Journalism from the center of the world


The Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa has been named to the transition team working on the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, the creation of which was a campaign promise of Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula. As a prominent leader of the Yanomami people, who have occupied the area of the Amazon rainforest between Brazil and Venezuela for thousands of years, Davi is a figurehead for the world’s indigenous peoples. Throughout a long history of confronting the invaders of Yanomami lands, he has refused to be corrupted by either material wealth or vanity, a fate which has befallen several indigenous leaders who come into contact with the insidious world of the whites (known as napëpë in the Yanomam language – a word that can also be translated as “enemy”). Davi has held onto his principles, and remained faithful to his ancestry, his elders, and shamanic cosmopolitics, making him a mighty tree around which Brazil’s more than three hundred highly diverse native peoples, grouped under the word “indigenous” imposed upon them by their colonizers, can rally. From such rectitude – and an intolerance of “mouths that don’t tell the truth” – come the words of an Amazon intellectual, in an interview which, at SUMAÚMA’s request, was carried out in the Yanomam language by the indigenous expert and anthropologist Ana Maria Machado, who also translated it into Portuguese.

Davi Kopenawa, who alongside French anthropologist Bruce Albert co-authored The Falling Sky (Belknap Press), a book that represented a shift in anthropological thought, knows he is speaking to those he calls the “commodities people.” The Yanomami shaman has a radical commitment to his word, which, in the political beliefs he has learned, cannot be sacrificed in the name of interests or negotiations. Truth is non-negotiable. In this interview, Davi Kopenawa tells us that while Lula made mistakes in his previous terms in office, he hopes Brazil’s president-elect has grown wiser with age. He also says he hopes Lula is “opening up his thoughts”, but warns no one knows “what he hides in his heart”. A keen observer of the climate debates he has attended on the global stage, Davi believes Lula will only act to protect the Amazon if he feels serious pressure, and receives funding, from financially wealthy countries, especially those in Europe.

A skilled translator of words, the Yanomami shaman successfully interprets the world of the whites for the Yanomami, and conveys to us the messages he receives from the xapiripë [spirits who assist shamans]. He also shares the cry for help of an elder Yanomami leader unfamiliar with the world of white people, except through the horrifying destruction caused by the illegal mining operations devouring life in his village. With the invasion of this territory by thousands of illegal miners, the situation today is worse than at any other time in the history of the brutalities experienced by the Yanomami, since their initial contact with whites in the first half of the last century. Organized crime and the use of heavy weapons, as well as the grooming of indigenous youth, are all now evident in Yanomami land.

Davi Kopenawa hopes Lula’s first act as president will be to expel the invaders from the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. He also describes how Lula’s narrow victory over the far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro required the collective efforts of shamans on the day of the second-round run-off vote. And he appeals to Sumaúma readers to stop buying gold tainted with the blood of Yanomamis and other indigenous peoples – a gold that destroys the world’s true wealth, the forest.

Ana Maria Machado: Now that Lula has won the elections, what do you expect of Brazil’s new president?

Davi Kopenawa:
I’m going to explain to the napëpë [napë: white; enemy; foreigner + : plural suffix] what we, of the Watorikɨ community, are thinking. We learned that the man who was once president will be back in power, so we said: “Maybe he has grown wiser. He made mistakes before, but now maybe he’s thinking right, so I want him to become a true president. I don’t want him to mislead us anymore. He’s going to be president again, and he’ll pay attention to our lands; he’ll watch us. If he defends us, we’ll be happy with him.”

What does Lula need to deal with most urgently in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory?

Today, the speech of Yanomami elders, of our leaders, is filled with suffering. I’m the only one who goes into the city, and that’s why I can spread these words. Everything is terrible on our land; the miners bring horror with them. Now that Lula has been elected president, first of all he has to expel them, really get them out. I’m not saying this for no reason, but because we are living in chaos. And why? Because they’ve silted up the rivers, polluted the waters, and left the water very dirty where only one river runs. They’ve destroyed the headwaters of the rivers born in our mountains. Those of us who live near the illegal mining sites are suffering, going hungry. The miners keep on coming. We [Yanomami] talk to each other from different regions of our land, using radio communication. An elder relative of mine, in the Xitei region—he considers me his son—told me the situation is disastrous there. He said older people like him are tired of seeing the miners arriving all the time, working in the waters all the time, dirtying them. And that’s not all: they’re very upset about the weapons. Some ignorant Yanomamis said the miners could come in with their weapons. But these people who are destroying the forest have heavy weapons; these arms aren’t like arrows. The miners distribute handguns. They treat the younger Yanomami like leaders; they deceive them, saying: “Take a gun! If you have a gun, you’ll be our friend. If you oppose us, you won’t get a gun.” When they talk to our young people like that, they increase the number of weapons in Yanomami hands—and we end up killing each other because of the miners. My father in Xitei told me: “If we weren’t killing each other, I wouldn’t need to be here explaining this. Son, go say this to the man who has become the leader [president]. Drive out the miners working on our lands. Tell him that. You know the napëpë’s leaders—hold them to it; make them get rid of those people who are on our lands, take them far away.” That’s what my father said, and that’s why I’m passing it on. For all these reasons, I’m making these demands. Lula, don’t start working on the white people’s land first. First get the miners off our land. Lula, you’re the president now and in January you’ll be in Planalto Palace [the seat of government]. Start kicking the miners out that day.

