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Yanomamö Culture: “Spirit of the Rainforest” by Ritchie

Mark Andrew Ritchie’s book, Spirit of the rainforest, is about the Yanomamö culture of the Amazon. Nevertheless, the narrative is recounted from the view of Jungleman, a tribe’s shaman. Jungleman is a great shaman who understands both the spiritual and material worlds. The story of the shaman demonstrates the significance of the spiritual realm to the Yanomamö inhabitants. Throughout this narrative, he emphasizes the significance of shamans in his people’s values and tradition, as well as how those practices were changed when the nabas, white people, arrived.

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Jungleman, perceived by his tribe as one of the most influential and intelligent shamans in the community, is able to present an up-close, comprehensive glimpse of his people, allowing readers to enter a society drastically different from their own and fight conventional preconceptions about Yanomamö. Jungleman does this by exposing the readers to the fight between two tribes in the book’s prologue and explores the underlying cultural and contextual components of the dispute, the events leading up to it, and its resolution by splitting the narrative into three sections labeled the beginning, the middle, and the end.

The book begins by recounting a conflict involving two tribes, Honey and Mouth, that exemplifies the Yanomamö battle between the old way of life, Mouth, and the new way of life, Honey, that many nabas are introducing. The old order of vengeance, conflict, shame, and terror contrasts with the new way of thinking of harmony, respect, and acceptance. Honey has abandoned the ancient Yanomamö practices and spirits in favor of the new methods of the great spirit Yai Pada. Honey thrives in the innovative approaches and quickly becomes the reason for jealousy for the neighboring towns who are struggling.

The raid of Potato Village demonstrates the Yanomamö tradition of retribution and commitment immediately. The attack’s scope can range from two rival fighters bashing each other to more major attacks in which every man is slain, and the women are attacked, raped, and dragged away to become spouses of the invading community. Youth in the attacked community are frequently slaughtered or seized to be sold as slaves. The death of a relative initiated numerous tribal attacks as a consequence of a vengeance murder; this established an ongoing cycle of raids and warfare that generated further vengeance.

Nevertheless, the clash involving two villages, Honey and Mouth, exposes the reader to the Yanomamö people’s larger conflicts. The reader is first exposed to several of the recurring themes that run deep in Yanomamö society. The first chapter begins with a part. A long story goes before every fight, which sheds light on the first theme of the work, vengeance. This is depicted in the warriors of Honey and Mouth villages, the victory of the latter, and the murder by one of Honey villagers, a woman of the adversarial village. “No one strikes an old woman without starting a war,” which indicates the tribal feeling of the people (Ritchie, 2000, p.18). The author chose specifically this title for the chapter since every fight has a story, and the story narrated is introduced by Jungleman.

Another theme of the work is the theme of spirits and shamans. According to Jungleman, who is considered a man of the spirit world, a shaman is “almost always the leader of his village” (Ritchie, 2000, p.18). If a man is a good shaman, he can avoid the bad spirits and contact the good powers; this man can lead his village to good hunting and tell them when and where to plant and whom to fight. People of various tribes in the jungle cannot imagine their lives without spirits. Villagers not only communicate with stronger forces but rely on their help to protect people and punish rivals. Shamans seek counseling from spirits and pleasure from female spirits.

Thus, these forces play a crucial role in the lives of Native Americans. According to Jungleman, “no story of […] people can be understood without knowing about the spirits” (Ritchie, 2000, p.21). With the help of spirits, various tribes took revenge on their rivals. One of these times was depicted in the next part of the first chapter, when Potato village was raided, leading to brutal murders of men and children and the rape of women. As Jungleman put it, his people came to the village “only to kill a person who had caused a death in [their] village” (Ritchie, 2000, p.33). The spirits are the ones who can not only protect the people but say who is responsible for someone’s death.

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Therefore, the world in which Yanomamö live is driven by their own beliefs and values. They are not only guided by revenge or spirits; they also have unique ways of commemorating the deaths of their loved ones. Yanomamö grieves together and cries together, which may indicate the release of stress and sadness. The support system of these people exceeds the limits. These tribes cry together, and this practice unites them. Moreover, the tribes ignite the bodies of the dead and drink their ashes. This way, people close to their hearts always stay with them.

Nevertheless, their world shifted after acquaintance with nabas, the foreigners. The acquaintance began when the tribe of Jungleman started to experience a series of unfortunate events. There was a shortage of food, and people were dying. Due to the alienation of the tribe, people lived in constant fear; they were going to die either at the hands of their rivals or from famine. According to Jungleman, “the nabas are people that have many things that you need” (Ritchie, 2000, p.42). The tribe’s leader decided to visit the land of nabas, which was supported by spirits but dreaded by the community.

