Brazil Indians call spirits to fight fires

Millions of acres burned. Shamans gathered. Then the rains came.

By Monica Yant, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 8, 1998

BOA VISTA, Brazil --
Firefighters from three countries tried, and failed. Ill-equipped and overmatched, they struggled to beat back the flames with shovel-sized swatters and to quench them with water shot out of puny backpacks.

Peasant farmers batted leaves and branches at the flames, trying to protect their land. Still the fires burned, consuming millions of acres of Brazil's northern Roraima state.

Then the Indian shamans, or wise men, summoned the spirits. From a village called Demini, deep inside the untamed forest, they danced and sang and performed rituals.

And the rain returned, and the fires went out.

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a shaman of Demini, explained:

"In the beginning of the history of the universe, when white people were not here, and only Yanomami, all the forests burned down," he said a few days after the rain began, speaking in the Yanomami dialect.

"This time, the spirit of the sun, called Tupan, was very near the ground. The ground was dry, the water gone, the leaves dead. This time, the shamans knew how to make the fire stop."

Davi Yanomami is one of the 10,000-member tribe's few leaders who has experienced life outside the forest. In recent years, he has become a sort of spokesman for the Yanomami people, taking the tribe's name as his surname.

Though the fires had burned for months on the savannas of the Amazon basin, it was not until February that smoke reached Catrimani and Demini, two villages within the Yanomami reserve.

The Yanomami, accustomed to the humid depths of a green forest, were terrified. "We couldn't see the fire, only the smoke," Davi Yanomami recalled. "We couldn't see the sun. We couldn't hunt. We were surrounded. We were afraid."

Since they had never seen such smoke, the tribe members had no special ceremony to make the fire go away.

So they improvised. They used rituals usually performed to heal the sick.

And they accepted the help of Kaiapo shamans from Xingu, a region in the central Amazon, transported to Roraima by a government willing to try anything.

In the waning days of March, the shamans gathered. First, they sniffed the hallucinogenic bark of the virola tree, which sent them into a trance. They sang and danced, in rituals that they believed would help them communicate with the spirits of the universe.

The first ritual they improvised was designed to ask for wind, to blow the smoke away. The second, to stop the fire. The third, to bring rain to Demini.

Then, the shamans repeated the rituals for the people in other parts of Roraima state. "We sent the spirits of rain to Apiau, and to Catrimani," he said.

On March 29, the shamans performed another ceremony. This was to clear the air and provide a safe plane trip for Davi Yanomami, who was preparing to go to far-off Brasilia to speak to the government about the effect of the fires on his people.

Late March 30, and in the early hours of March 31, the rains began to fall over much of Roraima.

"We cleared the sky so the plane could land. We made rain fall," Davi Yanomami said after returning from the capital. "With the drugs, the singing and the dancing, we stopped the fire. The shaman spirits saved the forest. They will make it wet again."