La Chute du Ciel

Review by José Antonio Kelly
May 10, 2015

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman

by Davi Kopenawa & Bruce Albert
Published 2013

Harvard University Press

buy on Amazon
Davi Kopenawa (left) and Bruce Albert working on a very first version of La Chute du Ciel: Paroles d’un Chaman Yanomami in Watoriki communal house (Amazonas, Brazil), 1998. Photo: Jean-Patrick Razon of Survival International France.
Davi Kopenawa (left) and Bruce Albert working on a very first version of La Chute du Ciel: Paroles d’un Chaman Yanomami in Watoriki communal house (Amazonas, Brazil), 1998. Photo: Jean-Patrick Razon of Survival International France.

For more than a decade it was known in Amazonianist anthropological circles that something truly amazing was in the making by the Kopenawa–Albert partnership [1]. Some evidence had already appeared (Albert 1993; Albert and Kopenawa 2003; Viveiros de Castro 2007). The anticipation was more than justified, for this magnum opus has no parallel in Amazonian anthropology. La Chute du Ciel [2] will no doubt enter the history of anthropology alongside the greatest of texts and mark a watershed in Amazonian anthropological writing.

The book has more than 800 pages and 1,000 footnotes and because I am also a student of the Yanomami, I allow myself a more extended commentary in this review, which I write as a report but mostly as a tribute to the authors for whom I hold the deepest of admirations.

In many ways an inversion of Albert’s (1985) already influential thesis, La Chute du Ciel is a different project altogether. Drawn together by their efforts to defend Yanomami people from endless ravages of Brazilian development projects, in the late 1980s, Kopenawa, realizing the need to affect the minds of White people, requested that Albert bridge the cultural gap to render his message available to as wide a Western audience as possible. Built from more than 1,000 pages of interviews held entirely in Yanomami language spanning more than a decade (1989 to the early 2000s) the book is, as Albert says, Kopenawa’s “récit de vie, autoethnographie et manifeste cosmopolitique” (17) and basically deals with the “malencontre historique des Amérindiens avec les franges de notre ‘civilisation’ ” (17). This literature is hard to slot into a specific anthropological genre, for it is at once an Indian’s individual and collective self-portrait in dialectic comparison with Whites’ culture and a critique of Western civilization leveled by the yanomami spirit community via one of their spokespersons.

It is also no excess to say that among vast literature devoted to the Yanomami, La Chute du Ciel is the broadest and most dignified portrait of this Amazonian people, covering in meticulous detail topics ranging from cosmology, shamanism, everyday life, kinship, warfare, leadership, and verbal arts to the history of contact, ethno-politics, and the general implications of an Amazonian people’s ever-greater engagement with the nation-state and global economic forces. Narrated entirely by Kopenawa, La Chute du Ciel does all this in nonacademic language, making it extremely illuminating to any audience interested in indigenous peoples and that multifaceted process called “development” found the world over. It is nonetheless a complex book of fundamental interest to anthropologists and the social sciences in general. If it is a prime objective of anthropology to make room for alternative meaning, to instruct us about other conceptual universes that can relativize our own, La Chute du Ciel is a major anthropological accomplishment.

The Ethnographic Pact

“[E]very understanding of another culture is an experiment with our own” (Wagner, 1981:12). This cuts both ways, and La Chute du Ciel is a magnificent example of a two-way reflexive and recursive objectification of self and other. The anthropologist’s and the Indian’s creative work, the former’s texts and the latter’s dreams, invested in each other’s form of creativity, have carved that laborious path from the origin of all ethnographic encounters where “[t]heir misunderstanding of me was not the same as my misunderstanding of them” (Wagner:20) to recognizing and creating an intellectual relation between two distinct forms of creativity.

This is part of what Albert calls the “ethnographic pact,” a form of post-Malinowskian implicated fieldwork practice, radical in more ways than one. The pact is a central lesson of the book, an inspiration for many ethnologists whose field circumstance may vary in degree but not in character with the one in which Albert grew as an anthropologist. Confronted as he was in 1975 with both the exotic image of the Yanomami—at the time and place a barely contacted people—with the already dramatic effects of the construction of a the Perimetral Notre—a highway planned to reach Colombia cutting Yanomami land—the author recalls his initial anxiety:

“Comment concilier connaissance non exotisante du monde yanomami, analyse des tenants et aboutissants du funest théâtre du ‘dévelopment’ amazonien et réflexion sur les implications de ma présence d’acteur-observateur au sein de cette situation de colonialisme interne?” (568) Albert’s formula: “D’abord, bien entendu, rendre justice d’une manière scrupuleuse à l’imagination conceptuelle de mes hôtes ensuite prendre en compte avec rigueur le context sociopolitique, local et global, avec lequel leur société est aux prises et, enfin, conserver une visée critique sur le cadre de l’observation ethnographique elle-même.” (569)