The first impression of the nabas was a pure shock because the tribe had never seen this lifestyle. According to Jungleman, “all around […] were great big wooden things that the nabas had made- things so big that people could walk inside of them.” (Ritchie, 2000, p.43) Everything around was screaming of the progress and prosperity the nabas had. Noweda, the leader of the naba’s tribe, wielded power over these people. This white man ordered the mighty warrior to do various tasks, and they did everything, “cooked his food, hunted meat for him, and did anything else he said” (Ritchie, 2000, p.44). Jungleman’s brother assumed that he had a spell on them since there was no explanation as to why such strong warriors were now “cowards.”

As a result, the tribe of Jungleman was impacted by this visit, which caused the leader to think of reasons why their community was so prosperous. Several questions were on the shaman’s mind, including questions about the tribe’s behavior, devotion to a white man, and change of beliefs. People in this community showed no signs of fear and lived with convenience, while other tribes were dying from diseases and murders. Though villagers still relied on their old spirits, the idea of well-being was tempting and frightening at the same time.

With these diseases and fear, the belief in spirits continued to ebb. In the third part, Not every spirit is what he appears, and a reader sees the first signs of anger with spirits. When the father of Spear, a community warrior, got sick and was too weak, Spear addressed the spirits: “Where are you now that I really need you?” (Ritchie, 2000, p.56). Spear was furious with spirits after his father’s death and started to lose hope. According to the warrior, spirits are “worthless” and “have no healing power” (Ritchie, 2000, p.57). As a result, those who were supposed to guide the community and help it were now losing power.

As the narration goes on, the help of nabas becomes necessary, and the tribe of Jungleman becomes dependent on the prosperous nabas. Though the tribe was awed by the progress of Noweda’s people, their beliefs and lifestyle still seemed animal-like. Jungleman thought that “these nabas might have a lot of trade goods and they might know a lot of things, but they are really so much dumber than we Yanomamö” (Ritchie, 2000, p.61). Thus, even being helpless and facing adversity, the tribe of Jungleman did not want to follow the path of nabas.

The pivotal moment in the culture of Yanomamö happened with the appearance of Shoefoot, a disciple of Jungleman, in the fourth part of the chapter, Our pain is not our spirit’s fault. With the help of nabas, Shoefoot’s village was rich with axes, machetes, pots, and other things from the nabas. However, the people needed more, and they needed a naba to teach them everything. As a result, at this stage, people realized how rich the spirit of nabas was and that these people have the knowledge which can lead to well-being.

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In the sixth part, The father Eagle never found his eaglet; a reader can observe the steps toward the new lifestyle. More nabas started to move into the jungle, and “many new things began to happen” (Ritchie, 2000, p.96). Now Shoefoot had abandoned the spirits completely for the sake of his people. The man stopped taking ebene when a naba said he would leave if people kept doing it. Spear has “thrown his spirits away” too (Ritchie, 2000, p.113). As a result, the example of Shoefoot and Spear urged everyone in Honey village to abandon their faith in spirits.

This was the beginning of new life with new traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, the people of Honey village had an unusual reaction to the good news, Gospel. This can be observed in the seventh part of the book, when the husband of Sofia, Shoefoot’s sister, goes hunting and shoots a tapir. Everybody in the village celebrated this moment “like it was a feast” (Ritchie, 2000, p.119). However, before eating, people talked to their great spirits. According to Shoefoot, when someone does something that makes people happy, they have a word that they say to that person.

The tribe used to think that nabas slept before eating, but now they know that they were saying that word to their spirit. Other tribes of the jungle do not have a word like this, and now they tell the new spirit how happy they are for the fresh meat. Thus, newcomers to Honey were progressing in the new religion and customs, accepting new ways of life.

Nevertheless, this was not the only change the people made. While Shoefoot’s village not only changed their beliefs, the people also stopped raiding other tribes for revenge. This news was not only shocking to others, but it seemed outrageous. Tigerlip’s village, with the help of Mouth village, planned to go against the Honey tribe. However, every time Mouth village tried to attack the mysterious tribe, the warriors of Honey “drove them off with clubs” (Ritchie, 2000, p.122). No attempts of revenge were made by Honey villagers, which only confused other tribes. As a result, the news was spreading to other villages, causing them to show interest.

