“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Feast: He Borara Chapter 7

masiri bark trough for date - plantain soup
(13,421 words. Or start from He Borara Chapter 1.)


        Monou-teri came into being when it fissioned off from Bisaasi-teri some years ago, after a conflict over a woman. Or maybe the village was just getting too big, too many people in one shabono for the rules governing interactions between individuals with various kinship ties to maintain the peace. In anthropology textbooks, there are these diagrams showing how the potential for conflicts—the number of dyads—grows exponentially as population increases. With two people, there can only be one set of combatants, but add a third group member and you have three potential fights. Add a fourth and you have six. Simple math and probability militate against high population density, unless the culture somehow adapts to accommodate the larger numbers peaceably.

Will one of the villages in this jungle master the trick?

Explorers like Hiram Bingham and Percy Fawcett came to the Amazon hoping to find lost civilizations, cities that would put Tenochtitlan and Chichén Itzá to shame. Bingham discovered an otherworldly temple complex high in the Peruvian Andes. Fawcett later found immortality by way of mysterious disappearance. But the civilizations of the Inca, the Maya, and the Aztecs arose mostly outside the jungle. The earliest explorers couldn’t fathom how the soil beneath a forest so lush could have such limited productive capacity. They considered the rise of a large and complex agricultural society all but inevitable. Early homesteaders quickly learned, however, that the soil underfoot was different from that supporting the flora of forests in temperate regions.

The jungle is divided between a wet season and a dry season: dry in summer—November to April—and wet in winter—May to October. The trees don’t follow the four-season cycle North Americans are familiar with: their leaves dying, falling to the ground, decomposing, and then re-sprouting and replenishing every spring—which eliminates one of the main sources of nutrients for the soil. What you have on the jungle floor instead is fungus living symbiotically with the surrounding trees, intermingling with their roots. And ants. Everywhere you look, more ants. Nothing that dies out here keeps its nutrients long; they’re quickly channeled away to some other living substance. The ground absorbs next to nothing, while every living thing strains upward, toward the sun. Whatever dies helps boost something still alive higher into the air.

The Yąnomamö rely on slash-and-burn techniques for their gardens, but they have to relocate them every few years when the soil becomes depleted. They have to build new curving lines of yahis into a circular shabono every few years as well, as the roofs of the old ones become thickly infested with cockroaches and other pests. For intensive agriculture, you’d have to burn down a swath of forest large enough for your entire plot, then you’d have to move on after one or two harvests, constructing new homes and communal building works every time. Plenty of people in Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia are busy mowing their way through the rain forest in this fashion even now, spot farming, bouncing from plot to plot, collapsing the ecosystem a piece at a time. Conservationists going all the way back to Lac’s beloved Humboldt have worried that if new methods aren’t found, the jungle may soon cease to exist. Then there are the loggers and cattle farmers using up their own share of the land—if you can say it’s their own.

It isn’t as though the Yąnomamö are driven by some inborn environmentalist instinct to “live in harmony with the land”—that hackneyed expression you so often come across while reading about Native Americans. That’s just more noble savage nonsense. Rather, they’ve never reached the numbers that would necessitate intensive farming of the sort we civilized people have come to depend on. Their modest gardens continue to grow once they’ve moved on, however transformed the flora, and Lac has traveled with the Bisaasi-teri on a few occasions to harvest rasha fruits from palm trees in abandoned gardens, a delicate, dangerous process that involves a pair of A-frame contraptions to help the climber avoid the spines sticking out from the trunk. It also involves watching your every step closely to avoid snakes.

It’s not the productive potential of the soil that limits the growth of Yąnomamö populations; it’s their ability, or lack thereof, to get along with each other. Bisaasi-teri is preparing to play host to two other groups, and tensions will most likely occur between families from the distant villages, but Lac can see how problematic it would be to sustain such a density of people for any length of time even without the outside groups temporarily residing here. Perhaps, were it not for their waiteri ethos, amity would be easier to maintain. But group cohesion is generally supported through kinship, and with this many people kinship ties inevitably attenuate. When the bonds of family are strained beyond their limit, a strong leader, a despot backed by a large and well-supplied lineage, must step in to hold the group together. Or else it breaks apart, fissions, as Upper Bisaasi-teri has from Lower Bisaasi-teri—though these two villages continue to live side-by-side, or he borara, as the Yąnomamö call it. Apparently, this is common for groups that fission owing to inner tensions—set off by conflicts over women—but that still rely on each other for a modicum of safety from attack by larger rival groups.

Like all families, they need each other, even if they can’t stand each other.

Thus, some years ago, a contingent that would call themselves Monou-teri severed off from the larger village of Bisaasi-teri. What group did Bisaasi-teri fission away from originally? If Rowahirawa can be believed, Bisaasi-teri was borne of Patanowä-teri. After the separation, the group moved south, and soon, out of necessity, began trading with their new neighbors, trying to make friends. One of the villages they began this process with was Konabuma-teri, and the alliance got off to a promising start.

Then Bisaasi-teri children started getting sick and dying in suspicious numbers. The shaboris, failing to save so many kids, knew there must be powerful magic involved. Suspicion fell on the village’s new allies, and soon it was a known fact that the Konabuma-teri shaboris were sending malevolent hekura to steal the children’s souls.

One day, a Konabuma-teri browähäwä, oblivious of the sickness and death, arrived alone outside the shabono to trade with his new partners. He was accepted into the courtyard, where he took up the rigidly erect and gaudily impassive visitor’s pose. Then he was taken to the yahi of one of the village’s own browähäwäs, where he lay in a hammock, one hand on his chin, one hand tucked behind his head, with his legs outstretched and his feet crossed one over the other, staring blankly off in the distance, a position Lac has taken to calling the visitor’s repose. It’s like they’re strutting even while they’re lying down.

Finally, as per custom, the visiting trader was offered a gourd filled with date—a sweet pudding made of mashed plantains. That’s when the attack came. A village man whose son had recently succumbed to the epidemic walked over to the visitor, lifted an old blunted ax head crudely hafted to a carved branch over his head, and brought it down, burying it, albeit shallowly, in the squatting man’s skull. The visitor stood and tried to nock an arrow, but staggered and fell, bleeding to death in the plaza outside his host’s yahi. Later, some old women from Konabuma-teri came to collect his body so it could be ritually cremated.

The Bisaasi-teri were savvy enough to avoid further dealings with this man’s village in the wake of the killing, but the men of Konabuma-teri were clever enough to recruit a third group to help them get revenge. This third group invited Bisaasi-teri to a feast: men, women, and children alike. No sooner had the entrance ceremony wrapped up, with the men entering and striking their visitors’ poses before being led to the hammocks of the local bigwigs, than they were fallen upon by men with arrows, machetes, and axes. It was a nomohori, an ambush, a dirty trick, and when the Bisaasi-teri men fled outside the shabono, they ran into a fusillade of arrows from the Konabuma-teri, who were hiding in the forest waiting for them to flee from the fracas. Had the attackers not been preoccupied with kidnapping as many women as they could, every last Bisaasi-teri man might have been killed. As it happened, over a dozen of them met their doom, including Bahikoawa’s father.

After the attack, the surviving Bisaasi-teri wandered the Mavaca Basin, knowing if they returned to their old shabono and garden they would be at risk of further attacks. Eventually, they wandered to a village on the Orinoco that had been named Platanal by the Catholic missionaries, an apt Spanish word meaning the place where plantains are harvested. The Mahekodo-teri took them in, demanding some of their greatly diminished number of women in return for their hospitality. It was a deal the Bisaasi-teri couldn’t afford to refuse. They stayed for close to a year, thoroughly wearing out their welcome, at which point a strange, very pale nabä encouraged them to move downriver to the region where the Mavaca empties into the Orinoco.

This pale man’s name was Chuck Clemens, Bahikoawa informed Lac, one of his few helpful contributions to Lac’s inquiries. He’ll have to ask Chuck about all this, about whether he has exact dates recorded somewhere. He guesses it would have been in the late 1940s, as Europe was recovering from its own much larger-scale war and America was entering a golden age of science and commerce.

