“I would like the white people to hear our words and dream about all they say: if the shamans’ songs stop being heard in the forest, white people will not be spared any more than we will.”
Davi Kopenawa in ‘The Falling Sky – Words of a Yanomami Shaman’
Davi Kopenawa is a shaman and spokesperson for the Yanomami people, one of the largest relatively isolated tribes living in the Amazon forest on the border of Brazil and Venezuela, the greatest area of rainforest under indigenous control anywhere in the world. Dubbed the ‘Dalai Lama of the Rainforest’, Davi is a global ambassador for his people and one of the most eloquent and powerful voices speaking out against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and its peoples. Davi’s courage, combative spirit and tenacity are reflected in his Yanomami nickname Kopenawa (hornet). The name came to him in a shamanic dream when the wasp spirits appeared before him, when he began to struggle against the invasion of his people’s lands by illegal gold miners in the 1980s that nearly wiped out the tribe.
Davi was born around 1956 in Marakana, a Yanomami community on the Upper Toototobi River in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, in the northern Amazon near the Venezuelan border. One of Davi’s strongest childhood memories is his mother hiding him under a basket when the first white people came to their village.
At the end of the 1950s and during the 1960s, first contacts with outsiders – the Brazilian government’s Indian Protection Service (SPI), the Brazilian Border Commission (CBDL) and later North American missionaries from the New Tribes Mission – brought fatal diseases to the isolated Yanomami of this remote region. Davi’s community was decimated and many members of his family, including his mother, died in the epidemics which swept through the area in 1959 and 1967.
In 1983, Davi began to fight for the recognition of the Yanomami’s forest lands in Roraima and Amazonas states. ‘Wild cat’ gold miners were beginning to illegally invade the area, spreading diseases like malaria and flu to which the Yanomami had no resistance. As a result 20% of the Yanomami population died between 1986 and 1993 from diseases and in violent attacks.
Davi’s struggle took him to many countries. The first time he left Brazil was at the invitation of Survival International, which asked him to accept the Right Livelihood or ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’ on its behalf in a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament in 1989 in order to launch an international campaign for Yanomami land rights. The prize was awarded in recognition of Survival’s efforts to fight alongside the Yanomami and its success in “raising public awareness of the importance of the wisdom of traditional peoples for the future of humanity”. During this trip Davi spoke of the terrible impact of the goldminers’ invasion on the Yanomami’s health and environment and warned that the Yanomami would only survive if their land rights were recognised.
Subsequently Survival organised Davi’s first trip to the USA in 1991, where he met the UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar, members of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and American senators to raise awareness of the impending genocide of the Yanomami. Davi participated in ‘Amazon Week’ an annual event held to highlight issues surrounding the Amazon and its peoples. In December 1992, Davi represented the indigenous peoples of the Amazon at the United Nations in New York for the official opening of the UN Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The following year, he spoke at the UN in Geneva, where he expressed concern at the possible negative effects of government development policies on the Yanomami’s land.
For 25 years Davi tirelessly led the national and international campaign to secure Yanomami land rights for which he gained recognition around the world and in his native country, Brazil. As a result, the Yanomami territory was formally mapped out by the Brazilian government in 1992 just before it hosted the UN’s first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Covering over 9.6 million hectares [96,650 square kilometres], about the size of Hungary or Indiana state in the USA, it is one of the planet’s most important reservoirs of genetic diversity as well as home to almost 26,000 Yanomami.
Davi has been instrumental in bringing together distant and diverse Yanomami communities. In 2004 he founded Hutukara, the Yanomami association which advocates for Yanomami rights and runs land protection, education and health care projects. He is currently its president.
Hutukara’s campaigns have successfully recovered Yanomami land stolen by cattle ranchers in the 1970s, obliged the government to uphold the constitution and evict thousands of illegal gold miners from the Yanomami’s forest as well as forced scientific institutions in the USA to return hundreds of blood samples taken from communities without their consent. It has organised many workshops and meetings to encourage Yanomami youth and women to participate in projects and to strengthen links between shamanic healing and western medicine.
In 2010 Davi published his book, The Falling Sky, in collaboration with anthropologist Bruce Albert. Part autobiography and part critique of the industrialised world’s materialism and over-consumption, he gives a detailed and rich portrait of the Yanomami people and their way of life and describes his initiation as a shaman and his fight to save the forest and indigenous peoples from the destruction and greed of the “white” people.
On 4th December 2019 Davi and Hutukara received the 2019 Right Livelihood Award. The ceremony took place in Stockholm and was the final event of a 10-day long programme of celebrations in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.
In his acceptance speech Davi said: “I want to help my indigenous brothers by asking the international authorities to put pressure on the Government of Brazil to demarcate the land of other indigenous peoples. I have always fought for the rights of my people, the Yanomami and the Ye’kwana. This award is a new weapon to strengthen the fight of our people.”
During his speech at one of the events associated with the award, Survival International Director Stephen Corry said: “Over the last 30 years, Davi has become a spokesman for his peoples, for Amazonia, for the tropical forest and for tribal peoples in general. The threat to this area remains acute. The current regime in Brazil is trying now to undo decades, generations of progress in recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights. The threat has never been more acute.”