Cloudy, from the village of Mouth, decided to take his wife and children to Honey for a friendly visit. The wife of Cloudy is Shoefoot’s sister, which is why the village received them well. The man felt uneasy because of the friendly treatment he received. Cloudy kept coming back to either visit the village or raid it. However, every time when he tried to raid the village, he was beaten. Therefore, the warrior and other villages only knew how to fight and kill, but they could never try to understand the lives of others.

In his discussion with Spear, the warrior admitted that no one understands Honey and thinks these people are cowards. Spear told Cloudy that his people were still Yanomamö. The only difference is the path that the people of Honey have chosen; they learned that those “wonderful spirits” who sent them to raid the rivals actually “tricked” them (Ritchie, 2000, p.123). As a result, Spear not only shed light on the new views of Honey but made the warrior question the power of the spirits.

A reader can derive a lot of information on the outlooks of both villages. While the people of Honey propagandize acceptance and patience, the wild villages fight the new laws and notions they do not understand. According to the Honey people, their new spirit, Yai Pada, loves everyone, and the spirits of old villages hate their believers. Yanomamö people cannot think for themselves, and as a result, they rely on the decision of their spirits, which only makes villages seek revenge. Honey village was not perfect; not every person believed in “the great spirit,” but no one would ever agree to return to their old way of life (Ritchie, 2000, p.124). Spear, being one of the harshest and strongest men, is sure that nothing will make his return to the old values.

Now, though Tigerlip and Mouth still raid Honey village, the latter does not seek revenge. The tribes understand that their spells do not work anymore, and something new is in the forest. Nevertheless, Shoefoot continued to spread its new beliefs. During his visit to his relatives, whom he had never seen, the man convinced a man named Turkey that if his people stopped killing other tribes, their rivals would stop killing them. After the talk with Shoefoot, Turkey wants a naba to live in his village and teach the people everything. As more people join nabas, the beliefs spread faster.

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In the last chapter, the end, part 14, Killers like me, Jungleman experiences an existential crisis. The man says how the people of Honey are happy and rich and how they get richer every season. However, the most important thing which Jungleman accentuates is their happiness. Shoefoot’s children are healthy and beautiful, as well as his friends. The only problem Jungleman faces is his own failure to gain success and happiness. The shaman’s village is nothing, and most of his children died, leaving only one son whom he considers useless.

Jungleman kept his old views till the end the spirits tried to kill him. During this moment, the man saw the bright light, so bright that he could barely see. There he felt something very warm which he had never experienced before. A creature stood over him, and as soon as he felt him, he knew who he was. This creature is called Yai Wana Naba Laywa – the enemy spirit of Jungleman. According to the beliefs of villagers, he ate the spirits of their children, and he was the one both people and spirits hated. As a result, even the person who was frightened of the new spirits and who loathed them came to understanding of the new region’s goodwill.

In the end, the man felt warm and safe with this spirit. During this experience, Jungleman saw his life and how he spent it, seeking revenge and feeling unhappy. After this incident, he came to Honey to learn about this new spirit from Keleewa, a missionary of new religion. Jungleman regrets not believing in Yai Wana Naba Laywa when he was a young man. According to the shaman, it could save him from so much “pain and misery” (Ritchie, 2000, p.238). Jungleman learned about the “spirit of forgiveness instead of revenge, the spirit of kindness, instead of fierceness” (Ritchie, 2000, p.229). Now the narrator was on the side of the great spirit for the rest of his life.

Many people in the jungle still fight and kill, but the people of Honey share different visions. These people often travel to other villages and try to dissuade believers of old spirits from killing. The aim of Honey villagers is to show the beauty of the new spirit, which values civilized ways of life and the absence of conflict. After going through such a hard path to their new belief, Honey people want to disseminate the new values. They assume that this force will protect men from destructive behaviors, wars, and diseases.

Hence, The spirit of the rainforest influenced me as a reader in several ways. First, I saw the world of Indians through spiritual eyes, just as the Yanomamö do. Their values, beliefs, and culture play a crucial role in understanding them as people. Second, I realized that cultural change occurs in the inner world of man as a spiritual shift that manifests itself in altered behavior. The book sheds light on the path of many Indian villages to the faith in God. As a result, ruthless people of many villages in the jungle turned to the great spirit, which resulted in inner harmony and warmth, as well as physical well-being.

Reference

Ritchie, M. A. (2000). Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamö Shaman’s Story. United States: Island Lake Press.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Yanomamö Culture: “Spirit of the Rainforest” by Ritchie." October 22, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/yanomam-culture-spirit-of-the-rainforest-by-ritchie/.

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