“Hutukara” – The First Sky. On working with the Yanomami

São Paulo 2008, Photo: MW | © Amazonas-Musiktheater

Is dialogue really possible with indigenous tribes? How can we get a dialogue going about the Amazon? And what exactly is “reverse anthropology”? In the third chapter of his essay “Amazon as Opera” Joachim Bernauer tells how the Yanomami came to take part in the music theatre piece “Amazonas”.

This chapter is from Joachim Bernauer’s essay “Der Amazonas als Oper”, published in the omnibus edition “Amazonien. Weltregion und Welttheater” by trafo Verlag in February 2010 – and, in Portuguese, by Editora Globo in “Amazônia – região universal e teatro do mundo”.

Of nature and culture: the possibility of dialogue

Joachim Bernauer | © Amazonas-MusiktheaterSo is dialogue with indigenous groups actually possible in the first place? When we first set out to develop the project, Laymert Garcia dos Santos suggested getting anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro on board for a reliable assessment of the question of working together with indigenous peoples. Viveiros de Castro teaches at the Universidade Federal in Rio de Janeiro and is world-renowned for his work. Like plenty of other social scientists, Viveiros de Castro was interested in the opera project because although countless facts about the Amazon and its indigenous population are already known in scientific circles, they are often unable to work them into the public discussion. The opera project affords an opportunity for precisely that. We decided with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and another anthropologist to hold a meeting in São Paulo for a number of different indigenous groups with a view to figuring out which of them would be best suited to working with us on the project.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro is convinced, however, that there really is no dialogue, and there can’t be any either. Indigenous culture is so fundamentally different, he argues, that we should not delude ourselves into believing we could develop a project like this together with Ameríndios. There can be no real mutual understanding, says the pre-eminent expert in these cultures. With his concept of “multiperspectivism”, Viveiros de Castro has developed an important theory concerning the question of culture and nature: when we apply our scientific-technological world view to the Amazon, we are assuming there is one big complex nature and various cultures that relate to that nature in different ways. But for “Ameríndios” it’s precisely the other way round. To them, there is only one culture, but many natures. To their way of thinking, there is human culture and that’s all. Even animals and plants are part of human culture. Only shamans can know exactly whether someone is actually a person or a jaguar. The spiritual world and the material world are far more profoundly interwoven, he argues, and the respective nature of each particular being determines how it can relate to this single human culture.

Journey via São Paulo to Demini, September 2009, Photo: Joachim Bernauer | © Amazonas-Musiktheater, Hutukara Associação Yanomami

Shamans and media artists and their approach to virtual worlds

For Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, there is no getting away from the fundamental differences between Amerindian “nature culture” and Western civilization, which preclude any dialogue between the two. Hence his decision to break off his collaboration with our opera project, which is indeed committed to dialogue. Laymert Garcia dos Santos, on the other hand, does consider dialogue possible, and he points up the approach to virtuality as a basis for mutual understanding on a potentially very high level. In indigenous culture, it is the shamans who systematically deal with virtual worlds. Generally using carefully studied and controlled substances, they put themselves in a state of mind that enables them to commune productively with the virtual world. They invoke spirits/images, to which they continually put new questions and with whose aid they can affect their environment. This approach to virtual worlds is, in essence, comparable to the work of a media artist, which is why Laymert Garcia dos Santos is convinced there really is a chance of bringing about dialogue between Western and indigenous artists and thinkers.

With his help we were then able to find the right partners: the Yanomami nation and their “foreign minister”, the shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. This tribe in northern Brazil, along the Venezuelan border, had the good fortune to be spared contact with whites till the mid-20th century. To be sure, German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg travelled through the region back in the early 20th century, but the full range of traumas attendant on initial contact did not hit home till the middle of the century: all the hitherto unknown diseases and epidemics upon the arrival of North American missionaries; the fighting over mineral resources – for a while, there were more gold prospectors than Yanomami living in the area –; and the collateral damage caused by the use of mercury in gold mining, which poisoned the rivers, alcoholism and prostitution.

