The Voice of the Shaman

Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Shaman Davi Kopenawa in the Yanomami village of Demini, settled in the late 1970s near a FUNAI ­outpost that occupied a barracks from the abandoned Perimetral Norte road project, Yanomami territory, ­Roraima state, Brazil, April 2014; photographs by Sebastião Salgado, whose exhibition ‘Sebastião Salgado: Genesis’ is at the International Center of Photography, New York City, until January 11, 2015. The catalog is edited by Lélia Wanick Salgado and published by Taschen.

The Falling Sky, by the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa and the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, takes its title from a creation myth of the Yanomami people, who live in the border region between Brazil and Venezuela. The primordial world was crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed “back” of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged, and where they remain to this day; they still call the forest “the old sky.” A new sky was erected, held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.

Numbering 33,000, the Yanomami are one of the Amazon’s largest indigenous societies, occupying a vast territory centered on the Parima mountain range dividing the Amazon from the Orinoco basin. Isolated until the early twentieth century, their first regular contacts with missionaries and government agents in Brazil began between 1940 and 1960. These relations brought them metal tools and other desired trade goods as well as fatal disease epidemics.

In the 1970s, the Brazilian government began cutting the northern leg of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, causing deforestation and new disruptions to Yanomami life. Highway construction was abandoned after several years but a huge gold rush in the mid-1980s inflicted tremendous suffering and ecological devastation. In 1992 international campaigns by anthropologists and indigenous and nongovernmental organizations resulted in the demarcation of a contiguous territory for the Yanomami totaling 192,000 square kilometers (slightly larger than Florida) shared between Brazil and Venezuela. Both authors of this book, Kopenawa as international Yanomami spokesman and Albert as cofounder of the nongovernmental organization CCPY (Pro-Yanomami Commission), were central figures in this important victory, and both remain active in the ongoing struggle against mining incursions and other threats.1

The Falling Sky is several things. It is the autobiography of Davi Kopenawa, one of Brazil’s most prominent and eloquent indigenous leaders. It is the most vivid and authentic account of shamanistic philosophy I have ever read. It is also a passionate appeal for the rights of indigenous people and a scathing condemnation of the damage wrought by…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.