Bisaasi-teri managed to not only set up camp and begin a new garden at the mouth of the Mavaca, the thick clouds of bareto and mosquitoes notwithstanding, but thrive and grow their numbers—perhaps partly owing to the many axes and machetes given to them by the missionaries. Lately, word has been spreading of how large the village has grown, of how it has split into two villages even, occupying both sides of the Mavaca, with the newer one spilling into a second shabono. And word has spread too of the Bisaasi-teri’s fierceness, the number of waiteri living among them, and how they’ve been throwing their political and military weight around, raiding and kidnapping on a regular and successful basis. Most recently, there are even rumors that Bisaasi-teri has ambitions to start raiding Patanowä-teri, the only village in the region bigger than Mahekodo-teri.

In the past decade, the Salesians have implanted themselves at Platanal, taking advantage of Clemens and his fellow protestants’ temporary absences, and Lac suspects the Mahekodo-teri may be benefitting substantially from the madohe the mission provides them access to. Now, as Rowahirawa explains to him, they hear about how Bisaasi-teri is getting big and earning a reputation for fierceness, so they feel compelled to test this fierceness for themselves, broadcast their disdain, do some bullying, let the villagers here know where they stand in the tribal pecking order.

“Why is Bahikoawa letting them come to the village, offering them so much food, eagerly preparing to trade with them, if their main purpose is to put all of you in your place?”

“Shaki, you idiot! What do you think the Patanowä-teri would do, or any of the Shamatari villages, if they heard Bisaasi-teri knew of the presence of their old friends but didn’t throw them a feast?”

It’s about projecting power, Lac thinks, the people here can’t afford to look weak, to give their rivals the impression that they’re incapable of producing enough food. As it is among individual men, so it is among families, so it is among villages. You cultivate a reputation for being waiteri because if you’re not fierce you’re vulnerable; if you’re not fierce, you become the prop in someone else’s story of dominance and impunity.

Lac and Rowahirawa are sitting on parallel hammocks in his father-in-law’s yahi. Rowahirawa doesn’t think much of Bisaasi-teri, or at least pretends not to. He’s eager to return to Karohi-teri at the first good opportunity. They treat him as an outsider here, wretched and inferior. Maybe he’s responding to this treatment when he acts like such a hothead; though it’s also possible he’s provoking the treatment by being a hothead. There is, Lac acknowledges to himself, something of the air of a rebellious teenager about the man, even though he must be in his early twenties. Lac watches him draw his lips in tightly, pulling the saliva from where the green tobacco has been steeping in front of his bottom teeth. He’s envious, still craving the lift and clarifying kick of a cigarette.

Rowahirawa’s father-in-law meanwhile doesn’t want him to leave; he’s grown accustomed to all the siohoawa, the bride service—mostly the basho meat—his son-in-law provides, and he doesn’t want his daughter to leave either, as she’ll be the one who cares for him as he gets older and less mobile, if Lac understands his concerns correctly. So he’s offered Rowahirawa another of his daughters, one he insists is too young just yet but who may be ready as early as the upcoming wet season. In the meantime, he keeps encouraging Rowahirawa to plant and start tending his own section of the garden, to lay down roots, as it were, in Bisaasi-teri. But Rowahirawa has confided to Lac he plans to leave with both women after the second comes of age. He wants to return to his home village, become a great shabori, and possibly one day headman, so he steadfastly refuses to plant anything.

Lac is keen on seeing how the battle of wills will play out. His money is on Rowahirawa taking both women back to Karohi-teri; whether he’ll become headman there, Lac has no knowledge on which to base a conjecture. But if Rowahirawa leaves Bisaasi-teri, he thinks, I’ll lose my best informant. He still harasses and humiliates me at every opportunity, but his outsider status makes him useful, at some points even congenial.

And the little shit makes me laugh.

The thought of waking up one morning and not finding him sleeping in the hut, and not finding him in his father-in-law’s yahi either, gives Lac a preview of how forlorn he’ll feel, which in turn forces him to recall his past experiences befriending Yąnomamö informants. Rowahirawa is exceptionally useful, though, because he has an intense interest in the people and politics of the various groups in the region, the competitive building of reputations for fierceness, the internecine contests between the lineages, the trading alliances and raiding wars between villages. Lac is keeping his eye open for opportunities to exploit that interest—from simply getting him to expound on intervillage politics and history at length, to perhaps eventually recruiting him as part of his expeditions to distant uncontacted villages, like those in the Shamatari region farther south than the one the Bisaasi-teri men just returned from.

How will his participation in Lac’s projects impact the execution of Rowahirawa’s own plans and ambitions? He’s just returned from Karohi-teri after delivering an invitation to the feast, which will take place in a little over a week. They should arrive about the same time as the Mahekodo-teri and the contingent from Boreta-teri that’s accompanying them. Tensions are high. Excitement is high. Lac doesn’t know how the Yąnomamö can live like this, in this constant state of alarm. It’s no wonder there are so few old men, no wonder the women so quickly lose their looks—well, that and all the dying children.

Lac would like most of all to interrogate Bahikoawa. Maybe his perspective on the upcoming feast, and his reasons for proposing it, are different from how Rowahirawa describes them. Bahikoawa should have all kinds of interesting things to say about Monou-teri and Patanowä-teri as well, but his attitude toward Lac is one of gruff indifference bordering on irritation. Plus, he’s always away from the village, or here but busy shouting at or trying to corral the men, or enjoying his time alone with Nakaweshimi, whose belly protrudes more visibly by the day, its weight sinking lower on her hips, producing the splay-footed duck waddle common to pregnant women everywhere, but with a sort of no-nonsense heedlessness that makes her unique.

Bahikoawa enjoys his younger wife even more, but you can tell he’s not as companionable with her as with his chief spouse. The older pair, while they may not spend as much time together in total, smile at each other and laugh, talking endlessly, bickering mildly. If that were the only relationship whose dynamics he witnessed out here, he’d take away a much different impression of Yąnomamö marriage and the way the men treat the women. As it is, Lac wonders if the headman’s tender feelings, displayed so wantonly, earn the village pata much ridicule or any loss of respect.

How does he manage it?

No one seems to be questioning his authority, such as it is—he’s headman after all, not chief. It’s not like he can go around barking orders anyway. Still, he must’ve earned, must somehow continue to earn, the respect of the browähäwäs. Maybe he killed a lot of people in past raids. Maybe everyone has learned to depend on his judgment. However he manages it, Bahikoawa is so far the only Yąnomamö Lac can say he truly admires—as impressed as he is with Rowahirawa—the only one who gives him hope for the entire tribe, really, as things stand now, for the entire human race.

That’s why it’s so troubling when Lac catches glimpses of him and sees the look of worry on his face. It’s going to be an interesting week.
*****

Participant-observation is the basic method of ethnography. You live among your subjects and you participate in their cultural practices, reporting on the details and their meanings. Lac has built his hut outside Bisaasi-teri, thinking it would be more of a headquarters and warehouse than a home—at least until Laura and the kids arrive—but he’s ended up living out of it. He thought his stay among the people of this village would be temporary, as he learned the language and enough of the basics of the culture to get by. His plan was to concentrate on uncontacted villages, places where the impact of outside forces is minimal—though he anticipates even these remotest villages will have axes, machetes, loincloths, and aluminum pots traded in along the networks.

But here he is, still living with the people Clemens first introduced him to, and not even living with them so much as next to them, he borara.

He’s doing far more observing than participating. Not that he has much choice. The Yąnomamö harass him more when he’s not busy, so he can’t give the impression that he wants for something to do. Though that may just be an idiosyncratic take, he thinks, hearing Laura’s voice in his head. He does interviews. Rowahirawa is helping him learn the finer points of the language—really still helping with the rudiments. But Lac seldom participates in many of the activities he records.

The hunts are grueling. The trips to search out and lug back firewood: also grueling, and they earn him wary looks from some of the men. He sits out the ritual communion with the hekura because he’d rather not have his nostrils and sinuses ravaged by whatever toxins are in that green powder. He’s recently even sat out a trip to a neighboring village because he wasn’t mentally prepared for the standard Yąnomamö examination of his person. At least he’d thought that was why he stayed; now, he suspects it may have owed more to some subtle discouragement from his Bisaasi-teri friends, who were planning a nomohori, or a more standard raid.

