"Warriors of the Amazon"

PBS Airdate: September 2, 1997
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on NOVA, deep in the Amazonian rain forest, a rare and intimate glimpse of an isolated tribe. Explore the unique culture of the Yanomami, from the role of powerful hallucinogenics to the ritualistic consumption of their dead, witness the human drama of a people on the brink of extinction. Can they make peace with their enemies before it's too late? Warriors of the Amazon.

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JOE MORTON: This is a world ruled by spirits and demons, a world where powerful dreams and hallucinations are everyday events. This is the land of the Yanomami and it is a world marked by aggression and revenge. These boys are practicing to be warriors. Young men must learn to fight with fierceness and courage. In this world, the respected warrior is a man who not only defends the group from attack, but who will take part in raiding parties to avenge the deaths of fallen warriors and steal women. Old scores can linger for decades. Here, deep in the rain forest, live a people who are descendants of the original inhabitants of the Amazon. They live in ways similar to their ancestors of two thousand years ago, following age old traditions. The lifestyle of the Yanomami was virtually unchanged until the 1950's when outsiders began to establish permanent contact with some villages. Along with trade goods, this contact has brought deadly diseases. Once twenty-five thousand strong, in the last forty years, their population has been cut in half. Their vast jungle territory overlaps the borders between Brazil and Venezuela. Venezuela has given legal protection to Yanomami land and there villages still maintain the traditional way of life. We are on our way to the village of Karoheteri, located near a tributary of the Orinoco River. Here, the influence of the twentieth century is only beginning to be noticed. This is a typical Yanomami village. Everyone lives together in this communal structure called a shabono, where each family hangs its hammocks at their own hearth. Hisiwe is head shaman of this village. He has decided to hold a feast to try to make peace with a group of former enemies. The dispute has kept the two groups apart for twenty years. Hisiwe must organize the construction of a new shabono so his village can accommodate up to two hundred guests for three days. It is always risky to have enemies in your home territory, and it's not easy to change a former enemy into an ally. Exactly why Hisiwe has decided to do this now is not clear. The quest for a wife shapes Yanomami society. The great value of a woman lies beyond her daily labors. It is only through a wife that a husband gets his most important allies for a raiding party, his brothers-in-law. And it is the in-law relationship that forms the basis for a man's power. The foundation of Yanomami society is reciprocity. The ideal person is one who is hospitable, gives gifts, including prized wads of tobacco, and shares food with their friends. Hisiwe knows that by receiving food, he is embracing the obligation to return the favor. This is one aspect of an elaborate game of exchange that shapes Yanomami life. But another less familiar aspect of reciprocity is vengeance. The skills of a warrior people must be acquired at a young age. Children must learn to endure pain without complaint and develop extreme physical endurance. They are taught that every injury suffered must be repaid. While this may look like a game, this child's family is teaching him that every blow demands a counter-blow. The necessity of these lessons is reinforced by the threat of warfare that over-shadows their lives. Although men may only go off to fight two or three times a year, they live in a state of vigilance. In their spiritual life, the Yanomami are also constantly at war with demons and evil forces. Ritualized drug use helps to invoke the power of the spirits. The hallucinogens they use are derived from jungle plants. One of the most potent comes from the bark of a tree, Virola elongata. This tree is one of about three hundred and fifty different plants that the Yanomami are able to identify and use. The raw bark goes through further processing back at the village. Other hallucinogens like these seeds are also prepared. An extensive variety of drugs is used, individually and mixed together to bring on particular effects. The drugs wildly intensify sensations of color, shape and time. They bring visions of the spirit world. The Yanomami believe that all events in life happen as a result of the activities of the spirits, including misfortune and disease. The shamans can harness the power of the spirits and use them either to cure or to kill. As chief shaman, Hisiwe is the acknowledge master at summoning spirits. Here, he allows himself to be taken over by the moon spirit. Once summoned, the spirits are put to work against the diseases now threatening to overwhelm the Yanomami. Over the past few days, a woman from the village has become very ill with a burning fever. Her name is Kariana. Many western diseases have been introduced in the Amazon region. The Yanomami have little or no resistance to them. They consider shamanism their only defense. They believe all disease is caused by spirits and can be cured only by controlling the powers of the spirits. Here, the shamans draw the sickness up through the patient and then cast it out to the ground. Evil spirits are sent by their enemies. Hisiwe searches in the dust for the tracks left behind by enemy shamans, evidence of witchcraft by hostile Yanomami communities. He finds the path of the shaman Hairaroma. Hisiwe is taken over now by one of the rainbow demons. It allows him to make a diagnosis.

