Tuesday, December 30, 2008

book review: Spirit of the Rainforest by Mark Andrew Ritchie

Title: Spirit of the Rainforest
Author: Mark Andrew Ritchie
Publisher: Island Lake Press, Second edition, 2000

Back cover description:

"The Yanomamo of the Amazon -- endangered children of nature or indigenous warmongers on the verge of destroying themselves? Now for the first time, a powerful Yanomamo shaman speaks for his people. Jungleman provides shocking never-before-answered accounts of life-or-death battles among his people -- and perhaps even more disturbing among the spirits who fight for their souls. Brutally riveting, the story of Jungleman is an extraordinary and powerful document."


The Yanomamo are a fierce tribe of Indians who live in the jungles of Venezuela. The story that Mark Andrew Ritchie tells in The Spirit of the Rainforest - A Yanomamo Shaman's Story is through Jungleman, one of the most powerful shamans of the tribe. The incidents Jungleman relates took place from approximately 1950 to the early 1980s. The stories were collected and transcribed by Ritchie during numerous visits to Amazonia when he talked with Jungleman, Shoefoot, Keleewa (Gary Dawson, son of missionary Joe Dawson who grew up with many of the story's characters, and translated the stories for the author in exchange for all author royalties from the book going to the Yanomamo people), and others.

From the 1950 fight with Potato Village to the 1980s when Jungleman is finally able to live at peace in Honey Village, his tales of events among the Yanomamo -- their tit for tat inter-village battles that inevitably lead to more anger, fear, treachery, and revenge -- fascinate and repulse.

Several things struck me about this story.

1. The reality of the spirit world and how it corroborates Bible accounts of Jesus interactions with the demonic. Though the Yanomamo encountered white men (nabas) of various kinds -- rubber traders, anthropologists and missionaries from various denominations -- it is when they met Pepe (Joe Dawson who worked under New Tribes Missions) that the spiritual conflict really began. Pepe and his family came to live at Honey Village (at the Yanomamo's invitation) where Shoefoot (Jungleman's protege and relative) was the shaman. Over time Shoefoot gave up his spirits. Here's what happened the next time Jungleman came to visit his brother-in-law and friend:

"When I pulled my canoe up to the shore at the mouth of the Metaconi I felt the usual excitement that comes with meeting old friends. But something was very different. What was it, I wondered.

'Don't go in here,' Jaguar Spirit told me. 'There's too much danger here. We are afraid.' It was the first time I had ever heard fear coming from Jaguar Spirit and it made me feel poor inside. My hands began to flutter and I held my bow tight to make them stop.

There can't be any danger here, I thought. These people are my friends. They have always been my friends. But it wasn't just Jaguar. All my spirits were crowding the shabono iin my chest and making a terrible noise about how afraid their were.

When I saw Shoefoot I was stunned. 'What has happened to your spirits?' I asked him, looking at his chest. I could see they were gone.

'I threw them away, brother-in-law.'

'What!' I whispered as hard as I could. 'How could you do that? Why would you do that?'

'I found the new spirit I was looking for,' Shoefoot said. 'Yai Wana Naba Laywa -- the unfriendly one. You know, our enemy spirit.'

'You can't have him!' I whispered in excitement. 'It's too hot there and he never comes out!'

It was a horrible visit for me. There was a spirit in Shoefoot's village that I couldn't understand. But it was powerful. That's why my spirits were so upset when I came. I hung my hammock next to Shoefoot and as soon as I lay down they were all there, every spirit I have, crowding my shabono.

'Please Father!' they all begged together. 'Please leave here. It's not safe here. We are terrified.' And they were. The new spirit in Shoefoot's chest had them all frightened like I had never seen them before.

He's my friend, I thought.

'He's no friend of ours! We hate him!' All my spirits talked at the same time. 'Please Father! Please don't throw us away.'

The thought of throwing my spirits away hadn't even come into my mind. Why would they say that to me?

'He'll want you to throw us away,' they said. 'You'll see. Please don't listen to him, Father!'

My spirits were right about that. Shoefoot and his new naba friends did want me to throw my spirits away. Shoefoot's new spirit would never get along with mine."
Compare with Mark 5:1-12, also Matthew 8 and Luke 8.

2. The Bible talks about unclean spirits. That is what these spirits were. The book is not a pretty or pleasant read. There is much violence, especially against women, with rape, bloodshed, vengeance, physical and sexual abuse -- and not all of it at the hands of fellow Yanomamo but also at the hands of various non-Indians (rubber traders and some of the anthropologists). The graphic nature is not gratuitous, though, but makes the story seem more believable, told as it is without taking the taboos of our culture into account.

3. The Bible describes Satan as a liar and the father of lies. Here are Jungleman's thoughts about his spirits when he was an old man:

"I wish I had known the truth about Yai Wana Naba Laywa when I was a young man -- it would have saved me so much pain and misery. But how could I? My spirits lied so much to me and tricked me. They were so beautiful, so wonderful, so hard not to want. They were the best at telling me split-truth. Now I'm at the end of this life, and I'm ready to begin my real life with Yai Pada.

If this book had one affect on me, it made me want to crowd close to Jesus -- and to have nothing to do with any other spirit. For they are active in our land too, though not feared as they parade in familiar costumes with names we all recognize like pride, unbelief, anger, greed, envy, revenge...

Links of interest:

Anthropology case study including references to the work of Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and an interactive CD-Rom that he made of a Yanomamo ax fight in 1975.

More about the Yanomamo from the Hands Around the World site.

Another blog review with generous quotes from the book.


Anonymous said...

I read the book. It's so amazing to read about God's love, how He amazingly reached out to these people.

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