The pact also stems from the recognition that the “adoption” of the anthropologist is in fact a bet, on the part of the Indians, on the future possibilities of mediation, in which the anthropologist’s skill can be put to the service of ameliorating the unbalance of power to which many indigenous communities are subject, including the spread of disease, theft of land, forced migration, and myriad forms of racism and discrimination. A pact involves two parties and in time “[l]’enjeu consiste” for the Indians to:

s’engager dans un processus d’auto-objectification au travers du prisme de l’observation ethnographique, mais sous une forme qui leur permette d’acquérir à la fois reconnaissance et droit de cité dans le monde opaque et virulent qui s’efforce de les assujettir. Il s’agit en retour, pour l’ethnographe, d’assumer avec loyauté un rôle politique e symbolique de truchement à rebours, à hauteur de la dette de connaissance qu’il a contractée, mais sans pour autant abdiquer la singularité de sa propre curiosité intellectuelle (de laquelle dépendent, en grande partie, la qualité et l’efficacité de sa médiation). (571)

The Kopenawa–Albert pact shows us that the often-commented “political implication,” the “engagement” of the anthropologist, requires both to do justice to the “conceptual imagination” of a people and to respond to the responsibilities of mediation. Those of us who invest our lives with Indians know to what degree these two elements are all too often disaggregated in academic writing, professional practice, and institutional values. And of course, the beauty, drama and force of La Chute du Ciel is impossible outside the pact.

The Writing

In La Chute du Ciel authorship is a complex matter, a real experiment. Kopenawa is the narrator; author of the words, life, and ethnography; and instigator of the project. Albert is the author of the organization and the translation effort to render Kopenawa’s thought and experience amenable to the wider public. This is no simple task, and Albert has chosen not to disappear from the text altogether but to show himself “discretely,” as he says, retaining the evidence of collaboration. Albert carefully accompanies the reader through detailed clarifying footnotes; three annexes that contextualize the Yanomami people, Kopenawa’s home region, and the plight of ethnocide brought by illegal gold mining in Yanomami land; an ethnobotanic and a geographic glossary; and skillfully selected chapter headings and epigraphs. The book also presents numerous Yanomami drawings, as beautiful as they are instructive, and a number of photographs that put a face on Kopenawa, his people, and trajectory.

Albert also opts for a translation “à distance moyenne,” avoiding the pitfalls of either a strictly literal or a far-fetched literary translation. He must be praised for capturing rhetorical details that are most of the time condensed in what appear as simple Yanomami suffixes. Other common devices of Yanomami speech, like the emphatic effect that a negative statement casts on its opposite, keep us well within the register of Yanomami poetics, a trace that any reader familiar with an Amerindian language will appreciate. In short, Kopenawa’s translated words retain the metaphorical flare of Yanomami language, the poetics of analogy and the images of forest life.

“Legions are the stories of anthropologists who are such magnificent fieldworkers that they actually went native, or should have, who could do the tribal dances but not describe them, who could become possessed by the native spirits but not discuss them” (Schneider in Wagner, 1972:viii). It is because neither of the anthropologists—Kopenawa nor Albert—has succumbed to the temptations of becoming Indian or White and because the apprehension of alternative meaning has remained a dialectic that La Chute de Ciel serves as a prop to see our “culture of science” and our “commodity world view” from an outside perspective: that of the shaman and Yanomami spirits. This is why the reader expecting a piece of postmodern self-critique will be deeply disappointed. So will those impressed by new-age style pills of shamanic messages for a better world. La Chute du Ciel is hard work, as it was hard work for Kopenawa to become a shaman and continues to be for him to defend his people and territory. Kopenawa makes no simplifying gestures when he describes the Yanomami spirit pantheon and its workings, nor are the images of forest devastation and ethnocide watered down. To realize the scale of complexity and unbalance is a fundamental part of the book’s leveling effort.

Authorship, Albert makes clear in his postscript, has been the motive of reflection in the making of the book. Perhaps the best rendering is that of Viveiros de Castro (2007): this is shamanic exercise par excellence, perhaps an internally decomposed one, where Kopenawa speaks of the xapiri (Yanomami spirits) view of the White world through the mediation of a White anthropologist. Who is the author of these words, spoken by a shaman who is himself but a vehicle of the words of the xapiri, who has learned to understand them by means of his father-in-law’s guidance? These are the words of Omama, the Yanomami creator, Kopenawa tells us time and again. How many authors and translations are involved? The uncountable diversity of xapiri, the master shaman, the apprentice, the White anthropologist: they are all involved. And which here the audience? The project is clearly directed to Western readers, this notwithstanding, Kopenawa’s interpretations of the White world and his exhortations are full of guidance for his own people, many of whom nowadays live in that “in between and betwixt” world of Amazonian Indian-White hybridity.

