Indigenous Amazonian visitors describe their life, culture and spirituality

William Heath writes:

Three representatives – one Elder, and two youth leaders – from the Amazonian Yawanawa tribe from Brazil spoke and sang with a small group in Bath Friends Meeting House on Tue 28 August. They were on their first international visit, speaking about their culture and faith and raising money for a school. They described their tribe’s first contact with white people, a period of suffering survival and then renewal, and their process of discernment and decision making.

The evening was organised by the anthropologist Maria Fernanda Gebara – not per se a Quaker event – and attended by Friends from Bath and Wincanton.

Left to right: Yawatume (“Selma”), Shaneihu and Nani Yawanawa: “We cannot fight the mix of cultures any more. We are open to other cultures.”

The Yawanawa believe themselves to be the most ancient people on earth, and they described how they had adapted through suffering to survive well in the modern world. They described how their shamans would fast and consult the spirits vis sacred medicinal plants uni (ayahuasca), tobacco, shupa and a type of pepper. They had prophesied the arrival of white “people of iron” with superior weapons, who lived stacked above each other and whose hearts were hard.

First had come the rubber tappers. Instead of fighting, and knowing the visitors would not be able to feed themselves the Yawanawa decided to leave gifts of food. This starting trading, and the rubber tappers left them useful gifts such as knives. Eventually they gifted a gun, but the Yawanawa decided not to use the gun for fighting.

Next had come Christian missionaries, which presented a far greater threat to the tribe’s traditions and rituals. Only when the tribal chief Biraci Yawanawa had learned post the Rio92 Earth Summit about the protections available for indigenous peoples had they asserted their land rights. They decided to expel the missionaries, who insisted the natives would not survive, being now dependent on western medicine. But the tribe expelled them anyway, and through fasting, sacred plants and silence started to recover their traditions and spirituality.

The tribe has since grown from 200 to 900 people. They have had a partnership with the cosmetics company Aveda, and produced vegan leather from rubber.

(With Maria Fernanda Gebara, far right):”It’s nobody’s fault the world is in this crisis; we are here to share everything. Love is for the new world we will make together.”

Leaving aside the use of traditional plants, there is something Quakerly about the spiritual life of the Yawanawa. After a period of fasting, they recovered their spiritual tradition through silence. “In silence you can really hear, “they told us. “You cannot understand any lesson if you are not in silence.”

Now they once a year stop all their subsistence work for a Yawa festival. They take off their clothes, dance, dress and paint themselves. They invite the outside world, and more come each year. All welcome.

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