HISIWE: There is a very hard lump inside her. Cut it up, cut it away.

JOE MORTON: He, and the other men, try to kill the evil spirit now in her body. Warfare is a way to redress wrongs in the spirit world, just as it is in the material world. The spirit of Kariana's disease has now taken over the body of Hisiwe. He collapses under its power. Hisiwe's shamanism was successful this time. Kariana got better. But this is not always the case. The Yanomami are dying in large numbers from flu, measles, hepatitis, new strains of malaria, even colds. They usually blame these diseases on the witchcraft of other Yanomami. The new communal house takes shape in preparation for the visitors who have not yet actually been invited. The original cause of the enmity between the two tribes begins to emerge. It is always a complicated mix of reasons going back several generations. Most everyone including Rapewe and his father, Hisiwe, are personally involved in the tribal web of vengeance. We asked Hisiwe to explain. Why did the war start between his tribe and the community upstream?

HISIWE: One of our ancestors killed one of their warriors. They wanted to avenge his death and we defended ourselves. It's true one of our number attacked one of theirs who fell onto the rocks and died.

JOE MORTON: Why did they kill him?

HISIWE: The fighting began because young people were spreading gossip and lies about witchcraft and adultery. Then one of our people shot him with an arrow and killed him.

JOE MORTON: So it was a young warrior.

HISIWE: That's how trouble always starts.

JOE MORTON: Instances of adultery are common, but when it takes place among members of different groups, what begins as a personal affront can quickly escalate into a conflict among villages. And here, vengeance is not easily satisfied.

HISIWE: I used to get very angry with these enemies from upstream. I knew if I attacked them openly, they would run away. So I planned when they were visiting my neighbors to use trickery and kill them. I was very angry. I would have been very happy to have killed them all.

JOE MORTON: Emissaries from the enemy tribe upstream have now come to listen to Hisiwe's proposal. It is now up to Hisiwe to allay their well-founded fears and convince them to bring their people to his feast. Hisiwe, dressed in ceremonial feathers, begins the exchange with Himo, a ritual duel of words. Hisiwe tantalizes him with the bounty of trade goods he has obtained from the film crew. This communication is highly stylized, posture, cadence and gestures all have specific meanings. Hisiwe is persuasive. Mohokutea seems convinced.

MOHOKUTEA: Now that I know that you have trade goods, I will follow the path to your house. I, like you, am a human being, a Yanomami, and I believe you won't try to kill me. When the fruit is ripe, send a messenger. Then we will come to your feast.

JOE MORTON: Rapewe finally reveals why this feast is so important to him and his father, Hisiwe.

RAPEWE: I want this feast to happen because I want to see my sister again and meet my new brother-in-law. I want to invite them to come and stay with us. So it is a good idea to organize a feast. I hope he will come and that I will see my sister again.

MOHOKUTEA: I will tell the man who married your sister to come. I will tell him how much you want to see her again. I will make sure he comes and brings your sister with him. It will take several days to walk here. We will come in great numbers, so make sure you build a very big shabono. If all our neighbors come, there will be hundreds of us. And then we will make love to all your women.

HISIWE: You can make love all over the village if you like.