Kopenawa: Philosopher, Ethnographer, and Master of Metaphor

Kopenawa is a parsimonious and acute observer. This comes through in his endless questioning of the meanings of his own world and his incessant query of Whites’ thoughts and motivations. The book is marked in different episodes by this effort for comprehension showing Kopenawa’s philosophical propensity.

Je songe à nos ancêtres qui, au premier temps, se sont transformés en gibier. Je ne cesse de m’interroger: “À quel endroit les êtres de la nuit sont-ils vraiment venus à l’existence? Comment était le ciel au premier temps? Qui l’a créé? Où sont allés les spectres de tous ceux qui sont morts avant nous?” (296)

Je contemplais la forêt blessée et, au fond de moi, je pensais: “Pourquoi leurs machines ont-elles arraché tous ces arbres et cette terre avec tant d’efforts? Pour nous laisser ce chemin de pierres pointues abandonné en plein soleil? Pourquoi gaspiller ainsi leur argent alors que, dans leur villes, beaucoup de leurs enfants dorment sur le sol comme des chiens? . . . Pourquoi viennent-ils alors de toutes parts occuper notre forêt et la dévaster? Chacun d’entre eux n’a-t-il pas déjà une terre, là où sa mère l’a fait naître?” (338–339)

In this regard, the book just ratifies what I had already seen. In 2008 I accompanied Kopenawa to visit Yanomami communities in Venezuela. After endless hours of meetings with his Venezuelan counterparts, talking about land demarcation and politics, in every village we called at Kopenawa would seek out the elders of the community and, running deep into the night, query delightfully about their myths and history. The man is a consummate ethnographer.

The reader will also be struck by Kopenawa’s ease with metaphor and delight for explanation; the two go together in his speech. Kopenawa is a weathered rhetorician that commands as much of the attention of his readers as he does of Yanomami audiences. In Yanomami discursive regime, it is metaphor that sustains the regard of others, and it is Kopenawa’s ability to make the unknown resonate with the known; to strike hitherto unforeseen connections between myth and current event that lies at the core of his influence. It is not enough to explain, one must entertain, and for this the speaker must have recourse to poetry and humor. A few examples will suffice to illustrate Kopenawa’s gift:

Speaking of the epidemics that killed so many of his elders during the period of initial contacts:

En tous cas, il a suffi que nos anciens inhalent cette fumée inconnue pour tous en mourir, comme des poissons qui ignorent encore le pouvoir létal des feuilles du poison de pêche koa axihana. (250)

About Yanomami shamans’ ability to dream, their path to knowledge of the xapiri:

Nous, en revanche, nous sommes capables de rêver très loin. Les cordes de nos hamacs sont comme des antennes par où le rêve des xapiri descend sans cesse jusqu’à nous. (496)

On the nature of xapiri multiplicity:

Chaque nom est unique, mais les xapiri qu’il désigne sont innombrables. Ils sont comme des miroirs que j’ai vus dans un de vos hôtels. J’étais seul devant eux, mais, en même temps, j’avais beaucoup d’images identiques. (99)

A running contrast throughout the book is that between shamanic visions and dreaming, which gives access to true knowledge of the images of the forest—and hence inaccessible to normal Yanomami and Whites—and Whites’ writing, and in more general acquisition of knowledge through books and formal education: “Leur papier [of the xapiri] c’est notre pensée, devenue, depuis des temps très anciens, aussi longue qu’un grand livre interminable” (554). Borges would recognize in Yanomami shamanism a realization of his infinite book of sand.

In Kopenawa’s text several elements of discourse recur, suggesting complex meanings through form. They also evoke the trace of the original speech in Yanomami language.

“C’est ainsi”: opens hundreds of detailed descriptions, particularly of the Yanomami spirit world, of what was either something new to Kopenawa at the time, or something that is admittedly complex for non-seers (of the spirits) and demands a step by step spelling out. Reminiscent of the excitement a reader feels at every encounter of “C’est ne pas tout” in Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques, here, at every occurrence of “C’est ainsi” the reader may grip the book a bit tighter, for what follows is a fascinating chunk of Yanomami ethnography.

“Pas sans raison”: the book is after all a life story, and Kopenawa narrates with detail his own progressive passage from ignorance of the Yanomami spirit world and the world of Whites, to apprenticeship and mastery. Such a journey reveals that everything has a reason, or better, a story. Things or events “sans raison” imply they are the product of no one’s thought, which is why readers will find that nothing is in truth “sans raison.” A productive feature of Yanomami speech, “pas sans raison” instructs readers on the immanent humanity of forest; on the animate being behind every thing and every event and at the root of every capacity to affect or be affected; on the ecology of human/nonhuman relations. But the expression also works to alert readers of the importance of what appears to have little or no significance for Whites; it evokes a counter explanation, a story for Whites to acknowledge a connection they assume does not exist.