So he sits in his hut, concentrates on keeping himself fed a more or less steady diet of peanut butter on crackers, oatmeal with mounds of sugar, augmented with occasional larger meals of rice and sardines—the menu of the modern explorer. But I’m not an explorer, he thinks; I’m an anthropologist. I can’t just sit around watching, interviewing, traveling, and writing about what I see.

The concern will be moot until the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri have come and gone. Then he’ll start looking out for opportunities to dig his hands deeper into more of the cultural substance, whatever that means. He finds himself, as he lies swaying silently in a hammock in the midday heat, thinking about what it would be like accompanying a band of Yąnomamö warriors on a raid. Of course he can’t ever actually do it. If he shows up at a village with a group of guys there to kill one or more people, they’d be perfectly within their rights to kill him in self-defense. So, if he goes, he’ll have to decide beforehand that he can’t fire any lethal shots—he can’t rightly even take his shotgun, or deal any deadly blows. He’d be there, but he’d really just be watching. Observing. Still not participating.

It’s a crazy thought, he knows; he can’t even tag along on such an expedition, no matter how useful the information he could glean. His thoughts next take him to a time yesterday when he went to the woods to shit and found himself watching an ant colony for what felt like hours, because he didn’t want to return to whoever would surely be waiting at his hut to annoy or harass him. What he saw he couldn’t make sense of. Members of a larger, more vicious-looking caste with prominent pinchers were returning single-file along a regular course, only to be killed, their bodies spread-eagled and dismantled section by section, reverse-manufactured, by their smaller, less well-armed brethren. Or were they two different species? The mystery was why the warrior ants let the tiny worker ants kill them without a fight. He wishes he could ask an entomologist about what he was witnessing.

As he squatted there watching, he wove a story in his mind about soldiers coming back from a great battle that ended the larger war for good. Now the colony has no further use for its heroes, so it’s essentially scrapping them for parts, absorbing their precious pismire nutrients back into efforts aimed more directly at reproduction. One generation sacrificing itself for the next, a type of peaceful—but no less deadly—revolution. The bulldog-headed soldiers with their massive jaws have become a liability under the new conditions of peace.

Did Malcolm ever feel like that, like we were disassembling him, stocking away his parts by the entrance of some citadel of sissies? That may be giving him too much credit, a man too practical to express, much less experience, his feelings as metaphors, a man who probably never for a second doubted his standing. Though maybe that’s not giving him enough credit. He comes from a different time, when men bottled their feelings and eschewed navel-gazing because that’s part of what it meant to be a man. Plus, every boy and young man probably believes his dad cuts a formidably impassive figure. He may not be nearly as bad—or as good—in anyone else’s mind as he is in his sons’.

And what, Lac wonders, will Dominic think of me when he’s my age? Maybe manhood will be still more watered down by then, and I’ll be the expressionless, cold-hearted toiler who haunts my oversensitive son’s tumultuous dreams as he goes about his career in some cozy office building.

Chuckling silently, Lac realizes this eventuality would barely bother him, as long as his boy picks up a handful of the manly basics, as long as he doesn’t let anyone push him around.

“Shaki, how many kids did you say you have?” Rowahirawa asks from his own lazily swaying hammock. Lac holds up two fingers. “Ah, don’t worry. You should have a lot more by now, but you said they are both strong. You have time. Not many nabä travel so far to learn how to be human. When you return, you’ll have true renown. You can take another wife.”

Where to even begin explaining my culture to him? Without experiencing it up close, he could never understand. That’s probably true to some degree of anthropology students in the States too; they’ll never fully grasp what it’s like to live among a society like the Yąnomamö. “Brother-in-law, you should come with me when I return to the city sometime—to Caracas-teri. I want to know what you think of it.”   

“A whole village of nabä like you? How do they survive without falling off bridges?” They both laugh. “How do so many sissies keep the women from getting stolen?”

Rowahirawa is obviously ribbing him, but Lac senses some genuine curiosity. They are two vastly different men adapted to life in vastly different cultures. Yet here they are, shooting the breeze, teasing each other, laughing. Lac wants to help him understand. He’s seen planes flying high overhead, vanishingly distant, mere glints in the fathomless blue. He wishes there was one now he could point to.

“Brother-in-law, you would be amazed. We have canoes that travel through the sky called airplanes. You’ll ride one yourself if you go to the city.” Lac wants to describe cars, but how to conjure them for someone who’s never seen a cart or a wagon? He’s seen the Yąnomamö fashion wheels for children’s toys, but they weren’t exactly sophisticated. Giving up on the idea, he says instead, “We have weapons far more deadly than shotguns too, some that you drop from the sky canoes. Men have used them to destroy whole villages.”

Rowahirawa sits up. “Why would you destroy a whole village? Had they staged a nomohori for your village, for Caracas-teri?”

“Caracas-teri isn’t my village. I came from waaay up north, a place called Michigan-teri.” No point in discerning between cities and states. “But, yes, our village, or big bunches of villages rather, stage nomohori on each other when they’re at war.”

“Do the sky canoes go all the way up to hedu kä misi?”

“Yes, they go right to the top of the sky, but there’s a point where you can’t go higher because the sky ends eventually.”

“Of course, you’d crash into the bottom of hedu. Ah, Shaki, I think what you’re saying is not true, but I’ll let you show me sometime.” Lac chuckles. I wouldn’t believe half of what I’m saying either, he thinks. “If you want to see big villages, though,” Rowahirawa adds, “I’ll take you to Patanowä-teri sometime, if we’re not at war. It’s the biggest village I’ve ever seen, double the size of this place, and the men there are waiteri enough to lay waste to whole villages even without your nabä sky canoes. Ha ha. They’re just not stupid enough to do it. They’d rather kill most of the men than all of them, as long as it means getting their hands on more women. Your nabä friends must not like women. Ah, and I’ve heard of a village even bigger than Patanowä-teri. It’s waaay upriver, near where the Mavaca starts, and the pata there is a real killer. He’s the man who truly lives there. He’s killed this many men”—all ten fingers—“and then more after that.”

“You’ve been to this village?”

“No, it’s many sleeps away, but I hear the shaboris there are really close to the most powerful hekura. I would like to go. Maybe you will come along with me. It’s called Mishimishimaböwei-teri.” Now Lac is the one sitting up. “They say the rahara live in the upper regions of the Mavaca, so maybe we can find trails on land.”

“What are rahara?”

“Shaki, you idiot. How do you even survive knowing so little?”

He’s about to tell Lac about the mysterious beasts guarding the Mavaca’s headwaters when they notice a stirring of bodies and a rising din of voices in the direction of Bahikoawa’s yahi. Both men stand up from their hammocks and start walking across the courtyard.

“I think we have visitors,” Rowahirawa says.

Lac freezes midstep, dropping into his customary shallow crouch with the attendant nervous swiveling of his head. “Is it an attack?”

Rowahirawa locks eyes with him, staring at him with intensity. After holding his gaze for two beats, he can no longer keep the smile from pulling the skin taut beneath his eyes. Once the smile fills his face to the brim, it overflows into laughter. “Shaki, how do you even make it through the day? How do you manage to hold onto all that madohe in your hut when you’re so easy to frighten? If they were attacking us, they wouldn’t send word of their arrival—that’s what the browähäwäs are discussing.”

“Maybe it’s a nomohori.”

“Shaki, you idiot. If they were staging a nomohori, then it would be planned for their own village. You get invited; they don’t bring it to you.”

“It could be a new kind.”

“Shut up, Shaki. Let’s go see who’s here. If it’s the Mahekodo-teri, they’re a week early. And the Bisaasi-teri will have to feed the greedy bastards. That’s not going to make the men here happy, and the Mahekodo-teri know it won’t.”

“So it’s intimidation? Why don’t the Bisaasi-teri refuse to play hosts then?”

“Don’t be such a moron. They can’t let it be known they couldn’t meet their obligation to offer food to their guests; that would tell other villages that Bisaasi-teri is weak and incapable of retaliating for raids.”