That’s what I want to tell you, white people. I’m not saying this for nothing. I don’t want to be here suffering while you capture [film] my image. My demand is genuine. Every corner of the land is growing diseased. Because malaria got out of control when mining arrived; because our women are suffering so much; because on higher lands where there’s no more game, Ohinari, the spirit of hunger, has drawn near. Since I know the new president, I’ll hold him to it: “When you gave speeches, I listened. We’ve all kept your words in our ears. We, Indigenous people, and the napëpë as well, we all heard your words over cell phones. We don’t want suffering in our thoughts, because you’re misleading us. I hope what you once said in a meeting is true, that if you became president again, you would protect the Indigenous peoples, who are suffering in Brazil. I don’t want you to continue destroying the forest you white people call the Amazon. So, Lula, I’m holding you to it, telling you to do this first.”

That’s true. Lula said he isn’t going to allow mining on Indigenous lands. But in the 1990s, when your elders died in the first mining invasion [1986-1993] and there was the so-called Operation Free Jungle , which removed forty thousand illegal miners, there was no organized crime or militias involved then, nor had young Yanomami been entrapped like today. Now drug trafficking has been added to the mix, along with escaped prisoners. Today they have heavy weapons and bombs. Do you think it will be harder to get rid of the miners now? Will the young Yanomamis who have become involved put up some kind of resistance? Even though we have Lula in office, will it be possible to halt illegal mining?

It’s true the situation is really bad now. The napëpë bring in drugs, cachaça [distilled sugarcane], and even cocaine. With all these things mixed together, the miners get high and do their work drugged up. The men sniff cocaine and get turned on by our women. Since their wives aren’t with them, they get bold and think like this: “Since I’m high, I’m not afraid; since I’m not afraid, I’ll call those Yanomami women, have sex, and put babies in them.” Nowadays, these people also have machine guns and bombs, and the miners say: “If they want to kick us out, even if it’s the federal police, we’re going to kill them.” On top of that, there’s the mercury used to separate out the gold, which is all over. This is all terrible. President Lula will tell them to leave, but maybe they won’t listen. I think about that too. If they do listen to him, everyone in Brazil and Europe, those who want him to keep the Amazon Forest standing and healthy—I think the right thing would be for them to tell [Lula] to take care of the forest and then give him money so he can get the miners out. If a world union were formed, where we could all talk, bringing together the napëpë authorities and us, the Indigenous, then we’d be able to defend ourselves, because we Indigenous already know how to fight. This is not the miners’ land. Since they’ve already brought horror to our lands, causing our children so much suffering, leaving them skinny and malnourished, and since mining kills Yanomami through the misery of epidemics and the misery of hunger on the Uraricoera and Mucajaí Rivers, the headwaters of the Catrimani River, and also in Homoxi, Xitei, Parafuri, and Parima—we must fight.

But to heal the forest-land, you also have to lower the price of gold. You, napëpë, who ask for gold, who buy gold, must stop. You, with your gold shops, you need to lower the price. Since gold is so expensive, the miners are always invading my land. You, a woman who understands our Yanomam language, you’re going to write and translate, and you who capture my image, when I appear, when you hear my words, you must take me seriously, agree with me, and say: “Yes, that’s the truth! We were wrong. We don’t know how to respect. We might talk about respect but we’re misleading you. Our mouths don’t tell the truth.”

When Lula first became president, in 2003, he changed the regulations applicable to nongovernmental organizations, which led to the closing of Urihi Saúde [the NGO responsible for health care in the Indigenous Yanomami Territory from 1999 to 2004]. Urihi had done an excellent job providing health care to the Yanomami and even succeeded in eradicating malaria from your land. Now malaria is out of control. What should the government do in terms of Indigenous health?

Here’s what happened: Lula made mistakes at first. He didn’t know how to think right. He also built Belo Monte [the “Beautiful Mountain” dam and hydroelectric power plant], and that was a huge mistake. He destroyed a great river for no reason: “Belo Morte” [Beautiful Death] was no good. He also made mistakes with Indigenous health care, on the matter of living well and healthy, and everything was undermined. We quit receiving medicine; the napëpë employees who work on our lands, like nursing assistants, doctors, and dentists, found it hard to do their jobs, since supplies weren’t sent in. When Lula really becomes president, I want to talk to him up close. “Lula: You know me; you need to improve Indigenous health. You need to clean up Indigenous health again; really put healthcare providers to work.” Under the Bolsonaro administration, politicians choose the healthcare coordinators. [Under Lula’s administration], I and local council members [Yanomami representatives from all Indigenous territories] want to sit down and nominate someone we know, who’s our friend and works well with us; this is the only way healthcare will improve. That’s what I want to tell Lula. Because health is a priority if we are to live well and our children grow well, and considering the deplorable situation we’re in, this is my demand. President Jair Bolsonaro destroyed our health. He killed us like fish.

