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Fighting To Save The Forest: Interview With A Yanomami Shaman

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Last week, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a shaman of the Yanomami peoples who is sometimes called "the Dalai Lama of the forest," visited the United States. Survival International, an organization that fights for tribal peoples' rights, sponsored his trip and invited me to interview him by Skype.

It was a fascinating and uplifting experience and I am grateful both to Davi (as I was asked to call him) and to Survival International's Fiona Watson, who translated my questions into Portuguese and Davi's responses back into English.

The Yanomami people — famous to anthropology students the world over — are a group of about 33,000 hunter-gatherers and slash-and-burn farmers who live in the Amazonian forest, including in Brazil where Davi was born and now lives.

This forest, we know, is under severe ecological threat. This is the subject I wanted to talk with Davi about because, as a shaman or healer, he has a different perspective on the forest and its significance than most of us do. To prepare for our conversation, I read large parts of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, a book that resulted from a collaboration between Davi and the anthropologist Bruce Albert. It was the material in the book that guided the questions I asked.


Barbara: Could you describe for us something of what it's like for you, a shaman, to walk through the forest, and what you may see and hear?

Davi: First of all I'd like to say that my name is Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. I am a shaman and I cure people when they are ill; that is my work. Those of you who don't know about the forest, the Yanomami call it uhiri. This is very important. The forest makes us feel good. When we shamans walk through the forest, we thank the forest. The forest brings benefits for all indigenous peoples, we collect fruit, we hunt game; we eat everything in it. We shamans understand how the forest helps the indigenous peoples and not only the indigenous peoples but it is important for all of us.

Barbara: If I understand correctly, the true spirits are the xapiri, and these are the light-filled and shimmering images. They are vital to life, and quite separate from the animals of the forest themselves, which used to be people in the past days. Is this correct, and could you talk a bit about what you learn from the xapiri?

Davi: Xapiri are the shamanic spirits. It is important to tell you that Omama is our creator, he created the Yanomami, he is what we would call the leader of the xapiri. He created them for indigenous peoples because in those times, and I would say that was maybe 500 years ago [although] really we don't count like that all the time, Omama was thinking about this. This was, at the time, the beginning of the Earth, of the forest, when people were first born.

The first child was born and the first thing the mother and father thought about was health. There was no health at that time. However, Omama was very intelligent — he created shamans. The mother said to her husband, "What will we do? We have to look after our children." Omama said, "I will make the forest xapiri so there will be no problems. I will do this because you need to have good health."

So Omama made the xapiri like animals, so they appear like animals, for example the macaw, parrots, tapirs, monkeys and many other animals. So these animals are like spirits but I don't like to call them spirits; I call them xapiri but they aren't really spirits, in fact they are xapiri everywhere, in the mountains and the forests, they are everywhere. Omama made these for the Yanomami and for everyone else; we the shamans use the force of the spirits.

Barbara: Are there particular animals in the forest that you connect with most readily?

Davi: The important animals for us, they live in the sacred mountains, so in fact these xapiri are not animals like the ones I mentioned — the monkey or the macaw or the parrot — they are similar but not the same. These xapiri don't show themselves, only to the shamans, only to the Yanomami shamans, so only these shamans know where they live. They are very special and most important, and they don't show themselves to anyone else. We the shamans, they appear when we take [the drink] yakoana, only then do they show themselves. They are very special because we use them like a medicine and we heal and cure like a doctor.

Barbara: What can we in this country do to protect nature, and ecology and the forests? How can we learn from your knowledge?

Davi: There are very few people in the cities who think well and who think well of nature. For example there are many rich people, they have cars, planes, and guns, but they don't think. Really all they think about is destroying nature. We the indigenous peoples and you, some of the non-indigenous people, we are all thinking about peace, we must maintain the forest standing just as it was when the forest was born. It is very important for our children and our forest.

I say to you who are concerned and worried about nature, let us fight together. The people I have seen in the cities in the U.S., there is very little nature and very little forest [where they live]. I am a Yanomami who defends nature; nature is a person who brings health and happiness and it brings rain and wind and it is a very good thing. We are defending the lungs of the world and they are very important to you [also].

You, the non-Indians who want to help, you have to defend the forest with us so that we do not suffer. Because this is important for all of us.


"Let us fight together." What an impact that simple statement had on me, after talking with Davi and seeing firsthand that he is a man of determination and charisma — a charisma that jumped the language barrier readily.

Davi's activism reminds us that what we do, here in the United States, has a reverberating impact all across the globe, affecting millions, including indigenous peoples who understand and depend on the forest in so many ways.

My conversation with Davi echoed for me some of the themes I learned from reading anthropologist Eduardo Kohn's fascinating new book, How Forests Think, that I reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement last week. Kohn also brings to vivid life the forest — in this case the forest that surrounds the Runa people of Ecuador — and its animal inhabitants, who, Kohn argues, think without language. "The world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans", Kohn writes.

This collective work — Davi Kopenawa's, Survival International's, Eduardo Kohn's — matters for the health of our planet. I asked anthropologist William Fisher, who has worked with and written about Amazonian peoples for many years and who is my colleague at the College of William and Mary, to comment on Davi's remarks, and he made this same point, but more elegantly.

"Davi Yanomami tells us, as would most Amazonians, that it doesn't matter who you are or what technology you have. What matters is how you live your life and who you are accountable to, namely your children! (This is one reason it is important to hear the story about Omama.)"

"To deliver on this commitment you need to work with nature, even when it remains remote and difficult to see. I have to laugh because it is plain to anyone who has compared city life with that of native Amazonians. The forest environment requires so much more active attention and stimulates so much more thought. Not just because it is full of dangers, but because it always offers something valuable, if you are only able to perceive it. It is so complex."

I like a distinction Bill drew between Davi's way of thinking and a more usual approach than emanates from the West:

"In light of the experience of indigenous peoples, and the Yanomami in particular, with the savageries perpetuated by civilization, Davi Yanomami's offer of an alliance to conserve nature is generous. However, his offer is very different from the way we think about aiding development, i.e., on the basis of Western technological superiority or even as an ethical commitment. It is probable that we will have to develop new forms of organization to be successful. The nation state is not a very good framework for the alliance envisioned by Davi because politics is always adversarial, contrasting the interest of one group with that of another. We will have to be able to argue in favor of wellbeing of people rather than use economic growth as a surrogate for this."

In the end, here's what I learned from talking with Davi: The knowledge of indigenous peoples may derive from sources that we in the West may not find easy to fully understand, but that knowledge should be recognized. As Davi says in the pages of The Falling Sky:

"Just because our elders did not have schools does not mean that they did not study. We are other people. We learn with the yakoana and the spirits of the forest ... . This has always been our way of becoming clever."

I hope that Davi's vision will be a source of inspiration as we all work to find solutions to the complex issues at the heart of saving the forests, and the people and animals who depend on them.


Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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