Davi Kopenawa’s letter to the world

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Janice Boddy. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.022


Davi Kopenawa’s letter to the world

Janice BODDY, University of Toronto

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 is a revelation. Not only is it a superb indigenous account of Amazonian cosmology, it is also a masterful critique of the Western materialism that has led our planet to the brink of ruin. I reflect here on two dimensions of this rich and remarkable book: what it tells us about seeing as an “other”—in Davi Kopenawa’s words—and some off-page difficulties that the coauthors of this trans-cultural autobiography have so skillfully overcome.


Striking in Davi Kopenawa’s description of Yanomami life is his reference to the fruits of a being’s activity as its “leftovers.” The image seems banal given the better known poetics of Amazonian perspectivism (e.g., Viveiros de Castro 2012; Vilaca 2013; Descola 2013)—its shape-shifting jaguars and luminous spirits that a shaman summons and travels among—but is enormously telling. Leftovers include a hunter’s fallen prey. The hunter does not “eat” his catch as this could preempt the cycle of reciprocity between humans and animals, predator and game. Instead, he must call his kin to remove it from where it fell and prepare it for shared consumption. Here foregrounded is the act, not the result, exchange, and transformation, relations rather than things “produced” (see Viveiros de Castro 2012). And where an older anthropology might reduce the successful hunter’s deference to its social function—leveling differences in expertise so as to maintain an egalitarian ethos-it is for the Yanomami a respectful acknowledgement of the animal’s sacrifice, of the interdependence and interchange of being.

Davi Kopenawa’s philosophy—his shamanic mediation of realities—tacks a river between uneven shores. On one bank live the Yanomami of Brazil and their indigenous neighbors, for whom the mutual implication of humans and animals continually constitutes and revalues the world. On the other live “the white people,” who regard nonhuman beings as objects, entities distinct from themselves whose inherent values are theirs to take. Kopenawa’s thought is trained within the former, a universe predicated on empathy and relatedness, life experienced in a gerundial mode—in the being, doing, feeling. His perspective is rooted in a cosmos whose aesthetic resides in movement rather than stasis, circulation rather than accumulation, relationality rather than individualism. For Yanomami, things and beings do not stay put. The whites’ “merchandise” lasts a long time but continually passes from person to person, for, writes Kopenawa (2013: 329), “We know that we will die, this is why we easily give our goods away. Since we are mortal, we think it is ugly to cling too firmly to the objects we happen to possess.” Meanwhile, masses of insatiable well-armed garimpeiros (prospectors) “frenetically” besiege the forest, pollute its streams, cut down its trees, and decimate its inhabitants. “All this,” he jibes, “to find gold so the white people can use it to make themselves teeth and ornaments or keep it locked up in their houses!” (262)

Kopenawa himself journeys widely within both worlds, or more accurately, in different dimensions of the same. As an initiated shaman he embodies and cultivates supportive relations with the xapiri spirits with whom his essence travels, having left his “skin” behind. He inhales yakoana snuff to feed his xapiri, widen his thought, study, and observe. With his xapiri helpers he works to heal and protect the vulnerable, including “whites.”

As an environmental activist Kopenawa travels in his skin to London, New York, Paris, speaking out against the devastation of the forest and those who struggle to live there in the wake of unregulated, utterly damaging “development” and wave after wave of epidemic disease to which indigenous Amazonians are horribly prone. He is a person of the forest and invariably feels physically and spiritually out of sorts on airplanes and in cities. In the “wounded lands” (255) of “the other,” where the sky bends close to the earth, he is anguished by the poverty of people living on urban streets, and incensed by the inhumane hoarding of shelter and food. Aided by his interlocutor, French anthropologist Bruce Albert, he has appropriated the whites’ technology of “paper skins” to warn those mired on the materialist shore against the consequences of their voraciousness. His book is a shamanic feat of “becoming other” in order to heal.

Intriguingly, its basic argument reprises that of a celebrated seventeenth-century illustrated text, The first new chronicle and good government, composed by Felipe Waman Puma, an Andean nobleman and sometime translator for missionary and historian of the Inca, Frey Martin de Murua. Waman Puma’s lengthy book (more than 1100 pages) was framed as a letter to the king of Spain protesting colonization and defending indigenous people. Much like Kopenawa’s in an Amazonian milieu, “[Waman Puma’s] viewpoint was documentary and comprehensive: from the mythical beginnings of Andean civilization through the latest outrages committed against the Indians in the provinces, he sought to present to the colonial monarch the fullest possible picture of the Andean world and to convince Philip III of the Andeans’ right to autonomy” (Adorno 1981: 12). This extraordinary chronicle moldered for centuries in the Danish Royal Library where it was found by a German scholar in 1908 and subsequently revived by the efforts of John Murra and Rolena Adorno, who produced a critical transcription in the 1980s (Guaman Poma [Waman Puma] [1615] 2006). One of Waman Puma’s drawings is remarkably apt to the Amazonian case. It depicts the first encounter between a European and the Inka Wayna Qapaq, who offers the former a dish of nuggets, asking “Do you eat this gold?” To which the European replies that they do (Harris 1989: 234; Guaman Poma [Waman Puma] [1615] 2006: 371).1 The falling sky traces a similarly caustic arc.

