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feature - Issue #12
The Yanomami say that Omama, the demiurge, created the tree of dreams so that humans could dream. When the flowers of this tree bloom, dreams are sent to the Yanomami. The book O Desejo dos Outros: Uma Etnografia dos Sonhos Yanomami offers itself to be read like a dream tree with flowers yet to bloom. Some of the flowers on the tree created by Omama bloomed in me and in the dreams I present, so I couldn’t help but say that some of the ideas in this book were also dreams - some dreamed by me, others by the Yanomami. I hope that these flowers can sow seeds and germinate in other soils, giving rise to new fruits and, of course, new dreams. What follows is an edited and translated excerpt:
In the beginning, there was no night, it was always day. That’s why people walked a lot in the forest, hunted, came back with their prey and ate it. “Go hunt, because the night doesn’t exist,” the elders would say.
There was a Yanomami named Yawarioma who always walked through the forest. Slowly, he went in all directions. One day, walking alone, he heard the voice of the night. It was the curassow [a large pheasant-like bird], saying: “Ii-hi.” He was the night and taught the name of rivers in all directions. Crying, he would say, “Ii-hi, ii-hi, in that direction is the Toototopi River. Ii-hi, ii-hi. There is the river Marito,” Titiri, the curassow that owned the night, spoke.
Before he taught us the names of the rivers, we didn’t know them. It was with these words that he taught us the name of the waters: “Ii-hi, ii-hi, in that direction is the Palimi-u River, ii-hi, ii-hi.” This is the way Titiri spoke. That’s when Yawarioma heard and looked for the curassow. However, he could not see, for around Titiri reigned the most complete darkness. Yawarioma returned to his house and told his mother: “Mother, there is a curassow in the forest, but everything around it is dark.” Yawarioma’s mother gave the following instructions: “Put pitch (warapa koko – a flammable resin taken from the warapa kohi (protium spp) tree) on a stick and then light it with fire. Then arrow the curassow.”
Yawarioma returned to the forest and went to find the curassow. He took the pitch and put it on a stick, and lit it with fire. Then he raised the stick, and the fire lit Titiri. He was there, sitting on a branch. After Yawarioma could see him, he shot him with an arrow.
“Thai! Thikuuuu! Throuu!”
So, the great night spread on all sides, and the voices of the nocturnal animals were heard. The Yanomami slept. Before the Yanomami didn’t sleep at night, that’s why they didn’t dream - because it was always day.
When he was still a child and living near the Toototopi River, Davi Kopenawa dreamed of beings he didn’t know. They approached slowly, enveloped in a blinding light, all beautifully painted with annatto [an orange-red colouring extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree] and decorated with bird feathers. Kopenawa contemplated that spectacle in his dream while fearing it - he had never seen those beings before. At night, terrified, he cried, screamed and called for his mother, who soothed him: “Don’t cry. You won’t dream anymore, don’t be afraid. Now go to sleep without crying. Calm down.” (The Falling Sky, Kopenawa & Albert p89). But those dreams lasted throughout his childhood, into his youth.
In his dreams, Kopenawa would fly over the forest; his arms would transform into wings, as big as those of a red macaw. From above, he would contemplate the landscape. But, when he least expected it, he would plummet into the void and wake up in a panic, crying. Dream flights - it was the xapiripë spirits that carried his image high in the sky. That’s what these spirits do when they want a child to become a shaman. That’s why children scream at night because they see the xapiripë in their dreams (The Falling Sky, Kopenawa & Albert p90).
Formerly these beings did not exist; they were created by Omama at the request of his wife Thuëyoma. After they had procreated, she asked her husband: “What will we do to heal our children if they get sick?” Omama started to think but didn’t know what to do. It was then that Thuëyoma said: “Stop standing there thinking, not knowing what to do. Make the xapiri to heal our children!” Omama agreed and created these spirits (The Falling Sky, Kopenawa & Albert p84).
Kopenawa felt that the xapiripë tied the ropes of his hammock high in the sky and descended them to get close and make him hear their songs (The Falling Sky, Kopenawa & Albert p90). He also dreamed of animals that chased him through the forest, from which he ran away. And suddenly his arms would turn into wings and he would take off. He also dreamed of enemies near the house - painted black, they shot arrows at the Yanomami. Seeing the scene, Kopenawa would take off running and be chased by them in the forest, until he managed to climb to the top of a hill and jump, taking flight (The Falling Sky, Kopenawa & Albert p92).