“So Bisaasi-teri has no choice but to tolerate their bullying?”

“There are ways to push back, if things get bad enough. We’ll see what happens.”

They’re close enough to the cluster of men to hear individual voices resolve out of the cacophony.

“They’ll leave us with nothing by the end of the week. Why would they, if they’re our friends, be so rude to us?”

“Our gardens are overgrown,” Bahikoawa says, “since we’ve been gone two weeks. We’ll be able to feed everyone. We need to begin the heniyomou quickly though. Who wants to go hunting? There’s a spot up the Mavaca where game abounds.”

“Brother, my feet are still in serious pain from the walk home from Reyaboböwei-teri.”

“Brother, I am sick. I must have a shabori rescue my möamo from the hekura.”

“Who then?” Bahikoawa turns his fiery gaze on each of the men in turn. Several agree to go on the hunt—the heniyomou. “Let’s get to the preparations then. I’ll take the Mahekodo-teri to the gardens and help them gather enough food for the camp. The pata says there are enough of them to count as a small village.”

“A whole village, Brother? How will we feed that many?”

“We’ll manage, Brother. Don’t worry.”

A group of men, mostly Bahikoawa’s brothers and nephews as far as Lac can tell, disperses to their yahis to prepare for another trip. The idea of several dozen stranger new faces and bodies raises a lump in Lac’s throat. He thinks back to those diagrams in the anthropology textbooks, weighing the skyrocketing potential for one dyad or another to strain its connecting line, resulting in a violent exchange that will ramify outward across the two-dimensional space of the graph, spreading like a ripple—or a shockwave—until it has disrupted every pairing along the clines of family relatedness.

When he arrived over a month ago, the Patanowä-teri were here visiting and trading with Bahikoawa and his covillagers; the Monou-teri were supposed to have joined in the feast and the trading as well, but, as fate would have it, they stumbled upon the Patanowä-teri women in hiding. They took advantage of the windfall. The more people, the greater the likelihood of conflict. But what Lac fears most are all the lines connecting back to him personally; every new arrival to Bisaasi-teri is another opportunity to be harassed and bullied—and potentially attacked. Another chance that his hut will be looted. His impulse is to lock himself away in there until the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri have become comfortably situated in the shabono and then start circling them from a distance, as inconspicuously as possible, to observe the outcome of this high-tension meeting from the safest possible vantage.

How inconspicuous do you think you can be, he asks himself, a white-skinned nabä wearing strange clothes and fumbling his words? No, you’ll be here in the middle of everything, or at least here on the margin of everything. There will be no hiding in your hut. Those seven Patanowä-teri women showed how effective hiding is. Besides, the lock on your door will pose no barrier to a determined intruder; hiding may provoke a search.

“Brother-in-law,” Lac says to Rowahirawa, who’s still standing beside him, “will the feast end in fighting? What do you think will happen?”

Rowahirawa turns briefly to show him another of his sly grins. Just then, Bahikoawa emerges from the shadow of his yahi with a machete. He stands at the edge of the courtyard and shouts to the rest of the village that the heniyomou is starting, so they’re to take up the amoamo to ensure success in the hunt. Meanwhile, he’ll be seeing to the provisioning of their guests with food from the gardens. Lac is close enough to see the headman’s expression in detail. He looks into it intently, doing his best to decipher its cascading signals; it’s like glimpsing fish as they flash beneath inches of ice.

“Shaki,” Rowahirawa says, “they came with the intention of abducting unguarded women, and now they have to settle for feasting and trading—this from a village they once saved from the brink of extinction. Believe me, whatever the customary formalities, they’re already feeling cheated. They’ll be looking for ways to leave with more than the Bisaasi-teri want to offer. And they won’t worry about being rude in their negotiations; truly, they’ll tell every village they pass on their way back to Mahekodo-teri about how rude they were to the people here.”

“But rude isn’t the same as violent.”

“Rude will be repaid with violence if a way to save face can’t be found. Shaki, much of what transpires during this feast will be determined by how good our pata turns out to be. He knows the visitors want to push his people as close to their limits as they can. He has to find a way to keep this from turning into an all-out battle. But I have a premonition there’ll be some tussles. And maybe the pata wants to show he’s waiteri—but I don’t get that impression.”

Lac walks casually around the courtyard’s periphery, listening to the villagers grumbling about the guests, who must be keen on testing their welcome to show up a week before the official invitation is to be delivered. Their garden is meanwhile being plied by Bahikoawa and the Mahekodo-teri who need food for the week’s camping, and by the men preparing for the heniyomou, the rules of which Rowahirawa explains to him. Certain game species are kosher, the high-quality ones. Again, it’s a give-until-it-hurts exercise. The expectation is that the guest village will host a feast to reciprocate the feast held for them, but the hosts want to make it near impossible for them to match the extravagance. It’s another, slightly more subtle form of intimidation.

Throughout the week of the heniyomou, the women and girls dance the amoamo every evening, giving a magical boost to the hunters. At the end of the week, the hunters return, handing their haul of smoked meats over to Bahikoawa, who will in turn deliver a portion of it to the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri. The rest of the ceremony Lac has seen a few times already, the marching and dancing entrance by twos into the plaza, the visitor’s pose lineup, the visitor’s repose, the offerings of date, the singing and storytelling late into the night, and the trading the next day. The only difference is that those visits were between genuine allies, while the visitors here are known to have been on a mission to kidnap this village’s women.

“Brother-in-law,” he says to Rowahirawa, “what can the Bisaasi-teri do to save face and forestall fighting if the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri keep behaving so terribly?”

“You’ve seen the club fights here.”

“I haven’t actually seen any, but almost.”

“That’s how you settle differences without killing. Before it gets that serious, though, you challenge them to a chest-pounding duel. If you can’t settle the matter with fists and clubs then the arrows will start to fly—or axes and machetes may take the place of clubs. Men will surely be gravely wounded and may die. Not you, though, Shaki. You’re too weak and cowardly to fight. You’ll be locked in your hut or hiding in the yahis, drawing on your white leaves. Maybe you should give me another machete to protect you, or an ax.”

“If anyone attacks me, and you step in to protect me, you can have an ax. How does that sound?”

“Shaki, something tells me I’m going to have a lot of axes before long.”

Bahikoawa returns laden with huge bundles of green plantains. He and some of his nephews start hanging them from the rafters of his and some of the adjacent yahis to ripen. Rowahirawa says this marks the beginning of the heniyomou. While the hunters are away acquiring game—it would be rude to offer vegetable foods without meat—the plantains will ripen until they’re ready to be made into the sweet pudding that will be prepared in troughs the size of canoes. The girls and women dance joyously, one of the few times, it seems to Lac, the distaff side of the village plays a crucial role in a ceremony. The whole week is to be given over to festive anticipation, as people hide their most prized possessions, lest they be pressed to trade them away, and discuss among themselves who they’re most excited to meet for the first time or see again after a span of many years.

Lac, despite his efforts at adjustment—his multiplying failures of relativism—finds himself staring at every dog that comes into view—skinny, tawny, submissive—wondering which of them might be traded to the Mahekodo-teri or the Boreta-teri for mediocre bows or clay pots or tobacco. Dogs among the Yąnomamö are mere possessions, an attitude not unlike the one pushed on him by his dad in his late pre-adolescence. “She’s just a dog, Lachlan. What are you so damned upset about?” As he looks from one to another now, he mutters, “Just a dog,” again and again.

As the morning’s preparations near an end, the Bisaasi-teri men gather to ingest their daily ebene: shot through the long tubes right into one nostril, bursting in a green cloud from the other. The mundanity of this effort to see through the mundane calms Lac; it’s been this way as long as anyone can remember, and how often do entire villages get eradicated? The nomohori that decimated the Bisaasi-teri was close to twenty years ago. It resulted in the deaths of only a couple dozen men—only—yet still, it’s legendary for the scale of its carnage. What are the chances he’d show up at the mouth of the Mavaca just in time to witness or be caught up in another massacre?

