Ontological conflicts and shamanistic speculations in Davi Kopenawas <i>The falling sky</i>

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.017


Ontological conflicts and shamanistic speculations in Davi Kopenawas The falling sky

Pedro De Niemeyer CESARINO, Universidade de Säo Paulo

Comment on Kopenawa, Davi and Bruce Albert. 2013. The falling sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman. Translated by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The falling sky, originally published in French as La chute du ciel in 2010, must be considered as one of the most important texts produced until now by an Amerindian through the use of alphabetic writing. As noted by Bruce Albert, translator and coauthor of the book, the text is not only an autobiography, but also a “multidi-mensional cosmological and ethnopolitical account based on an extraordinary effort at self-objectification and conviction” (2013: 8). Kopenawa’s text departs from traditional Amerindian genres and strategies of discourse such as shamanic auto-biographical accounts, references to events happened in the first times (known as myths in the West), to dream experiences and to reported speech. The constant use of oral formulas, specialized metaphors, parallelism, and transposition of structures of narratives to the account of personal experiences also reveals the general background employed in the construction of the text. These poetic and discursive instruments are reinvented in the written text with the creative and intellectual contribution of Albert, the translator-anthropologist. In fact, the work is more than a simple collaboration between the shaman and the anthropologist, but the result of a deeper connection between two cosmopolitical, intellectual, and aesthetical regimes. It is precisely this connection that produces one of the most interesting characteristics of the book: a reinvention of Western terminology (such as the notions of image, mirror, and spirit, among others) in a new conceptual language.

The connection between the two figures reveals a necessary dimension for the intellectual vitality of writing and its forms of literature but, at the same time, its failures and limitations. In several moments of the book (that echoes an old dilemma discussed, among others, by Plato and Derrida [1972]) Kopenawa’s shamanic speculations point to the weakness of “paper skin” and its drawings, responsible for producing an atrophy of memory and for the replication of “smoky and obscure words” (Kopenawa and Albert 2013: 23), incompatible with the knowledge derived from the becoming-multiplicity triggered by shamanistic experiences. This points to one of the key aspects of the text, that makes it different from traditional Amerindian verbal genres and strategies: conceived as a kind of letter or cosmopolitical pamphlet directed to white readers, the book is nevertheless less potent than the realm of experience and knowledge from which it departs. The ontological debasement of the written discourse when compared with the original form of knowledge production and transmission (dreams, visions, accounts, and spirit-songs) is at the core of the political meaning of The falling sky. In this sense, the book belongs to the same family of the Popol vuh, the famous maya-quiché narrative of the origin of the world and the gods, also composed in alphabetic writing (although in maya-quiché and not in an European language) during the sixteenth century. The anonymous author of the Popol vuh says that this book was written during the Christendom and its institutions, making a reference to an old (and possibly destructed) Popol vuh (or Council Book) composed in hieroglyphic writing and related to another conception and activation of what we call a “book.” The colonial Popol vuh, as a political discourse directed to the destruction of the native’s world and the violation of its rights on lands by the European invaders, is then a predecessor of The falling sky. It inaugurates a sort of gloomy literary production related to the physical and metaphysical genocides of Amerindian peoples. But Kopenawa’s text is also a critical deconstruction of central aspects of the Western ontology, such as the rational and technical domain of nature, capitalistic fetishism, intellectual solipsism, racial and religious intolerance.

Readers of The falling sky might feel a severe contrast between the first chapters of the book and its sequence: from the strikingly beautiful descriptions of becoming-multiplicity processes to the dark accounts of gores and disruptions that point toward the destruction not only of the Yanomami but of a common shared world. It is this shift that produces the speculative and dramatic force of the book, revealing the wideness of the categories employed by shamanistic intellectual thought. In what rests this speculative discourse produced by Kopenawa? Lévi-Strauss (1958) argued long ago in “La geste d’Asdiwal,” that mythic speculations are not directed toward the description of reality, but to the justification of its limitations. More recently, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro argued, “the mythical semiotic regime, regardless to the empirical veracity or falsity of its contents, is established always that the relations between humans as such and its general conditions of existence imposes itself as problems for thought” (2014: 17, my translation).1 Therefore, Kopenawa’s reflections are not only a descriptive account of shamanistic experiences, of personal deeds and events related to the invasion of whites and its destructive world, but a narrative speculation about the philosophical problem of destruction, death, and knowledge. Its criteria are nevertheless obscure to Westerners, and it is exactly because of this ignorance that labels such as imaginary, mythic, fictitious, or animistic constantly diminish other people’s forms of knowledge.