All these images he saw while sleeping were the xapiripë, who watched him and were interested in him. At that time, Kopenawa did not understand and was very afraid. Only much later, when he became a shaman and tasted the yãkoana powder [a hallucinogen], could he understand: the xapiripë wanted him to become a shaman - and for this reason, they appeared in their dreams (The Falling Sky, Kopenawa & Albert p93).
Kopenawa makes it very clear that dreaming is the way of learning of the Yanomami shamans par excellence. It’s their school. It’s the door that the Yanomami open to otherness, the unknown and the distant. It is through this opening that they get to know the world around them, and, in this way, their thinking can expand. While the napëpë [white people, foreigners, enemies] have pencil and paper, the Yanomami have their dreams, says Kopenawa.
When a person dies, everything that belonged to them must be obliterated. Starting with their name - which can no longer be pronounced - this being perhaps the first and most important interdiction that exists regarding the dead. When there are people in nearby communities with the same name, depending on the relationship they had with the dead, they must change their name immediately. Pronouncing the name of a person who has already died is the same as calling them and, therefore, making them close. Their belongings must be destroyed throughout the reahu festivities that will occur over a period, that could last a few years, until the dead's ashes are buried for good.
In the case of a pata [an elder], depending on the level of influence he had over the community, it is possible that the entire collective house will be destroyed and people will move to another place and build a new house. When it comes to a child, who normally does not have a proper name until about three years of age - the boys are called mo pata and the girls na pata, the parents scrape the earth where they crawled and the posts of the house where they played. Everything must be destroyed, and any trace of the dead must be eliminated.
The Yanomami never refer to the death of a person directly. The verb noma - means to die, but it is rarely used in this sense, unless it refers to the death of some distant person, with no connection with whoever is speaking. In addition to dying, noma also refers to loss of consciousness, either from fainting or from substance use. Thus, when a shaman is under the influence of the yãkoana he is said to have “died”. In all these contexts, the word noma expresses an attenuated situation of death and does not refer directly to it. In the same way that saying the name of the dead is equivalent to calling them, or bringing them close, speaking directly of death is also a way of attracting it.
In order to keep death at a good distance, the Yanomami use certain expressions to refer to it, using euphemisms that draw attention above all for the delicacy of the images they evoke and which could only find space among the Yanomami in this non-place that is death. Thus, to refer to a man who has died, one can say: “the arrows are planted in the ground” (xaraka ki xatia). For a woman: “a large basket is placed on the ground” (wii a ithaa). In the case of the death of a girl: “a small basket is on the edge (outside the house)” (xote he kasia), and, in the case of the death of a boy: “a small arrow is on the edge (outside the house)” (ruhu masi kasia). There are still many other expressions that refer to death in an equally subtle way, such as “he is not” (a no kua), “she is lost” (a marayoma) and “the (family) house is empty” (nahi proke). Life is made of prose, but it is in death that poetry gains space.
Death refers to something that has been lost, that is no longer, that is not found. At the same time, if there is something that is inscribed in the Yanomami person and that exists even before he has a proper name and is therefore individualised within a society, it is death. Wa temi xoa tha? "do you still live?", is one of the expressions the Yanomami use to greet each other when they meet a relative they haven't seen for a while. The meaning of temi is alive, in good health. But the “still” (xoa) gives a glimpse of the person's inevitable destiny. Thus, death enters the bosom of life and if the person is still alive, it is because at some point they must die.
“Ya nomaimi! Ya nomaimi! Ya nomaimi!” the Yanomami exclaim when a large tree falls beside the house. They beat their chests and shout loud and clear: “I don't die! I don't die! I don't die!” Trees never fall for anything; if they land near the house, it is a sign of attack. The spirits of enemy shamans knocked it down, but luckily no one was hurt. And the men cry out that they do not die, even if the enemy wants it.
