There’s a strange sort of dovetail connecting the first-person account of a shaman from the Brazilian Amazon with an attempt by a French maven of science studies to taxonomize “modern” ways of being. The latter—Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence—is a project of diplomacy inspired by a clear need to reconcile the “plurality of truth conditions” that leads the world away from consensus on issues as critical as climate change. The former—The Falling Sky, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert—details for Latour’s “moderns” a way of being that grows ever more threatened by that lack of consensus.
Kopenawa, the shaman, has become the face of the Yanomami people of Brazil, but his advocacy benefits indigenous cultures everywhere facing cultural repression, environmental devastation, and deaths resulting from epidemics and violence. In The Falling Sky Kopenawa offers his personal story interwoven with a history of his people and their cosmo-ecological thought, amounting in the end to an immersion so complete as to be deeply unsettling for readers who understand themselves to be the intended recipients of its warnings:
What the white people call the whole world is being tainted because of the factories that make all their merchandise, their machines, and their motors. Though the sky and the earth are vast, their fumes eventually spread in every direction, and all are affected: humans, game, and the forest. It is true. Even the trees are sick from it. Having become ghost, they lose their leaves, they dry up and break all by themselves. The fish also die from it in the rivers’ soiled waters. The white people will make the earth and the sky sick with the smoke from their minerals, oil, bombs, and atomic things. Then the winds and the storms will enter into a ghost state.
When the white people tear dangerous minerals out of the depths of the earth, our breath becomes too short and we die very quickly. We do not simply get sick like long ago when we were alone in the forest. This time, all our flesh and even our ghosts are soiled by the xawara epidemic smoke that burns us. This is why our dead shaman elders are angry and want to protect us. If the breath of life of all of our people dies out, the forest will become empty and silent. Our ghosts will then go to join all those who live on the sky’s back, already in very large numbers. The sky, which is as sick from the white people’s fumes as we are, will start moaning and begin to break apart. All the orphan spirits of the last shamans will chop it up with their axes. In a rage, they will throw its broken pieces on the earth to avenge their dead fathers. One by one they will cut all its points of support, and it will collapse from end to end. For this time there won’t be a single shaman left to hold it up. It will truly be terrifying! The back of the sky bears a forest as vast as ours, and its enormous weight will brutally crush us all. The entire ground on which we walk will be carried away into the underworld where our ghosts will become aõpatari ancestors in their turn. We will perish before we even notice. No one will have the time to scream or cry. The angry orphan xapiri will also smash the sun, the moon, and the stars. Then the sky will remain dark for all time.
Here’s Kopenawa introducing his message for the non-Indians:
At our website we’ve excerpted passages of The Falling Sky that address some of the many threats facing indigenous people. If any single person’s account could further the diplomacy Latour means to facilitate, The Falling Sky may well be it.