Interview: Yanomami Shaman

Interview + Photograph by Allan Spiegel

The Yanomami live in the northern Amazon along the Brazil/Venezuela border. They are 20,000 strong, about half on each side of the border. This makes them the largest nation in the Americas that is semi-isolated and thus relatively unchanged by contact with our culture. At a picnic in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami spoke to me about the role of play in his culture. Davi is a shaman from Brazil where his people live in 36,000 square miles of virgin rain forest that legally belongs to their nation. He was in New York for Amazon Week VI, an international conference sponsored by Amanaka’a Amazon Network each May. (The interview took place with the help of an interpreter who translated Davi’s Portuguese into English. This accounts for someof the awkwardness of the phrasing.)

Allan: In our culture a lot of times when we get older we forget how to play, we get so busy with work that we lose the child inside of ourselves… In Yanomami culture do grown-ups play, and how?
Davi: When we want to do a big party we call about five tribes to get together and we eat a lot… We don’t eat like this, a little bit, right? We like to eat a lot… and when we sing, we don’t use flutes or any other instrument, we just sing. When we’re working, or when we’re walking we sing all the time in our hearts. The only time we don’t sing is when we die but when we’re alive we never forget to sing. We’re working, we’re walking, we’re always singing, we never forget to sing. The whites forget that. They always worry about working, working, working… and they don’t sing. The only time they remember to sing and celebrate is when they listen to music, put on the radio, or put the walkman on.

Allan: What are the occasions that give rise to these celebrations when the villages get together?
Davi: We gather together to talk about what we’re going to plan and how we’re going to preserve the river and not kill the fish, how we can put out the message to the other tribes. The history of the Yanomami is very wise. The Yanomami are not rich but they are very rich in knowledge, in the knowledge of nature.

Allan: So besides the singing, what types of everyday play do you engage in? Besides the celebrations?
Davi: We talk to each other, we fish, we catch food… and we pray to our God, our Creator.
Allan: But that’s what we would call work. When you’re relaxing and you want to enjoy yourselves after the hunt or…
Davi: We put a hammock on the trees and just relax there… We have the Chief and everybody else is in silence after hunting and he’s the only one that talks. He tells his stories and everybody loves to hear it… and they learn from the stories, he teaches through the stories and everybody is attentive listening to what he has to say… Also, the women start singing at 7 o’clock at night until 5 in the morning, slow night singing [laughs].

Allan: And do you play any games?
Davi: We have a game called Shamanism. You need 4 people to play. You take the milk from the trees, the rubber and make powder of that and smell it and get high and see everything through the forest. It’s part of the game. It’s from the rubber tree. Only the men do that, no women or children do this, only the ones that are prepared. We start singing when we take it. It’s the game of the energy, of the forest, of the mountains, of the sun, of the moon… This game, it’s a secret. No white people watch this, otherwise they would take it from us. It’s a really nice game and they’re going to take it so we don’t show it… When we go to the city, we don’t do that. Only when we’re together. It’s a tradition of the forest.

Allan: So what do the women play?
Davi: They sing. They sing to attract happiness, that’s why they sing. And the men, they stay quiet to listen.
Allan: No physical games?
Davi: You know that game with the rope?
Allan: Tug of war?
Davi: That’s what we do. And we take it from the tree.
Allan: …the vines…
Davi: No one wins prizes or anything. The best has to win, that’s all. There will be 100 Indians on one side and 100 Indians on the other side. We take the strongest Indians in the tribe and just pull. I don’t want to teach the whites all these games, or they’re going to take it from us. I can teach them how to preserve nature, how to keep trees. That’s the only thing I teach.

Allan: What was the last celebration you attended?
Davi: We did a party last February. We were celebrating the birth of the Earth. How it was started, how it was created, how nature came about. This was our last celebration.
Allan: Kind of like Earth day!
Davi: We also remember a God, the Coyore insect. We remember the Coyore insect because it taught us how to plant, which fruits and which vegetables to plant.

Allan: The current situation, with people dying, is very hard. What do you do to relieve the stress?
Davi: I don’t have an outlet. I just try to change the way they think, the ones who go in there to take the gold from the farmers. I never get tired from stress, I just fight. I came with a message from my relatives and I want the message to be out there. I want to stop the fight between the Indian and the white man. I don’t want the miners going into our tribes. We just want to be left alone. You can see here, the white people all have their houses and their buildings, their money. They want to go over to where we are and take our gold. We just want to be left alone. I want to go off with the miners to take care of them, give them their own land so they don’t destroy ours, because they take their money to buy everything to destroy our land. I want to be left alone. I want to end the fight.

The Yanomami remember what we sometimes forget: to sing every day. Only death ends the song. Today, their death is most often a direct result of the invasion of illegal gold miners into their reserved traditional land. These prospectors bring epidemic diseases (especially fatal malaria), environmental destruction, mercury poisoning, and violence. Ten percent of the Brazilian Yanomami have died from the invasion in just two years! In the U.S., with echoes in Brazil and Europe, Amanaka’a Amazon Network amplifies the Yanomami voice. Working directly with Davi, a Yanomami leader and U.N. Global 500 Award recipient, Amanaka’a has helped the Yanomami get their land demarcated, build and staff a health clinic, launch a self-education project, warn villages about the dangers brought by gold miners, and more.

The struggle continues for the Yanomami and other indigenous nations. You can make a real difference. Amanaka’a is a volunteer organization that needs all skills. We know how to make things happen. Just as important, Amanaka’a earned this space in Sandbox, a journal of play. With their Brazilian roots it’s no surprise that they know how to throw a wild party and have a good time.

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