Lula said he is going to create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. What do you think about that?

Yes, he said he’d do that if he became president. Now we have young Indigenous women who have napë knowledge, who know how to act like napëpë. There are also young men who know how to act like the napëpë, who know how to use machines and cell phones. And since we have these people who know how to work like that, here’s what I think: “Awei! President Lula, because you said this so clearly, I fixed this in my thoughts.” I think Deputy Joênia [Wapichana] has experience, because she served as federal deputy for four years; she knows how to fight. Since she’s an attorney, she knows how to listen to politicians and that’s why I’d like Lula to appoint her minister. If Joênia says she’d like to be the minister of Indigenous peoples, we’ll back her; we’ll seat her in that chair. There will be more wisdom with an Indigenous woman sitting there. We have other women, like Sônia Guajajara, but she’s serving as a deputy now. Another, Célia Xakriabá, is also a deputy. Joênia didn’t win the election, so that’s why I’m suggesting her, because she’s very intelligent and already knows how to fight. This is what my dreams told me and that’s why I’m putting this idea out there.

We, napëpë, are the commodities people, and we’re destroying the forests and the planet. That’s why the world is concerned about the climate crisis. To contain it, we have to conserve the forests. We know all of you have wisdom to offer. What message would you like to leave here?

All of the napëpë talk about protecting the forests. They talk about climate change, deforestation, river pollution, mercury, disease, and mining. Lula has paid attention to these issues. Other people, Europeans, talk about climate change and hold meetings. But they haven’t solved anything at all. For me, the term “climate change” means something else. I call it the “revenge of the earth” or the “revenge of the world”—those are my terms. The napëpë call it “climate change” but we, Yanomami, when we practice shamanism, call it the “transformation of the world, making the world bad because the napëpë have caused the earth to revolt.” The napëpë set fire to trees. The forest-land is angry; it’s taking revenge, making it rain a lot, bringing on great heat waves. There are water shortages in some places and elsewhere there’s too much rain, while other places are cold. Because people have been saying these things, because we’ve been talking about it, Lula has opened up his thoughts. Better put: maybe he’s opening up his thoughts. We don’t know what he hides in his heart. What I hide in my heart and my thoughts, what we hide from people, is a secret. That’s why Lula might still be misleading us. If his thoughts are misleading us, he’s going to solve small problems but not the big ones. But if other napëpë, the ones who live on the other side of the ocean [Europe], would help and offer substantial funding, maybe Lula’s thinking would change. That’s how I see things. Lula didn’t grow alone. The people raised up Lula’s words; you put him in that seat [the presidency]. He’s older now; maybe he has grown wiser.

Davi, you told me that you shamans helped Lula get elected. Tell me about that.

We shamans living in Watorikɨ and other shamans from other houses, like the Maxokapi—I told them to do it [shamanism in support of Lula]. We helped Lula; we raised him up, me, Carlos, the younger shamans, Tenose, Valmir, Dinarte, Geremias, Pernaldo, Manoel. Lula was supported by the hutukara [the sky]. So the shamans said to tell him: “Awei! He almost lost. If the xapiripë [xapiri: a spirit who assists shamans + : plural suffix] hadn’t gone there, you wouldn’t have become president again. You didn’t see them; they were in Watorikɨ, and on the 30th [of October, date of the presidential runoffs], they reached you. Since they’re familiar with Brasília, since Davi knows that land, we xapiripë know it too. We looked on the map, and because we were able to get there, we achieved victory.”

We shamans from two communities worked for this. We drank yakoana [powder from a tree of the virola genus, used by shaman so they can see xapiripë]. We went to the great xapiri Omama and told him: “Awei! You who are a great xapiri, who knows the whole world, who knows all lands, since your eyes see these things within and also on the surface, since your eyes pay attention to everything happening in the world, we want to raise Lula up, so he’ll become president again; we’ll support his thoughts. We’ll keep our thoughts first on the sky, on hutukara, so he’ll rise up [have better chances of winning the runoffs].” The other one, Bolsonaro, the man with his mouth full of ignorance—if his people supported him and raised him up, we would suffer a lot. President Jair Bolsonaro is terrible; if he won the elections, then we would really suffer. He still supports the military dictatorship, and so he has no friendship with the forest. He doesn’t take care of the rivers or feel sad for us, forest peoples. When Omama created our land in the early times, he wrote the words “forest defender” on a piece of paper, and this is who we shamans chose. We said: “Let’s choose the one who wants to keep us alive and healthy; let’s reject the paper with the name of the one who doesn’t want our lives to be good.”

For this reason, we of the Watorikɨ [community] went to Lula, to Brasília. When we got there, the napëpë didn’t see us because we arrived very softly. Calmly and slowly, we reached his thoughts. “Awei! You, Lula, since you want to become president again, obtain your support here where Omama has supported our thoughts. If you obtain your support here, you will become president. And if you do become president, we want you to think about us first. Diminish those who are always doing bad things; make them small. Close this malicious hole.”

Translated by Diane Whitty and James Young
Note: This interview was conducted in Yanomam. The English version is based on the Yanomam/Portuguese translation

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