…that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.
After the Niyayobateri men circle the dance ground several times, they stop and stand stone-faced in the center of the shabono with their arrows cocked, gazing up into the darkening sky. This is the moment when they will learn if their Blapoteri hosts will accept them—or shoot them. I think, This could be the 1500s instead of 1969.…
* * *
In Venezuela we mostly fly into Indian country, and today I’m circling over Niyayobateri, a Yanomamo village that lies in a grassy savannah on the Venezuela-Brazil border. Looking down at the donut-shaped shabono with its many lean-to shelters, I watch several children playing in the “donut hole.”
Dan and Diana Shaylor, New Tribes Mission (NTM) workers, live here with their kids. My job is to provide them with transportation and supplies. The Yanomamo depend more and more on the airplane for medical flights and for obtaining trade goods they cannot produce themselves. After I land Danny announces, “They don’t have any lasha fruit, so today we have to go to their old garden to find some. Tomorrow we’re invited to a feast over in Blapoteri.” Lasha is Yanomamo for the delicious peach palm fruit that Spanish-speakers call pejiguau. I decide to sleep here a couple of nights so I can go with them.
Getting the lasha fruit
The next morning we set off into the jungle with several Yanomamo to find some lasha, following the scant traces of a trail. As the path beats backward under our feet, the humidity clings to my skin. We cross rocky streams and climb muddy hills. The people walk barefooted (indeed, bare) with only a cotton string around the waist. Surefooted, confident, they laugh and call back and forth. We walk under huge, sheltering trees—kapok, seje palm (good for making bows) and palo amarillo (good for making dugout canoes). How do they know the way? I smell the pungent aroma of decayed vegetation and realize I’m sweating, and breathing hard. Is this little red fruit worth it?
We break out into a clearing where secondary growth overwhelms the old garden spot, and we find the peach palm trees with the inch-long spines sticking out from their trunks. I ask Danny, “The fruit’s high up under the branches. How will they climb these spiny trunks?”
Danny says, “Watch Enrique.” Enrique machete-chops pieces of sapling into four-foot lengths. Then he takes a vine and lashes two of these together to form an X, places them around the tree trunk and then lashes the other ends together to form a platform. With two sets of these X’s he pulls and pushes himself up the tree, avoiding the deadly spines. He machetes the lasha-bearing stalks, sending them crashing to the jungle floor. Women run to grab them and place them in their wicker baskets.
I’m tired, bored and feeling sort of useless here, so I reach out my hand and lean against a tree. Turns out, it’s a peach-palm tree. I scream when the sharp spines pierce my flesh. A Yanomamo woman drops her basket and spends the next half hour extracting dozens of tiny spines from my hand. As we depart, every man and woman (except me) carries sixty pounds of lasha fruit on their backs in a loosely-woven carrying basket.
Dancing at the feast
We go to the feast that same evening. As the westering sun sinks into the jungle, we walk across the savannah and climb the small hill to Blapoteri (named after “Blapo” [Paul], another NTM worker). Danny explains, “The people have hunted for several days and have shot a monkey, several birds, and a tapir. Now they’re getting ready for the feast. Women will cook vegetables, meat, and lasha in big pots over their fires. They’ve gathered lots of stuff—cotton string, bows and arrows, dogs, beaded aprons. They’ve brought in other stuff from the outside—machetes, axe heads, aluminum pots, and Yekuana hammocks. They’ll trade these with the Niyayobateri people.”
As we approach the shabono, I feel close to the beating heart of the village, a living, breathing thing. We pass the Niyayobateri guests who have stopped several hundred yards from the shabono. A man is inserts parrot-feather earplugs into his ears; another paints his face with red ochre. I smell the hot air, heavy with perspiration. Danny whistles an alert that we are friends and not enemies.
We walk ahead, duck our heads, and enter through a break in the shabono’s outer wall. Three men squat before a bark canoe where they’re stripping bananas and mashing them into a bark trough. The village headman comes forward and offers hammocks for us to recline while we await the feast. People seem nervous. Feasts offer great hospitality but also provide opportunity to hurl accusations of stinginess or wife stealing. A feast can erupt any time into arguments, chest-beating contests, head beating with ten-foot poles, or even fights with machetes and bows and arrows. People can get killed.
Suddenly a woman bursts through one of the narrow openings in the outer wall. Danny whispers, “Look—here come the Niyayobateri people.” The incoming dancer wears body paint, decorative leaves in her earlobes, and a cotton cord around her waist. Her breasts bounce up and down as she stomps back and forth and then circles the dancing ground, all the while shaking two large palm fronds.
Several more women run in, their palm branches undulating. The Blapoteri hosts roar as they encourage, exclaim, and comment on the dancers’ physical attributes. “Isn’t that my cousin’s niece? She sure has gotten fatter. See her body paint. Look how she stomps!”
