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Catching The Falling Sky

The planetary crisis seen from the Yanomami cosmos of Davi Kopenawa
Illustration of mirrors of the xapiri
Mirrors of the xapiri

by Bruno Clarke

Published in 2010, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman weighs in at over 600 pages in the 2013 English translation.[i] In the original printing, developed from tape recordings conducted over several decades in the Yanomami language, supplemented by Portuguese, between a Yanomami shaman and a French anthropologist, the singular yet composite voice of Davi Kopenawa narrates in the French language of the book’s co-author, editor, and annotator, Bruce Albert. In three long sections of eight chapters each, the main text chronicles a history of the Yanomami since contact, a span hardly longer than Kopenawa’s own lifetime, while transcribing a detailed image of the ritualized oral communications that have sustained this culture over untold centuries. It translates their embodied traditions into the mode of writing, lifting its local message beyond its linguistic and cultural scenes of origin and so demonstrating its global relevance.

The substantial back matter of The Falling Sky begins with “How This Book Was Written”: here Albert adds an extensive critique of previous anthropological productions of Indigenous monographs detailing the pitfalls of such cultural translations and specifying how the current authors have dealt with these issues. Scholarly readers may find this a good place to start. Several appendices follow, beginning with “Ethnonym, Language, and Orthography” and including an "Ethnobiological Glossary" that lists in one place Kopenawa’s hundreds of species references, a found catalog of Amazonian biodiversity just in the profusion of Yanomami proper names.

All told, The Falling Sky comprehends a sizable archive of traditional and esoteric Yanomami knowledge and belief that bids to instruct us neo-Europeans and other moderns in long-forgotten modes of vital relation to the world. Its revelations of animism in cultural practice upset our Western sense of things. Bearing messages for us from this other dimension—a literally nonmodern belief system’s witness to the contemporary planetary crisis—this text is tasked to span worlds and resolve entrenched hostilities.

Regular contacts between the settler colony of Brazil and the Indigenous forest-dwelling Yanomami peoples only began in the mid twentieth century. Davi Kopenawa’s stories open up this alien world from the inside. After a while, we may suspect that we are the presumptuous and blundering aliens while his people are some of the last hard-wired Earthlings to undergo a violent and unmerited invasion from beyond.[ii] Among many curious, sometimes wondrous places, The Falling Sky transports its reader to an intolerable repetition of the broad European colonial and imperial subjugation of the Americas.[iii] All over again, an Amerindian people suffers death and cultural destruction from waves of contagion and the thousand cuts of deforestation and toxic extraction. We recoil from the dismal prospect of their irreparable loss.

Kopenawa and Albert expose the Yanomami cosmos to a contemporary cosmopolitan reception as a writ declaring these Indigenous peoples’ very existence, their dignity as the bearers of an invaluable culture in danger of perishing, and their birthright to remain standing on their own land. The Falling Sky is a plea for the preservation of their Amazonian homeland as both a viable residence for the Yanomami and a major lung of the current biosphere. It hopes to summon the international political will to preserve the Yanomami from extinction as a people.

And then an even more comprehensive calculus emerges. It is the Yanomami and their Indigenous kin who can most effectively guide efforts to preserve the forest and its many amenities to Gaia—the Earth system altogether. Yet we can seriously hope to hold the Amazon Forest intact as a viable ecosystem only if the Yanomami can manage to remain culturally intact on their ancestral land. To preserve the rain forest, first ensure their survival.

The Shaman

Part I, “Becoming Other,” centers on Davi Kopenawa’s spiritual journey, beginning with the manner of his acquaintance with the xapiri spirits before and after his initiation into the shamanic practices that formalize and perfect communications between the visible and invisible worlds. Along the way, Kopenawa expounds Yanomami beliefs regarding the divinities who brought their world into being and also created the spirits that enliven it.

