Cannibal Gold

Harvard University Press
6 min readMar 13, 2023

Exhibiting at The Shed through April 16 is The Yanomami Struggle, a collection dedicated to the Yanomami people’s fight against the invasion of their land. The exhibition features paintings and drawings by contemporary Yanomami artists and is narrated through the voice of shaman Davi Kopenawa. Below is an excerpt from The Falling Sky, Kopenawa’s classic account of his life and thought, out now in paperback in a tenth anniversary edition.

Xawara, the metal smoke

The things that white people work so hard to extract from the depths of the earth, minerals and oil, are not foods. These are evil and dangerous things, saturated with coughs and fevers, which Omama was the only one to know. But long ago he decided to hide them very deep under the forest’s floor so they could not make us sick. To protect us, he did not want anyone to be able to touch them. This is why they must be left where he has always kept them buried. The forest is the flesh and skin of our earth, which is the back of the old sky Hutukara that fell in the beginning of time. The metal Omama hid in its soil is its skeleton, which the forest surrounds in humid coolness. These are our xapiri’s words, which the white people do not know. That is why these outsiders continue relentlessly digging the earth like giant armadillos, even though they already possess more than enough merchandise. Despite this, they do not think they will be contaminated like we are. They are wrong.

At night, I have often thought about those things of the underground that the white people so avidly covet. I asked myself: “How did they come into existence? What are they made of?” Finally, the xapiri allowed me to see their origin in the time of dream. What the white people call “minerals” are the fragments of the sky, moon, sun, and stars, which fell down in the beginning of time. This is why our long-ago elders have always called the shiny metal mareaxi and xitikarixi, which are also our names for what the white people call the stars. This metal beneath the earth comes from the old sky Hutukara, which collapsed upon the first people long ago. Having become ghost during my sleep, I also saw the white people working with these minerals. They tore out and scraped off big blocks of them with their machines to make metal pots and tools. Yet they did not seem to realize that these fragments of the old sky were dangerous! They did not know that the thick yellowish metal fumes emanated from them are a powerful epidemic smoke that thrusts like a weapon to kill those who come near it and breathe it in.

I think that Omama was not really the one who created this metal. He found it in the ground and used it to support the new land he had just formed before covering it in trees and disseminating the game throughout the forest. When he discovered it, he told himself that humans could use it to clear their gardens more easily. Yet as a precaution, he only left our ancestors a few harmless fragments of it, which they were able to use to make hatchets. He hid the hardest and most dangerous part of this metal in the coolness of the earth’s depths, beneath the rivers. He feared that his muddle-headed brother Yoasi would put it to bad use. So he gave our ancestors the least harmful part of it, but also the least resistant. He told them: “Take these few pieces of iron to work in your garden and do not lust for any more! I will keep and hide the rest of it, which is dangerous and will only belong to the xapiri!” This other metal, Omama’s concealed metal, is very heavy and burning hot. It is the real one. It is the most solid, but also the most fearsome. If he had not hidden it this way, Yoasi would soon have revealed its existence everywhere and the forest would have been completely destroyed long ago!

Yet, despite Omama’s caution, Yoasi still managed to make the rumor of its existence reach the white people’s ancestors. This is why they finally crossed the waters to come looking for it in the land of Brazil. The white people today do not dig in our forest without a reason. Though they do not know it, the words of Yoasi, creator of death, are within them. It is so. The garimpeiros are the sons-in-law and sons of Yoasi! These white people have become evil beings and are simply following in his footsteps. They are earth eaters covered with epidemic fumes. They think they are all-powerful, but their thought is full of darkness. They do not know that Yoasi put disease and death in these minerals. Omama hid them so that we would not be relentlessly tormented by tears of mourning. On the contrary, he gave us the xapiri so we could cure ourselves. We are his sons-in-law and his sons. This is why we are afraid of tearing these evil things out of the ground. We prefer to hunt and clear our gardens in the forest, like he taught us, rather than digging into its floor like armadillos and peccaries!

So far the garimpeiros have only been able to use their machines to suck up gold dusts from the bottom of the rivers. Yet these are but the children of metal. The white people do not yet know the father of gold, who is buried much deeper, at the center of the highlands where Omama came into existence. Though the gold prospectors do not know it, it is this metal of Omama’s that they really want to reach. In dream, I often see them destroying the entire forest as they search for it. They follow the trail of its debris in every direction. But it is always in vain because Omama buried it in the deepest part of the ground and the xapiri constantly lead their attention astray. As soon as they get near it, the mõeri dizziness spirits instantly disorient them and the giant armadillo spirits envelop them in impenetrable smoke. Omama buried this dangerous metal near the chaos being Xiwãripo. It is also surrounded by the spirits of the storm wind Yariporari and under the guard of the napënapëri white ancestor warrior spirits. If today’s white people were to try and tear it out with the big machines and bombs they first used to open their road in our forest, the earth will split open, swallowing up all its inhabitants.

This metal of the depths is so hard that it can even cut stones without being damaged. Other minerals such as gold, cassiterite, and even iron are closer to the earth’s surface and are therefore more fragile. Knife blades chip and machete blades break. Pots easily get punctured and dented. This is why the white people relentlessly search for the real metal that does not deteriorate. They are not satisfied with the merchandise and machines built with the minerals they have torn out of the ground so far. Now they want to own objects that do not age and never get damaged. But all this will end badly because, as I have said, these things from the depths of the earth are dangerous. If the white people were able to reach Omama’s metal one day, the powerful yellowish fumes of its breath would spread everywhere like a poison as deadly as the one they call an atomic bomb.