JOE MORTON: The reasons for the feast are at last becoming clear. Ten years ago, Hisiwe's daughter ran away and sought refuge with the enemy. Hisiwe and his son, Rapewe, are keen to make peace so they can see her again. Just as important, now that she has remarried, they want to start a reciprocal relationship with their new in-laws. But there is a delay. Before the feast can begin, Hisiwe's neighbors must hold a funeral for a man who died a few weeks ago. The body was cremated and now the time has come for them to drink a soup containing his powdered bones. Funerals these days are all too common. These ashes are a family's precious possession. After death, an individual's few belongings are burned and it is taboo to every mention that person's name again. The ashes are not consumed all at once, for as long as some remain, the dead can be remembered. The man who died was a shaman, so his mourners blow some of the drug that shamans use over the gourd holding his ashes. Only people close to the dead person are allowed to partake. The first man to drink is the dead man's oldest surviving relative. The idea of leaving their dead in the ground to decay is horrifying to the Yanomami. Instead, the bodies of the living become the graves of their dead. The funeral rites are a social event that shares the deceased with the community.

HISIWE: We drink the ashes of our dead in a banana stew. Their souls would be unhappy if they didn't find a resting place in the bodies of their relatives.

JOE MORTON: After the ceremony, a new problem arises at the edge of Hisiwe's shabono. Torumi, a woman without a husband, has just given birth. She has no family ties here, so she has no one to take care of her during this time of crisis. Normally, her female relatives would attend to her. Instead, her young daughter tries to help. The usual birth-related rituals are not being followed. Torumi, the mother, is sick, and her baby refuses to nurse. She is too ill to care for her newborn. The responsibility for the welfare of her children now goes to Rapewe, one of the most important men in the village. His wife will care for them. At last, after a month, once these trees are removed from the central plaza, the new shabono will be completed. The old shabono is being abandoned. They move their hammocks, a few personal possessions, and the gourds with the ashes of their dead relatives. Hisiwe's people are finally moved in. Now they must turn their attention to finding meat. The hunting party departs. They will be away until they have caught enough meat for the feast. Later, others go to gather the fruit of the peach palm. Peach palm fruit, or rasha, are also important to Yanomami feasts. They often take place in the season when the rasha are ripe. The fruit grows over one hundred feet off the ground and the peach palm bark is covered with vicious spikes. Using a specially designed ladder, they get to the fruit. Although each tree is individually owned, for a big feast, the fruit is shared by all. The hunters have brought down a tapir, a kind of wild pig. In addition, on this expedition they have also caught wild boar, alligator, monkey and game birds. There is now plenty of meat for the feast. The men have been away for four days. The food is brought to a central base camp for immediate preservation by smoking. There are many taboos around the appearance of blood. All meat must be cooked thoroughly to make sure no blood will be visible. Later, the meat will be boiled for several hours. The advance party from the former enemy village arrives at the new shabono. It would have been unwise for them to venture here only a few weeks ago. Everyone knows such a meeting can erupt in violence. The atmosphere is tense. Hisiwe's people and their visitors try to overcome their mutual distrust. They rediscover old family connections from the period before the antagonisms started, when the two communities used to intermarry. But it is difficult to make those connections when you are forbidden to speak the name of the dead.

HISIWE: You must all identify yourselves, especially any young people whose relations I might have known.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: Over here, you knew this one's brother.

HISIWE: What happened to the one whose name sounds like the word for kneading dough?

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: This is his younger brother.

HISIWE: What about his older brother?

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: He is no longer with us.

JOE MORTON: Mohokutea, the guest shaman, now has the chance to show off his unique healing expertise. Very few of those present are old enough to remember the last peaceful contact between the two communities, but Hisiwe and Mohokutea are old acquaintances.

MOHOKUTEA: Brother-in-law, as you know, the voices of the spirits are frightening.

HISIWE: The spirit of the sickness is in the back of my knee.

JOE MORTON: On this preliminary visit, the two shamans will swap ritual favors. They have each caused the other to suffer a magical sickness and now they must extract it. Exchange is the key to all relationships.

HISIWE: I can feel it coming out. Mohokutea, you know how to cure.

JOE MORTON: Each shaman is a specialist, known for different kinds of magical knowledge. Now Mohokutea can demonstrate his specialty. He spits up the sickness he has extracted from Hisiwe. Some of it he holds in his hand. The rest, he casts to the ground. In exchange, Hisiwe must now cleanse his guest of any of the residual traces of the sickness.

MOHOKUTEA: Heat is coming out of my body.

HISIWE: Finished.

