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Feature - Issue #12

‘You don’t know the spirits of the forest’

Interview in Yanomam, translated into Portuguese and edited by Ana Maria Antunes Machado
Translated into English by Le Guimarães

Davi Kopenawa is a Yanomami shaman and spokesperson and founder of the Hutukara Yanomami Association. His words rippled throughout the world with the book The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman and Kopenawa continues to advocate for the rights and lives of Indigenous peoples and the future of life on Earth. The following account is produced from a conversation between Davi Kopenawa, Ana Maria Machado, Mariana Machado and Mariana Melo in Boa Vista in March 2022 for the short film Maxita Watimapë: Earth Eaters.

Yanomami shamans perform a ritual in the Xihopi Village in May 2022, Yanomami Indigenous Land, in the State of Amazonas. Photograph © Christian Braga/ISA.

The xapiri spirits and the healthy forest

In places where the forest is healthy and fragrant, the bees fly. Macaws, parrots, tapirs and other animals such as the japós birds all live in these places, they all come together there, as they want to live well and in health. I was born in the forest and growing up I saw this with my own eyes, my ears expanded, and I learned to smell the forest - it’s a very good smell. Everywhere in the forest there are fragrant flowers and trees, they are the scent of a healthy forest.

This healthy forest does not exist for no purpose: when we shamans inhale the yãkoana powder and do shamanism, we see Urihinari, the spirit of the forest dance. We also see the spirit of the land dance - his name is Hutukarari. Do not think that the forest is healthy for no reason, it is that way because of the xapiri spirits that take care of it, because the beings of the mountains protect it, because there are also the spirits Arokohiriwë, the spirit of the tree jatobá; Warimahiri, the spirit of the tree samaúma; Maamari, the spirit of the stones and Maunari, the spirit of the waters. The xapiripë are numerous and are friends with each other. We know that they have a vital image. You, napëpë (whites, foreigners, enemies), think differently because you don’t know the beings of the forest.

The shamans show all this in their chants, they say: “Look at the spirit of the forest, Urihinari! Do not think that the spirit of the forest, Urihinari, is an empty being! Do not think that the spirit of the mountain, Hehunari, is standing there for nothing!” The top of the mountain ranges and the stone mountains are the homes of the spirits. You, napëpë, don’t think that you live in a healthy world out of chance, you are also alive because of all these beings that protect the forest! The Maamaripë, spirits of the stones, are not human, they are, in fact, stone xapiri. It is these beings that guarantee us to live in health. They are the ones who keep the soil healthy, the waters good and ensure that the animals move from one place to another alive. They are the ones that allow the wind to keep the forest cool, and the great being of the rains to keep the forest moist so that we don’t get hot. This ensures a healthy land for all the people of the world. These beings do not exist in the lands that are sick, because there the napëpë only keep making holes and dirtying the waters without recovering those places. When they give up on that place, they say it’s not their land and leave to destroy other lands.

The shaman Davi Kopenawa is lifted during the ritual in the Xihopi village. Photograph © Christian Braga / ISA.

We are defenders of the forest and we do not spoil it. We ensure that the forest stands and stays alive. We don’t say that we are going to recover it or we will reforest it since it was you who ruined these forests and you who need to recover them. It is your marks, the garbage left by you. We, who are the inhabitants of the forest, want to continue living in a healthy land, we want our children to grow up in a good land. That’s why we talk to the forest spirits, and they tell us: “Protect the forest! Don’t burn it! Don’t cut down the trees! If you cut down all the trees the land will become hot, the food will end, and the fertility of the forest will flee!” That’s what Omama, our creator, and the ancients said, that’s how we lived in the healthy forest and that’s why we’re still here.