Then the Niyayobateri headman dances in, resplendent in black and red body paint with white turkey down sprinkled in his hair. He prances back and forth as he circles the dance ground with his bow and arrows held across his chest and his arrowpoint case bouncing up and down on his back. His weapons form part of his costume, but they’re always at the ready if the party sours. He has pierced his ears with red and yellow macaw-feather earplugs, and set off his biceps with tightly wrapped cotton strings. A cord around his loins holds up the foreskin of his penis. He stops, arches his chest and makes several pelvic thrusts as he clacks his bow and arrows together. Tobacco juice dribbles from the corners of his mouth.
Now the visiting men group in the center of the dancing ground and stand stone still, gaze up at the sky, and wait. Will their hosts accept them? The hosts lie still in their hammocks, eyes dustbowl flat. A thunderous silence. I shiver, searching the perimeter for any tremor of danger.
After a few minutes (it seems like an hour), several hosts rise and walk out to the guests shouting “shodi” (brother-in-law), and invite them to recline in hammocks near the cooking fires. I sense we’ve slenderly avoided a confrontation.
As day darkens and shadows stretch across the shabono, we sit in our hammocks under the palm-leaf roof and gaze out at the empty dance ground. No inner walls separate the individual families, whose hammocks hang around each cooking fire. As Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Families use stout saplings and woven palm leaves, building lean-to’s next to each other to form a protective shield against their enemies. I smell the smoke that rises from the cooking fires. Our Blapoteri hosts bring us lasha, along with roasted tapir meat on a banana leaf (it tastes something like pork) and their women bring us gourd bowls filled with banana soup and a dollop of cooked yucca root. I swill down the soup, taste the yucca, and relish the fat-laden tapir meat. You can feel the tension—like the excitement of waiting for the first pitch of a baseball game.
We relax and eat in the smell of dust and tobacco smoke. Nataniel, muscular and a good hunter, comes forward as an honored guest. He has a special gift to distribute among his friends. As he walks across the dancing ground, he carries over his shoulder a severed tapir’s head, snout down. Like most Yanomamo men, he stands just over five feet tall, with his bronze skin and thick, straight, ebony hair hanging down in great shocks. White circles and stripes punctuate his black body paint. A shaved four-inch circle on the crown of his head sets off his scar-topography, the result of head-clubbing fights. He wears monkey tail armbands and a penis string.
Drinking the bones
After the feast, I watch the two headmen, host and guest, squatting on their haunches facing each other in typical Yanomamo fashion, squaring off, chanting in singsong voices. Danny says, “They’re wayoumouing—sharing information and going over old disputes.” The missionaries have struggled to understand the Yanomamo language, filled as it is with nasalized phonemes. (For instance, for the foreigner, the word Yanomamo is best pronounced while holding your nose.) The big chaw of tobacco that men and many women carry in their lower lip makes learning the language even more difficult. As the headmen chant, Danny says, “These wayoumos are important. If they don’t settle their disputes, the two groups might begin chest beating or head clubbing—somebody could get killed.”
Then Danny points to a small group of people gathered on the opposite side of the shabono. “They’re drinking the bones now; let’s go over.” As we walk up, Nataniel sits in the middle of a circle of relatives and allies, and weeps as he rubs a small gourd. Danny tells me, “Raiders killed his brother a few months ago, and the gourd holds the victim’s pulverized bones mixed with water.
People share the gourd around, take a sip from it, and pass it on, crying and murmuring, “Octavio, Octavio.” Yanomamo names are personal, and any other time, speaking the name out loud might invite swift retaliation from a relative. But the bone-drinking ceremony is special, since these “communion services” honor the dead person’s memory, provide an outlet for grief and stoke anger against the killers, anger that often provokes a retaliatory raid.
After two hours, the moon, with upturned horns, rises over the thatched roofs. Danny and I get up and prepare to leave the feast. The Niyayobateri will dance, feast, and talk far into the night before they turn homeward to their own shabono across the valley.
I’m back in the airplane now, flying the 2-1/2 hours back home to Puerto Ayacucho. I think about all the Indian groups, all the village airstrips, in this vast Amazonas territory—Coshilowateri, Mayubateri, Yuwana, Caño Panare, Tama Tama, Ocamo, San Juan Manapiare. I pray silently: Lord, the Christian faith seems foreign, imported, alien to everything these people experience. I have my doubts that Christianity will penetrate this Yanomamo world of warfare and vengeful spirits.
I am wrong.
* * *
Fast-forward to 1999. I’m sitting in a church in Bloomington, Minnesota, where Bautista, an old Yanomamo friend, is the visiting speaker. This is the same man whose faith I had doubted forty years earlier. He talks about the encounter between his hekura spirits and Yai Pada (God). His Jesus-encounter transformed him so much that people nicknamed him “Doesn’t Grab Women,” an unusual name for a Yanomamo man! Bautista is the headman of his village, and has led his people out of warfare into peace. He’s a great man and a faithful Christian. Years earlier, I had sat at the Blapoteri feast a skeptic, but today I believe. The Yanomamo Christians have greatly reduced fights and murders, and they have the Bible in their own Yanomamo language, which they are learning to read. I now realize that the light of the gospel can extend to all people—even the Yanomamo.