Davi Koponawa at home in the forest. Photo: Survival International.
Ours is a path of survival for the whole planet
Liam J Shaughnessy
17th June 2014
As the World Cup gets under way in Brazil, Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa told Liam J Shaughnessy about the very different world he inhabits, deep in the Amazon rainforest - a world of bright spirits, ancient knowledge, union with nature. And a world under threat.
The city doesn't make people healthy or happy. It's a deception and, when I dream I see that the planet is sick.
With the worlds eyes turned to Brazil for a major fix of the 'beautiful game', it's easy to forget that, for many Brazilians, the World Cup is nothing more than an expensive façade.
One such Brazilian is Davi Kopenawa. A revered Shaman amongst the Yanomami people of the Brazilian Amazon and a revered advocate for indigenous rights in the wider world, Davi Kopenawa - the 'Dalai Lama of the Rainforest' - is a man straddling two very different worlds.
In the run-up to the World Cup Davi hit the road to speak out against the increasingly visceral threat posed to the Amazon by the scramble for its resources - oil, minerals, land, hydroelectricity ...
With the help of Survival International, I caught up with him by Skype from his first stop in San Francisco - to talk football, Shamanism and the spirit of history.
My path lies in the forest
"I've never been passionate about football", Davi tells me, looking relaxed. "It's a game, a game invented to forget problems - problems going on in your head, problems with people fighting, getting into debt, worrying about money and all the problems they have in the cities.
"Football helps people forget that so, in that sense it's a beautiful thing. But I will never like it because my path lies in the forest.
"The Brazilians dream of winning, and that's what the Brazilian government wants to show the world - not the other things."
What other things?
"What's happening in the Amazon, people don't see it because it's a long way away but there are many problems on our land and in our communities. There are gold miners, cattle ranchers, hunters - all sorts of people invading our land, causing damage and eating the animals and the forest.
"And there is large scale mining. News is arriving about a quest for large scale mining."
If we are all to live well we need to talk to each other
And indeed, the ambitions of the Brazilian government, to open vast swathes of the ancient Amazon to mining and hydroelectricity does pose a huge threat to the forest and its peoples.
Brazil, as with the world at large, faces the challenge of balancing the delivery of material improvements for burgeoning urban populations with the harsh realities of climate change and environmental degradation. But, could there be another way? Is there anything we could learn from the indigenous knowledge of Davi and the Yanomami?
"I think the city people could learn from our customs and our way of looking at the earth. But there's a lack of dialogue. The city leaders and the forest leaders need to get together and understand each other better so we can show the city people our path, because ours is a path of survival for the whole planet.
"There needs to be a dialogue about nature and the spirit of the Earth. The West talks about progress but it's a progress based on destruction, on pulling out the riches of the earth - causing fights and wars. If we are all to live well we need to talk to each other.
"The older governments have gone now and been forgotten, and we have new politicians, so it's a new road we need to take. We the guardians of the forest need to talk to the white people and they need to consult us and talk to us."
When I dream I see that the planet is sick
For many, the very point of human history is technological and economic progress. With a growing population what alternative is there to development and the use of natural resources?
"The non-Indian world thinks very differently to the indigenous people, the city people in particular. They say it's better to have growth, to build taller houses, to have more and more inhabitants.
"They want others to see what they are creating and look at it in admiration. But what's the point of building taller and taller buildings when we don't care for the earth?
"The city people use the earth, the stones, the sand, oil, gas, petroleum, the technology to build their cities. They just keep on destroying, all because it keeps them rich. But the city doesn't make people healthy or happy. It's a deception and, when I dream I see that the planet is sick."
We have to look after the Earth
"We have to look after the earth, this is the aim for indigenous people. To live in peace and live well - and this is not based on pulling out the riches of the earth.
"It is not necessary to pull out everything from the earth, let us work for health and happiness instead. If the Yanomami weren't working for the forest and its riches, the city would have finished it off a long time ago."
Are the new generation of politicians listening to your message?
"The big politicians are allied together, every region, each land - all the governments are allied together across the whole world. It's not just in Brazil but in the US, Europe everywhere.
"And out of this alliance comes exploitation, they just want to exploit. Really all they're interested in is merchandise. They just want to grab, and pull out of the earth, the natural resources.
"As far as they're concerned, we are very small people."
So where does the problem lie? Is it simply a question of economic imperatives or is there a deeper issue?
"For indigenous peoples it seems the authorities in every country have lost their way, they are thinking of other roads, other routes. Their route is towards a politics of destroying nature and the subsoil and of extracting precious stones and uranium for use in war machines."
Guided by spirits
What insight does your Shamanism give you into the struggle between the city and the forest?
Davi leans into the camera. "I'll explain about the Shamanic Shapiri" - the ancient spirits of Yanomami shamanism.
"The Shapiri are not spirits like in the churches and religions of the white people, they are the spirits of the forest and the spirits of the earth and they are full of light.
"But you have to study to know the Shapiri. You have to spend one month taking Yaqoana, waiting as the Shapiri get closer and closer. During this time you can't eat or drink much and there must be complete silence - no noise.
"Then you enter the phase of dreaming, and when you do the Shapiri arrive with a very strong light, bringing with them a very tall house. And although the Shapiri are small they have the strength to carry this huge house like it's floating, and the house just hangs there like the moon.
"That's how we learn from the spirits. And there are many other people who also have their own traditions of Shamanism. But you suffer to become a Shaman. It's a long, difficult process."
It may sound like a tired cliché ...
To Western ears talk of 'Yaqoana' and travels in the spirit world have become, in many ways, a tired cliché. Part of a simplified narrative about 'native knowledge' which reduces tradition to platitudes etched on trinkets in seaside shops.
Real shamanism in the UK has been thoroughly prohibited - by the 2005 Drugs Act for example which criminalised the picking and eating of native British 'magic mushrooms'.
Davi, does the fact that the modern world is so deeply alienated from the kind of shamanistic experience you describe explain some of the problems our society has in cohabiting with nature?
"Our elders tell us that, at the beginning of the world, the beginning of time, the non-Indian people used to take Yaqoana like us. But then they created schools and forgot their traditions. The elders say your people, in the past, lost their way, but in the old times you people used medicines like us and they were important for you.
"But as you lost the traditions you started making different medicines, medicines not based on the forces of nature. We Yanomani are the last survivors of the old ways, living in the far headwaters of Brazil and trying to explain to the non-Indians so they can understand better.
The path of knowledge, of Planet Earth
"If you came to my village, you would start to see what Shamanism really is. You'd see it's not about being drugged up. It's a very different thing.
"Being a Shaman allows you to see a great light. Through the Shamanic spirits you're shown the path of knowledge and the path of Planet Earth. We've maintained this and we don't want to lose it. Through this process we cure women and children and old people in our communities when they get ill.
"And we regulate the forces of nature. When it gets too hot or too rainy or too windy, or the tides rise, we the Shamans are looking after this, trying to maintain the balance so the universe doesn't fall on our heads. You had this knowledge, in the non-Indian world, but you lost it."
Liam J Shaughnessy is a writer and journalist.
Davi Kopenawa's book The Falling Sky, Words of a Yanomami is available now.
Author's note: My thanks to Survival International for facilitating this interview. Survival campaigns for the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples and communities around the world.
All photos kindly supplied by Survival International.
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