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