Spirit of the Rainforest

rainforest.jpgJungle Mom recommended to me the book Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story by Mark Ritchie. If I understand correctly, the Yanomamo territory bordered the Yekwana Indians that the Vernoys worked with, and the Vernoys knew many Yanomamo and their ways and some of the people in this book.

This book is not for the faint of heart, however. It is not gratuitous, but it is very frank in its dealings with demonism, violence, and the treatment of women. It is told through the eyes of “Jungleman,” a powerful shaman. It is interesting to see things through his perspective (told by him to the author, who wrote them down and confirmed the incidents with others).

He tells first of all of the Yanomamo policy of revenge. Any incident calls for revenge from the family or village sinned against, which usually involves a raid on the offending village, clubbings, and capture and group rape of women. The extent of the raid can vary — in some cases two opposing warriors take turns clubbing each other over the head or across the chest. In more serious offenses every male is killed and the remaining women are assaulted multiple times and then carried off to become wives of the raiding village. If a captured woman tries to run away, she is beaten or killed. Children of the raided village are often brutally killed, occasionally captured.

Such raids did not satisfy the revenge, however: it sparked more revenge. Any remaining men or any relatives who lived in other villages were then expected to exact revenge on the raiding village. A war once begun never stopped. In between raids, villages were afraid to go out into their gardens or out to find food, always fearful of an ambush. Sometimes they broke up camp and wandered in the jungle looking for food. Sometimes mighty warriors woke up with nightmares, haunted by the cries of those that they killed. Yet they could never admit this: fierceness was the most valued characteristic in a Yanamamo male.

Gradually white nabas (their word for non-Yanomamo) began to appear in the jungle. They “talked like babies” but sometimes had useful things to trade. The Indians quickly learned, however, through hard trial and error, that all nabas were not the same. Some were interested in trading, some were interested in helping, but some were evil and interested in exploiting (they knew some earned money by taking and selling pictures of them [one even told them to take off their clothes so the pictures he took and sold would be more “authentic”] and stories about them, but there were others whose exploitation was much, much worse). There were a few, however, who said they were followers of the one the Yanomamo regarded as the great enemy spirit. They said the Indians misunderstood Him, that He loved them and had a better way to live. The Yanomamo were naturally suspicious, but they kept interacting with them because of the items they would trade or because of the medical help, and later because of the peace they exhibited. Jungleman and others’ spirits became troubled every time they were near the village where the nabas lived and begged the shamans not to ‘throw them away.”

To me there were several major benefits to this book. One was the fascinating look into Yanomamo culture. One was the immense power of the gospel to miraculously change lives in those who receive it. It was thrilling to read of those who came to believe and how they changed and grew and began to understand the ways in which they had been deceived.

Another major value of this book is the truth that these “primitive” peoples are not living happy lives frolicking in an idyllic Eden. I don’t know if you realize this, but there is a large and growing segment of the population who believes that such people should be left alone to Western influence all together and especially that Christians shouldn’t “force” the gospel on them or cause them to change their ways. Most Christians don’t “force” the gospel, however — they just offer it (and I wonder if the detractors would say the same about Muslim forced conversions).

The following is an interview between “Doesn’t Miss” (their name for the author), Keleewa, the missionary who interpreted, and a Yanomamo called Hairy on pages 180-183:

“The naba wants to know why you want to change the way you live out here in the jungle,” Keleewa said to Hairy after Doesn’tMiss talked.

Hairy was surprised at the question. “Because we’re miserable out here. We are miserable all the time. The people from Honey [predominantly Christian village] came here and made peace with us many seasons ago and their village keeps getting better. We want that for us. If it means throwing spirits away and getting new ones, we will do it. [This is not something said lightly. Many were under the impression that they would be killed if they tried to get rid of their spirits.] But we need someone to teach us these new ways.”

Hairy didn’t have spirits because he was not a shaman. But he followed everything the spirits told his shaman. I knew my spirits would be very irritated if Hairy quit following the spirits. No one who has killed as often and as long s Hairy could ever stop it…

Doesn’t Miss talked with Keleewa for a while. Keleewa paused and thought how to say what the naba said. Then he told Hairy, “He says there are many people in his land that don’t think that he, or any of us, should be here helping you at all. They say that you’re happy here and that we should leave you alone. He wants to know what an experienced killer like you would say to them.”

