blood, which they drink until it has dried up. They know how to listen from far away to the voices rising from our villages to guide themselves to us. They approach our houses during the night and set up their hammocks inside but we are unable to see them. … Then they look for the most beautiful and chubbiest of our children. … If our xapiri do not act to rescue these children very quickly, they die instantly. After this, the xawarari epidemic beings tie up the elders and the women who have the weakest breath of life. First they cut one entire group’s throats with their machetes, then they rest for a while before coming to get new prey. Little by little, they gather great quantities of corpses to roast them like game. They only stop killing once they think they have gathered enough human flesh to satisfy their appetite.

Pollution of Waterways

It was only once the garimpeiros [prospectors] arrived where we live that I really understood what these outsiders were capable of doing! These fierce men appeared in the forest suddenly, coming from all over the place, and quickly encircled our houses in large numbers. They were frenetically searching for an evil thing that we had never heard about and whose name they repeated unceasingly: oru, gold. They started digging into the ground in every direction like herds of peccaries. They soiled the rivers with yellowish mire and filled them with xawara epidemic fumes from their machines. Then my chest filled up with anger and worry again when I saw them ravage the river’s sources with the avidity of scrawny dogs. All this to find gold, so the white people can use it to make themselves teeth and ornaments or keep it locked in their houses! At the time, I had just learned to defend our forest’s limits. I was not yet used to the idea that I also needed to defend its trees, game, watercourses, and fish. But I soon understood that the gold prospectors were land eaters who would destroy everything. These new words about protecting the forest came to me gradually, during my trips in the forest and among the white people. They settled inside me and increased little by little, linking up to each other, until they formed a long path in my mind. I used them to start speaking in the cities, even if in Portuguese my tongue still seemed as tangled as a ghost’s!

If we let the garimpeiros dig everywhere like wild pigs, the forest’s rivers will soon be no more than miry backwaters, full of mud, motor oil, and trash. They also wash their gold powder in the streams, mixing it with what they call azougue [Portuguese, “quicksilver”]. The other white people call it mercúrio. All these dirty and dangerous things make the waters sick and the fish’s flesh soft and rotten. By eating them, we run the risk of perishing of dysentery; emaciated, pierced with pain, and seized with dizziness. The masters of the rivers are the stingray, electric eel, anaconda, caiman, and pink river dolphin beings. They live underwater in the house of their father-in-law, Túpúrúsiki, with the rainbow being Hokotori. If the gold prospectors soil the rivers’ sources, these beings will all die and the rivers will disappear with them. The waters will escape to return to the depths of the earth. Then how will we be able to quench our thirst? We will all perish with our lips dried out!

[W]e went to the gold holes where the other garimpeiros were working. This time it was our turn to be surprised: there were really very many of them there, far more than us! They had dug vast ditches bordered with huge gravel heaps all over the place to find the shiny dust they were relentlessly searching the streams for. All the watercourses were flooded with yellowish mud, soiled by motor oils, and covered in dead fish. Machines rumbled in a deafening roar on their cleared banks and their smoke stank up the entire surrounding forest. It was the first time I saw gold prospectors at work. I told myself: “Hou! This is all very bad. These white people seem to want to devour the earth like giant armadillos and peccaries! If we let them become more numerous, they will destroy the entire forest like they have started to here. We must absolutely chase them away!”

Soil Depletion

The earth’s skin is beautiful and sweet-smelling, but if you burn its trees, it dries out. Then the soil breaks up in friable clumps and the earthworms disappear. Do the white people know this? The spirits of the big earthworms own the forest earth. If you destroy them, it instantly becomes arid. Red soil appears below the black soil, out of which only shoots of bad plants and grass can grow. We never tear away the earth’s skin. We only cultivate its surface, because that is where the richness is found. In doing so, we follow our ancestors’ ways. The trees’ leaves and flowers never stop falling and accumulating on the ground in the forest. This is what gives it its smell and its value of growth. But this scent disappears quickly once the ground dries up and makes the streams disappear into its depths. It is so. As soon as you cut down tall trees such as the wari mahi kapok trees and the hawari hi Brazil nut trees, the forest’s soil becomes hard and hot. It is these big trees that make the rainwater come and keep it in the ground.

The trees that the white people plant, the mango trees, the coconut trees, the orange trees, and the cashew trees, they do not know how to call the rain. They grow poorly, scattered around the city in a ghost state. This is why there is only water in the forest when it is healthy. As soon as its soil lies bare, the Motokari sun being burns all its watercourses. He dries them out with his burning tongue before swallowing up all their fish and caimans. Then when his feet come close to the ground, the earth starts to bake and increasingly hardens. The mountain rocks become so hot they split and shatter. No tree can sprout out of the soil anymore, for there is not enough dampness left to keep seeds and roots cool. The waters return to the underworld and the dry earth crumbles. The wind being, who follows us in the forest to cool us like a fan, also flees. We stop seeing his daughters and nieces playing in the treetops. A stifling heat settles everywhere. The fallen leaves and flowers stiffen on the ground. The cool smell of the soil is consumed and vanishes. No plant will grow any longer, no matter what you do.

[Inhabitants of the cities] tell themselves that we must be ignorant and liars. They prefer contemplating the word drawings of the endless merchandise they desire. The beauty of the forest leaves them indifferent. They only repeat to us: “Your forest is dark and tangled! It is bad and full of dangerous things. Do not regret it! When we have cleared it all, we will give you cattle to eat! It will be much better! You will be happy!” But we answer them: “The animals you raise are unknown to us. We are hunters, we do not want to eat domestic animals! We find it nauseating and it makes us dizzy. We do not want your cattle because we would not know what to do with them. The forest has always raised the game and fish that we need to eat. It feeds their young and makes them grow with the fruit of its trees. We are happy that it is like this. They do need gardens to live, the way humans do. The earth’s value of growth is enough to make their food flourish and ripen. As for the white people, they wipe out the game with their shotguns or scare it away with their machines. Then they burn the trees to plant grass everywhere to feed their cattle. Finally, when the forest’s richness has disappeared and the grass itself no longer grows back, they must go elsewhere to feed their starving oxen.”

When the value of growth moves away from our houses, she does not come back by herself. The shamans must really work hard to bring her image back because without her the fruit of the trees and the plants of our gardens stop growing. Then they have to work often to keep her by our side, for she can always run away again, this time never to come back.

When this happens, it means Ohiri, the hunger being, has settled in the forest in her place. Having come from very far away, where the white people have nothing to eat, he lies in ambush to mistreat us. No matter how much we plant or how hard we work, nothing grows in our gardens, not bananas, not manioc, not sugarcane! All the cultivated plants shrivel up and the branches of the trees remain empty. Game becomes increasingly scarce. Then we say: “Urihi a në ohi! The forest has taken the value of hunger!” Ohinari is what white people call poverty. He is an evil being who kills little by little, through hunger. Once he has decided to settle in the forest, he can stay in the same place for a very long time. When this happens, people soon have nearly nothing left to eat. Day after day, Ohiri blows his yákoana powder in their nostrils and makes them become other. They constantly get weaker. Their limbs have no energy and they get dizzy. Their ears get blocked, their voice is dry, and their empty eyes are sad to see. Little by little they waste away and finally lose consciousness. Then they die, completely emaciated.


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