Laymert Garcia dos Santos, São Paulo 2008, Photo: MW | © Amazonas-Musiktheater

“The Yanomami are better off not being proselytized”

The Yanomami were also fortunate enough to come into contact very quickly with white people committed to preserving their culture and protecting them against the encroachments of the gold prospectors. There was the Italian-born Carlo Zacquini, for instance, the Catholic Church’s commissioner for cooperation with the Indians in the state of Roraima, who came to the conclusion that the best thing we can do for the Yanomami is not to proselytize them. Or the Swiss-born photographer Claudia Andujar, who came to Brazil as early as 1956 and has been a steadfast ally of the Yanomami since the 1970s. She has taken fabulous photographs that can be found in a number of the world’s museums. The French anthropologist Bruce Albert, moreover, has been working with the Yanomami for 35 years. Unlike Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, he does consider genuine contact and dialogue with the Yanomami possible. Like Carlo Zacquini and Claudia Andujar, he learned their language. That enabled him to listen a great deal, and so he began exploring what he calls “reverse anthropology”, i.e. the Yanomami’s anthropology of us white men. In 2008, together with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, he completed the manuscript for a book on the interviews he has conducted over the past 35 years. It is an invaluable source of information and material for the opera project – and for Brazilian society on the whole. A book that for the first time describes Yanomami cosmology in detail and the perspective of reverse anthropology. It will be coming out in French first. We are interested in publishing it in German and Portuguese, too, as part of the opera project. And we wonder whether some day it will also be published in the language of the Yanomami.

Davi Kopenawa | © Michael Scheidl/Amazonas-Musiktheater, Hutukara Associação YanomamiThat an area the size of Portugal could be set aside as a Yanomami reservation in 1992 was due not only to the efforts of such outstanding individuals as Bruce Albert, Claudia Andujar and Carlo Zaquini, but also to those of the charismatic shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami himself. As a young man he converted to the Catholic faith, but soon came to the realization that Catholicism did not by any means offer better answers to the vital questions of his people than shamanism. Davi Kopenawa now takes an out-and-out assertive approach to shamanism, training fledgling shamans on a regular basis, for he wholeheartedly believes the Yanomami need to cultivate and pass on their own form of spirituality. As a young man he once worked for FUNAI, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation. Since he speaks Portuguese, he can also discuss his culture in an international context and make the case for his people’s needs and concerns. In 1988 he received an award from the United Nations Environment Programme. He has travelled widely, including trips to France and England. In Germany he tried to meet the chancellor, and delivered a petition to the German foreign ministry. He has fought tirelessly for the rights of his people, but unlike many other indigenous activists, he always returns to his village of Watoriki. For only here does he really feel at home.

Journey via São Paulo to Demini, September 2009, Photo: Joachim Bernauer | © Amazonas-Musiktheater, Hutukara Associação Yanomami

“Hutukara” – the First Sky

Working with the Yanomami is a godsend for the opera project, as it means we won’t be starting this delicate collaborative undertaking from scratch. The Yanomami have already some exposure to the West: through the good offices of Bruce Albert, they collaborated on “The Spirit of the Forest” exhibition and catalogue at the Fondation Cartier in Paris back in 2002. Several international artists visited the village at the time. This positive experience showed the Yanomami that contact with white people who are genuinely interested in their culture is useful and good for them. And they know that international solidarity was partly to thank for the subsequent demarcation of their territory.

Not only that, they have already founded their own association, the Hutukara Associação Yanomami. “Hutukara” is an important word in the Yanomami tongue, meaning “the first sky”. In their cosmology, there was a first sky that fell long ago and now forms the surface of the Earth. In other words, the primeval forest is the first sky’s back. Consequently, the whole forest is a mythologically charged layer that has to be protected. It is not only a matter of protecting soil and plants, but a sky. The Hutukara association is a partner organization in the opera project.


Joachim Bernauer: “Der Amazonas als Oper. Wo Medienkunst und Zeitgenössisches Musiktheater zusammenfließen wie Rio Negro und Rio Solimões” in Amazonien – Weltregion und Welttheater, eds. Willi Bolle, Marcel Vejmelka and Edna Castro (Berlin: trafo Verlag, 2010) and Amazônia – região universal e teatro do mundo (São Paulo: Editora Globo, 2010).
Joachim Bernauer
is the director of the Goethe-Institut Portugal. After studying singing and literature in Berlin, he ran the Villa Aurora artists’ residence in Los Angeles, California, from 1999 to 2002, then served as director of cultural activities at the Goethe-Institut São Paulo from 2002 to 2008.
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How can we get a dialogue about the Amazon going?