For me, only the words about defending the forest are clear. You napëpë claim to protect, to preserve, however, you just write this on papers. Those people who live in houses where the forest has been removed and there are no more trees, these people don’t protect the forest, they just do what you napëpë call “deforestation”. They say: “If we deforest this land, only then will it be good!” We, people of the forest, if we cut down the forest, the nuts’ trees will die, the food in the forest will disappear and we will go hungry. We take care of the forest and our children, who will come later, will continue with this knowledge.

At the first forum of leaders of the Yanomami Indigenous Land the Yanomami and Ye’kuana leaders demonstrated against the mining on their lands. The forum gathered 116 leaders from 26 regions, representing 53 communities, and seven Earth associations. Photograph © Victor Moriyama / ISA.

The earth eaters

The one we call Omama, it was he who brought us into being. I am indeed a child of the forest ground. The napëpë are different. They are the children of the earth eaters, they are the children of Yoasi, and they don’t hold that idea. Omama, the one who created us, was very smart. He placed heavy ore deep in the earth so that the world would be firm and stable, and then he placed very heavy earth on top so that the forest would not shake. On the surface, he placed në ropë, which is the power of fertility. The earth has skin like ours, it is on this skin that në ropë makes food grow. On top, Omama planted all the trees, the ones that give us edible fruit, mixed in with the other stronger trees as well. He gave the name pooxiki to what you call ore.

Omama didn’t think about the ore, he thought about the forest since it seemed to him to be very beautiful, good, fertile and fresh. We all lived in a single healthy forest and that was all Omama paid attention to. When Yoasi, Omama’s brother, grew up, the two fell out. They got angry. Yoasi did a bad thing first: he cut down the trees that were planted, choosing the big trees to cut down and make his home. And so Omama said to him: “Yoasi! don’t cut down those trees!” and Yoasi replied: “No! I also worked and I also planted trees.” Omama got angry, the two fought and Omama said: “Yoasi! Go far away! On the other side of the great river [ocean] there is another land, go live there. If you stay here, you’ll do a lot of stupid things.” That’s what Omama said to Yaosi. Omama, in turn, said: “I, Omama, will protect the Yanomami. In the future the Yanomami will increase, then their children will increase and when that happens, where will they eat? I will feed them, they will eat fruit from the trees. My people live in a healthy forest, so I will protect it.” That’s what the two brothers talked about, and so their thoughts split, and Omama’s thoughts continued in that forest. Because my father-in-law gave me wisdom, I understood these words.

‘When I see the goods made by the napëpë, this is how I say it in their language: “commodity people”. Why are they always making goods? These goods get old, people don’t distribute them, people don’t give them to us people of the forest either, so that’s why they are the “commodity people”.’

Yoasi went far away to the other side of the great river, but when he left he still knew of the existence of this land. After a long time, after the children and grandchildren of Yoasi had grown up, his grandchildren saw what Yoasi had written [about the land of Omama] and said: “Look! In that direction where the sun sets, there is another land! that’s where Omama lives!” When they saw these words written on a paper, Yoasi’s children returned to these lands. They sailed through the waters. They made a big canoe to get here, but they didn’t have engines in their boats at that time, it was a big cloth that the wind pushed until it reached the other shore. That’s how the great shamans explained it. That’s what I heard and dreamed of.

When the napëpë arrived here in our land, in Brazil, they laid their eyes on these lands and their eyes grew as if they were the moon. The eyes of the napëpë were fixed on the ore. Our ancestors used to say: “This ore is not food. We don’t eat ore! This metal exists to protect the earth, to make it strong so that the earth doesn’t shake!” Yoasi’s people changed, they became different. Their thinking changed, they became the “ore people”. All over our lands, the napëpë fell in love with ores. They don’t stop, they don’t give up on these things. When things get old, they throw them away and get another metal to make new things, they pull up ores again.

