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The Yanomami

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Introduction to the Yanomami of the Catrimani River

          The Yanomami Indians are about 28,000, approximately 13,000 in Brazil and 15,000 in Venezuela. As recently as the 1940’s they lived in pre-historic times[culture?]. Perhaps, as many as 60% of them are still pre-literate. It is less than forty years since the Yanomami children and teenagers started to learn how to write in Yanomami and Spanish or Portuguese languages. Still now, most of their knowledge is passed to the next generation through “verbal communication”, not through writing. Since the forties, missionaries, anthropologists and linguists recorded in books, pictures, tapes, films, cassettes, diskettes, CDs their past and recent history. As a population, the Yanomami do not care to record their history, ancestry and myths. As a matter of fact a true Yanomami should never recite the name of his/her ancestors, nor should he/she keep pictures, films, tapes, or belongings of dead relatives. Everything belonging to a dead person –even his/her name— must be erased from the memory of the relatives, so that the dead person’s “spirit” can find peace in the “village of the ancestors.”
          The Yanomami are still a pre-domestication population. They do raise hens, roosters and chicks, and in a few places cattle and pigs, but rarely –if ever— they eat them. The animals they raise like cats, dogs, monkeys, parrots and other animals and birds, are considered by them “pets”.
          The Yanomami are a pre-agricultural population. Their staple food comes from the “family garden”, and from hunting, fishing and gathering. They use axes, machetes, hoes and iron tools to dig holes. The Yanomami are a pre-formal religion population. They are called zooists (from the Greek word “zoe”, life), or spiritualists (from Latin word “spiritus”), or animists (from the Latin word “anima”, soul). They do not believe in a personal God, Creator, Redeemer and Just Judge. “Original sin” or “personal sins” aren’t part of their beliefs. At death, everybody —even the worst enemy— goes to the “village of the ancestors” (hutumus) where life is fully enjoyable, where there aren’t diseases, hunger, and fear of early morning raids. In their cosmology there is a beginning but not an end. Their spirituality does not condemn a reproachable behavior of a family member or a close relative; only that of a non-relative or an enemy.
          The Yanomami are a pre-scientific population, in the sense that they relate wholistically to animals, mountains, lakes, rivers and trees, the spirits who inhabit the rain forest and to the ancestors who live in the “village above.” The Yanomami experience the environment as a wholeness: not in rigidly fixed forms, but as a flowing of movement and energy, often chaotic, but always characterized by rhythm, pattern and interconnectedness.
          The Yanomami celebrate life and death through festivals. They live in a deep spiritual environment. Before going hunting, hunters ask forgiveness to the protector-spirits of the game they will hit with their arrows and eventually kill; they perform dutifully initiation and purification rituals; their shamans cure sick people and search for the protection of powerful spirits over their extended family; they mourn people who die, but they also mourn pets because they are part of their family. Yanomami’s dances and chants are funny and playful. Ritual plays, dances and chants are important means of affirming the cohesion of the tribal group in its communication with nature, with the ancestors and with the source of life itself. The Yanomami spirituality is embedded into their world view, it supports their social, political and economic structure, it gives meaning to their political alliances and to their celebrations of life and death.
          The Yanomami’s way of life is well adapted to the Amazon Rainforest environment but would be unfit in most other environments. As the forest environment keeps changing and Western cultures make their way in, the Yanomami must adjust themselves to a new reality. As time goes by, many of their traditional beliefs become unsustainable. Scientific views challenge their mythical vision of the world and, in turn, the changes cause a division in their villages between the illiterate elders and the literate youngsters who attend the mission’s educational program.
          In our web-site we present the Yanomami living in the state of Roraima (Brazil) as they were from 1965 to 2000. We will touch cursorily their history of previous and later years, but the bulk of our written essays, diaries, stories and pictures cover the span of only 35 years.