The Yanomami tribe consists of approximately 26,000-35,000 indigenous people living in 200-300 villages within the Amazon rainforest. Their territory is located around the border of Brazil and Venezuela, between the Mavaca and Orinoco rivers. Sustained contact between the Yanomami people and the rest of the world began in the 1950’s due to the arrival of religious missionaries.
It is believed that the Yanomami would have migrated across the Bering Straits (between Asia and America) approximately 15,000 years ago, before making their way down to South America.
The Yanomami territory in Brazil spreads over 9.6 million hectares. In Venezuela, they live in the 8.3 million hectare Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve.
Society and Culture
The Yanomami have four major dialects: Yanam, Sanumá, Yanomámi and Yanomamö. Local variations and dialects also exist. The origins of the Yanomami language are obscure and as such, it is considered to be unrelated to any other South American indigenous languages; a language isolate.
A tuxawa (headman) acts as the leader of each village, but there is no single leader for the entire Yanomami tribe, as they do not identify themselves as being one entire group. Headmen gain their position through demonstrating being skilled peacekeepers and brave warriors. As women are not considered to possess the force and violence to enact these skills in Yanomami culture, they are never considered as headmen. Decisions are made by consensus following debates within the community.
Each village tends to consist of extended family groups of 50-400 people. The villages are largely communal and live under a roof known as a shabono, which is divided into individual houses and spaces by support posts. Shabonos are made of rainforest plant and tree materials and receive damage through heavy rains, winds and insect infestation and are therefore rebuilt every 4-6 years. There is open ground in the centre measuring approximately 91 metres. Each family unit has its own section with a hearth, where they prepare and cook food. At night the fire is stoked so that whilst sleeping in their hammocks they can stay warm.
It takes the Yanomami approximately four hours or less to hunt and gather all the food they need, leaving an abundance of time for leisure and socialising. The Yanomami use slash-and-burn horticulture, grow crops such as bananas, sugarcane, mangoes and papaya and hunt animals and fish. They grow plantains and cassava as their main crops; they also cut down palms to facilitate the growth of grubs for consumption. The crops that are grown in their gardens account for approximately 80% of their food source. Yanomami move frequently when resources such as soil nutrients have declined too greatly; this is known as shifting cultivation. As their diet is very low in salt, their blood pressure is extremely low. The men go out to hunt for peccary, monkey and tapir amongst others. When a hunter is successful he does not eat the meat himself, instead it is shared amongst his family and friends who in return will thank him with their own catch. Often a plant extract known as curare is used as a poison for their prey.
A bark of a woody vine called timbó contains a poison which is used for fishing by both men and women alike. The vines are floated out into the river and the poison stuns the fish, which then rise to the surface where they can easily be scooped up into baskets.
The unions in Yanomami society can be either true polygamous or monogamous. The majority of child-rearing is done by the women.
The Yanomami have many rituals, such as celebrating a good harvest with nearby villages, where bodies are decorated with feathers and flowers. The Yanomami eat a lot during the feast and the woman sing and dance as festivities continue late into the night. The spirit world plays a huge part in Yanomami life. They believe that everything; rock, tree, mountain or creature, has its own spirit, good or bad. They believe that bad spirits can attack people and cause sickness.
Shamans conduct healing rituals for the sick using hallucinogenic drugs, also known as yakoana or ebene. These drugs allow the consumer to communicate with spirits known as hekura, who are believed to be in charge of many aspects of this world. This practice is known as shapuri and women do not take part, nor can they be shaman. Through the inhalation of yakoana, the Yanomami men are able to meet spirits known as xapiripë. They are very small, bright and decorated; wearing parrot feathers and painted with urucum (red), some also have earrings and wear black dye. Their dance is very beautiful and their song is unique.
When a member of the community dies, their body is wrapped in foliage and placed away from the shabono. Once all the soft tissue has been consumed in a little over a month by a variety of living organisms in the forest, the Yanomami cremate the bones, mix the ashes with bananas into a soup and consume them. This occurs annually on the ‘day of remembrance’ by the entire community until the ashes run out, and is known as endocannibalism. The ‘day of remembrance’ is the only time each year where the community openly talks about the dead. They recall their loved ones in order to keep the spirit of the deceased alive and to strengthen the community.