“Des autres gens”: A sharp contrast runs through the entire book that can be resumed by the opposition between the Yanomami, sons and sons-in-law of Omama the creator, and Whites, also created by Omama, but who later let themselves be led astray by his malevolent brother Yoasi. Yanomami shamanic vision and dreams lead to true knowledge of the images of the world, lead to words of the xapiri, mythical events and everything at the root of things. White knowledge, epitomized in reading and writing, is “clouded,” “full of forgetfulness.” Having only the “eyes of spirits of the dead,” Whites cannot see the true images of the cosmos. Blind, Whites are insensitive to immanent humanity. This is the definition of their ignorance. The repetition of “les Blancs sont des autres gens” seems to me to reveal Kopenawa’s perception that Whites have built another world for themselves, one whose relation to that of the Yanomami cannot be imagined as a misunderstanding upon shared meanings but an equivocation between distinct meaningful worlds (cf. Viveiros de Castro, 2004).

“Le valeur de”: in Yanomami language a simple morpheme “në,” this notion evokes value and a trace of something animate. It appears in many of Kopenawa’s arguments and seems to be a fundamental element of a distinct Amerindian politics of nature, part of a political economy of people in a world populated by many kinds of human and nonhuman people. It is one of those conceptual, all-embracing totalities that appears to underlie the meaning of social relationships involving fertility, mortality, exchange, and reciprocity. Its appearance in disparate contexts suggests to the reader its importance and “ungraspability,” and that anthropologists would do good in pursuing its significance.

Part I Devenir autre

The first eight chapters of La Chute du Ciel can be read as a lecture series on spiritual ethnography. Kopenawa’s knowledge and ability to convey through description and analogy the complexity of the xapiri, the cosmic layers, and mythology is astonishing. Never has an Amerindian cosmology and its dynamics been put to us with such detail and clarity. Perhaps its most pedagogic aspect is the way in which the reader accompanies Kopenawa’s own passage from ignorance to knowledge, from being pursued by dreams in childhood to being initiated in shamanism, with all his doubts, hesitations, suffering, surprise, setbacks, and tenacious will for knowledge. As Wagner has it, “[a] myth is ‘another culture’, even for those of its own culture” (1978: 38), and it is because the world of the xapiri is another culture for the Yanomami that Kopenawa’s journey there renders it understandable to us.

In these chapters classic topics of Amazonianist anthropology, like the intimate relation between hunting and shamanism, perspectivism and ontological predation, appear in self-descriptive rather than analytical terms and beautifully interwoven with scenes of Yanomami life, equally revelatory of the principles of their sociality. It is also made abundantly clear that Yanomami ecology is a sensitive politics of managing relations with all spirit beings that lie at the root of every feature and quality of the forest, of humans and the cosmos in general. Meteorology, fertility, animal population dynamics, but also feelings like hunger and courage, capacities, like clear thought and influential speech, begin and end in invisible, animate beings. Kopenawa’s description of this “world of immanent humanity” is fundamental to his argument, for it is from there that he can level his shamanic critique of Western objectification of nature and its dire consequences.

What Kopenawa describes is complex, and one gets the impression he could well go on interminably. Xapiri are tiny, powerful, blindingly luminous, beautiful, diverse, multiple and fickle. Xapiri are magnificent yet initially terrifying, in many ways magnifications of Yanomami practices, values, and worldly materials yet also radically distinct in their habits, tastes, capabilities, and habitat, all of which are described to the last detail.

The theme of the mirrors of the xapiri, luminosity, and ornamentation is recurrent: the xapiri themselves, their paths, the mirrors they ride, their house’s floors and roofs, their clearings in the forest. Everything spiritual is ornate, brilliant and substanceless; pure images that refract endlessly on one another. It has become a cliché to say that shamans are “travelers in space and time”. From Kopenawa’s narrative I think it might be more appropriate to think, not of travel, but of dimensionality itself being subject to shamanic manipulations: less a matter of moving through fixed temporal and spatial coordinates than one being able to shift the coordinates themselves. Endless refractions of images, variable dimensionality, these are the Yanomami shamans’ “intimations with infinity”—to borrow a phrase of Mimica.

Viveiros de Castro (2007) has already commented, upon fragments of this ethnography, on the perspectival qualities of the xapiri –human –animal relations. I would just add that Kopenawa’s account reveals an equally important acoustic or verbal parallel to the play of visual perspectives. As important as it is to be seen by the xapiri, to catch their attention and avoid their losing it, is to learn to understand, listen, and, most importantly, respond to their chants. The chants’ beauty, truth, and the need to respond to them appear, time and again, as a necessary requisite of shamanic knowledge. If one must die and become a specter to see like the xapiri, one must also acquire a xapiri tongue and throat to be able to reproduce their knowledge/chants. A verbal play of perspectives is at the origin of the realization of perspectivism itself (Viveiros de Castro 1992). It has perhaps also been foreshadowed by the visual. Kopenawa’s narrative suggests a retaking of this focus would be most profitable.