Kopenawa received his first name from the Bible of the missionaries who worked the newly opened territories of his childhood. Both the resident Yanomami and the settler Christians inhabit a world of teachings, to be sure, but these differ in content and in medium. Christian missionaries represent the people of the Book. Song inhabits their customs of worship, but their social reproduction is based on the dissemination of a fixed scripture. The Yanomami are people of song, reliant on the shamans’ continuous retrieval of the ever-changing words, chants, and dances of the xapiri for delivery to their community at large. In Kopenawa’s youth two worlds were already joined together, the substantial life of the forest dwelling where he honed his hunting skills and the realm of the darting xapiri spirits that flickered within it, coming to his aid in dream: “The xapiri are the images of the yarori ancestors who turned into animals in the beginning of time. This is their real name. You call them ‘spirits,’ but they are other. They came into existence when the forest was still young” (55).[iv]

In his account of origins, the yarori ancestors were the first humans, who became other by becoming animals, the game of the forest. Yet in Yanomami belief, we learn, animals still think of themselves as human: all life is human in the final instance. This “background molecular humanity” as Viveiros de Castro puts it can be read as an affirmation of the common transformativity of all living beings, human and nonhuman. In this “broadly shared notion in indigenous America, . . . each existing species sees itself as (anatomically and culturally) human, since what it sees of itself is its ‘soul,’ that is, an internal image that is like a shadow or echo of the ancestral humanoid background common to all beings.”[v]

Diseases swept away much of the generation of his elders, while his own ailments as a youth brought him repeatedly into Brazil’s regional hospitals. From Bible lessons providing literacy to nursing training in Portuguese, these contacts initiated both his education in Western ways and beliefs and his tours of employment with the white people, often as a translator for FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation. But after sizable exposure to white society and some failed attempts to become a white person, Kopenawa went back to the forest, married the daughter of a mature shaman, and consummated his shamanic vocation under his father-in-law’s tutelage.

Concurrently, his numerous interactions with white society during his adolescence and twenties prepared him for widening circles of further exposure to Western modernity. When still an apprentice shaman, following the organized resistance he led to the first great wave of illegal gold mining on Yanomami land, the resource poaching of the garimpeiros in the 1980s, Kopenawa also found himself in the role of cultural emissary, further fulfilling the shamanic character of messenger.[vi] A new circle of anthropological and environmentalist contacts eventually led him to New York and Paris as an ambassador of the rain forest. In these later chapters of the book, Kopenawa composes an exhilarating and devastating reverse anthropology of urban white culture. At the Musée de l’Homme in the Trocadéro, he is outraged to see sacred objects from his world, their spirits muffled inside glass cases.[vii] On his speaking tours, cooped up and miserable in high-rise hotel rooms, he commiserates with Europe’s abandoned, forgotten xapiri, for centuries absconded to the mountains, biding their time.

Kopenawa’s initiation and subsequent practice of shamanic commerce with the xapiri are certainly high points of The Falling Sky. The pharmakon at hand—the catalyst for “becoming other”—transient transformation into a spirit to whom other spirits are now visible—is a snuff made from the psychoactive bark of the yãkoana tree. To the accompaniment of elder shamans’ songs of guidance, yãkoana powder is shot into the recipient’s nostrils with a long tube. This substance is food to the xapiri, whose good graces the successful shaman must earn with generous gifts. Once the spectacular bodily practices inducing ritual hallucination of spirit travel are completed, as this account unfolds throughout the narrative, a vast and minute image, a cosmological microcosm, is woven thread by thread into place.

Word, Image, Song

The opening chapter of Part I, “Drawn Words,” attends to foundational matters of naming, language, and the differences between spoken and written mediums. Kopenawa is profoundly cognizant that the book he is helping to create for the benefit of the white people by means of “image skins”—words on paper—through which he can communicate these matters to non-Indigenous others, inscribes them in a medium alien to his culture. Both in terms of his own questing intellect and in light of his uniquely deep experience of previously disconnected worlds, Kopenawa is exquisitely positioned to plumb the contrast between orality and literacy.

