The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert

Selections from the Book

The Falling Sky is a remarkable first-person account of the life story and cosmo-ecological thought of Davi Kopenawa, shaman and spokesman for the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon. In a close collaboration with anthropologist Bruce Albert, a friend since the 1970s, Davi Kopenawa paints an unforgettable picture of Yanomami culture, past and present, in the heart of the rainforest.

Kopenawa recounts his initiation and experience as a shaman, as well as his first encounters with outsiders: government officials, missionaries, road workers, cattle ranchers, and gold prospectors. He vividly describes the ensuing cultural repression, environmental devastation, and deaths resulting from epidemics and violence. In his role as a global ambassador for his endangered people, he provides a biting critique of Western industrial society, whose material greed, mass violence, and ecological blindness contrast sharply with Yanomami cultural values. At the same time a coming-of-age story, a historical account, and a shamanic philosophy, The Falling Sky is most of all an impassioned plea to respect native rights and preserve the Amazon rainforest.

“When they think their land is getting spoiled, the white people speak of “pollution.” In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest, we say that xawara [epidemic fumes] have seized it and that it becomes ghost.”—Davi Kopenawa

Read selections from the book:
  • Epidemic Disease

    Epidemic Disease

    Davi Kopenawa and Watoriki children. (F. Watson-Survival International, 1990.)

    Davi Kopenawa and Watoriki children. (F. Watson-Survival International, 1990.)

    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

    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!

    Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami speaks with Survival International about what a proposed mining bill would mean for his people.

    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, Tëpërësiki, 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

    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.

    Davi Kopenawa discusses the impact of climate change on the Yanomami community. (Source: CAFOD.)

    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 Mothokari 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 yãkoana 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.

  • Loss of Biodiversity

    Loss of Biodiversity

    Davi Kopenawa during a shamanic session. (B. Albert, 1993.)

    Davi Kopenawa during a shamanic session. (B. Albert, 1993.)

    The garimpeiros’ motors and shotguns will scare away the game and, in the end, they will starve us too. The peccaries used to be very numerous in our forest. After the gold prospectors arrived, their herds disappeared completely. Soon hunters no longer encountered them anywhere, even by walking very far from their houses.

    I had only met a few white people who cared about the forest and wanted to protect its animals. The first time was when I had just started working at the Demini Outpost and the FUNAI people asked me to join them to travel up the Rio Catrimani. I was very young at the time. These white people wanted to defend the peccaries, the caimans, the otters, and the jaguars from the hunters who were wiping them out to pile up their hides. These were new words for me because in my childhood the SPI was always asking our people for game skins. In those days, our elders hunted a great deal in vain, just to trade with these outsiders. But it had become different with the FUNAI men. Since I had started working with them on the Rio Mapulaú, I had often heard them say that they wanted to expel from our land the white people who destroy game to skin it and those that exterminate turtles and river dolphins with their harpoons.

    During this trip up the Rio Catrimani, I saw the places downstream where these white hunters and fishermen had settled. These are also people who are constantly invading our forest. With FUNAI and the federal police, we stopped several of their canoes on the river to seize their jaguar and giant otter skins. We also forced them to throw all their turtles back in the water. Their eyes were furious, but they did not protest because they were scared of the police. I did not yet know the white people very well at the time. But I understood that those I was traveling with truly wanted to protect the animals and trees of the forest. It was the first time I heard such words. They made me think. I started to tell myself: “Haixopë! I am also going to defend the game so it does not disappear!” Like us, the animals are inhabitants of the forest and they are not so many. If we let the white people hunt on our land, our children will soon cry in hunger for meat.

  • Destruction of Cultural Heritage

    Destruction of Cultural Heritage

    Davi Kopenawa, president of the Yanomami association Hutukara, during a meeting of the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR). (Photo D. Gomes Macario, 2009.)

    Davi Kopenawa, president of the Yanomami association Hutukara, during a meeting of the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR). (Photo D. Gomes Macario, 2009.)

    Our ancestors loved their own words. They were truly happy this way. Their mind was not set elsewhere. The white people’s words had not made their way among them. They worked with uprightness and spoke of what they did. They grew their own thoughts, turned to their people. They did not constantly tell each other: “An airplane will land tomorrow! White visitors will arrive! I will go ask for machetes and clothing!” and also: “The gold prospectors are drawing near! Their malaria is dangerous, it will kill us!” Today all these speeches about the white people stand in the way of our own thought. The forest has lost its silence. Far too many words come to us from the cities. Several of us went there when they were sick or to defend our forest. White people often visit our houses. Their words sneak into our thought and darken it. They constantly worry us, even when these outsiders are far away from us.

    Our minds get entangled with words about the gold prospectors who eat the forest’s floor and foul our rivers, with words about the settlers and the cattle ranchers who burn its trees to feed their animals, with words about the government that wants to open new roads here and tear minerals out of the ground. We fear malaria, flu, and tuberculosis. Our mind is constantly attracted by white people’s merchandise. We are too often thinking about obtaining machetes, axes, fishhooks, pots, hammocks, clothes, guns, and ammunition. Young people play soccer all over the house’s central plaza while the shamans are working there. They no longer tie their foreskin with a cotton string around their waist like the elders did. They wear shorts, want to listen to the radio, and think they can turn into white people. They struggle to babble the white people’s ghost talk while sometimes dreaming of leaving the forest. Yet they know nothing of what the white people truly are, their thought is not yet opened. Try as they might to imitate them, it will not lead to anything good. If they continue on this dark path, they will wind up drinking cachaça and become as ignorant as the white people can be.