Of course, the visitors wouldn’t have to kill dozens to doom Lac personally. One poison arrow would do. One ax swing upside the head. One savage swipe of a machete. Will I, he wonders, be carrying my shotgun the whole time they’re here? I’d be overrun even if I fired and killed some of them. Then they’d have my shotgun. Imagine how that would disrupt the balance of power. It would essentially make whoever wielded it an instant headman. But they wouldn’t know how to load it. Would they figure it out, given enough time? Rowahirawa has certainly seen me do it enough times; he must at least have the basic idea.  

Anyway, he thinks, it’s only a matter of time before they start getting guns from the loggers and ranchers pushing into the territory. That’s if the Church doesn’t decide to start supplying them before that. This line of thinking brings a wave of nauseating despair. He looks over to see the men doubled over and wincing from the jolting delivery of their drug. A couple have already begun their chanting invocations, inviting the tiny hekura to descend from their mountain redoubts and enter their acolytes’ chests. They’ll need the hekuras’ help over the coming week. He wonders if any of the Bisaasi-teri will send their spirits after the visitors camped outside. Will the visitors send their own hekura back to retaliate? Or is some spiritual truce in effect for the duration of the heniyomou and feast?

*****
That evening, several young women and men sing and dance the amoamo. Tomorrow the hunters will leave by canoe—on Lac’s suggestion, via Rowahirawa as intermediary—to travel upriver to their prime hunting location. Lac had thought in practical terms: if they can cross the rivers, they can travel on them too, and I may curry some good will by offering up such a helpful idea. Now he wonders if it was wise to encourage a more far-reaching use of the foreign technology, a use whose impact will be much more unpredictable.

They would have figured it out on their own eventually.

So he sits on a stump watching the dancers and reflects on the history and evolution of music. It strikes him as odd that the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri remain ensconced in their camp, its own village essentially: odd because dancing together could only foster greater harmony among the groups. And isn’t that the ultimate purpose of the feast? You establish and maintain trading to secure alliances, Rowahirawa’s cynicism notwithstanding.

The dance is a missed opportunity.

Lac listens, trying, with scant success, to parse the lyrics. The singing sounds to his ear like more of a rhythmic talking. It lacks many of the embellishments of Western song, the terms for which he has no knowledge of, even those of its less sophisticated genres. They have no instruments, other than their stamping feet. They’re singing words of encouragement, it becomes clear, and wishing the hunters good fortune. The sentiment is still competitive as opposed to harmonious. The optimal outcome will be for the Bisaasi-teri to procure enough meat and harvest enough bananas, palm fruits, and other plant foods to put on a feast the likes of which could never be adequately repaid, thus establishing the host group as the dominant partner in the alliance.

The back-and-forth, up-and-down cadence of the song takes some time to capture Lac, who tries to force himself not to experience it as irritating. The young villagers’ exuberance is on fine display, but there’s an undertone of plaintiveness that reminds him more of a recalcitrant child—“I don’t want to go to school”—than of the modern troubadours singing their songs of unrequited love over the radio back home. Before long, though, he’s unwittingly bobbing his head to the rhythm; it will be difficult to get the singing out of his head later.

These lyrics, he realizes, may be almost entirely improvised; it’s not like they’re written down anywhere. How well do the words scan with the simple alternating beat they’re keeping? One day, a graduate student, perhaps one of his own, will come to the field to focus solely on studying the tribe’s music—an ethnomusicologist.

That’s if the Indians are still here, still living their traditional lifestyles. He remembers his tape recorder, locked away in his trunk, and curses himself. But then he recalls the dance, the amoamo, will take place every night of the heniyomou, until the hunters return in about a week.

He thinks back to his observations about the men running like gazelles through the jungle understory, how every step and every swing of the arm, every adjustment of balance and trajectory appears deliberate, part of some larger choreographed expression of desire and deftly efficient execution. With Laura in Ann Arbor, he saw ballets and other exotic forms of dance that possessed a similar quality, though these were performed with far more abstract aims—the composition of some wordless multisensory artistic vision. This dance is like neither the hunt that reminded him so much of Cassius Clay’s light-footed fight style, nor the precisely synchronized feats of any prima ballerina. It appears rather more like a mere celebration of movement and youthful vigor. It’s running and stopping, marching forward and back, bouncing overly high on the balls of their feet, simple, extemporized, more fun than professional, nowhere near as serious as any hunger-fueled chase.

And now Lac, despite himself, is thinking of the word primitive and considering the propriety of its use. His mentors, the deliverers of the one-two punch that landed him squarely in the anthropology degree program, the culmination of which he’s now living out, Dr. White and Dr. Service, along with Dr. Carniero later—these men wouldn’t question the appropriateness of the word. They see societies as evolving through somewhat predictable stages of organizational and technological complexity. Lac has heard other scholars, though, even some at U of M like Dr. Sahlins, suggest referring to societies as primitive violates Boaz’s central dictum: aren’t we treating our own civilization as superior, more advanced, even if only by implication, the measuring stick against which other societies must be compared, the one whose accomplishments everyone else will inevitably fall short of? And isn’t this the essence of ethnocentrism?

There’s an inescapable logic to this point Lac finds both troubling and seductive. But it’s not a scientific point, he understands now. Cultural relativism is one of those first principles, a philosophical stance that, as helpful and admirable as it may seem, must be subordinated to observed reality—must be tested against the evidence to weigh its validity. But that raises another troubling question: observation forms the ground on which he’ll erect his theories, but how far can he trust his perceptions? How much of his response to this dance, for instance, is purely subjective? And what the hell does he know about dancing anyway?

He watches the young girls; they’re enjoying themselves, smiling with the vacant stare of immersion. He seldom sees the women enjoying themselves. But then it’s usually the men whose states of mind concern him, like the men from the rival villages outside, the ones who showed up early, violating the protocols, not waiting for the proper invitation. Why would they do that unless Rowahirawa is right and they’re irked about their former refugee charges becoming so politically important in the region. How has that rise come about? You’d think they would have been risking decimation from malaria, what with all the mosquitoes. But then the Malarialogìa regularly operate out of the hut across the river, so maybe that risk was mitigated.

Maybe the location of Bisaasi-teri, right in the middle of so much action—accessible for trading, tricky to surreptitiously attack—was what gave them a leg up over the past decade. Maybe Bahikoawa is an exceptionally good leader, he and his uncle, who’s in charge in Lower Bisaasi-teri. The presence of Clemens and the New Tribes Mission wouldn’t hurt either, as it means a supply, however irregular, of steel goods. Still, the Mahekodo-teri would benefit similarly from the Salesians at Platanal.

So who knows? It’s another question to add to his growing list of mysteries to be on the lookout for clues to solving.

It’s early evening at the mouth of the Mavaca. Even with the singing and dancing, there’s a peacefulness in the air, a stillness about the shabono. Lac decides to go back to his hut while there’s still light; he doesn’t want to risk an encounter with whoever or whatever lurks unseen in the shadows over the thirty or so yards separating his stronghold from the village entrance. How much, he wonders, do the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri know about my madohe? The six men who passed through, the ones who must’ve alerted their covillagers to the presence of unprotected women here—they certainly saw plenty of useful steel tools. He decides some extra fortification of his door is in order, and as usual he’ll be sleeping with his shotgun near at hand.

He sees Rowahirawa milling about and chatting with some other men. “Brother-in-law,” he says as he passes, “I’m going to my hut for the night. You’re welcome to hang your hammock there tonight too, but I’ll be barricading the door soon.”

Rowahirawa looks at him and smiles—he’s always ready with one of his damn grins—making Lac suspect he’s either already the butt of some joke or about to be. “Shaki, don’t worry. You’re so weak and pathetic the Mahekodo-teri are definitely planning to loot your hut. But I’ll protect you in exchange for a machete.” A couple of the men laugh.

“You’ll protect me”—Lac searches for the words to express his thought—“because if the Mahekodo-teri loot my hut, then I won’t keep returning with more machetes in the future.”

Rowahirawa clicks his tongue, chuckles, and says something like, “There may be hope for you yet, Shaki.”

