Book Review by Michael J. Breznau, Th.M.: Ritchie, Mark A. Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story. 2nd ed. Chicago: Island Lake Press, 2000.
Clash of Worlds
Two worlds of vastly different fabrics radically collide in this provocative and emotionally gripping story. Worlds of spirit and spheres of tradition and culture clash with both violence and tranquility in this eye-opening perspective of the Yanomamo people of the Amazon. Author Mark Andrew Ritchie has brought together in this book, an amazing narrative of the most unusual kind. Instead of gathering information about these often fierce, fearful people to simply adapt to his own personal reflections and perspective, Ritchie wisely chooses to write this non-fictional story in the raw and rather pejorative manner of a great shaman, named Jungleman.
Through the eyes of this great ruler of these tribal people, the author helps us encounter the Yanomamo in a way never before seen in similar ethnographies. To put it simply, this book is about a fight. It is a fight of both the physical nature and the spiritual. It is a fight of long-held bitterness and vengeance. It is a fight between deeply rooted tradition and contemporary ideals. It is a fight of those who are at peace and those who are at war. It is a battle between good and evil. It is a fight of life and death. It opens with a fight and essentially ends with a fight.
The Violent Cycle of Revenge
As this book recounts the life of Jungleman and his people, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by their battle after battle for revenge. This story unfolds as Jungleman describes the opening scene of a fight, that as he tells us, has a long story that goes before it. Slowly and deliberately, our narrator unwinds this shocking tale of how the Yanomamo people had lived life, for perhaps hundreds of years. As a shaman with deep involvement in the demonic spirit world, he often describes each account as if he were actually in the shoes of another person. He, in a sense, is able to get into the mind and thoughts of all kinds of people, to actually convey their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.
Jungleman’s vivid stories center on a handful of little villages in the southern Venezuelan rainforests. These small bands of tribal south-Indians lived in poor communities that survived by hunting the land and by constant raiding of each other’s goods (including people, i.e. especially women). They are described by Jungleman as often living in perpetual fear of each other and embroiled in embittered war. Their normal routine of life, as described throughout the book, is a cycle of fighting, killing, raiding, looting, and raping. This sequence was often started by supposed encounters with the spirit world by the local shamans (including Jungleman), who would “use” these spirits to attack other tribes with curses of disease, death, or some other malady. The author describes this process of cursing as going back and forth from village to village and eventually ending in an all out battle between tribes. These vivid spirit encounters by the shamans always seemed to be acquired or greatly enhanced by their use of what was called “ebene,” which is described by Jungleman as a strong narcotic they would shoot up their noses. This type of experience seems to be “glorified” somewhat by our narrator in the first half of the book. But as the story wears on, the reader senses a growing discontentment in Jungleman with the manipulation and power of these spirits. This sentiment would continue to deepen as more and more of his people died, both from enemy attacks and disease.
In desperation, after living in constant fear of their enemy’s vengeance for weeks, Jungleman decides, through the counsel of his spirits, that he and his tribe must go find the “nabas,” so they could get help, tools, and food. After a long journey they finally reach the land where the nabas (westerners) lived. This was the beginning of a pivotal relationship, that unbeknownst to them would change their people forever.
The infiltration of westerners (“nabas”) into their culture at first seems like a harmless occurrence. But as the story goes one, it makes very clear that some nabas would cause more trouble than they were worth. Jungleman defines two kinds of nabas. The first are comprised of what appears to be a young missionary family with children. This family would later become loved and endeared by the Yanomamo, especially the father, Pepe and his son, Keleewa. Jungleman talks about several other groups of missionary minded individuals who also came to help, some with good results and others not so significant.
The second group of nabas included the merchants, spectators, and anthropologists. These men are largely described as inhumane and practically downright criminal. While some descriptions may have been slightly exaggerated, one is greatly compelled to trust the word of the Yanomamos over the testimony of the money and sex hungry nabas (as described by Jungleman). Between these two groups of westerners ultimately arose the greatest battle the Yanomamo people had ever faced. This would not be a fight like any other. The fight this book ultimately holds on pivot is a fight for the future of the Yanomamo people. The Christian missionaries such as Keleewa had amazingly brought what appears to be a whole village to Christ and produced a far more civilized community than Jungleman could have ever previously imagined. God (known as Yai Pada) had wonderfully broken through the demonic control that had kept so many oppressed.
Yet for this very reason, several leading anthropologists and liberal government agents were enraged. They were absolutely convinced that the Yanomamo would be better served by reverting back to their “old ways” as tribal people. Jungleman tells us that these men tried all sorts of ploys to rile their people and stir up their old revenge. As more people came to the village of Honey, where Keleewa the missionary and his family now lived, the angrier the other men became. This tension continues to build until finally the people of Honey, of whom many had completely changed from the old ways, were ready to snap.