If, on the one hand, the dream is always triggered by the will of another, and the dreamer appears as a “prey”, a victim, someone at the mercy of a feeling that is alien to themself, on the other hand, the dreamer is by no means entirely subjugated to the feelings of this other. The living resists incessant appeals from these others, and it is because they resist that they can continue to exist as Yanomami. So, although death is always a desire that comes from outside, the living denies vehemently to succumb to it. To the incessant appeals of these others, the Yanomami simply reply: “Ya nomaimil, va temi xoa!” (I don't die, I'm still alive).
The dream, then, is inscribed in life as an attenuated form of death. A daily, and even necessary, death which makes us experience each night, a little of what sooner or later will arrive for everyone, the moment when the utupë (image) will no longer return to the body, it will transform itself into a spectre and will join the others (pore) who live in the hutu mosi (one of the celestial levels).”
Dreams also have a political dimension. It is through dreams that the xapiripe can intervene, whether to protect the Yanomami from the incessant appeals of their dead relatives or to defend the forest from the greed of white people.
As long as the latter continues to dream of themselves, they will never be able to understand the words that come from the forest. For the Yanomami, dreaming is a political act:
“For us, politics is something else. These are the words of Omama and the xapiri he left us. They are the words we hear in the time of dreams, and that we prefer because they are our own. White people don’t dream as far as we do. They sleep a lot, but only dream about themselves. Their thinking remains obstructed and they sleep like tapirs and tortoises. That’s why they can’t understand our words,” says Kopenawa, in his book The Falling Sky.
He recalls, however, that among the white people there was one who knew how to dream. His name was Chico Mendes. And the Yanomami shaman imagines that, in his dreams, he would have been distressed to see the forest being devoured by large-scale farmers, Kopenawa concludes that only through his dreams could Chico Mendes have found the words to defend the forest. “Maybe the image of Omama put them in your dream?” reflects the shaman.
Leda is a married mother of four children - two boys and two girls. She said that she is alone, that she has no father or mother and that she has no relatives. Hers were killed and she dreams about them constantly. When she wakes up, she feels homesick and sad and remembers that she is alone despite her husband and children. She is not from the Pya ú nor does she belong to any community that is part of the exchanges and alliances that link the malocas (communal houses) in the Toototopi region. Her relatives were from the Haximu community on the Venezuelan side.
In 1993, a group of illegal miners attacked Haximu, causing the death of 16 Yanomami, without sparing children, women or the elderly. The survivors, including two sisters, Marisa aged seven and Leda aged six, walked to the Toototopi region where they told what had happened in the middle of the forest. The story of the massacre ended up in the main newspapers of the country and across the world.
The two girls grew up in Pya ù, got married and had children. Marisa is already a grandmother. After learning Leda’s story, I can understand why she feels lonely and why she dreams so often about her relatives murdered in the Haximu massacre.
Haximu was the first genocide recognised by the Brazilian justice system. And if I bring you Leda’s story now, it is because we cannot lose sight of the fact that the dreams of the people are threatened. After all, the forest and, therefore, the very existence of these people is under strong threat. Nor can we ignore the Haximu massacre and many others that may be underway at this very moment, in the middle of the Yanomami forest, perhaps without people like Leda to tell us about them.
The Yanomami Indigenous Land was homologated 30 years ago. Today, we are witnessing the worst moment of the illegal miners’ invasion: the total area devastated by said mining has more than doubled, surpassing 3,000 hectares in recent years.
Kopenawa, whose life story and struggle resulted in the homologation of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory and the creation of the Yanomami Hutukara Organization, among other achievements, still suffers death threats for defending the forest and its people. In a conversation we had before a presentation on his autobiography, The Falling Sky, he confessed to me: “I don’t want to die like Chico Mendes…”. I will never forget those words. For Kopenawa, Chico Mendes was the white man who knew how to dream the forest.
In addition to Chico Mendes, there are other white people who managed to go further and truly dream of the forest, as was the case with Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips. Just like the Yanomami’s dreams that appear when the flowers on the tree of dreams bloom, the dreams of Bruno, Dom and many others will continue to bloom in us and we will continue to be resistant. And, to the enemies, the Yanomami and we will answer: “Yamaki temi xoa! Yamaki noamimil! (We’re still alive, we don't die).”
O Desejo dos Outros: Uma Etnografia dos Sonhos Yanomami by Hanna Limulja, Ubu Editora 2022
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Ya nomaimi! Ya nomaimi! Ya nomaimi!