JOE MORTON: All of the visitors have now arrived and are camped in the woods outside the village. The shaman has kept his promise and brought Taraema, Hisiwe's daughter. Her child and her husband have made the journey with her. Mohokutea explains why Taraema left this area and went to live with his people.

MOHOKUTEA: Taraema didn't like the man she was living with. She didn't treat him like a proper wife, and he used to beat her. That's why she ran away to live with us.

JOE MORTON: He goes on to explain why his community stopped coming to visit.

MOHOKUTEA: Because then the people who were close to her husband started using witchcraft and magic plants to make us die. We were frightened and we stopped coming to this region.

JOE MORTON: The same question is asked of Taraema. Why did she leave?

TARAEMA: Several times I ran away to a nearby community, but my husband kept taking me back, so I had to find refuge further away.

JOE MORTON: Did her husband hit her?

TARAEMA: Yes. That's why I had to go.

JOE MORTON: The next day, Taraema and her new husband try to slip quietly into her brother, Rapewe's hearth. She hasn't seen her family for ten years, but there is no tearful reunion. Rapewe just introduces his new brother-in-law to the men of his family. Taraema begins to chat with the women. While she is living in her father's village, Taraema works side by side with the other women. The men spear the electric eels that infest the waters. This is the season for fishing. With the water level low, they are sure of having good results. The low water also makes it easy for them to travel, so this is the season for feasting, visiting and making war. Preparations for the feast are now underway. Hisiwe has the responsibility to distribute food in equal shares. A hunter must never eat the meat he himself has killed. To do so would be a dishonor. Today, no one is at risk of that, since all of the meat will be given away to the guests, creating the obligation for future exchange. The guests have left their temporary encampment and wait just outside the shabono, preparing themselves for a dramatic display in front of their hosts. They adorn themselves with abstract designs and white feathers, which symbolize peace.

HISIWE: We'll sleep with your women tonight.

JOE MORTON: It is traditional for the host to joke with and mock their guests, but underlying the jesting is the rivalry that exists between these villages. These displays are intended to communicate aggression and valor, suggesting to the other community that "You're better off being our friends than our enemies." Next, the young men of Hisiwe's community show off their toughness. As the embers burn, the visitors are impressed by the warrior's endurance of pain. The sound of the shotguns is frightening to the visitors, who have had much less exposure to western goods. The dancing dramatizes past hostilities. Once this has been played out, the guests will be fed.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: You two, come with me. You're staying with me.

JOE MORTON: There is also intense competition over who gets to host the important visitors.

HISIWE: There's room over there. Come with me. You, go that way.

JOE MORTON: Hisiwe makes sure everyone has a place to stay. For one night, former enemies will share a hearth, taking a risk that old scores might not have been settled.

HISIWE: Remember, while you are eating our food, do not use any magic plants that will either kill people or make them ill. I'm warning you, if you use magic against us, we will not hesitate to use it to make your women sterile.

JOE MORTON: There are many benefits from peace, including the fact that each village will increase its access to potential wives. In return for a wife, all husbands must work for their in-laws. Taraema's husband, for example, is expected to remain in this village to work for Hisiwe, his father-in-law, but he is preoccupied with other obligations.

SON-IN-LAW: We are engaged in a war against our enemies up in the mountains. I can't stay here. I want to leave on a war party. After I have led an attack against them, then I will be content to live and work with you.

JOE MORTON: But Rapewe, Taraema's brother, will not accept his excuse.

RAPEWE: I know that you always feel sad when you are separated from your family, but you must face up to your obligations. I want to get to know my sister again.

JOE MORTON: The argument is left unresolved. Tomorrow is the day the goods will be traded. It will be the last chance for the hosts to show off their hospitality and generosity. But they are not above looking for a bargain. Hisiwe is asked what goods he expects to receive from the visitors.

HISIWE: I want some coloring for body paint and I'll ask for some arrows.

JOE MORTON: And what will he give in exchange?

HISIWE: We will give them some old stuff. And we'll also trade some of the manufactured goods we have received for work done on this film, things like machetes, axes, hammocks, cotton for fixing arrow feathers, and money. That's all.

JOE MORTON: Does he plan to give them money?