What choice would they take? The decision they had to make would in itself go against everything they knew to be Yanomamo. Yet, our colorful narrator describes it as the only way to lasting peace – something they as a people had never truly known. Now what choice would they make? Would they side with those who wanted to push them back to the “old ways?” Would Jungleman and his friends continue to follow the guidance of their ebene and the spirits who controlled them? Or would they walk the new path they had learned to follow, called “Yai Pada’s trail?” This choice was the hardest fight of all, until they learned about a little word called love. Their decision to follow Yai Pada and His character of love ultimately prove to change them forever.
Worldview: Comparisons and Contrasts
There are several key components in this writing that seem to reflect some distinct cultural characteristics of the Yanomamo people. First is the remarkable isolation from western influence. Of course, this book details the progressive infiltration of such influence, but for a significant portion of this text, the reader is afforded a rather vivid look at what life was like for the Yanomamo before a western tincture was added to the mix. This isolation from modernity appears to have resulted in a unique innocence. Certainly they were not innocent of wrong-doing. In fact, they were guilty of all kinds of brutal acts and murder. Yet, there still remains, in my opinion, an underlying innocence among these people. They were in no doubt guilty before God just like the rest of us through the conveyance of original sin, (Rom 3:9-18; 5:12-14). However, their almost child-like innocence toward the blatantly selfish behavior of such personalities as “A.H.” and “Irritating-Bee” were initially quite naïve.
It does not appear to be a terrible stretch to say that this type of naiveté could be likened to that of a young child in our own western culture. Perhaps this was why some leading anthropologists wanted them to retain their old ways, in order that they might not lose that attractive innocence. However, whether fortunately or unfortunately (for the anthropologists) they very quickly saw through the motives of these more selfish and oppressive characters. Let it not be understood that naïve innocence should be equated with low mental capacity. The Yanomamo people display in this story a very keen awareness to logic and purpose. There is more than one account of them out-witting the “so-called” educated westerners – so much so, the reader cannot help but chuckle.
As a second comparison, while it may be argued that the Yanomamo people seemed void of logic when they charged off in revenge to attack another tribe; there are lucid examples of those from the educated West making equally illogical decisions. Would it not be permissible to draw a moderate comparison here? Do not those in our own culture also perform the same acts of violence and drug abuse in our inner-city, concrete jungles? Sometimes our western culture is so closed in its ethnocentricity, that we lose sight of the same sin nature working not only in “tribal” people (as some would like to call them) but also in our own wicked and depraved culture, albeit “civilized.” We are all completely helpless apart from Christ, (Rom 5:6). Therefore, how dare we look at other people groups as lesser humans or as more depraved than ourselves? If it were not for Christ, we would be still stained with the black spot of sin that cannot be worked off or rubbed off by any amount of education or good will, (Eph 2:8-9; Rom 3:23-25). This should be the perspective of those who call themselves by the name of Christ. I applaud those missionaries mentioned in this book who endeavored to do so. From the sweat of their brow and the exhaustion of their hands, they gave and gave for these wonderful people – people made in the image of God, (Gen 1:26-27; 1 Cor 11:7).
Thirdly, as a contrast in their culture, is the widespread fear and pervasive use of the demonic realm. Our storyteller, Jungleman, describes in explicit detail the inner workings of his deeds as a shaman. Traveling in time and space through the power of his spirits appears to be a normal occurrence. What is more amazing is that, as testified by Ritchie, all the information Jungleman gave through these travels was verifiable. This kind of lifestyle in the demonic world is, to say the least, quite rare or kept in private in western culture. The fear and control that these spirits held over the Yanomamos is shocking. Jungleman even uses the term “ruled” for the type of bondage they were in.
Certainly the cultural gaps are wide. Adjustment to Yanomamo culture would undoubtedly take considerable time, some may never be able to adapt. However, the correlations between our culture and theirs may be closer than many believe. What is meant here is that when looking into the eyes of a Yanomamo, we should see as Christ sees. We should view them with love, a love that reaches out to any who are deceived (as Jungleman explains it), hurting, or oppressed, (John 8:1-11). Viewing our lives in light of Christ and eternity suddenly changes everything. It may even send us to the Amazon.
Mission: Yanomamo. What would you do?
The admission must go forth that I was deeply shocked and grieved by the grotesque explicitness contained in this book. It was not the very existence of this content that affected me, but the reality of such a lifestyle being followed. The Yanomamo people are portrayed with such severity, that one cannot help but feel his stomach curl at times. Yet into this dark culture filled with spiritual bondage, the light of God now shines so brightly. How did this happen?
If I, as a young missionary, were to endeavor to reach out to these people in a similar setting, I believe I would do well to take several lessons from the missionaries predominant in this book. Gary Dawson (known as Keleewa) and his father Pepe, serve as prime examples of those who physically minister as incarnational missionaries. I found several key points of their outreach that nicely facilitate the following discussion.