So far, Lac’s only successes in turning away bullies like Rowahirawa demanding his possessions have come from shouting and yelling at least as loud and aggressively as the demands were delivered. Now he’s pulled off a far subtler deterrent, meaning he’s either learned some of the nuances of the language, or Rowahirawa has learned some of the nuances of his own character.
*****

The hunters returned yesterday. Today is the day of the feast, and rumors are going around that the visitors have been sneaking into the gardens and helping themselves to the locals’ produce. First, there was a moment of panic earlier this week when one of the hunters returned midway through the heniyomou. The men had underestimated how much food they’d need for the week, so this one returned to replenish their supply. Everyone was relieved to hear, however, that the hunt was going well, and the men all returned yesterday with quite an impressive haul. Lots of the large black monkeys the Yąnomamö call basho, whose tails they turn into headbands, along with several armadillos and turkeys. They brought it all back smoked and wrapped in these basketball-sized wicker bundles, leaving them stacked up in front of Bahikoawa’s yahi.

He ignored the bundles at first—this strange reticence surrounding the giving and receiving of gifts, an awkward ambivalence that will spill into full-blown petulance tomorrow during the intervillage trading. Bahikoawa only gradually began directing more of his attention to the wicker balls, and eventually he got around to unwrapping some to prepare the meat inside for an offering to the guests, the delivery of which marks the official invitation to the day’s feast. The Karohi-teri have yet to arrive, but the men have decided to hold a separate feast for them tomorrow or the day after. As Rowahirawa explains, after the trading tomorrow, the visitors will be obliged to move on. It’s commonplace for host villages to get rid of guests who’ve overstayed their welcome and become moochers by throwing a feast in their honor, because custom dictates they leave afterward—feast, trade, then get the hell out.

The Bisaasi-teri can’t be rid of the two visiting villages camped together outside soon enough, as they’ve been making gluttons of themselves all week, ravaging the gardens in the process. The men don’t know how much longer their produce can support their open-ended generosity—especially since the visitors seem bent on stretching that capacity beyond its limits to humiliate them. Lac heard Bahikoawa lamenting the lost opportunity to build an alliance, one that could entail joint raids against enemies like the Patanowä-teri. The more likely outcome of this gathering is deepening animosity. Indeed, the headman is already trying to come up with ways to prevent violent conflicts should the intimidation tactics intensify.

Lac has wandered around the outskirts of the visitors’ camp; it’s impossible to count them precisely, but he sees a definite preponderance of mature adult men. Mahekodo-teri is a huge village, and with the Boreta-teri joining their ranks, it would be difficult for the two Bisaasi-teri villages to match them for sheer strength of numbers, even with the Karohi-teri at their side. It seems to Lac, who’s been busy with his best attempt at a thorough census as part of a drawn-out preparation for his genealogical project, that the villages on either side of the Mavaca have too many young men, adolescent boys who Rowahirawa insists have little or no experience fighting.

Lac has the sense from all the conversations he’s been circling that he’s not the only one sizing up the two sides of the larger grouping. He was rather one of the last to begin doing so, and were he not to have taken up the accounting of each side’s relative strength, that’s what he would have been alone in. So, if everyone is doing the same comparisons, and if they’re arriving at the same conclusions, should he expect the visitors to press the advantage both groups suspect they possess? Does the perceivable imbalance portend conflict?

Before he has time to work out an answer—and a plan for if the answer is yes—a great collective shout goes up, and all the villagers turn their attention to the passageway alongside Bahikoawa’s yahi, where the first of the Mahekodo-teri will enter to officially accept the invitation and bring the first offering of food outside to where his covillagers are decorating and preparing to enter. The man who enters is decked out in full regalia: his head rounded by the basho-tail headband and his thick shining sable hair dusted with small white feathers, his body painted with squiggly red lines the width of a couple fingers, wearing not a cotton belt with a string for tying up his penis by the foreskin, but a slightly faded red loincloth, an item Lac figures must have been given to him—or traded—by the Salesians at Platanal. The hoots and mad tongue-clicking and swooping howls ignite the swollen air over the shabono. Lac becomes hyperaware of his location in the plaza and desperately scans his surroundings for a safe place to stand and observe the visitors’ ritual procession into the village. He settles for the shadowed edge of a yahi close to a group of men making their cheering noises, like fans at a football game, and thus overhears a name: Indowiwä.

His mouth falls open. He’s noted before that men will let slip the names of people from rival villages, but he’s never heard anyone utter one as brazenly as this. He records the name in his notebook. Is Indowiwä the Mahekodo-teri headman? Lac has seen him before, on other, less formal embassies between the camp and the shabono. He was with Bahikoawa the first day the visitors arrived. He must be far too young to be headman, though, in his mid-twenties, tops. Lac searches for Rowahirawa so he can begin peppering him with questions—earning his sobriquet by being a pesky busybody—but the sioha is nowhere in sight, perhaps because he’s hoping to avoid such peppering.

The way Bahikoawa had encouraged his covillagers to clear away the weeds and other sundry debris from the courtyard this morning was instructive. He had to begin the task himself, wandering out into the middle of the plaza and squatting down with his machete to chop at the roots and then sweep away the vegetation. Alone, it would have taken him hours of exhausting work, but before long some of the older men caught on that it was time to clean up and prepare the shabono. They came out and joined the headman in his weeding and sweeping. Then some of the women joined in. Soon, a small crowd of workers was busy clearing the ground, preparing it for the dancing that will begin later this afternoon, while Bahikoawa returned to his hammock, having done relatively little work.

A headman in a tribal village like this can’t give direct orders to his covillagers, or rather he could, but it would deal a major blow to his reputation if those orders were ignored. He has little recourse to address such slights besides starting a fight, so it’s best to lead by example; they all know the plaza needs cleaning on the morning of a feast—they just need a nudge to get started. Smaller, more nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers are strictly egalitarian; all the men play an equal role in decision-making; leveling mechanisms like teasing exceptionally gifted hunters hold sway; and no man would dare bark orders at the others. You have to sleep near those men, who possess deadly hunting weapons, so you won’t be overly eager to boss them around by day. The authority of the headman is borne of need; arriving at a consensus decision on important matters in a village this size would take days, weeks, and as often as not lead to factioning. Since settling down into a semi-sedentary lifestyle means having more uncles and brothers around, a type of authority through relative size of kinship coalition takes hold.

Visitors come directly to Bahikoawa, knowing he speaks for all the Bisaasi-teri—the Upper Bisaasi-teri anyway. Though he also seems to take precedence over is uncle whenever the villages coalesce, as they are for today’s feast. The move from egalitarianism to headmanship, and then to chieftainship, is one of the predictable transitions that come along with increasing group size and organizational complexity, a recognizable stage in societal evolution of the sort noted by Dr. Service and Dr. White, a pattern that suggests not all societies follow their own unique historical trajectories, as some researchers would seem to want us to believe. Because it’s a short step from thinking in terms of predictable stages to thinking every society is progressing, albeit at different rates, toward becoming an advanced civilization like ours, which exists at a pinnacle overlooking all others, its members disparaging those others as primitives and savages.

But they are. They just are. From their lack of clothing to protect them from the bugs, to their emotional lability, to their basic technology and insane medical practices—their belief that sickness is caused by spirits sent by shaboris from enemy villages. They argue with storms. They steal women. Who among us Westerners would fail to recognize their primitiveness? The Yąnomamö are one stage beyond the simplest—the hunter-gatherers—but this is Hobbes’s Man in a State of Nature; in many regards it’s man at the mercy of nature. People may look at this and see a rudimentary conservationism—or even an advanced ethic of ecological balance—but it’s really only a matter of nature still having the upper hand. Lac remembers well Darwin’s infamous lines about his first meeting with the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.”

The Mahekodo-teri headman, if that’s who this is, is helped with a large pack basket filled with meats and boiled plantains, arranging the strap across his forehead, careful not to tussle the feathers or smear the painted designs. The weight is obviously substantial, but the man is determined to treat it as paltry, and he’s determined to swagger outside dramatically regardless of the impressive ponderousness of the offering. The awkwardness of his struggle must be a point of pride for Bahikoawa and his hunters, a small victory. Lac remembers the few times he was on the visitors’ side of this pre-feast exchange, and he gets excited about the chance to witness the preparations from this new angle. He’s also wondering if he should be doing more to prepare for the ceremonial entrance, trying to figure out who among the Bisaasi-teri would be most likely to let slide the names of the foreign dignitaries as they enter and dance around the plaza. How long will it be, though, before Lac can make it to Mahekodo-teri and finish any genealogy thus begun?