A proof of intellectual and ontological autonomy of other peoples, The falling sky is also a challenge to the reader engaged in the investigation of its conceptual specificity. The sharp contrast between the two parts referred above might be a strategic way of understanding this originality. The contrast reveals that the progressive acquisition of consciousness about the problem of inhumanity derives precisely from the progressive familiarization with the hyperhumanity. Kopenawa stresses this in important points of the text like the following: “It was only much later, when I understood that the white people could be bad, that my mind turned away from such thoughts.” (2013: 215) This perception that the white’s seductive way of living is actually a trap is reinforced and intensified throughout the book, as we see in the following passage referent to the witnessing of the massacre of one Yanomami group by the garimpeiros: “ ‘Gold is nothing more than shiny dust in the mud. Yet the white people can kill for that! Will they kill many more of us in the same way? And after that will their epidemic fumes eat those who remain down to the very last? Do they want us all to disappear?’ From that moment on, my thoughts became really strong” (270).

The force of Kopenawa’s speculative thought is not a consequence of writing and literacy, although it is produced by systematic and critical comparison of events, accounts, and experiences. This critical systematicity, enhanced by his transformation into a shaman and international activist, is attached to another epistemology and its correspondent configuration of reality, whose instruments rest in the activation of the virtual multiplicity of the xapiri for the production of thought. A virtual pandemonium of homunculus, as Alfred Gell (1998: 126) once said via Daniel Dennett, is the problem at stake. Not the input/output relations characteristic of modern epistemologies, but the construction of knowledge (or what is translated as “thought” throughout the book) as something diverse: a person-building that hosts the multiplicity, a corporeal-celestial house that is much more than the Eiffel Tower, conceived by Kopenawa as a mere lifeless construction of iron unable to emit songs (Kopenawa and Albert 2013: 344). It is through his virtual pandemonium that Kopenawa speculates, as we see again in the following passage: “At night, I have often thought about those things of the underground that the white people so avidly covet. I asked myself: ‘how did they come into existence? What are they made of?’ Finally, the xapiri allowed me to see their origin in the time of dream” (283).

Although mobilized in a special context (that of an activist traveling to distant countries and engaging in discussions with white peoples’ institutions and leaders), Kopenawa’s background is not different from those of other Amerindian peoples. The visionary access to an intensive multiplicity of spirits, the processes of shamanistic initiation, the transformation of the shaman into another person (characterized by a different body and blood), the mobilization of a sociocosmo-logical network of agents (translated by us as “spirits”) for ritual and intellectual activities, the use of shamanistic categories to translate white people’s world, all this can be found in other ethnographies such as my own on Marubo shamanism (Cesarino 2011). This could be explained by a shared “set of presuppositions about what exists”—a definition of ontology recently suggested by Mauro Almeida (2013: 3), pointing to a problem that cannot be simply interpreted as an academic fashion or whim. These presuppositions are always open to connections and transformations, and not closed in isolated worlds or wholes. Actually, they can be seen or tested exactly during processes of connection, as in the pragmatic encounters discussed by Almeida. A pragmatic encounter (prone to unleash processes of equivocation, such as those referred by Viveiros de Castro [2004]) demands an adjustment of the categories of different backgrounds, thus revealing aspects of an ontology that, nevertheless, could not be completely viewed or understood.

If this is true, then what could be one of the touchstones of Amerindian on-tological backgrounds, and especially one that is constantly mobilized in conflicts with those of Western configurations of reality? The audacious use of the notion of “image” throughout The falling sky will lead us to the point. The term makes reference to the Yanomami notion of utupë, a close kin of other Amerindian notions such as the yochin of Panoan, the karon of Jê and the ang of Tupi speaking peoples, generally translated as “spirit,” “soul,” or “double” throughout the ethnographies. Viveiros de Castro offered the following reflection about Albert and Kopenawa’s solution:

And to complete the picture, we can note the somewhat paradoxical nature of an image that is at once non-iconic and non-visible. What defines spirits, in a certain sense, is the fact they index characteristic affects of the species of which they are the image without, for this very reason, appearing like the species of which they are the image. By the same token, what defines an “image” is its eminent visibility: an image is something-to-be-seen, it is the necessary objective correlative of a gaze, an exteriority which posits itself as the target of an intentionally aimed look; but the xapiripë are interior images, inaccessible to the empirical exercise of vision. Hence, they must be the object of a superior or transcendental exercise of this faculty: images that are as the condition of the species of which they are the image; active images, indexes which interpret us before we interpret them, images which must see us in order for us to be able to see them. . . . (2007: 20)

In a classic study on the ancient Greek notion of eidolon, Jean-Pierre Vernant (1965) argued that it could not be understood as an image (such as when it is personified in the kolossoi funerary sculptures) but rather as a double because the eidola are neither a natural object or a mental construct. Vernant’s considerations could nevertheless lead us to a misunderstanding of the notion of “image” adopted by Albert, Kopenawa, and Viveiros de Castro, since they are all engaged in offering an alternative to the iconic conception of image and its afilliations to the modern problems of representation and solipsism. The idea is to offer an alternative to the reduction of principles such as utupë to the mind, as well as to an animistic projection toward the external world.