Last but not least, xapiri knowledge and shamanic practice are reiteratively described as “views from afar,” “dreams from a distance,” “ancient words,” “words of others (the xapiri)”. To know one must become another. All this emphasis appears crucial to Kopenawa’s comparative effort, for it contrasts with Whites’ obsession with their books, only listening to their words, incapable of dreaming from afar. For all their ingeniousness, Kopenawa understands that Whites are stuck navel gazing.

Part II La Fumée du métal

These are eight chapters where “malencontre” of the Yanomami with the expanding Brazilian state shows its deadly face. Commencing with accounts of first contact, it quickly becomes a tale of epidemics, radical evangelism, death by road building, and death by illegal gold mining. This the chronology of the Yanomami ethnocide, which finds its most telling reminder in one of Albert’s annexes, a report of the 1993 Haximu massacre of 16 Yanomami at the hands of the illegal gold miners, garimpeiros.

Every chapter opens with one or several epigraphs (newspaper clips, comments by military generals and NTM missionaries) illustrating White views on different episodes of contact and expansion into Yanomami territory that the body of the text narrates. This gives the reader a glimpse of the radical gap between Yanomami suffering and the arrogance of progress.

The influence of Whites in Yanomami thought is a theme running through this text. “Nos anciens aimaient leurs propres paroles. Ils étaient vraiment heureux aussi. Leur esprit n’était pas fixe ailleurs. Les propos des Blancs ne s’étaient pas introduits parmi eux . . . Ils possédaient leurs propres pensées, tournées vers leur proches” (223). There is an important way in which to think, to always think of someone, a kinsperson (cf. Surrallés, 2003). Part of what things “sans raison” are opposed to are things being the product of someone’s thought. Kopenawa’s comment is poignant in this respect, for here and there, it comes through that, before and nowadays, contact with Whites has led Yanomami astray, thinking too much about Whites, their manufactured objects, their way of life. Kopenawa’s audience now includes Yanomami themselves, many of whom are experimenting with what can be the appropriate mix of White and Yanomami culture.

Kopenawa’s own tale is one such story at the fringes of Yanomami and White worlds. In the early contact period, those who came to live with him at his current home, Watoriki, suffered a massive epidemic that left them decimated. Many years later, when living alongside NTM missionaries at Thoothothopi, a second epidemic killed most of Kopenawa’s close relatives, including his mother. Kopenawa narrates with retrospective eyes how his elders were duped by the seductive force of manufactured objects that hid the fumes of the epidemics that, in Yanomami etiological theory, wiped them out time and again. And the saddest thing is that these are not just images of a distant past. Yanomami health has been in a constant crisis virtually ever since.

Yanomami funerary rituals are meant to erase all trace of the dead person; they also fuel resolve to revenge a kinperson’s death. Kopenawa makes it clear how much of his resolve to defend his people is fed by the memory his kin devoured by the xawara epidemics Whites brought with them.

Kopenawa’s trajectory continues with life next to the NTM missionaries. A tale of halfhearted personal and collective conversion that never took off far from the experimental phase is counterpointed with detailed accounts of NTM’s obsessive imposition of God’s word, attack of shamanism, and the usual ethnocidal practices found all over Amazonia. Interestingly, part of the reason for Yanomami disenchantment is the impossibility to see God and his lack of response—those elements that in Part I appear crucial to the legitimacy of xapiri knowledge. Finally, God seems to have been unable to protect his flock from the epidemic in Thoothothopi: Yanomami religiosity has no room for faith.

After the epidemics in em>Thoothothopi, Kopenawa was virtually deprived of close kin. This lack of relations is what it means to be poor or underprivileged in Yanomami terms, a fact that only makes Kopenawa’s saga all the more remarkable. Feeling lonely, Kopenawa begins to move beyond his community. Working for the FUNAI (Brazil’s Indian affairs agency), he travels to other parts of Yanomami land and becomes familiar with the lands of Whites, spending periods in Boa Vista, Manaus, and even Iauareté on the frontier with Colombia working among the Maku! During this period, on and off with the FUNAI and under different administrations, he is employed in a diversity of jobs: locating remote Yanomami communities, working as a language interpreter, doing a health worker’s course, setting up a new FUNAI post, even cleaning pools in Manaus! This is a period where he himself experiences the lure of becoming White. He also begins to experience Amazonian micropolitics in the manner that is different. State and nongovernmental agents hope to impinge on the future of the Yanomami, a political arena full of cross accusations and revelatory of the different interests in Yanomami land including mining enterprises, military politics of national sovereignty, and NGO aid efforts. It is also the period where he is first exposed to the words “land demarcation” that will mark his life until today. This widening of experience allows him to fathom the extent of devastation associated with Brazilian development, for like few Yanomami could at the time, he also experiences in locus the nefarious effects of the over two hundred kilometers of road building that scarred Yanomami land and the voracious gold rush that, at the end of the 1980s, found more than forty thousand garimpeiros inflicting all the environmental and social destruction that killed an estimated 10% of the total Yanomami population in Brazil.