As he wanders around the margins of the courtyard, he sees everyone, man, woman, and child, decorating themselves, putting on their best cotton waist straps and shoulder strings, tucking parrot or turkey feathers into the bands on their upper arms and arranging them to sprout up theatrically, and applying the red nara paint in jaguar patterns or abstract designs. There’s no sense of marching toward doom. All these people are excited. One man, overcome with the thrill, hoots loudly, mildly startling Lac. A man outside the shabono hoots back, and then another. They’re playing a game. To demonstrate their superior numbers? Or merely to express and help each other nurture their collective exhilaration? The voices from outside the shabono raise the prickles on the back of Lac’s sweat-slicked neck.  

All morning, Bahikoawa’s younger brothers have been preparing two kinds of plantains: the hard green-peeled plantains they need their teeth to crack open—these they toss into aluminum pots to boil, and they’re what went into filling the pack basket, along with all the smoked meat, Indowiwä just took outside to his covillagers; then there are the ripe yellow-peeled plantains the men are able to open easily by running their thumbs down the lengths—these they mash together in their pots to make the date, the thick soup whose redolence lends an element of festivity to the air, even for Lac, who’s found the dish slightly nauseating when he’s sampled it before. These young men—the headman’s brothers—have worked more assiduously for a longer duration than any other Yąnomamö Lac has seen. And they just returned from the heniyomou yesterday.

The Yąnomamö can sustain their focus on a hunt for hours on end, it’s true, but that’s not exactly work. He’s paid them to help him build his hut, but they only ever managed to toil in short bursts. What these young men are doing now must be gruelingly tedious by Yąnomamö standards. But their labors are about to pay off—for the group as a whole if not for the men individually. They have three large troughs the size of canoes made from the bark of a tree they call the masiri, where pot after pot has been emptied, so now each one contains, by Lac’s estimate, over thirty gallons of soup, making a total of somewhere between ninety and a hundred gallons.

Lac counted seventeen bashos, seven turkeys, three armadillos, and other sundry meats. Will it be enough to feed the Bisaasi-teri’s one hundred visitors? Having seen all the work that’s gone into preparing this feast, Lac is astonished the Bisaasi-teri are willing to do it all again tomorrow when the Karohi-teri arrive—just to be rid of the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri. Now, as the final preparations are made and random shouts spark bouts of competitive raucousness that subside quickly, only to be taken up again later, Lac is rehearsing the stages he remembers from past ceremonies, anticipating when the most danger will arise, planning where he’ll stand to inconspicuously observe—such a simple objective that gets complicated so quickly.

Bahikoawa and his uncle are resting in his yahi by the entrance. Lac looks toward them, wishing them success in keeping the peace, wondering what will happen to him if they fail. He thinks about his shotgun back in the hut, deciding for the umpteenth time it wouldn’t make a difference, that it would cause more problems than it would prevent. He wishes he had it anyway. He watches as the men prepare to take their ebene. So they’ll be tripping the whole time they’re welcoming the visitors. Great, he thinks, I’m sure that won’t make the situation any more volatile.

Lac has learned to give the shabori a wide berth when they’re in the throes of their communion with the hekura. They can get scary. Rowahirawa once chased him around the plaza with an upraised machete. They threw rocks at him as he tried to photograph them. So now he looks on from a distance, hoping the feast makes for a more tranquil trip for them.

A half hour later, when the visiting men are ready to begin their flamboyant entrances, Lac is satisfied with his position next to a support pole, but reluctant to make any large movements for fear of drawing attention. He feels the weight of his camera tugging at the back of his neck. Before any dancers enter, an old man ducks into the plaza. He’s not wearing any decorations, and the villagers barely respond to his presence. He walks across the courtyard in a dignified way, but with no effort to call attention to himself or to impress anyone. Lac surmises he’s a former headman, someone too respected to enter with the women and children after the ceremonial procession of the warriors, but too old to bother with all the frills and cavorting. The man disappears into the shadows of a yahi.

Then the dancers start coming in by twos and taking up their militant marching gambols in opposite directions around the outside rim of the plaza, charging, halting, retreating, and charging ahead again, throwing down their weapons, stepping away from them, then rushing back to retrieve them.

It’s Rowahirawa who finds Lac just after the entrance procession has begun. Is he drugged? Lac didn’t see him with the other men, but he wasn’t watching the whole time, and Rowahirawa’s eyes are ostensibly glazed. “Shaki, stop standing there looking so dumb. The Mahekodo-teri will think you’re an idiot, or an overgrown pet monkey. They may dart over here and club you over the head just to be funny.”

“Brother-in-law, you’re waiteri. You wouldn’t let them push me around. That’s only for you to do.” Lac is immediately filled with pride in his comeback, one more of his attempts at Yąnomamö humor. But it’s hard to tell what they’ll find funny. Their favorite jokes tend to involve some absurd act of violence. And they frequently burst into laughter at statements he would’ve never suspected were jokes.

Rowahirawa’s laugh now is little more than a patient—dazed?—smile and sudden emission of air from his puffed out lungs. Lac’s glad to have him nearby anyway; he resolves not to overwhelm him with questions. Indowiwä is the headman’s son, not the headman. It seems the roles in Yąnomamö feasts can be honorary assignments. Bahikoawa, for instance, has ceded his prestigious status as headman to his uncle, the Lower Bisaasi-teri headman, who’s now acting as leader of the conglomerated groups, even though by Lac’s estimation Bahikoawa has far more clout, since he oversees two shabonos.

The men dance their boisterous preening dances around to all the yahis, each pair demonstrating their trademark moves, prancing and strutting for a few minutes and then rushing back outside the shabono, only to be replaced by the next pair, some using props like giant palm branches or elaborately feathered disks, some concentrating on more acrobatically demanding steps and lunges. Once, when he and Laura were walking home from a campus production of Merchant of Venice, she confided to Lac that, for all the “psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo” she’d been imbued with—her embrace of his teasing word choice—whenever she first reads a novel or watches a performance, whether it be a play, a ballet, an opera, or a movie, she accepts the totality of her experience as a deliberate effect of the artist’s efforts.

Forget for a moment all that subconscious turmoil, she enjoined, and take in the creator’s vision, occupy it, not as a statement because art should never be reducible to allegory, but as a shared constellation of engineered encounters against a backdrop of carefully balanced tones, a holistic experience of transport to some third realm outside both of your minds, an imagined space you can occupy together, along with all the other people reading or watching along with you. If your mind gets too busy somewhere along the way, or starts to wander, she says, you should go beyond merely letting the sensations and emotions wash over you; you should ask yourself—for however long it takes to thrust yourself back into the experience—why the artist decided to place this particular element precisely when and where he placed it.

“That’s why big productions are better,” she said; “you don’t just have one person’s vision but several people’s. You can have a playwright, a composer, a choreographer, a set designer—all these people coming together to create a previously unimagined world, an entirely separate universe, a reality that has hints of our own, and overlaps, but is still different, enough to make us look at our own reality as if for the first time, with fresh, almost innocent eyes.”

Lac has replayed this conversation in his mind many times before. Until that night, he’d never been much for the more performative arts. He liked movies and novels. Mostly, he liked the tales of adventure and exploration he could most readily imagine himself taking the lead role in. His reading was nowhere near as sophisticated as Laura’s. Later, it would be the early icons of anthropology he loved most: Malinowsky, Mead, Radcliffe-Brown. He loved Malinowski’s way of telling the story of a few single incidents to convey a larger set of themes and general observations; his Coral Gardens and Their Magic ranks among the most riveting and enchanting books Lac has ever read. It’s this effect that he aspires to with his own ethnographies. Think of it, to be read by even half as many people as Malinowski or Mead. And with as crazy as things are going here now, as eventful and surprising—as shocking and at moments horrifying—as his time among the Yąnomamö is turning out to be, the prospect of the resulting book being wildly popular is hardly negligible.