There are many land-eating entrepreneurs. These people don’t stop wanting to extract more ores, and even though we want to stop them, they don’t give up. When I saw mining with my own eyes, I saw that there was no food. The people [Europeans] who came from across the sea, when they arrived, already knew how to dig holes. They made a big hole and called it mining. Our ancestors did not know these people, and they still do not know them today. These napëpë came from distant lands, from places where their ancestors only made holes, and so today their descendants continue to do the same. Some think they are good things, but they are just machines that spoil the earth.

‘I am speaking, therefore, to the owners of the machines and the money, so that my ideas enter their thinking. I want to say to the great entrepreneurs: “Wake up! Pay attention! Don’t just stare at the ground. Look up and let your eyes land on the future. Worry about the children’s future!”’

When I see the goods made by the napëpë, this is how I say it in their language: “commodity people”. Why are they always making goods? These goods get old, people don’t distribute them, people don’t give them to us people of the forest either, so that’s why they are the “commodity people”. What you call ore is used to make goods: cars, planes, bicycles, televisions, cellphones, the internet and other things. These things they own - they changed because of them. People’s thinking became confused and tangled, and because of that the “commodity people” don’t want to end it, don’t want to give it up! They think that if they stop they will suffer.

You, napëpë, have already pulled metals out of the earth, but the thoughts of big businessmen have no end. They are still stuck to the minerals, thinking only about what exists at the bottom of the earth, because they want to make things like the train or the subway, those things with strong feet to run. What you napëpë call a part, are the bones of the car. They think: “If you don’t have metal, you can’t make a car or a plane to fly far.” The napëpë keep thinking about it and as their population is increasing, they are making even more things. And the metal things they made before get old. So, they throw them away and pull more ores out of the earth to make new things. That’s the way the people who own the ore think! They don’t just think about it, they actually talk about it. They keep having meetings, they say: “Let’s make other new things. When this metal gets old we’ll make another one, a new one. So that we don’t ruin what we use to run [cars], so that those things we use to fly [planes] don’t fall off.” So that’s how those people who extract the ore and who sell it, talk.

I am speaking, therefore, to the owners of the machines and the money, so that my ideas enter their thinking. I want to say to the great entrepreneurs: “Wake up! Pay attention! Don’t just stare at the ground. Look up and let your eyes land on the future. Worry about the children’s future!” The napëpë who are ignorant only keep an eye on the earth, the soil, the gold and the ores, but we don’t feed on that. All the napëpë, all over the world, have an eye on where we live - and why is that? Because they want to mine ores to make more goods. What Omama placed in the bottom of the earth, that which he buried, where the earth is firm, in that place, people’s thinking is there, and that is wrong.

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami (centre) at the meeting of Yanomami and Ye’kuana leaders, which took place in the Community Watoriki, Demini region, Yanomami Indigenous Land. Photograph © Victor Moriyama / ISA.

‘However there are also other napëpë, who are protecting us, those who defend the forest and who are not interested in the ore, and it is together with them that we are protecting the forest. If we wipe out the forest, what will happen?’

Today, in 2022, everyone has an eye on our land. We Yanomami are not happy, they are ruining our land. The napëpë miners invaded it violently, they increased a lot, and they became brave. When the napëpë see with their own eyes the ground where there is gold, they call other people. Even though they don’t eat gold, this is what brings money to the illegal miners. Because of this, in the year 2019 they arrived in large numbers on my land, and today there are thousands of miners invading our land illegally! They land in the forest by plane and helicopter. They pick up bright yellow sand [gold] and cassiterite. These people are many and because of that, when I sleep, I dream and I see many of them.

My Yanomami people, the children, the women are suffering. The miners arrive bringing diseases, they bring malaria to the Yanomami communities, they bring diarrhoea and in 2020 they also brought the coronavirus to join in with the other diseases, and the diseases increased. They also take Ohinari, the being of hunger. Ohinari has made our people suffer a lot. Our mouths suffer from the contaminated waters of the rivers, we struggle looking for fish. The napëpë indeed took our land! Some Yanomami youths drink cachaça and gasoline carried by the miners. When the miners want to have sex with a Yanomami woman, they give them a shotgun and have sex with them. They make them drink beer or cachaça, they get the men drunk and then they rape their wives.

