Review of the bookThe Falling Sky

A book titled The last of the Yanomami was published in Turin in September 1984. On the cover appeared the subheading “a dive into prehistory”. At the time I had already spent four years in the Catrimâni area, working with and for the Yanomami indios (natives), living among them, a period I consider to be the happiest in my whole life. I was outraged when I read the word “Last” in the title of that book, since all my professional efforts were spent in the physical and cultural preservation of the Yanomami. More recently, in July 2017 the Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily paper, published a reportage whose subheading was “The prayer of the last of the Yanomami”.

From 1984 to 2017 thirty-three years had passed, however in Italy the same banal and stereotyped words are still used when referring to this ethnic group. In January 2018 I was interviewed by Sveva Sagramola on RAI 3, the national Italian television. A journalist friend of mine, who took part in the rebel movement of May 1968, wrote to me: “Surely the fact that the Yanomami have doubled in numbers and that they can defend themselves very well, has slowed our emotional response… what can we do for them? What can they do for us?”. What can the Yanomami do for us? They can help us recovering from our ethnocentrism, which is a horrible, contagious disease.

Recently the book “The falling sky” came out in Italy. It was first published in French and English in 2010 and in Portuguese in 2015. The book is set to have a worldwide outreach, as the co-author Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman, wishes for.

In December 1989, French ethnologist Bruce Albert started a series of recording of Davi’s words. He continued over the course of ten years. He then translated them into French, thanks to his exceptional knowledge of the language. The book resulted is an incredible example of complicity between two men who share their values and concerns about the future of the Yanomami tribe, constantly threatened by the expansion of Western society. At the same time the book is an autobiography that the ethnologist converted into a biography. It is a Yanomami encyclopedia, with huge amount of information about Yanomami’s habitat, their language, mythology, botanical knowledge, zoology and lifestyle. Reading the book allows us to have an insight of the Yanomami cosmogony, to know about which values their social structure is built on. It makes us thinking about different ways of seeing, hearing, acting. It compares the so-called “civilised society” with the so-called “primitive”.

While for westerners “ecology” is mostly a popular word, for the Yanomami is part the essence of their culture. Accumulation, consumerism, attacking nature and exploitation of the natural resources turned the Earth into a wasteland. We cannot cope with the disposal of our waste any more. Toxic waste poisons the air, water, the soil, everything we eat, and we die of cancer. Fishes die of suffocation due to plastic; people die at sea, people labelled as “alien” by our own selfishness. Massive hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, designed by sick minds, have resulted in natural disasters that affect areas larger than the places where they were built in. Everything happens in the name of the so-called progress which, becoming increasingly widespread, has the only outcome of impoverishing the humans’ souls, making them individualist and isolated. Davi and Bruce’s words make us face all of this. Davi is so altruistic that he is concerned about the future of white men too: he suggests that, by finding ways to avoid the sky from falling, together with the Yanomami we could be saved too.

Unselfishness is in facts the main value for the Yanomami. According to them, only the one who has been generous during his life will reach the “Land Above”, a concept similar to what we call heaven.

At the end of the Seventies, myself and other members of the team working in Catrimâni were leading a project called “Awareness Plan”, which at that time was focused on helping the Yanomami in understanding what was threatening their territory (road building, logging, colonisation). At the beginning it was rather difficult, mainly because the indigenous people believed that the forest was big enough and there was room for everyone. When epidemics and death reduced thirteen villages to eight small groups of survivors, they realised firsthand what white men were bringing. Among the various requests the Brazilian Indios are making in these recent years, there is the one of not being referred to with a past perfect tense, to stop being assigned to prehistory. They are here, they exist today. They have been fighting against the invasion of their land for over five hundred years. They are our peers. Their cultures and societies are not inferior, they are just different. They have a lot to teach us, if only we had the humility of listening to them for what they are: human beings with knowledge, experience, rights, feelings, dreams, just like we do.

Despite the continuous, harsh assault to their territory and culture, in the recent years the Yanomami have grown considerably in numbers, they organised themselves, they have teachers, nurses, leaders who travel across the globe in order to keep the worldwide high, denouncing violence and claiming their rights. No, absolutely not: there will not be any last Yanomami. If the sky will fall, they will be the ones who will have the most chances of surviving, togheter with other indigenous tribes, because they know how to take care of the earth, how to enjoy it without abusing it, how to make it fertile and pass it to the future generations. While Bruce stayed at Davi’s village, he once took a pitcure of me that portrayed me holding Davi’s daughter. That picture is for me more precious than all the gold and minerals that white scavengers have already stolen from the Yanomami territories. Together with that picture there is the wish that the small Yanomami society will keep growing strong and healthy, despite everyone and everything.

Translated from Italian by Michele Cadei