Christian evangelists figure in Kopenawa’s narrative too, here Protestants of the New Tribes Mission (NTM) whose aim is to spread the gospel and “effectively plant” churches among the isolated peoples of the world. In contrast to Yanomami, the NTM believe “in the fall of man, resulting in his complete and universal separation from God and his need of salvation” and “the unending punishment of the unsaved.”2 “Here below,” the missionaries teach, “the forest is hostile,” but “[God’s] forest is magnificent” (Kopenawa and Albert 2013: 191). The former is, of course, sadly prophetic. Arriving in 1960 not long after an epidemic attributed to a member of the SPI (Indian Protection Service) had ravaged Kopenawa’s group and left their numbers much reduced, the missionaries found his people grieving and anxious. They sowed seeds of doubt in the efficacy of the xapiri and shamanic treatment, and thus gained followers for Teosi (Deus, God). But the missionaries’ hypocritical behavior along with further bouts of disease, including a devastating measles outbreak unwittingly introduced by a mission family returning by plane from Manaus, tested the Yanomami’s newfound beliefs, prompting some to leave the mission and its message behind. “Very few of us still imitate Teosi,” Kopenawa writes, “and the shamans no longer fear the missionaries as they once did. The xapiri continue to let us hear their songs, which are our true language” (207). Despite incalculable physical and intellectual violence, Kopenawa is balanced, indeed generous in his portrayal of the missionaries’ lethal myopia, noting that the organization’s quick response with medical aid had likely prevented his own death.

Paper skins/writing

As anyone who has acted as transcultural amanuensis knows, it is challenging to produce a work that faithfully depicts the complexity of another’s ever-evolving life. Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa worked for decades on this book, recording tapes in Yanomami (in which Albert is proficient) and Portuguese (which Kopenawa speaks) that Albert then transcribed into French. They went back and forth on the volume’s narrative path, its three parts depicting, respectively, the shaman’s world, early to present contact with whites in the forest, and Kopenawa’s activist travels abroad. The last two parts are organized more-or-less chronologically, with occasional but essential bits of backtracking and filling in. The pages or “paper skins” retain the flavor of oral narration, replete with repetitions, hesitations, and asides that gradually coalesce to disclose their eloquent core. The filters of language and literary convention intrude but lightly and the composition itself is extraordinarily supple and precise.3

Still, in confessional and admonitory texts such as this disasters tend to pile up and their cumulative weight threatens to deter the outraged reader from continuing. That was a major concern of my coeditors and me when working on the manuscript of Aman: The story of a Somali girl (1994). Aman had shared memories of her hard-scrabble early life in southern Somalia with a gifted ethnographer who died before a publisher was found; I and the eventual editors worked to shape the transcripts into an intelligible but ethnographically responsible book. Although Aman’s purpose was not as sweeping as Davi Kopenawa’s, and their situations could hardly be less alike, as narrators they share in the desire to reach out to readers across cultural divides and warn them by example, provoke a salutary change in perspective. Yet a litany of injustices is difficult to bear. Here, I think, the authors of The falling sky have made an astute choice.4 Chapters detailing chilling encounters are interrupted by ones in which Kopenawa explores the Yanomami themes that they adduce. The technique strengthens the narrative, exposing us to what Kopenawa would call its “upstream” or deeper meaning, better enabling the reader to grasp the contrast between Yanomami ways and those of the world that they critique. Thus, if only for a moment, ethnography braces the sky and breaks our fall.


Adorno, Rolena 1981. Waman Puma de Ayala “Author and Prince.” Review: Literature and Arts of Latin America 15 (28): 12–16.

Aman, Virginia Lee Barnes, and Janice Boddy. 1994. Aman: the story of a Somali girl. New York: Pantheon.

Descola, Philippe 2013. Beyond nature and culture. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guaman Poma (Waman Puma). (1615) 2006. El Primer Nueva Cordnica y Buen Gobierno. Edited by J. Murra and R. Adorno with J. L. Urioste. Det Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS 2232 4o, http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/frontpage.htm.

Harris, Olivia 1989. “The earth and the state: The sources and meanings of money in Northern Potosi, Bolivia.” In Money and the morality of exchange, edited by Jonathan Parry, and Maurice Bloch, 232–68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Vilaca, Aparecida 2013. “Reconfiguring humanity in Amazonia: Christianity and change.” In A companion to the anthropology of religion, edited by Janice Boddy, and Michael Lambek, 363–86. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo 2012. Cosmological perspectivism in Amazonia and elsewhere. HAU Masterclass Series 1: 45–81.


Janice Boddy
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto
19 Russell Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2S2, Canada


1. Det Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS 2232 4o Guaman Poma, Nueva Coránica y Buen Gobierno (1615), p. 371, http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/371/en/image/?open=id2642390.

2. Articles 4 and 9 respectively in the Statement of Faith, New Tribes Mission http://canada.ntm.org/what-we-believe, accessed May 9, 2014.

3. The English translators must also be congratulated on this score, and the copious endnotes provided by Albert are extremely useful.

4. Ours were different: with Aman’s permission we combined several episodes lest the narrative lose momentum. Ethnographic and historical material was provided only at the end. A key distinction is that between an intentionally “popular” and a scholarly approach.