And aren’t the projects the same at their core? Laura insists the deliberately designed worlds of art function as metaphors for our lived realities, highlighting certain features, minimizing and distorting others, training our eyes to see with a new focus. There is an allegorical element to be sure then; as with caricature, your perceptions can be bent toward one or another viewpoint. But the most basic underlying impulse is one of renewal. Look again. Look from an adjusted angle. Look deeper. Experience more profoundly.

Ethnography is much the same. You can’t know your own culture until you’ve worked to understand where it plays out on the landscape of human potential. You can’t know what it means to be human until you have a sense of all the diverse ways people cooperatively live out their humanity. You must stretch your imagination, refine your conceptions, build new highways for unthought ideas. You must broaden your intuition for what is possible to appreciate what is real. Of course, within the context of science, Lac’s goals are different; his purpose isn’t merely to seed people’s imaginations or hone their perceptions, nor is it to deepen their scope of thought, furnishing a more elaborate theater for the drama of consciousness—it’s to dig through all the layers of impression to reach bedrock truths about the Yąnomamö; so these truths can be collated as reliable data sets with the greater store of our knowledge about what humans are, what predictable patterns emerge in their behavior, and maybe what stages they evolved through to get to where they—where we, Western and non-Western, modern and traditional, advanced and primitive—are today.

Lac steers his mind back to his observations and notetaking, feeling something of the thrill of the occasion, an excitement heightened by the threat of largescale conflict. These bodies of ours, at once so vulnerable and so dangerous, so clumsy and so magnificently intentional, congregating in such inconceivable numbers—we strive to set ourselves apart, with adornments and distinctive dance steps, but only manage to lend further to the mass blurring of our multitude, so many flames of consciousness—memory, perception, longing—discrete from one another, but forever drawn compulsively together.

The last of the dancers departs through the passage; there’s a nearly imperceptible rumble of anticipation followed by a deafening explosion of cheers as the warriors surge back into the plaza en masse, flooding the shabono with their violent potential. They circle, threatening and withdrawing, and then they come together in the center of the courtyard to form the lineup, each of them striking the visitor’s pose, weapons held vertically beside their faces, daring with their locked limbs and absent expressions anyone to attack them, gazing off into space, rigidly upright and proud, flashing that wild glint that still fires Lac’s imagination.

He holds his breath. These are the people who gave Bahikoawa’s village safe harbor after they’d survived an attempted massacre. These are the people who planned to abduct dozens of unguarded women—unguarded except by him. These are the people who arrived a week early, demanding to be fed, as was their right by Yąnomamö custom, all hundred mouths. Lac turns to see the visiting women and children sneaking into the shabono without fanfare. These are the people rumored to have been raiding the gardens by night, eating even more of Bisaasi-teri’s food. Now it’s time to play friendly and nice—until it isn’t.

After all the shouting and challenging and cheering, the warriors are led to predetermined yahis to recline in their hosts’ hammocks, taking up the visitor’s repose. Soon, they’ll be offered date and the feasting proper will begin. Lac prepares for the long night ahead, when the headmen will sing and chant through the wee hours until sunrise, holding forth on the long history of friendship among the gathered villages. He feels safer now, thinking that if anything were going to happen, it would have happened by now. One of the purposes of the lineup and the visitor’s pose is to say something like, “If anyone has any grievances, let him strike now or forever hold his peace.” No strikes were dealt. So Lac starts moving freely about the plaza, noting the nuances in dialect between the villages.

The Mahekodo-teri’s words are for some time nearly unintelligible to him. But as evening fades into night, their meanings begin to resolve ever more clearly in his ears. He finds that he’s happy, busy doing work he enjoys, under conditions he can tolerate, building up his store of stories to share when he returns to civilization and reunites with his friends and loved ones. This is close to his idea of what working as an ethnographer is supposed to be like.
****

By the time the shouting begins the next morning, Lac is too exhausted to be scared. How could any of these men, he wonders, still have the energy to fight? They’ve been up all night. They just scraped the last of the date from the troughs as the sun was rising, and they’ve been haggling over trades for the past two hours. Lac walks about in a fog, hoping to happen across Rowahirawa, hoping he’ll be able to tell him what’s happening—and whether he should worry.

Not seeing his chief informant anywhere, Lac tries to edge silently up to the fracas so he can listen in. He doesn’t need to translate the words to know that the men on either side are furious. One of the Mahekodo-teri men complains about the trading being started early, as though the Bisaasi-teri were trying to get rid of them as soon as possible—this after all the Mahekodo-teri have done for them. Now they hear the Bisaasi-teri are holding another feast for the Karohi-teri—“Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”—and that makes it even more clear they’re trying to push the current visitors out. Lac can’t hear the complaints from the Bisaasi-teri side, but he doesn’t need to.

Finally, Bahikoawa walks into the space between the arguing sides and begins shouting for them all to shut up. “We have fed you all for a week, longer than we were obligated to, because we remember our debt to you. But the feast is over, the trading is complete, and you’re insulting us by not moving on. If you insist on staying, we’re going to start a chest-pounding contest.” Lac has watched Bahikoawa negotiating trades for the past two hours, mostly by urging his covillagers to give up items coveted by their guests. Before that, he’d been chanting through the night with the Mahekodo-teri headman. The man must be exhausted. 

Rowahirawa has told Lac that the guests will have sunk their most prized possessions in the river—somewhere they’ll be able to find them easily enough. The Bisaasi-teri have done likewise; when the hunters returned from the heniyomou, they stashed some turtle eggs, a delicacy, in Lac’s hunt so as not to be asked to share. Almost every exchange was attended by that reticence, like the recipient wasn’t sure the item was worth taking, and the giver was sure it was too valuable to give away. The whole process was replete with argument, but Bahikoawa managed to keep it progressing smoothly. When it was over, the visitors were given more pack baskets of food for the trip home—and it was time for them to leave. Still feeling cheated after the trade, though, and probably still feeling cheated out of some new women for their village, the visitors declared their intention to stay and participate in the feast planned for the Karohi-teri.

Lac is annoyed with the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri. He too wants desperately for them to be on their way, as their presence has set him on edge—set the entire village on edge—for too long. No one has slept. Everyone is whining and complaining and acting pathetic in every regard. The threats on either side ring hallow. Lac considers now may be a good time to steal away and lock himself in his hut, but he knows he’ll regret not staying to witness whatever duel or tournament ensues—or doesn’t ensue. So he reminds himself, practically shouting to himself in thought, that just because he’s so profoundly tired and irritated, that doesn’t mean he can ignore the danger surrounding him. A chest-pounding duel, Rowahirawa has explained, may not be sufficient for all of these waiteri. Things could escalate.

The shouting intensifies. Lac blinks his eyes and the brief taste of oblivion brings him a tiny bit of bliss. He needs to sleep. If there’s to be a melee, though, he needs first to wake up enough to be aware of the dangers. He tries to feel his heartbeat but fails. His body is failing to register the seriousness of the threat. Are you in more danger when you have some mysterious foreboding or when you know, logically, that the signs are ominous but you can’t trick yourself into a proper panic? It’s down to whether you trust your intuitions more than your conscious deductions. Lac just wants to find a hammock and drink in that blinking bliss again.

Just when Lac is sure the posturing and threatening are on the verge of igniting into a whirlwind of winging fists and swiping clubs, the warriors from the distant villages turn abruptly and head back to their camp in a huff. Bahikoawa turns to the men of his own village and gives them a look to convey the precariousness of this truce; now is no time to boast about backing down the rival waiteris. That will come later.

Lac steps away from the site of the dispute, following the visitors who’ve just departed through the passage out of the shabono. He walks far enough and watches long enough to see that the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri are indeed breaking camp and preparing for the long trip back to Platanal. Next, he floats over to his hut, half-submerged in sleep already, half-dreaming. He won’t remember unlocking the door later, won’t remember rolling into his hammock. He’s out before the swaying ceases, swimming down through the sensate layers to that blissful oblivion at last. 
*****


Links to chapters (Table of Contents)

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More Chagnon and anthropology stuff for the meantime:

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia