Davi Kopenawa at Princeton: The Falling Sky and The Yanomami Struggle

Written by
Isabela Muci Barradas
Feb. 9, 2023

On Tuesday, January 31, the PIIRS’s Brazil LAB and the Department of Anthropology held a keynote with Yanomami shaman and leader Davi Kopenawa. Moderated by Brazil LAB Director and Chair of Princeton’s Anthropology Department João Biehl, along with PIIRS Director and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton Deborah Yashar, the event is available on the Brazil LAB’s YouTube Channel.

One of the world’s most influential leaders in the fight for Indigenous rights, author of The Falling Sky, and the president of the Hutukara Associação Yanomami, Kopenawa spoke about the urgent health crisis and ecological destruction resulting from the life-threatening upsurge of illegal mining in the Yanomami territory and the constant attacks against his people encouraged by the Brazilian Government during the administration of Jair Bolsonaro.

Kopenawa began his remarks by stating that: “I’m in mourning along with my people, the Yanomami, who are sick and dying. Our children are getting sick with diseases brought by the white man.” The statement is in line with the recently declared state of public health emergency in the Yanomami territory by Brazil’s Ministry of Health on January 21st, 2023, after the incoming president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited the area last month.

Kopenawa drew attention to the 70,000 illegal gold prospectors that are invading and devastating the Yanomami territory. Likewise, Kopenawa addressed the death of 577 children caused by illnesses and hunger, describing how “when the father dies, and the mother dies, the child then lacks care, and a child without a mother cannot survive. When children have malaria, the illness impedes them from finding food, from eating. This is very tough, and this is why we are here, this is why you are here listening.”

Kopenawa also offered some remarks on The Falling Sky. Addressing Princeton students, he highlighted that the book was made for those who aim to know the history of his people. He then proceeded to explain how the xapiri forest spirits, in communication with Yanomami shamans like himself, protect the forest: “I am a shaman, and I take care of the universe so that it doesn’t fall.” Finally, he encouraged the Princeton community to take action in defending Yanomami rights, reminding the audience that “we live on an earth that is unique for us all.”

Prompted by Professor Deborah Yashar’s response to the talk, Kopenawa reflected on the history of Yanomami territorial recognition and the role of art and politics in the struggle for Indigenous rights. He recalled the combined efforts of many Indigenous leaders and communities in Brazil in the recognition of Yanomami territorial rights, including the support of prominent figures such as Raoni Metuktire and Ailton Krenak.

Kopenawa also spoke about the importance of Yanomami artists in the fight for their rights, highlighting how artists such as Joseca Mokahesi or Ehuana Yaira, both present at the event, do not limit their practice solely to artmaking but are also health workers, as in the case of Mokahesi, and researchers, as in the case of Yaira. Kopenawa further emphasized that such artistic practices are oriented towards protecting the Amazon and valorizing the work embedded in the Yanomami struggle.

An engaging discussion followed with the audience, in which various critical themes were discussed, including the current situation of the Yanomami territory on the Venezuelan side of the border and the relationship between the xapiriforest spirits and dreams in the fight to protect the Amazon. Kopenawa commented on the precarious situation of the Yanomami in Venezuela and the need for increased Indigenous leadership on the other side of the border, adding that “for us, the Yanomami people, frontiers do not exist. Governments are the ones that created borders.”

When asked how the Princeton community could support the Yanomami cause, Kopenawa urged the public to write letters to President Joe Biden to recognize the Yanomami struggle. Lastly, indicating how Yanomami shamans “sleep in order to dream,” the shaman spoke about the importance of connecting dreams to nourishment and the critical sustenance of the forest.

Kopenawa’s trip to the United States coincides with the opening of the exhibition The Yanomami Struggle at The Shed in New York, a show that traces the Yanomami fight to protect their land, people, and culture through the work of Swiss-born photographer Claudia Andujar and a group of eleven Yanomami contemporary artists, including Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Joseca Mokahesi, Morzaniel Ɨramari, and Ehuana Yaira. The exhibit is organized by Instituto Moreira Salles, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, and The Shed.

During his visit to Princeton, Kopenawa was joined by Yanomami leader and vice president of Hutukara Associação Yanomami Dário Kopenawa, Yanomami artists Joseca Mokahesi, Morzaniel Ɨramari, and Ehuana Yaira, anthropologists Bruce Albert and Ana Maria Machado, and missionary Carlo Zacquini. Prior to the keynote, Kopenawa met with President Christopher L. Eisgruber and SPIA Dean Amaney Jamal, along with several Princeton University faculty, officials, and Native students.

In his powerful keynote, Kopenawa invoked our common obligations of care for the earth: “I’m talking about protecting our universe. I’m talking about protecting the globe. For we are living here, on this Earth. It is the only Earth we have, for everybody. We are one people on Earth. We are living here.”

The event was organized by PIIRS’s Brazil LAB and the Department of Anthropology, with support from the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University Art Museum, Lewis Center for the Arts, Pace Center for Civic Engagement, High Meadows Environmental Institute, University Center for Human Values, Humanities Council, Program in Latin American Studies, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and Effron Center for the Study of America.

We are grateful to Brazilian Graduate Student Ana Laura Malmaceda (Harvard), who accompanied Kopenawa’s visit and acted as his translator.