The first evident factor that would be beneficial to reaching the Yanomamo context is the need for “staying power.” Meaning, it would be absolutely vital to set up a long-term plan for ministry. This is seen clearly in the two generations of ministry found in Keleewa and his father. To make a real difference in a vastly contrasting culture takes time. It would be necessary for anyone hoping to reach through the spiritual and physical barriers to literally become “family” to these people.
Secondly, through the longevity of the ministry, I would be able to take the time to learn about all the elements that may be causing the people to resist the Gospel. Staying in the villages, working and living with the people, and knowing their language would aid in the perceptivity of these evaluations. Once I had a bearing on how the people viewed life and the motivation behind some of their actions, I would have a much greater ability to bridge a gap to their hearts.
Third, the Yanomamo people appear from this book, to have a very spiritual outlook on life. Therefore the best way to reach them would be to talk on their terms. As the missionaries are shown employing this method, the affects are tremendous. To talk of the spirit world in raw terms was normal for Jungleman, and it would also have to become easy for me as the missionary. The key point in reaching across the spiritual barriers, as found in this book, was a single phrase that was repeated over and over, “Our spirits hate us – Yai Pada loves us.”
To be effective in reaching out to these people the key word and attribute would have to be love. It would also have to be love in action. This character is exuded by our exemplars over and over again throughout this book. They helped the people obtain tools, they nursed their sick back to health, they listened to them tell stories, they even tried to break up fights. Through love in action and by serving the people, I would prayerfully have a more open door to sharing with them about Christ. Also, their view of humanity was often enlightened by the medical care given by these missionaries. Through laboring over a mutilated body for hours and slowly nursing the individual back to health, they were sharing through their deeds about the value of life to the people. To merely talk to them about how killing was a sin would simply not work. I would have to meet their felt needs. If they wanted peace and life, they would have to stop killing. If they wanted joy and posterity, they would have to stop stealing and raiding. Through these felt needs, one would be able to show them first-hand, how change could actually occur.
Lastly, I noticed that often the best evangelists were the saved Yanomamos themselves. This should probably come as no surprise, but their effectiveness was truly amazing. One of the most beautiful renditions of the Gospel message I have ever read was told by Shoefoot to our story teller. Shoefoot said, “So Yai Pada became a Yanomamo himself… He came as a baby, grew up, and showed us a completely different way to live. Even though he knew he would be killed in the end, he did it all anyway. His death was a death for all of us Yanomamo. Because he was Yai Pada he was able to come back from the dead. That’s how he cut the trail to where he lives.” As you see from reading this short story from the mouth of Shoefoot, they amazingly adapted the message of Christ to their culture and language. For this reason, I would decidedly work towards discipling even just one man who in turn could affect hundreds, if not thousands for Christ. Through much prayer I believe that this kind of one on one evangelism and discipleship would be vital to reaching these people with the story of Yai Pada.
Touching on their innate need and longing for peace, I would prayerfully make every attempt to share with them, through my words and actions, of the amazing peace they could find down the path of Yai Pada. Those as Jungleman who for so long had lived in fear amidst the lies of the enemy, now had found the Light. This Light which they followed down a new path, would make all the difference in the world. This is the Light that must be shared, for it is the only way to the peaceful throne of Yai Pada. May they remain in my prayers.
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 Of course, this statement is my humble opinion. Yet, in light of my study of other anthropological works, this one is quite unique and original in its format.
 Mark A. Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamö Shaman’s Story, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Island Lake Press, 2000), 253-59. This statement is made in light of the author’s personal attempts to defend this book in the face of great opposition among anthropological researchers.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 157-58.
 Ibid., 202-3.
 Ibid., 194-203.
 One can somewhat understand the sentiment of these individuals in light of their views of humankind and population growth. It is impossible to entirely determine what the exact motivations were behind the actions of these agents, however, from the perspective of this book it seems to be from an animosity towards western colonialism (amongst others perhaps). This outlook is no doubt a predominant one among anthropological research, and it cannot be considered entirely inept. There are sound purposes behind the resistance of colonialism, of which are not dealt with in this noble work.
 Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamö Shaman’s Story, 232.
 Ibid., 237, 43.
 Ibid., 240. The character “Irritating-Bee” is revealed here to be none other than the famed anthropologist, Dr. Napoleon Chagnon.
 Ibid., 88-9.
 Ibid., 151-2.
 I have seen this type of violent lifestyle lived out on the streets of several major cities in the United States during two years of inner-city ministry to such people. Extreme drug abuse, violent murderers, rape, incest, etc… Such factors play a heavy handed role in the workings of numerous gangs all throughout our own country.
 Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamö Shaman’s Story, 7-8.
 Ibid., 230.
 Ibid., 229-31.
 Ibid., 87-88.
 Ibid., 251.
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 159-60.