The words of Davi Kopenawa
Discovering the white people
A long time ago, my grandparents, who lived on the headwaters of the Toototobi River, sometimes visited other Yanomami established in the lowlands along the Aracá River. It was there that they met white people for the first time. During those visits our old ones got their first machetes. They told me that many times, when I was a child.
But it was a lot later, when we lived at Marakana, closer to the mouth of the Toototobi River, that the white people first visited our home. At the time our old ones were still all alive and we were many, I remember. I was a boy but was beginning to become conscious of things. It was there that I started to grow up and discovered the white people. I had never seen them, I knew nothing about them. When I saw them I cried, I was so afraid.
The old ones used to say that they stole children, that they had already captured some and taken them when they went up the Mapulaú River, in the past. That’s also why I was so scared: I was sure that they were going to take me away too. My grandparents had already told that story many times. When those strangers would come into our house my mother would hide me under a large basket in the back of our house. Then she’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid! Don’t say a word!’, and I stayed there, trembling under my basket, saying nothing. I remember it, but I must have been very small at the time or I wouldn’t have fit under that basket! My mother would hide me because she too was afraid that the white people would take me with them, like they had stolen those children the first time.
Later I really began to grow up and to think straight, but I continued to ask myself, ‘What are the white people doing here? Why do they open paths in our forest?’ The older ones would answer, ‘No doubt they come to visit our land in order to live here with us later!’ They understood nothing of the white people’s language; that’s why they let them enter their lands in such a friendly way. Had they understood their words, I think they would have expelled them.
Those white people fooled them with their presents. They gave them axes, machetes, knives, clothes. In order to make their distrust sleep they would say, ‘We, the white people, will never leave you deprived of things, we will give you many of our products and you will become our friends!’ But, shortly thereafter, almost all of our relatives died in an epidemic, then in another one. Later, a lot of other Yanomami again died when the highway entered the forest and many more when the garimpeiros [gold prospectors] arrived with their malaria. But this time I had already become an adult and I thought straight; I really knew what the white people wanted when they entered our land.
Dreams of the origins
The xapiripë [shamanic] spirits have danced for the shamans since the earliest time and continue to do so now. They look like human beings but are as minuscule as particles of shining dust. In order to see them one has to inhale the powder of the yãkõanahi tree many, many times.
The xapiripë dance together on great mirrors that come down from the sky. They are never grey like the humans. They are always magnificent: their bodies are painted with urucum [annatto paint] and lined with black drawings, their heads are covered with white feathers of king vulture, their beaded arm straps are full of parrot, cujubim [a type of bird] and red macaw feathers, their waists are wrapped with toucan tails.
Thousands of them come to dance together, waving leaves of young palms, emitting cries of joy and singing ceaselessly. Their path looks like spider’s thread sparkling like moonlight and their feather ornaments move slowly at the pace of their steps. It’s a joy to see how beautiful they are!
The spirits are so numerous because they are the images of the forest animals. Everything in the forest has an utupë image: those who walk on the ground, those who climb in the trees, those who have wings, those who live in the water. It is those images that the shamans call and make come down to become xapiripë spirits. Those images are the true centre, the true interior of the forest beings. Common people cannot see them, only the shamans. But they are not images of the animals we know today. They are the images of these animals’ fathers, they are our ancestors’ images. In the First Time, when the forest was still young, our ancestors were humans with the names of animals and ended up becoming prey. It is them whom we kill with arrows and eat today. But their images have not disappeared and it is they who dance for us as xapiripë spirits.
White people draw their words because their thoughts are filled with forgetfulness. We have kept the words of our ancestors within us for a long time and we continue to pass them on to our children. The children who know nothing about the spirits hear the chants of the shamans and then want to see the spirits in their turn. This is how, even though they are very old, the words of the xapiripë always become new again. It is they who increase our thoughts. It is they who make us see and know far away things, the things of the old ones. It is our study, which teaches us how to dream.
Davi Kopenawa has frequently been threatened by the gold miners and politicians who target the resources inside the Yanomami territory. He lives in his community, Watoriki (the Windy Mountain), practising shamanism. His father in law, Lourival, was one of the oldest and most respected Yanomami shamans. He is married to Fátima and they have six children and many grandchildren.
In the course of his travels, Davi has met four Brazilian presidents, the King of Norway, former vice President of the USA, Al Gore, and Prince Charles and has won many prizes and awards, including the UN Global 500 award in recognition of his battle to preserve the Yanomami’s rainforest home and to secure a future for his people.
Survival International is the global movement for tribal peoples, working in partnership with tribes worldwide to fight racism, land theft, forced development and genocidal violence. From the Amazon to the Kalahari, from the jungles of India to the Congo rainforest, Survival has been defending the lives and lands of indigenous peoples since 1969. To find out more and join the movement, please visit https://www.survivalinternational.org/.
Right Livelihood Award
The other winners of the 2019 Right Livelihood Award award are: Greta Thunberg, Aminatou Haidar and Guo Jianmei. More information at https://www.rightlivelihoodaward.org/honour/.
This article first appeared in Issue 43 of Indie Shaman magazine.