The Dalai Lama of the Amazon: a testimony from the Yanomami people

Text and photos by Survival International – This article was originally published on

Survival International is the global movement for indigenous peoples’ rights. An organisation exclusively dedicated to defending the lives, protecting the lands and determining the future of indigenous peoples around the world.

The famous Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, known as the ‘Dalai Lama of the Amazon rainforest’, won this year’s Right Livelihood Award, also known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’.

In 2010, he wrote The Falling Sky, the first book written by a Yanomami. In it, he explores Yanomami cosmology and movingly describes his people’s struggle to survive epidemics and violence. The director of Survival International, Stephen Corry, has called it “one of the most important books of our time”.

In White Man’s Land

When I saw Europe, the land of white people, I was distressed. Some cities are beautiful, but the noise never stops. They drive around in cars, on the street and even with underground trains. There are a lot of noise and people everywhere. The mind becomes dark and tangled, you can’t think straight. That’s why white people’s thoughts are full of dizziness, and they don’t understand our words. All they say is: “We are very happy to ride and fly! “We will continue! Let’s look for oil, gold, iron! The thinking of these whites is obstructed, that’s why they abuse the land, stripping it everywhere, and they even dig it under their houses. They only think that one day it will collapse.

We want the forest to be kept as it is, always. We want to live there in good health, and we want the xapïripë (shamanic) spirits, the game and the fish to continue to live there. We only plant the plants that feed us, we don’t want factories, holes in the ground or dirty rivers. We want the forest to remain quiet, the sky to remain clear, the night to fall and the stars to be visible.

Dreams of the origins

The xapiripë (shamanic) spirits have been dancing for the shamans since the beginning of time and continue to do so now. They look like human beings but are as tiny as particles of glowing dust. To see them, one must inhale the powder of the yãkahanahi tree several times.

The xapiripë dance together on large mirrors that descend from the sky. They are never grey like humans. They are always beautiful: their bodies are painted with urucum (latte) and adorned with black designs, their heads are covered with white vulture feathers, their beaded arm straps are full of parrot, cujubim (a type of bird) and red macaw feathers, their waists are wrapped with toucans’ tails.

Thousands of them come to dance together, waving the leaves of young palm trees, emitting cries of joy and singing incessantly. Their path looks like spider thread glittering in the moonlight and their feathered ornaments move slowly to the rhythm of their steps. It is a joy to see how beautiful they are!

The spirits are so numerous because they are the images of the animals in the forest. Everything in the forest has an utupë image: those who walk on the ground, those who climb trees, those who have wings, those who live in the water. It is these images that the shamans call and bring down to become xapiripë spirits.

These images are the true centre, the true interior of the forest beings. The common people cannot see them, only the shamans. But they are not images of the animals that we know today. They are the images of the fathers of these animals, they are the images of our ancestors. At first, when the forest was still young, our ancestors were humans named after animals and eventually became prey. They are the ones we kill with arrows and eat today. But their images have not disappeared, and it is they who dance for us as xapiripë spirits.

The white people draw their words because their thoughts are filled with oblivion. We have kept the words of our ancestors within us for a long time and we continue to pass them on to our children. Children who know nothing about spirits hear the songs of the shamans and then want to see them in turn. So even though they are very old, the words of the xapiripë always become new again. It is they that increase our thoughts. It is they that make us see and know the distant things, the ancient things. It is our study that teaches us to dream.


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