In the midst of all this, Kopenawa takes an important turn in his life. Deciding to become a shaman, he endures the exigencies of shamanic apprenticeship with the same unwavering resolve with which he turns to a career of defense of his people. This he does, on the one hand, under the guidance of a great man and shaman, his father-in-law Lourival—a kind and gentle man I had the opportunity to meet in Watoriki—and on the other, a group of indigenous activists who constituted the CCPY (NGO founded by Albert and others) and who were instrumental in achieving Yanomami land demarcation.

So it is that a shamanic view of all these drastic events continues to encompass Kopenawa’s understanding. Linking the local devastation of his land with wider socio-economic processes, Watoriki shamans develop a theory of Whites’ world history and motivation that results in a prophetic announcement of the xapiri: the return to the mythic cataclysm of the fall of the sky that will crush us all, Yanomami and Whites, if the latter do not stop consuming the forest, retrieving the oil, gold, and metals that Omama wisely hid far underground. “Cooking” these underground materials in their factories, Whites are burning the chest of the sky, spreading more xawara epidemic fumes, all in order to produce their beloved commodities.

In this political economy nothing is worth more than people and value is a wholly different thing:

Toutes les marchandises des Blancs ne seront jamais suffisantes en échange de tous ses arbres, ses fruits, ses animaux et ses poissons. Les peux de papier de leur argent ne seront jamais assez nombreuses pour pouvoir compenser la valeur de ses arbres brûlés, de son sol desséché et de ses eaux souillés . . . Aucune marchandise ne pourra acheter tous les Yanomami dévorés par les fumées d’épidémie. Aucun argent ne pourra rendre aux esprits la valeur de leurs pères [Shamans] morts! (373)

Part III La Chute du Ciel

The closing nine chapters of Kopenawa’s narrative center on his experience as a spokesperson for his people, ranging from his first indigenous movement meetings to his denunciation efforts overseas in Europe and the U.S.

Most appropriately, the section opens with a chapter devoted to the importance of speech in gaining respect and influence among the Yanomami. A precious ethnographic passage through Yanomami speech genres—including the elders’ harangues hereamu and the wayamu ceremonial dialogues—shows a humble Kopenawa weary of his possibilities as a leader in his own community. Here he appears hesitant, respectful of his elders and fearful of his ability to enchain words correctly, to speak with firmness, and to command the attention of his listeners. The same hesitation marks the beginning of his outward career as a spokesperson. Of his first experience he recalls:

Je n’avais même jamais encore fait de discours hereamu dans ma propre maison! . . . Je ne savais pas encore faire sortir les mots de ma gorge, l’un après l’autre! Je me disais: “comment vais-je bien pouvoir faire? Comment les Blancs parlent-ils en ces occasions? De quelle manière commencer?” (407).

Later on with more experience in hand, he comments on how he had to explain the suffering surrounding the gold rush.

C’était difficile. Je devais dire tout cela dans un autre parler que le mien! Pourtant, à force d’indignation, ma langue devenait plus agile et mes paroles moins embrouillées . . . Depuis lors, je n’ai plus arrêté de parler aux Blancs. Mon cœur a cessé de battre trop vite lorsqu’ils me regardent et ma bouche a perdu sa honte. Ma poitrine est devenue plus forte et ma langue a perdu sa rigidité. Si les mots s’emmêlaient dans ma gorge en n’en laissant sortir qu’une voix grêle et hésitante, ceux qui seraient venus m’entendre se diraient: “Pourquoi cet Indien veut-il donc nous parler? Nous attendions de lui des paroles de sagesse, mais il ne dit rien! . . . “Je ne veux pas que l’on pense: ‘Les Yanomami sont idiots et n’ont rien a dire . . . Ils ne savent que demeurer immobiles, les yeux perdus, muets et apeurés’ ” (409).

Among Kopenawa’s trips, special attention is paid to his impressions of Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, and the Bronx. Here we see the shamanic capacity to encompass all in its discourse, for Kopenawa slots all these places and experiences into the myths of the creation and history of Whites, while at the same time acquiring the knowledge of the spirits that inhabit Whites’ lands. These journeys far away are also full of risks, for shamans may not travel to the places from which their helper spirits descend, lest they die. Kopenawa has had to engineer creative ways to circumvent this difficulty, which was made worse by the real possibility that his spirits back home in Watoriki will also flee him, feeling themselves abandoned by their traveling and absent father.

