- The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa, Bruce Albert
The Falling Sky is a “life story, autoethnography, and cosmoecological manifestó” (1) that provides the reader with an intimate portrait of the thought and life of an extraordinary Yanomami Shaman and activist, Davi Kopenawa. The book is written in the first person, and Kopenawa weaves a fascinating narrative throughout that reflects his knowledge and experience, experience that includes not only shamanic initiation by the spirits and life among his people but also working and living among white Brazilians, Europeans, and anthropologists. The book provides a story of a shaman leaving his natal home community to travel and come to know different kinds of people. As Kopenawa details from his earliest memories, white people and their system have wrought havoc upon the Yanomami people, who have been constant victims of the aggression of whites for wealth, land, and power. Missionaries and government institutions, for example, preached about God and country but were really wanting to control and change the Yanomami, and they did not care much about the deadly diseases that they brought to the Yanomami in the process. Gold prospectors killed Yanomami people and invaded their land with little action from the state or government to stop them. The prospectors organized a massacre of Yanomami people including women, girls, and even babies—attacks that were backed by entrepreneurs. Kopenawa provides a skillful and powerful account of the Yamomami experience of white people [End Page 211] and their system, a system that continues to threaten the very existence of the Yamomami. This narrative of the “machine of cannibal war” (Whitehead 2014) of the West is but one layer of a rich and complex book that begins with Kopenawa’s life story.
The first part of the book is Kopenawa’s account of how he became a shaman and the complex spirit world of the Yamomami. One of the interesting aspects of this section is the way that Yamomami shamans work with images and the body to communicate with the xapiri, the spirits who inhabit the forest and who give power to heal, see, and understand. The creation of the Yamomami cannot be separated from the origins of the whites. White people were once Yanomami brought into being by Omama, the supreme creator—who brought into being distant lands like Europe and Japan as well as the Yamomami world. Omama also decided that people should speak different languages.
So what went wrong with white people? According to Kopenawa, white people do not see the xapiri, they do not follow in the ways of the ancestors, and they have turned into imbalanced, spiritually corrupt beings. Their main problem is that Yamomami spiritual ecology and love of the forest were replaced by an unhealthy arrogance and a love of merchandise. One day, for example, white people declared, “We are the only ones who are so clever! We truly are the people of merchandise!” (327). These words then drove white people to spread all over the globe to take over far off lands, cut down trees, and spoil water. In the process, as Kopenawa astutely observes, white people can no longer drink their own water, have sickened their own land, and no longer have the forests they once had. “This is why they want to do the same thing again where we live” (327). This account, crafted from the categories of Yamomami thought, explains the power of the “commodity” and how commodity-oriented thinking engenders the constant expansion and ecological destruction caused by the world capitalist system.
Kopenawa’s account of the Yamomami reveals a deeply spiritual people who perceive life and life force in all living things, who work ritually with plants and images to “see” and communicate with those beings, and who value their relationship with the xapiri above all else. The xapiri songs “make our thoughts grow and keep them strong. This is why we will continue to make their images dance and...