Domestic chores, gardening, foraging and harvesting are carried out by the women, hunting is carried out by the men. Early in the morning the men will leave to hunt, and the women and young children will search for termite nests, frogs, land crabs, nuts, shellfish and insect larvae for roasting. They also search for vines to weave into baskets and go fishing. The women take responsibility for the children, until age 8 when the boys become the responsibility of the male members, but mothers continue to rely on assistance from their daughters.
Menstruation announces the beginning of womanhood for girls, usually aged between 10 and 12, so they are married off. It is believed that menstrual blood is dangerous and poisonous; therefore the girls are hidden in a small tented structure screened with foliage. They squat over a deep hole within and wait for the blood to pass. Female members of the community then replace the girl’s old cotton garments with new ones to symbolise her womanhood and availability for marriage. During this first menstrual period, the girl is fed with a stick and may not touch the food directly. She may only whisper, and only then through contact with close family members. Until menstruation girls are treated as children, afterwards they are expected to take on adulthood and all of the responsibilities of an adult Yanomami female. Puberty is not considered a significant time for male Yanomami children, only female.
Sexuality is not repressed with the Yanomami, but it is discreet and limited. It is forbidden for women to have sexual relations with another woman, but men may interact sexually with other men. If a woman is found to be breaking this rule, then she may be severely injured, or even killed. Incest between close family is not acceptable in Yanomami society, and anyone found to be participating in such will be shunned and not cremated at death. However, inter-cousin marriages are common.
The older a women, the more respect she garners in Yanomami culture, particularly once they have married and had children. Elderly women are highly respected, and tend to be immune to violence during raids and warfare. As such, they are able to safely travel between villages, and therefore tend to be the ones who recover any bodies of the dead after a raid. In Yanomami culture women have an incredibly tough time towards the start, if they make it to old age then respect as well as power in politics and decision-making awaits them.
Invasion, Violence and Death
The Yanomami culture has a history of violence, both with other tribes and within their own. Although it is difficult to determine exactly how violent the tribe is historically, perhaps the most reliable source of information comes from the anthropologist Jacques Lizot who, having lived among the Yanomami for over twenty years, in 1985 wrote that
“The Yanomami are warriors; they can be brutal and cruel, but they can also be delicate, sensitive, and loving. Violence is only sporadic; it never dominates social life for any length of time, and long peaceful moments can separate two explosions.”
Various anthropologists such as Chagnon and Marvin Harris have insisted there is a culture of violence amongst the Yanomami due to competition for resources. However, in 1995 R. Brian Ferguson argued that the violence that was present in Yanomami culture was “The product of specific historical situations: The Yanomami make war not because Western culture is absent, but because it is present, and present in certain specific forms.” He states that Yanomami are in “An extensive area beyond state administrative control, inhabited by nonstate people who must react to the far flung effects of the state presence.”
Despite these assertions, up to half of all deaths of Yanomami males are caused by violence, almost always due to conflicts between other communities over resources. Women are often victims of these violent clashes. If a raid occurs in a village, the women are usually raped and beaten, before being kidnapped and integrated into the rapist’s community. Inter-village warfare does not tend to affect women in the same way, although women are frequently beaten, with both sharp and blunt objects, as it is viewed that this is the best way to make them faithful and agreeable. Males tend to brand their wives in order to symbolise dominance over her. However, if a Yanomami woman finds the violence of her husband becomes too much to bear, she can leave and live with her brothers.
Sustained contact between the Yanomami and the outside world began in the 1940’s, when the Brazilian government entered their land in order to define the borders of Brazil with Venezuela. The Government’s Indian Protection Service, as well as many religious missionaries quickly followed, leading to mass Yanomami death due to the introduction of new diseases such as the measles and flu, to which they had no immunity. From this point onwards there have been many deaths of the Yanomami, due to murder and conflict as a result of the continued invasion of people from the outside world for rainforest resources.