Museums always seem to strike a dissonant chord in indigenous people’s imagination. The Yanomami eliminate all traces of their dead, and for Kopenawa their exposure for all to see in a museum is inconceivable. More importantly he wonders: Is this what Whites have in store for us? Is this what will remain of us after they have finished off with the forest? Kopenawa’s traveling has, sure enough, enriched Yanomami mythology. Correspondingly, travel overseas is always a kind of forecast.

In the Bronx Kopenawa is struck by the social exclusion Whites seem to tolerate with total equanimity:

Pourtant, si au centre de cette ville [New York] les maisons sont hautes et belles, sur ses bords, elles sont en ruine. Les gens qui vivent dans ces endroits n’ont pas de nourriture et leurs vêtements sont sales et déchirés. Quand je me suis promené parmi eux, ils m’ont regardé avec des yeux tristes . . . Ces Blancs qui ont crée les marchandises pensent qu’ils sont ingénieux et valeureux. Pourtant, ils sont avares et ne prennent aucun soin de ceux qui, parmi eux, sont dépourvus de tout. Comment peuvent-ils penser être de grands hommes et se trouver aussi intelligents? Ils ne veulent rien savoir de ces gens misérables qui font pourtant partie des leurs. Ils les rejettent et les laissent souffrir seuls. Ils ne les regardent même pas et se contentent, de loin, de leur attribuer le nom de “pauvres” (460).

Whites’ culture and their intelligence takes the form of technique and artifact. Kopenawa, as other Yanomami in my experience, is appalled by the lack of kinship among Whites—ingenious yet infrasocial.

Time and again Kopenawa wonders whether Whites’ genius in manufacturing goods is really all that clever. One of the more interesting examples of comparative anthropology is an extensive commentary, in a chapter aptly named “L’amour de la marchandise,” contrasting Whites’ subjection of social relations to the hoarding of goods with the Yanomami propensity to make things flow. His reflection involves the indigenous category matihi, which englobes Yanomami’s personal ornaments, the gourds that keep the ashes of the dead, and since the arrival of Whites also their goods. Kopenawa’s words are penetrating and beautiful in this regard:

C’est ainsi. Les marchandises ne meurent pas. C’est pourquoi nous ne le accumulons pas de notre vivant et nous ne les refusons jamais à ceux qui les demandent. Si nous ne le donnions pas, elles continueraient à exister après notre mort et moisiraient seules, délaissées sur le sol de notre foyer. Elles ne serviraient alors qu’à faire peine à ceux qui nous survivent et pleurent notre mort. Nous savons que nous allons disparaître, c’est pourquoi nous cédons facilement nos biens . . . Ainsi les marchandises nous quittent-elles rapidement pour se perdre dans les lointains de la forêt avec les hôtes de nos fêtes reahu ou des simples visiteurs . . . Lorsqu’un être humain meurt, son spectre n’emport aucun de ses biens sur le dos du ciel . . . Les objets qu’il avait fabriqués ou acquis sont abandonnés sur la terre et ne font que tourmenter les vivants en ravivant la nostalgie de sa présence. Nous disons que ces objets sont orphelines et que, marqués par le toucher du mort, ils font peine. (435)

It is ironic that a good deal of violence has been done to the Yanomami surrounding the issue of warfare. It is well known that the image of Yanomami violence was deployed by Brazilian military governments and those interested in their land to justify its invasion and its entry into a productive regime at the service of supposed development. Neither has Chagnon’s famous depiction of Yanomami as “fierce people” done much service to Yanomami welfare. It seems Kopenawa is intent on setting this record straight. As with his comparative comment on goods, he distinguishes Yanomami revenge raids from Whites’ wars, the former a balanced need to appease the rage caused by the death of a kinsman, the latter an absurd pursuit of material wealth in a scale of killing incomparable with Yanomami one-to-one settling of scores. Again it is people here that matter, as opposed to oil, minerals, and commodities that fuel White warfare. (Kopenawa speaks here particularly with the first Iraq war in mind.) There is a sharp contrast in motive and scale: “Eux se bataillent en très grand nombre, avec de balles et des bombes qui brûle toutes leurs maisons. Ils tuent même les femmes et les enfants! Et ce n’est pas pour venger leur morts . . . Ils font leur guerre simplement pour de mauvais paroles, pour une terre qu’ils convoitent ou pour y arracher des minerais et du pétrole” (474). Kopenawa does not dismiss the different ritualized means Yanomami have to resolve their conflicts including revenge raids. Yet these are means of controlling the accumulation of rage. Clastres saw “primitive society,” that “totalité une,” as a segmentation machine that precluded the rise of a power separate from society. Kopenawa’s emphasis is also on segmentation of rage itself, the prevention of prolonged and cumulative anger that would lead to wide-scale war. His reserve, nonetheless, is that nowadays all Yanomami courage must be directed toward their real enemies: the Whites that want to devour their land and their people. And despite all the damage done, Kopenawa is careful to avoid blanket statements: “Nous ne sommes pas les ennemis des Blancs. Mais nous ne voulons pas qu’ils viennent travailler dans notre forêt car ils sont incapables de nous rendre la valeur de ce qu’ils y détruisent. C’est ce que je pense” (372).