However there are also other napëpë, who are protecting us, those who defend the forest and who are not interested in the ore, and it is together with them that we are protecting the forest. If we wipe out the forest, what will happen? The Earth will heat up! Iramari, the spirit of heat, will descend and the napëpë are afraid of too much heat - that’s why we’re telling you not to do that! To not make the world hotter. So, I said this, but my words don’t get to the bottom of you. You guys don’t take me seriously, but I keep talking. I do good things, but napëpë do wrong things! You use the words “protect”, “defend” and “heritage”, but you are lying.

‘The Amazon is the true centre, as if it were the centre of our body. The napëpë spoiled the arms and the feet first, but when those napëpë full of ignorance spoil the true centre, the Amazon, then things will go bad, it will be catastrophic!’

The revenge of the xapiri

You napëpë have increased, but in the future, you will suffer. That’s how my father-in-law, a great shaman [who died in 2018], explained it to me and that’s why I am in this fight. He told me in a dream: “Don’t be afraid! Keep explaining to the napëpë. I’m already dead, but you’re still there, and after you’re dead, there’ll be someone else to go on explaining. Since the napëpë think differently, they don’t understand these things, they keep thinking it’s a lie. They don’t see the xapiripë spirits, they just go on thinking that money protects them and because they think like that, they will suffer.”

If they cut down the forest to plant soybeans then në ropë, the fertility power of the forest that perfumes the land and makes food grow, will become a disease. Në ropë will go away, will go to another land - will stay in the sky somewhere else. And so Ohinari, the spirit of hunger, will arrive. When Ohinari approaches, the food will stop growing, the sprouts will no longer sprout and so the napëpë and the Yanomami will starve to death. All of this will happen if the earth eaters and machines don’t give up spoiling the earth.

The Amazon is the true centre, as if it were the centre of our body. The napëpë spoiled the arms and the feet first, but when those napëpë full of ignorance spoil the true centre, the Amazon, then things will go bad, it will be catastrophic! The rain will stop falling. It will stop and go somewhere else. The waters will escape from the places where they currently flow and will also go to other places, so those lands will dry up. When the gas you napëpë use to sustain the fire runs out, and when you have no more fire in the future, you napëpë will suffer. You think that it will be only us who will suffer, but you will suffer too.

Thorumari, the spirit of heavenly fire, dwells far away and will seek revenge and end everything due to the fact that people have ruined the forest. Some napëpë are not afraid of it, because the time has not yet come for the napëpë to be truly afraid, but then, little by little, they will see. The Hutukara, the cosmos, has supernatural power and is not in a hurry. We and others are still healthy, other lands are still good. But when the land is truly spoiled, the lightning spirits, Yapirari, and the gale being, Yariporari, will descend in anger on the cities of the napëpë. It will not be now, as other xapiri do not allow it. They say: “Don’t do it! Some of us are still fine!” Other napëpë, who are suffering, already know this. They cry, they are sad and their land is destroyed. These people already know and know pain!

In the papers, you write the words “protect”, “defend” and “respect”. If you do it correctly, if you put it clearly, only then will it be right for me. What you call “heritage”, the heritage of the Earth, you spoil! So, that’s what I want to say to you, people of the city and across the ocean, I leave you my words. I’m arrowing your thoughts so that these ideas stick. You listen to me! You napëpë, what are you in fact thinking that you aren’t defending us forest peoples? What are you in fact thinking that you do not relinquish [invading and looting] this forest? What do you really want us to give you? I’m asking you. Gradually, as you keep asking me questions and your thoughts start straightening out, and if we keep talking, maybe only then it will become clear.

Aerial view of the Xihopi village during the protest against mining. The words say: “mining out”. Photograph © Victor Moriyama / ISA.

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