Notions like utupë are not also paradoxical when considered as an alternative to the external, visible, and iconic notion of image shared by Western visual systems. They are also irreducible to binary schemes such as soul/mind, immaterial/ material, for they presuppose a potential of recursion (also encountered in other shamanistic ontologies): a xapiri (“spirit”) can be defined as an utupë, which is the internal (but not mental), invisible, and indexical aspect of “something” such as an animal, tree, or atmospheric phenomenon. This “something” is not a physical-ity that could be opposed to an immateriality, since an utupë (as a xapiri) is also endowed with a(nother) body and corporeal behaviors. The difference between what Albert (Kopenawa and Albert 2010: 686n) translates as an “envelope corporelle” (sikï) and “image corporelle/essence” (utupë) can be better understood as a difference between molar and molecular configurations, borrowing Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) conceptual vocabulary for the reinvention of Amerindian ethnography (cf. Viveiros de Castro 2007). The ordinary visible and extensive “body,” such as that of Kopenawa before being initiated, can progressively fade out and let appear, from the virtual background, an intensive multiplicity of bodies utupë, characterized by other definitions of limit and connection: this is precisely the moment of becoming-xapiri, not by hazard described by Kopenawa through the image of infinite mirror reflections.

What happens when this ontological background encounters another one completely obsessed by the molar/extensive materiality and, most of all, by its value? One example can be found in Kopenawa’s reflection on the museums, a moment when his rage, provoked by Western nonsensical materialism, is revealed in an original conceptual framework. In a conversation held with his hosts in Paris during the visit to an ethnographic collection, he wonders when his own people will be collected and exhibited in glass cages. In addition to offering an acute perception of the systematic lack of respect for other peoples’ dead, Kopenawa’s reflections also reveals Westerners’ incapacity to understand visual systems related to other ontological configurations such as that of the Yanomami. This incapacity entails one of the most eloquent and endurable symbols of unproductive equivocation: the ethnographic museum and its redefinitions of other peoples’ things by the clas-sificatory categories of an imperial regime of objecthood (cf. Mitchell 2005: 145). Kopenawa’s concern can be seen in this passage:

Our toucan-tail bunches, our parrot- and guan-wing feathers, our cock-of-the-rock and sei sei bird feathered hides are precious goods that belong to the yawarioma water beings. By taking them away, the white people also capture their images and keep them shut up very far from our forest. That is why, as I said, this will make us both ugly and clumsy at hunting. (Kopenawa and Albert 2013: 348)

As far as I understand, Kopenawa is not making reference to an external iconic image of things that could be portrayed in pictures. This is not exactly the kind of image that white people inadvertently capture. While removing one thing from its original framework and transforming it in an object (such as a work of art or an ethnographical artifact), they actually violate the previous configuration constituted by a corporeal envelope and its virtual humanoid multiplicity—the indexi-cal, invisible, and agentive images-double. Hence the effects (ugliness, clumsiness) produced in the Yanomami, also linked to this complexity (envelope, virtual multiplicity) in a very different way than Westerners are linked to things (through intellectual, affective, aesthetical, or consumerist bonds). An apparent homonymy of words (image and “image”) reveals in fact a clash between two different configurations of reality: one marked by processes of reification and the other by the presupposition of multiplicity behind things.

“This is what I think. By wanting to possess all this merchandise, they were seized by a limitless desire. Their thought was filled with smoke and invaded by night” (ibid.: 327). This passage, that could well have been written by a Western intellectual, is actually more than a diagnosis of capitalistic schizophrenia, for it presupposes an alternative flux of desire oriented by a configuration of reality ignored and neglected by the contemporary world. This is why Kopenawa stresses the role of generosity as a way to create and replicate social bonds, instead of the avidity toward values and the incapacity of understanding the eternal (but susceptible) things such as water, stones, mountains, sky, sun, and the xapiri—things called parimi by the Yanomami (ibid.: 330). Even being able to survive the fall of the sky, the xapiri-multiplicity is not free from the threats imposed by white peoples’ smoky thoughts: previously attached to their shamans owners, the xapiri become angry toward the people that killed their fathers and begin to seek revenge, following a massive destruction of the world as known by us today. The falling sky is not only, as I said before, the most important text produced recently by an Amerindian, as if its relevance could be delimitated only by an ethnographical scope; it is also one of the most powerful contemporary narratives about the radical reconfiguration of the earth-system by human agency or, in other words, the anthropocene (cf. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 2014). Its originality, however, does not rest exactly on the diagnosis of chaos but rather on the perseverant offering of another possible world and condition of humanity.


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1. “O regime semiótico do mito, indiferente à verdade ou falsidade empírica de seus con-teúdos, instaura-se sempre que a relação entre os humanos como tais e suas condições mais gerais de existência se impõe como problema para a razão.”