The book ends with a return to Kopenawa’s most forceful warning, Whites’ destruction of the planet and the approaching death of all shamans, who alone are capable of stopping the imminent fall of the sky:

Si les êtres de l’épidémie continuent à proliférer, les chamans finiront par tous mourir et plus personne ne pourra l’empêcher de tourner au chaos. Maxitari, l’être de la terre, Ruëri, celui du temps couvert et Titiri, celui de la nuit, se mettront en colère. Ils pleureront leur mort et la forêt deviendra autre. Le ciel se couvrira de nuages obscures et le jour ne se lèvera plus. Il n’en finira pas de pleuvoir. Un vent d’ouragan soufflera sans trève. La forêt ne connaîtra plus le silence . . . Cela est déjà arrivé, mais les Blanc ne se demandent jamais pourqoui . . . La terre se gorgera d’eau et commencera à se putréfier. Puis les eaux la recouvriront peu à peu et les humains deviendront autres, comme c’est arrive au premier temps. (535)

When the sky falls we will all be crushed and sent to the underworld. Yanomami shamans know this; they have already seen it at the beginning of time.

Si les Blancs finissaient par devenir plus avisés, mon esprit pourrait retrouver le calme et la joie. Je me dirais: “C’est bien! Les Blancs ont acquis de la sagesse. Ils ont enfin pris en amitié la forêt, les êtres humains et les esprits xapiri!” Mes voyages prendraient fin . . . J’y dirais alors à mes amis: “Ne m’appelez plus si souvent! Je veux devenir esprit et continuer à étudier avec les xapiri! Je veux seulement devenir plus savant!” Je me cacherais alors dans la forêt avec mes anciens pour boire la yãkoana jusqu’à en redevenir très maigre et oublier la ville. (527).

We can only hope for La Chute du Ciel to be translated, especially into English, and that Kopenawa’s words spread with the same speed and force of the cannibal xawara epidemics: only by augmenting Whites’ thought will their deadly effects be countered. Kushu ha!


1. This review was published in a slightly altered form in French translated by Phillippe Erickon in the Journal des Societes des Americanistes (Kelly 2011).

2. La Chute du Ciel: Paroles d’un Chaman Yanomami (first published by Plon—Paris, October 2010) was recently translated and published in English as The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Harvard University Press (November 2013).

References Cited

Albert, B.
1985 Temps du sang, temps de cendres: Représentation de la maladie, système rituel et espace politique chez les Yanomami du sud-est (Amazonie brésilienne). PhD dissertation, Université de Paris X.

1993 L’or cannibale et la chute du ciel. Une critique chamanique de l’economie politique de la nature. L’homme, 126-128:35–70.

Albert, B., and D. Kopenawa
2003 Yanomami. L’esprit de la forêt. Paris: Actes Sud-Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

Kelly, José Antonio
2011 Kopenawa, Davi et Bruce Albert, La chute du ciel. Paroles d’un chaman yanomami, préface de Jean Malaurie, Plon, coll. Terre Humaine, Paris, 2010, 819 p., bibl., index, gloss., 59 ill. coul. hors-texte, 85 ill. in-texte, cartes, Journal de la société des américanistes [En ligne], 97–1 | 2011, mis en ligne le 22 septembre 2011, Consulté le 23 janvier 2014. URL:

Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert
2013 The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Surrallés, A.
2003 Au coeur du sens: perception, affectivite, action chez les Candoshi. Paris: Éditions du CNRS.

Viveiros de Castro, E.
1992 From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2004 Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipiti 2(1):3–22.

2007 La forêt des miroirs. Quelques notes sur l’ontologie des esprits amazoniens. In La nature des esprits dans les cosmologies autochtones. F.B. Laugrand et J.G Oosten (éds.). Pp: 45–74. Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval.

Wagner, R.
1972 The Curse of Souw: Principles of Daribi Clan Definition and Alliance in New Guinea. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

1978 Lethal Speech: Daribi Myth as Symbolic Obviation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1981 The Invention of Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

© American Anthropological Association
Originally published in Anthropology and Humanism 39(1): 108-120.