As he is bitterly aware, because his people do not possess alphabetic writing, it is automatically assumed that they are simple-minded. Rejecting this ignorant prejudice—or perhaps better, superstition—on the part of white culture, in defense of the qualities of mind accorded supreme value by his own people, he quickly cuts to the chase:

White people say they are intelligent.[viii] But we are not any less intelligent. Our thoughts unfurl in every direction and our words are ancient and numerous. They are the words of our ancestors. Yet unlike white people we do not need image skins to prevent them from escaping. We do not need to draw them, like the white people do with theirs. They will not disappear, for they remain fixed inside us. So our memory is long and strong. The same is true of our xapiri spirits’ words. They are also very ancient. Yet they become new again each time they return to dance for a young shaman. (22-23)

Embodied in songs, Yanomami practices demonstrate how melodic orality supplies an effective organ of cultural memory and persistent creation. Kopenawa justly skewers the Western fetish monopolizing “intelligence” and who or what is allowed to add that faculty to their ontological portfolio. Moreover, as Socrates informed Phaedrus long ago regarding the gifts of Thoth, the possession of writing is no guarantee of intelligent behavior and may even do positive harm by weakening the embodied faculty of memory.[ix] Indeed, Kopenawa reminds us that the capacity of memorial speech in oral culture is not at all limited to rote repetition but rather can perform the continuous renovation of its contents. Its constant recreation brings about its incremental innovation.[x]

This intimate intuition of the uninterrupted fecundity of the living world, which the xapiri capture in song, becomes a kind of leitmotif throughout the text:

The xapiri’s songs follow each other endlessly. They go gather them from the distant song trees we call amoa hi. Omama created these wise-tongued trees in the beginning of time so the shaman’s spirits could fly there to acquire their words. Since then, the xapiri have stopped by them to collect the heart of their melodies before doing their presentation dance for the shamans. (58)

Yanomami myths are the refrains for songs not merely repeated but continuously transformed in resonance with the shifting ground of incessant changes in their surrounding world. Perpetually renewed song transmits the instantaneity of living sentience. Or so I construe this imagery against a certain sense in the concept of biological autopoiesis that emphasizes life’s momentaneity, its continuous drive to continue.[xi] Beginning with living systems, this is the spirit of self-maintenance that accompanies the matter of self-production.

The xapiri constantly sing their songs, one after another, as they hear their father [the shaman] answer their calls. As soon as one of them finishes his melody, he moves aside while another starts to make his heard, without any interruption. Their words come from wise song trees growing at the ends of the earth, which is why they have no end. (111)

In the world Kopenawa describes, the xapiri partake of the continuous reproduction of incremental differences in living processes. They convert such infinitesimal and continuous life events into melodic words in motion, songs sung and danced, mythic molds for improvisatory articulations coupling inner experiences and social messages, trance and communion. Gathering at the amoa hi song trees, the spirits of the songbirds frequently come forward in flocks:

These xapiri are the images of the thrushes whose harmonious call we hear in the forest in the morning and at night. It is so. All the xapiri have their own songs: the toucan and aracari spirits, the parrot spirits, the little wete mo macaw spirits, the xotokoma and yõriama bird spirits, and all the others! (58)

A certain ambiguity of expression suggests an identity, like that between birds and their songs, between the xapiri and their words: they are both “very ancient,” yet they both “become new again” in their mutual and simultaneous presentation to and by the shaman. Here is a pure practice of active mythopoesis, available to renovate our own ideas about primal song and poetic creation and their ability to legislate in the parliament of being.