Hairy grew even more serious. “I say to you, please don’t listen to the people who say that. We need help so bad. We are so miserable here and out misery never stops. Night and day it goes on. Do those people think we don’t suffer when bugs bite us? If they think this is such a happy place out here in the jungle, why aren’t they moving here to enjoy this beautiful life with us?”

Doesn’t-Miss was quiet. Then he got out of his hammock and walked down the trail…When he was too far away to hear, Hairy said to Keleewa, “Is he stupid? Doesn’t he have eyes? Can’t he see these lean-tos we call houses? Can’t he see us roam the jungle every day, searching for food that isn’t here, so we can starve slower? Can’t he see that our village is almost gone, that this move we are making now is our last hope to stay alive?”

Keleewa was slow to answer. He knew Hairy wouldn’t understand what he was about to say. “Most nabas think just like him,” Keleewa told Hairy, and shook his head because he knew he couldn’t explain why.

“Nobody’s that stupid,” Hairy snapped. “They must hate us. They think we’re animals.”

Later Hairy asked Keleewa what they had to do to get a white naba to come to their village and live with them and teach them about Yai Pada (God), offering to clear an airstrip. Kelweewa promised that if they cleared an airstrip someone would come. That day Hairy and his people began clearing the jungle, and Hairy “remembered the wife he had killed. ‘I don’t want to treat women like that any more,’ he thought. ‘I don’t want my children to be killers like me. I want them to follow the spirit of this man of peace. I want us all to be free of our past. I want to sleep again’” (p. 230).

Another time (page 202) an antro (Yanomamo word for the kind of naba who took pictures of them and wrote about them) scolded an Indian named Shortman:

“Don’t you ever speak to me in Spanish! You are a Yanomamo and will always be a Yanomamo. You have no business throwing away your true ways and trying to copy nabas with their clothes, watches, motors, and now even changing to Spanish! Don’t ever speak to me in Spanish again! You want to talk to me? Use Yanomamo.”

“What’s that in your lower lip there?” Shortman asked…

“That’s my wad of tobacco,” the antro answered.

“Where did you learn to chew tobacco that way?” asked Shortman.

“I learned it from your people.”

“You saw us chew tobacco that way and you tried it and you liked it. So you copied us, didn’t you?”

“That’s right,” the antro said, with some pride in his Indian ways.

Shortman shrugged. “If you can copy us,” he paused with a puzzled look, ”then we can copy you.”

Somehow the shamans could “see” when another person had spirits, and they had identified some of the evil nabas as having spirits that the nabas themselves didn’t know about. At one point when Shoefoot, leader of Honey village, came to America with the author, he “identified the signs and symbols of many of the spirits right here in our ‘civilized’ culture. He has no problem understanding the Columbine High School massacre or any other killing spree. The spirits of anger and hatred that own and drive a person are spirits he has known personally. He knows what it means to kill under the influence of something or someone. So when a student asks…”Why can’t you get rid of your spirits without converting to Christianity?’ his answer is simple. ‘I don’t know any other way to get rid of the spirits that are destroying us. And no other shaman does, either’” (p. 251).

As I said in another post months ago, these people deserve as much chance as anyone else has to hear the gospel and have the choice to change their ways.

November Christian Book Fair at Chrysalis
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11 thoughts on “Spirit of the Rainforest

  1. Wow. It does sound like’d have to be very brave to read this — which I am not. However, it sounds equally fascinating! Thank you very muchfor your review of it.

  2. Like I’ve told you before, this book opened my eyes! You mentioned several parts that I had forgotten because I devoured this book so quickly. I’m going to have to get it and read it again! GREAT review, Barbara!

  3. Thanks for contributing your review to the November Book Fair. Wow, what a tale! You are so right in stating that these primitive peoples are not living in Eden. Where did we get that idea? Well said: “these people deserve as much chance as anyone else has to hear the gospel and have the choice to change their ways.” Amen. Hugs, e-Mom

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  7. Came across your site when looking for descriptions of Verta Peet’s “Sometimes I Prefer to Fuss.” Thanks for your reviews! About this one – I read it this year and found it both depressing and enlightening. Some friends of mine have recently completed a film partially based on Spirit of the Rainforest. It’s called “The Enemy God.” And for a much more family-friendly look at live in the Amazon, Mike Dawson recently published “Growing Up Yanamamo.”

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