Davi Kopenawa is a member of the Yanomami people of North Brazil, an initiated shaman and a land rights activist. First published as La chute du ciel in 2010, The Falling Sky is the fruit of his collaboration with French anthropologist Bruce Albert, who describes the book as “a life story, autoethnography, and cosmoecological manifesto” aiming at spreading Kopenawa’s story and educating Westerners about environmental issues (p.1). The first-person narration, uncommon in academic works, allows the reader to follow its narrator along a winding path blending personal recollections with the collective experience of the people, explanations of traditional knowledge, and Kopenawa’s personal elaboration on these traditions. Albert calls the hybrid structure of the book, with material arranged both chronologically and thematically, “an attempt to blend pure narrative parts with more ethnographic ones” (p.454).The Yanomami are a distinct cultural and linguistic group from the Amazon forest. With very little contact with white society, they have been able to retain their language and most of their habitat and customs, as opposed to First Nation Canadians, Australian Aboriginals, or Maori people, who were forcefully assimilated into settler society. Kopenawa himself is an internationally recognised advocate for climate consciousness who succeeded in getting official recognition for Yanomami land, or Terra Indígena Yanomami, in 1992. Among his many trips overseas, Kopenawa also spoke in front of the UK Parliament in June 2009.Book Review: The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert (LSE Book Reviews)
The heart of The Falling Sky, entitled “Part II – Metal Smoke,” focuses on Kopenawa’s journey towards activism. After discussing Yanomami cosmogony through the story of the demiurge Omama, creator of all people and first owner of metal, Kopenawa mentions ancestral customs and takes the opportunity to condemn the introduction by white people of fatal epidemics and what he sees as the dangers of consumerism and materialism. The core of his activism is clearly to ensure the survival of his people and their way of life: “I want my children, their children, and the children of their children to be able to live in it [the forest] quietly. This is my entire thought and work” (p.259).
Here are selections from the book:
[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.”Selections from The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert (Harvard University Press) Interesting page. The pointer comes from Marginal Revolution (!!!), where a commenter recommends the following:
[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!
Jeffrey Kripal: Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2011)
Wade Davis The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (CBC Massey Lecture, 2009)
Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon, 2008)
Rupert Ross, Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality (Penguin, 2009)
No mention of the classic Black Elk Speaks?
A long time ago my father told me what his father told him, that there was once a Lakota holy man, called Drinks Water, who dreamed what was to be; and this was long before the coming of the Wasichus. He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider's web all around the Lakotas. And he said: "When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve." They say he went back to Mother Earth soon after he saw this vision, and it was sorrow that killed him. You can look about you now and see that he meant these dirt-roofed houses we are living in, and that all the rest was true. Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.