Forest Sunlight

Transience and renovation are major themes of Yanomami stories. Kopenawa’s accounts bring forth a world prone to upheavals. Their present world is not the first to have appeared; it is the successor to a prior world:

. . . Then it was Omama’s turn to come into being and to recreate the forest, for the one that existed before was fragile. It constantly became other until finally the sky fell on it. . . . This is why Omama had to create a new, more solid forest, whose name is Hutukara. This is also the name of the ancient sky, which fell long ago. (27-28)

The sky fell at least once before. Kopenawa’s sources inform him that its mistreatment by the modern world is threatening another collapse:

What the white people call the whole world is being tainted because of the factories that make all their merchandise, their machines, and their motors. Though the sky and the earth are vast, their fumes eventually spread in every direction, and all are affected: humans, game, and the forest.. . . We shamans fear this disease of the sky more than anything. (295-96)

Contemporary forest ecology affirms that a biome like the Amazon jungle modulates its own environment by drawing moisture in and cycling it between transpiring trees and their circumambient atmosphere.[xii] In other words, in its own vicinity, the forest makes its own sky. But its locality cannot help being immersed as well in the atmosphere that is a sink for the array of wholesome and noxious exhaust disgorged by the planetary sum of biological and technological processes.

Mirror and paths of the xapiri

Forest dwellers have a different image of the sky than the peoples of the cities. Historically, urban civilization has looked back at forest origins and only recalled the tangle of overstory constantly in front of the sun, blocking direct commerce with sky-borne divinities.[xiii] The forest’s dark entanglements, our ancestors told themselves, held forest dwellers back in savage ignorance or pagan delusion. The Falling Sky explodes these cultural prejudices. Moreover, within the forest, when not occupying a deliberate clearing such as those opened for gardens, dwellings, or acts of display, the sky presents an arboreal canopy in no way opaque like a plaster roof but riddled with myriad and shifting apertures for sunbeams. Kopenawa’s vision of the xapiri seems like a figuration of sunrays descending from chinks in the overstory: “The xapiri’s image is very bright. They are always clean ... they shine brightly, like stars moving through the forest” (57-58).

Also moving in that rippling of light and shadow with constant alternation of motion and rest, the forest birds produce a continuous song of life shamans receive through the images of their xapiri. In the substantial forest, getting rays of sun to split water molecules in the presence of carbon dioxide, trees make sugars in their leaves, transpire and exhale into the air, and bear fruit in hope of increase. In the realm of the xapiri, the primary products of the amoa hi song trees are sweet airs to lure the spirits of the songbirds. Shamans harvest the images of tree and bird songs, bringing their spirit chorus home to a communal audience.

Yanomami Dialogue

Kopenawa begins the first chapter of Part III, “Talking to White People,” by detailing some of the Yanomami’s own ritualized social interactions, different modes of dialogue for circulating information, debating issues, and parley resolving disputes. A rigorous etiquette deters presumption of seniority on the part of speakers in relation to the weightiest civic matters. A channel remains open for reportage in the form of sung dialogues. As a younger man,

when I wanted to give my words to the people of our house, I did not dare to make a hereamuu speech. I merely passed on what I wanted to say during the sung dialogues on the first night of our reahu feasts. . . . One young person from the hosts and one from the guests stand face to face and answer each other in song on the house’s central plaza. One by one, the young people are replaced by others, forming new pairs. Then, once they have all finished, the older men gradually take their place and follow the same way, without stopping until the middle of the night. This is what we call wayamuu. (300)

When at home, Kopenawa introduces his community to the words that tell of his distant travels in the substantial world through their own ritualized channels for social discourse. He carries over some related forms in the words he gives to The Falling Sky. Here he imagines a scene—a piece of fiction prefiguring a serious wish-fulfillment, or a shamanic act of prophecy—where he ends the violence of the white people in the Yanomami manner, through winning a yãimuu dialogue with their great men:

I always think of all this when I go on a visit to the city. I have seen dangerous things with my xapiri. I want to warn the white people before they wind up tearing the sky’s roots out of the ground. If their elders knew the talk of our yãimuu dialogues, I could truly tell them my thought. Squatting face to face, we would argue at great length, hitting each other’s flanks. My tongue would be more skillful than theirs, andI would speak to them with such vigor that they would be exhausted. And so I would finally enmesh their words of hostility! (314)

That scene is Kopenawa’s prayer for his own people. His warnings concern the whole world. In the heart of the white peoples’ world that is the city of Paris, the message of the regional xapiri is especially dire:

I was able to visit in dream the place where these xapiri of the white people ancestors live, hidden in the cold of the high mountains. I came to know all sorts of foreign xapiri with magnificent dances, who had taken shelter in these heights since the white people stopped calling them. I was also able to contemplate the dazzling white amoa hi trees where they collect their songs. . . . They told me: “Be vigilant! . . . Your words must really defend the forest. If all its tallest trees are cut down and burned, they will never grow back. . . . Only these first trees know how to make the wind and the rain move through their tops so that the plant and animal spirits can bathe and quench their thirst. Without them, the earth will die!” (343-44)

Only the root brains of “first trees,” the tallest old growth, remember most comprehensively how to maintain the entirety of the forest in verdant diversity of becoming, how to summon and hold cooling moisture within its confines. This is a knowledge Western science is only recently and haltingly bringing forth. Relative to us secular modern saplings, the Yanomami are old-growth humans. No longer unseen and unsung, they still keep a practiced finger on Gaia’s pulse. If they are cut down, they will never grow back.

[i] Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, trans. Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). See the review by Rodolfo Eduardo Scachetti and Renzo Taddei, “The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman,” Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society 1:1 (2018): 92-94, and Renzo Taddei, “Anthropology and the Pragmatics of Climate Knowledge in Brazil,” American Anthropologist 122: 4 (December 2020): 944-47.

[ii] This remark adapts Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s allegory of Western duplicity in its historical treatment of Amerindians: “Let the reader imagine herself watching—or rather, acting in—a sci-fi B movie in which the Earth is taken over by an alien race pretending to be humans, whose goal is to dominate the planet and to extract all its resources, after having used up their own home planet to the full. . . . And now let the reader imagine that this has already happened, and that the alien race is, in fact, ‘we ourselves,’” in The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017), 108.

[iii] See, for instance, the historical content in Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021): “Amazonia’s current condition could be regarded as an instance of the deepening crises of anew era, the Anthropocene. Yet, nothing about it is new except the dates: what is happening there is actually a replication of centuries-old patterns in the settler-colonial history of the Americas” (214). Ghosh brings in The Falling Sky as a recovery of the “vitalism” he develops in a political key throughout this text. Speaking of the world of the Yanomami, he asks, “What does it mean to live on Earth as though it were Gaia—that is to say, a living vital entity in which many kinds of beings tell stories?” (205).

[iv] See Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “The Crystal Forest: Notes on the Ontology of Amazonian Spirits,” Inner Asia 9 (2007): 153-72, on the “shamanic plane of immanence. . . . a region or moment of indiscernibility between the human and nonhuman (primarily but not exclusively the ‘animals,’ a very problematic notion in Amazonian ontologies anyway): it announces a background molecular humanity, hidden by nonhuman molar forms” (155).

[v] Danowski and Viveiros do Castro summarizing “Amerindian perspectivism” in The Ends of the World, 70.

[vi] The Western parallel here is to the archaic figure of the daemon: “The mythopoetic realm of the daemonic depicts intermediation and transformation within a complexly communicating cosmos”: Bruce Clarke, Allegories of Writing: The Subject of Metamorphosis (Ithaca, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), 10. Compare Viveiros de Castro: “Shamanism is essentially a cosmic diplomacy devoted to the translation between ontologically disparate points of view” (“Crystal Forest” 154). The implication here is that for literate cultures, writing overwrites the world of spirits but is perpetually restaging it through daemonic tales, stories of metamorphosis, narratives of uncanny messaging.

