In the Heart of Amazonia
Yanomami is the biggest relatively isolated indigenous group, with an estimated population of 38.000.
They live in the remote forests of the Orinoco River Basin in southern Venezuela and the northernmost outcrops of the Amazon River Basin in northern Brazil, on an area of 17.8 million ha.
They make up a culturo-linguistic group of at least four subgroups who speak languages of the same family (Yanomae, Yanõmami, Sanima and Ninam). Tribes of the south of the Orinoco river are called Yanomami, while in the north, they are called Yanomawi.
Like most tribes on the continent, they probably migrated across the Bering Straits between Asia and America some 15,000 years ago.
The first report of the Yanomami to the Northern world is from an El Salvadorian expedition under Apolinar Diez de la Fuente in 1654.
The Yanomami first came into sustained contact with outsiders in the 1940s when the Brazilian government sent teams to delimit the frontier with Venezuela. Missionary groups and indigenous protection service quickly followed and brought diseases such as flu and measles.
The eastern limit of the Yanomami Indigenous land began to be invaded in the 1970s with the construction of a stretch of the northern perimeter road (1973-76) and with public colonization programs (1978-79).
During the 1980s, the Yanomami suffered immensely when up to 40,000 Brazilian gold-miners invaded their land. The miners shot them, destroyed many villages, and exposed them to diseases to which they had no immunity. Twenty percent of the Yanomami died in just seven years.
Yanomami live in small, scattered, semi-permanent villages. After a few years, when the land wears out, they relocate their villages.
They inhabit large, circular, communal houses called yanos or shabonos made of vines and leaves. Some can house up to 400 people. The central area is used for activities such as rituals, feasts, and games.
Yanomami are hunter-gathers. They grow around 60 types of crops: clover, cassava, tubers, corn, supplemented by hunting, fishing and harvesting fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers. honey and insects. Crops make up around 75% of their diet.
Yanomami are excellent hunters, they hunt monkeys, deers or armadillos.
They grow cotton, which has practical use in its village (hammocks, ropes, dishes, and clothes), breed dogs for hunting and village protection and produce handicrafts (arches, arrows, baskets and necklaces).
The traditional culture of the tribe is very peculiar, especially in remote parts of Venezuela. It's characterized by a rich community life, full of rituals, festives and games.
A common part of Yanomami life is the constant warfare among themselves. However, battles mostly result in a fight of their leaders, without many victims, plus they don't fight for the reason of gaining bigger territory, but to obtain young women from the invictible tribe.
These woman don't protest against it. On the contrary, they see it as a natural process of survival of the strongest and are happy to accompany one.
Result of this is healthy future of their community by preventing degeneration of their genes, in which breeding within their small community would otherwise result.
The spirit world is a fundamental part of Yanomami life.
The Yanomami trace their origin to the copulation of the creator Omama with the daughter of the aquatic monster Tëpërësiki. Omama is attributed with the creation of the auxiliary spirits of shamans: the xapiripë (or hekurapë).
There exist xapiripë of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, lizards, turtles, crustaceans and insects. There are also spirits of various trees, leaf spirits, vine spirits, wild honey spirits, water, stone and waterfall spirits, many are also 'images' of cosmic entities (moon, sun, storm, thunder, lightning) and mythological personae. There also exist humble household xapiripë, such as the dog spirit, the fire spirit or the clay pot spirit.
The initiation of shamans is painful and ecstatic. During initiation, which involves inhaling the hallucinogenic powder yãkõana for many days under the supervision of older shamans, they learn to recognize the xapiripë spirits and respond to their calls. The xapiripë are seen in the form of humanoid miniatures decorated with colorful and brilliant ceremonial ornaments.
Mining, livestock and chaos in health care threaten the Yanomami.
Illegal mining is the biggest threat to the people of Yanomami. These gold miners spread diseases such as malaria and pollute rivers with mercury.
The gold mining invasion of Yanomami land continues. The situation in Venezuela is very serious, and Yanomami have been poisoned and exposed to violent attacks for several years. The authorities have done little to resolve these problems.
Indians in Brazil still do not have proper ownership rights over their land – the government refuses to recognise tribal land ownership, despite having signed the international law (ILO Convention 169) guaranteeing it. Moreover, many figures within the Brazilian establishment would like to see the Yanomami area reduced in size and opened up to mining, ranching and colonization.
To make things even worse, the Brazilian army has built barracks in the Yanomami heartlands, which has increased tensions. Soldiers have prostituted Yanomami women, some of whom have been infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
The Yanomami have not been properly consulted about their views and have little access to independent information about the impacts of mining.
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami is a shaman and spokesman for the Yanomami people. He led the long-running international campaign to secure Yanomami land rights, for which he gained recognition in Brazil and around the world.
His courage, combative spirit and tenacity are reflected in his Yanomami nickname, ‘Kopenawa’, or ‘hornet’. He is also know as "the Dalai Lama of the Rainforest".