    Our elders of the past did not ever think about these white people things. Today our eyes and ears are too often set far from the forest, elsewhere than on our people. The words about the white people stand in the way of our own words and tangle them up with smoke. This makes us worried. Then we try to slow down and quiet our thought. We tell ourselves that the shamans will avenge us of the white people’s diseases and that we will not all die. We think that our reahu feasts will continue no matter what. But we also know that all the white people’s words could only disappear from our mind if they stopped invading and destroying our land. Then everything would be quiet like it used to be and we would live alone in the forest again. Our minds would become as untroubled as our ancestors’ in the beginning of time. But this will probably never happen!

    Our elders of long ago did not die constantly and for no reason. It is different since the garimpeiros arrived among us. Most of our fathers and grandfathers were devoured by their diseases. In the highlands, many of our people now live in half-collapsed houses, covered in plastic tarps. The young people, orphans, no longer clear gardens or go hunting. They stay in their hammocks all day, burning with fever. This is why we do not want gold prospectors in the forest where Omama created our ancestors.

  • Destruction of the World

    Destruction of the World

    Davi Kopenawa on top of the Empire State building in New York. (Photo F. Watson-Survival International, 1991.)

    Davi Kopenawa on top of the Empire State building in New York. (Photo F. Watson-Survival International, 1991.)

    [T]he white people’s ears are deaf to the xapiri’s words. They only pay attention to their own speeches, and it never crosses their mind that the same epidemic smoke poison devours their own children. Their great men continue to send their sons-in-law and sons to tear out of the earth’s darkness the evil things that spread these diseases from which we all suffer. Now the breath of the burned minerals’ smoke has spread everywhere. What the white people call the whole world is being tainted because of the factories that make all their merchandise, their machines, and their motors. Though the sky and the earth are vast, their fumes eventually spread in every direction, and all are affected: humans, game, and the forest. It is true. Even the trees are sick from it. Having become ghost, they lose their leaves, they dry up and break all by themselves. The fish also die from it in the rivers’ soiled waters. The white people will make the earth and the sky sick with the smoke from their minerals, oil, bombs, and atomic things. Then the winds and the storms will enter into a ghost state. In the end, even the xapiri and Omama’s image will be affected!

    If the xawarari epidemic beings continue to invade our land, the shamans will all die and no one will be able to stop the forest from turning to chaos anymore. Maxitari, the earth being, Ruëri, the cloudy weather being, and Titiri, the night being, will get angry. They will mourn the shamans’ death and the forest will become other. The sky will soon be covered in dark clouds, and the sun will never rise again. It will never stop raining. A gale of wind will blow unceasingly. The forest will no longer know silence and calm. The furious voice of the thunders will endlessly rumble while the lightning beings’ feet never stop landing on the earth. Then the ground will split open, and all the trees will collapse on top of each other. In the cities, the buildings and the airplanes will also fall down. This has happened before, but the white people never ask themselves why. They do not worry about it much. They only want to continue digging in the ground looking for minerals until they meet Xiwãripo, the chaos being. If they get that far, this time there will be no more shamans to push back Titiri, the night being. The forest will become dark and cold and will remain so forever. It will no longer have any friendship for us. Giant wasps will swoop down on humans, and their sting will turn them into peccaries. The gold prospectors will die one after another, bitten by snakes fallen from the sky or devoured by jaguars appearing from everywhere in the forest. Their airplanes will be caught in the tall trees and break up. The soil will soak up water and start to rot. Then the waters will gradually cover the entire earth and the humans will become other, just as it happened in the beginning of time.

    When the white people tear dangerous minerals out of the depths of the earth, our breath becomes too short and we die very quickly. We do not simply get sick like long ago when we were alone in the forest. This time, all our flesh and even our ghosts are soiled by the xawara epidemic smoke that burns us. This is why our dead shaman elders are angry and want to protect us. If the breath of life of all of our people dies out, the forest will become empty and silent. Our ghosts will then go to join all those who live on the sky’s back, already in very large numbers. The sky, which is as sick from the white people’s fumes as we are, will start moaning and begin to break apart. All the orphan spirits of the last shamans will chop it up with their axes. In a rage, they will throw its broken pieces on the earth to avenge their dead fathers. One by one they will cut all its points of support, and it will collapse from end to end. For this time there won’t be a single shaman left to hold it up. It will truly be terrifying! The back of the sky bears a forest as vast as ours, and its enormous weight will brutally crush us all. The entire ground on which we walk will be carried away into the underworld where our ghosts will become aõpatari ancestors in their turn. We will perish before we even notice. No one will have the time to scream or cry. The angry orphan xapiri will also smash the sun, the moon, and the stars. Then the sky will remain dark for all time.

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