[vii] In “Symbiontics: A Polemic for Our Time,” Caroline A. Jones points to the posthumanist critique of the “in vitro imaginary” that earlier bioart inherited from scientific and archival experimental and display practices. More recent bioartworks destabilize or ecologically reframe “the vitrine, the bell jar, the fish tank, the greenhouse. . . the surveillant mastery of Homo sapiens sapiens” (18). In Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere, eds. Caroline A. Jones, Natalie Bell, and Selby Nimrod (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022), 13-49.

[viii] Bold font in the original, indicating throughout the text that in the spoken discourse transcribed here, Kopenawa expressed the indicated term with a word from a Western language such as Portuguese. The lighter note is that Kopenawa knows he is intelligent enough to use the word “intelligent.”

[ix] Plato’s dialogue The Phaedrus (@ 370 BCE) famously reflects on the difference between speech and writing as media of knowledge. In defending the superiority of orality over literacy (as an historical character in a written document and hence, perhaps, ironically on Plato’s part), Socrates would appear to ratify Kopenawa’s reasons for preferring oral transmission. I will save for another occasion more detailed arguments that this matter of inventive orality is one of the most revelatory aspects of the entire text. For now, see the next endnote.

[x] See Peter Skafish, “The Metaphysics of Extra-Moderns: On the Decolonization of Thought—A Conversation with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro,” Common Knowledge 22:3 (September 2016): 393-414. “Western philosophers have never taken illiterate people seriously. They have regard only for written texts. . . . [It is thought that] you cannot do comparative metaphysics with the Navajo, the Apache, and the Hopi, since they lack a corpus. And there is a deeper prejudice at work here regarding illiterate peoples, which is the assumption that their members do not think, as individuals, at all—that their speculative lives consist only of repeating easily memorable cognitive formulas. . . . An Amerindian, therefore, could only think what had been thought before—thought not by individuals but by the tradition. There is a prejudice not only against tradition, in this attitude, but also against invention” (412-13).

[xi] In “Big Trouble in Biology: Physiological Autopoiesis versus Mechanistic Neo-Darwinism,” in Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, eds., Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution (New York: Copernicus, 1997), 265-82, evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis expounds the concept of autopoiesis in both its cellular and planetary dimensions: “The simplest, smallest known autopoietic entity is a single bacterial cell. The largest is probably Gaia—life and its environment-regulating behavior at the Earth's surface (Lovelock 1988). Cells and Gaia display a general property of autopoietic entities: as their surroundings change unpredictably, they maintain their structural integrity and internal organization, at the expense of solar energy, by remaking and interchanging their parts” (267). A shortened version is available in Symbionts, eds. Jones, Bell, and Nimrod, 216-27. See also Bruce Clarke and Scott F. Gilbert, “Margulis, Autopoiesis, and Sympoiesis,” in Symbionts, eds. Jones, Bell, and Nimrod, 63-77.

[xii] See Douglas Sheil, “Forests, Atmospheric Water and an Uncertain Future: The New Biology of the Global Water Cycle,” Forest Ecosystems (2018) 5: 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40663-018-0138-y.

[xiii] See Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): “the forests became profane for a simple reason: they obstructed the communication of Jove’s intentions. In other words, their canopies concealed an open view of the sky. We find here in Vico’s text a fabulous insight, for the abomination of forests in Western history derives above all from the fact that, since Greek and Roman times at least, we have been a civilization of sky-worshippers, children of a celestial father” (6).

I owe a large debt to Christopher Witmore for bringing this work to my attention several years ago, apropos my research on forests. Thanks to the students in English 5380 for Spring 2023, “Colonialism, Capitalism, and Climate Change,” for their assistance in opening up this formidable volume, and to Caroline A. Jones, Henry Sussman, Tyler Volk, and Chris Witmore for helpful comments on previous drafts.