HISIWE: Only if I get the money which we are owed for this film. It's very important that you give me the money you promised, as well as the manufactured goods.

JOE MORTON: This is the culmination of the peace process. Each exchange will set in motion a succession of obligations, ensuring the continuation of peaceful relations. The value lies in the act of exchange, not in the absolute worth of the goods.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: I didn't rub the bow down with red pigment, but used charcoal instead. Then it was damaged by rain, so it is no longer completely straight. It's up to you whether you want it or not.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: I really wanted to ask for another arrow, but you had already traded the only two you had. Take this.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: Good, we can do business.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: I am still looking for an arrow point. I am not speaking for the sake of it. You know, I really want one. You people from the mountains have come such a long way, so why don't you do some trading? Why doesn't anybody offer me an arrow point?

JOE MORTON: The man who is asking for an arrow point doesn't really need one, since he owns a shotgun, but he wants to be a part of the game of exchange. As the visit draws to an end, Hisiwe and the visiting shaman reach an agreement. Taraema and her family will stay here with Hisiwe. Her husband will work in his father-in-law's garden.

YANOMAMI TRIBESMAN: You've been here a long time, it's now time for you to go.

JOE MORTON: As the guests leave, it emerges that Taraema's husband has disappeared with their daughter. Her brother Rapewe immediately runs after them. It takes him two days before he brings them back.

TARAEMA: I never wanted to stay, but my father really wanted us to work on his new vegetable gardens. He told us not to go.

JOE MORTON: What did Taraema say?

TARAEMA: We told my father we would not go, but my husband decided to leave.


TARAEMA: He was homesick.

JOE MORTON: How does her husband feel?

SON-IN-LAW: I wanted to go on a raiding party that was going to avenge our dead. That's why I didn't want to stay here.

JOE MORTON: Rapewe replies.

RAPEWE: I told my brother-in-law that only adults should separate. Children must not be taken away from their family. If he wanted to go away, he should go alone, and leave his wife and daughter with us. His own father told him, "Stay and live with the people down here. During your absence, we will console ourselves knowing you are with our allies."

JOE MORTON: Does Taraema plan to stay with her older brother?

TARAEMA: No, I don't want to stay here. And after some time, we will go home. I'll come back and visit later, after I've had my next baby.

JOE MORTON: How does Taraema feel about her brother?

TARAEMA: When I first left, I cried with sadness, but then time passed.

JOE MORTON: And she forgot him?

TARAEMA: Yes, then I forgot him. But now that I am here, all my memories have returned and I will miss him when I leave.

JOE MORTON: An alliance between these two villages has now been forged. Taraema and her family will continue to live in her father's village for a while. Plans are already underway for her village now to be the host for a reciprocal feast. The enmity between these two groups has subsided for the time being, but no one knows how long the peace will hold. Four days later, there is a reminder of the perilous future facing the Yanomami. Terumi, the young mother who gave birth before the feast, has died of a fever. Her newborn died shortly after.

HISIWE: It is time to burn the body of the dead woman. You seem to forget that her spirit might come back to haunt you. What are you waiting for? You don't cry enough. Go on, cry for the family of the dead woman. If you don't cry for the dead, they will think you don't care about them. That is what the Yanomami say.

JOE MORTON: Terumi's family has come from a neighboring village to make her beautiful for the ancestors who will welcome her into the shabono of the souls. The Yanomami are an endangered people, increasingly threatened by extinction. This century has seen the destruction of most of South America's indigenous cultures. On average, over eighty percent of each community dies within the first hundred years of contact with outsiders. The film crew was here for a period of eight weeks. During that time, four people died out of a population of ninety. Three weeks later, Hisiwe himself died from an unknown illness, leaving his community to face an uncertain future without him.

ANNOUNCER: Journey to the heart of the Amazon with NOVA online. Encounter the mystical world of the last shaman at To order this show for $19.95, plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670. And to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

NOVA is funded by Merck.

Merck: pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to the needs of an aging society. Merck: committed to bringing out the best in medicine.

And by Prudential.

Prudential: insurance, health care, real estate and financial services. For more than a century, bringing strength and stability to America's families.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

This is PBS.

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