In the 1970’s miners would settle and kill Yanomami members over land conflicts. Initial efforts to allocate reservations for Yanomami were badly done, and were based solely on the location of mineral deposits, with no consideration for current Yanomami trading routes and trails. From 1987 to 1990, the Yanomami population declined severely due to malaria, mercury poisoning, malnourishment and violence. Many of these factors were as a result of the increasing numbers of miners and mining practises in the area. In 1992 these reservations were revised to take into account the Yanomami lifestyle, and with the aid of anthropologists and Survival International, they were able to assign more suitable reservations. However, outsiders continue to enter Yanomami land and in 1993 the infamous Haximu massacre occurred, resulting in the deaths of many Yanomami, and subsequently several gold miners.
One of the main threats to the Yanomami people is gold mining. There are more than 1000 people illegally mining on Yanomami land. As well as the obvious, negative environmental impacts such as pollutions of forests and rivers with mercury, the presence of the miners allows the transmission of deadly diseases such as malaria throughout the tribe, due to them not having developed resistance to diseases that are common for the outside world. Urgent medical care is very difficult for the Yanomami people to obtain, and as health increasingly suffers due to intruders, this becomes an increasingly dangerous situation for the Yanomami.
Cattle ranching is also causing devastation to the forests on the Eastern edge of Yanomami land. The Brazilian army have now placed barracks in Yanomami land, thereby increasing tensions greatly. The soldiers have used Yanomami women as prostitutes, infecting some of the women with STI’s.
The Brazilian congress is also debating a bill to approve large-scale mining in Yanomami territories. The Yanomami rarely have their voice heard and it is difficult for them to gain access to knowledge about the ways in which mining will affect them. Brazilian authorities have not removed illegal gold miners from Yanomami land, nor contributed to any solution for the Yanomami health crisis, despite many requests for help from the Yanomami people themselves. The situation is the same in Venezuela. The Yanomami in Brazil do not have true legal ownership over their land, as the government refuses to recognise it, despite signing ILO Convention 169 which guaranteed the recognition of their ownership.
Various institutions such as ‘Survival’ and ‘Pro Yanomami Commission’ (CCPY) have worked for decades with the Yanomami in order to support their claim on their land. Due to this combined effort, in 1992 a protected area known as ‘Yanomami Park’ was marked out and miners were removed from the area.
The Yanomami and CCPY have also set up a Yanomami education project. The aim of this project is to educate the Yanomami on their rights, as well as to teach reading, writing and maths.
Initially, the healthcare NGO Urihi was training Yanomami people to become health agents. However, in 2004 the National Health Foundation of the Brazilian government (FUNASA) took over Yanomami healthcare. Since then it has been denounced by the Yanomami as a chaotic mess, with corruption ever-present, contributing to the serious problem of vital healthcare and equipment not reaching the Yanomami in time, resulting in many deaths.
Yanomami from eleven different regions in Brazil formed their own organisation in 2004 known as Hutukara, which means ‘the part of the sky from which the earth was born’. The purpose of this organisation is to defend their rights and create projects that can be run by the Yanomami themselves. In 2011, Yanomami in Venezuela also formed a similar organisation, known as Horonami.
How You Can Help the Yanomami
The Yanomami need support in order to hold on to their culture and land for the foreseeable future. You can offer this support in a number of ways:
- Write a letter to the Brazilian government: http://www.survivalinternational.org/actnow/writealetter/yanomami
- Donate to the Yanomami campaign: https://www.survivalinternational.org/donate
- Write to your MP or MEP: https://www.writetothem.com/
- Write to your Senators and members of Congress: http://congress.org/
- Write to your local Brazilian embassy: http://embassy.goabroad.com/
- Contact Survival to get more involved: http://www.survivalinternational.org/info/contact
Other Sources of Information
- ‘The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman’ – Davi Kopenawa: http://shop.survivalinternational.org/products/the-falling-sky?taxon_id=19
- A Shaman’s view of the west: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/dec/30/western-living-yanomami-shaman-brazil
“It is not that the Yanomami do not want progress, do not want many things that non-indigenous people have. They want to be able to choose, and not have change thrust upon them, whether they want it or not. We want progress without destruction.” – Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami Shaman.