Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story. By Mark Andrew Ritchie. Island Lake, IL: Island Lake Press, 2000. 288 pp.
Mark Andrew Ritchie group up in poverty in Afghanistan, South Texas, and Oregon. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity International University (1980). In addition to Spirit of the Rainforest he is the author of God in the Pits. After 20 years of working in the financial services industry, Ritchie turned his attention to Divinity studies and authoring two books.
Written in first person narrative, Spirit of the Rainforest describes the life of the Yanomamo people according to a powerful shaman called “Jungleman.” It should be noted that the Yanomamo people do not use names. In the beginning of the book Jungleman says, “I have lots of names—all us Yanomamo do. But we almost never speak them” (p. 21). The book focuses on telling the story of approximately 32 years of life in the Amazon from the way they lived before the “nabas” arrived and told them of the great spirit, “Yai-Pada.” Perhaps the book is best described by Richie’s own words in the author’s addendum, “Dignity prohibits a complete description of Jungleman’s talent. Deleewa, a person of considerable humility and piety, struggled in vain to translate Jungleman into palatable English while I asked myself, ‘How am I going to write this? No matter how much I tone this man down, I still can hear the critics: “Too much sex—too much violence—too degrading of women”” (p. 239). This book is a gripping account of the wild life in the Amazon.
Reading the first two sections of Spirit of the Rainforest orients readers to the life of the Yanomamo: sniffing “ebene” in order to dance with spirits, using spirits to kill babies in enemy villages, raids to physically kill men in other villages, gang rape of women, giving away daughters to men even though the daughters are so young that they had not developed breasts yet, never backing down from a fight even when the warrior knows he will lose, always living in fear of being killed by another village, and regular death by starvation (mostly for the children because the warriors think they should eat first). These are what one would call the “way of the Yanomamo” according to Jungleman in Spirit of the Rainforest.
Many people living in the “civilized west” would see this lifestyle as being brutal, ferocious, and barbaric. Jungleman himself admits to living in constant fear, so much fear that he would go for weeks without sleeping. Instead, he always laid in his hammock awake and fearful that an enemy village would be coming to raid his village in revenge. Even hunting in the Amazon became dangerous because “after what we did to Potato Village [one of many raids on neighboring villages], there is no such thing as a safe trail” (p. 39).
In spite of this fear the Yanomamo men display a false and hollow courage. As warriors they never admit fear. They are warriors! (p. 59). The wars they engaged in were always wars seeking revenge. If a neighboring village came and cut off the breast of a woman, they would travel and cut off two breasts of a woman in their village as an act of revenge. In Jungleman’s words, “You could win a war with the Yanomamo today, but your children’s children would pay for it later” (p. 44). The reader quickly learns that the Yanomamo always sought revenge and never practiced forgiveness.
In addition to the constant wars between villages the degrading of women is something that most females cringe at and probably cannot fathom. Even though the Yanomamo men were strict in not allowing anyone to call them a name (especially a childhood name), the women are called any name the men want. The men often asserted that the world was made for them and that the women were here for the men, not the men for the women (p. 102). Taking the degradation of women further than just name calling and role view, the men only cared about a woman’s vagina (p. 157) and speak of a young bride-to-be as being “ripe and ready” for sex (p. 190). A point in time when one woman was extremely ill and she needed the man whom she shared her hammock with the most, he left her saying, “I’ll never get any more sex out of her” (p. 189).
One of the most intriguing things about the book are the “spiritual experiences” of Jungleman as a shaman. Jungleman describes knowing the spirit world ever since he was a young man. He described these spirits talking to him and them “wanting to have you.” These spirits were companions he had when he had “ebene” blown into his nose. These spirits even had names such as charming, jaguar, alligator, thunder, and sucking-out. Even though these spirits appear to worship him and build his ego as the mightiest warrior and shaman (p. 86), they often did not work when called upon to heal people. More than seven different examples are specifically explained by Jungleman of when he called on the spirits to heal someone, yet that person still died. This included all of his children expect for one son. As Jungleman continues to tell his story the “Yai-Pada” spirit is introduced as the “enemy spirit” to the spirits Jungleman has (p. 87). Over time the gospel is introduced as “Yai-Pada” first by the “nabas” (white foreigners who began to live with the Yanomamo people) and then it is introduced regularly to Jungleman by his fellow shaman.
Talk of a “great naba spirit” called “Yai-Pada” is definitely the true gospel when readers examine the doctrinal elements of the Yanomamo faith in Yai-Pada. A general description of Yai-Pada is that he (Yai-Pada) became a Yanomamo himself who grew up as a baby, showed people how to live completely different ways, knew he would be killed, allowed himself to be killed, and that his death was a death for all of the Yanomamo (p. 159). In addition Yai-Pada would burn the world with fire (p. 76), his land is beautiful (p. 77), no one can get close to him without burning up (p. 77), he really cares for people (p. 88), he wants the Yanomamo people to have better lives (p. 88), he will be the only spirit (p. 88), he is the one who created all other spirits (p. 114), he is the spirit of peace (p. 207), the Yanomamo will see Yai-Pada one day (p. 207), and those who do not follow Yai-Pada go to the fire pit (p. 207).
But, does an indigenous people living in the Amazon among numerous spirits truly understand the gospel message and display adequate faith. Evidence of the Yanomamo Christian faith is displayed in their desire to learn the ways of Yai-Pada For almost half of the book various shamans and villages express their desire to know Yai-Pada, learn his ways, and live a better life. Several shamans constantly asked themselves what they could to convince a naba to live with their village in order to learn the ways of Yai-Pada. The shamans admitted that they live miserable lives and that following Yai-Pada was how they could change. And the reader who read the entire book could see that drastic changes among the Yanomamo had occurred. No more wars, less degrading of women, and forgiving others when something was done wrong. These are all signs of wanting to know God and live what he teaches is a strong sign of the Christian faith.
Comparing my western American worldview to that of the Yanomamo people living in the Amazon reveals a tension in both locations between culture and Christian sanctification. In the American culture often children are brought up in the capitalistic and materialistic atmosphere desiring wealth and fame as the sign of an enjoyable life. However, when someone discovers Jesus as his or her personal savior the values of that person’s life change. The Christian has been united with Christ in his death and resurrection which means he can “produce a harvest of good deeds for God” (Romans 7:4, NLT). Instead of seeking wealth and fame the person knows that she should seek to serve the Lord and honor him in all that is done. Thus, serving God can sometimes be counter the American culture. As a result, the new Christian has to constantly struggle and battle the old sinful ways in an effort to be more Christ-like.
The Yanomamo people have experienced a similar tension between the ways they lived before they were introduced to Yai-Pada and now that they are seeking to live the way Yai-Pada wants them to live. Some of the cultural experiences of the Yanomamo have been fine to continue even though they are following Yai-Pada. One example is how the Yanomamo have many names but are not called by those names. This is evidenced by Jungleman telling the story of his people many years after having learned about Yai-Pada, but still stating at the beginning of his story that he is not called any specific name. However, other cultural norms of the Yanomamo which directly clashed with the ways of Yai-Pada had to change. Those changes have been difficult to make since they were part of the Yanomamo identity and habits. These are changes to constant wars between villages, lack of forgiveness, gang rapes of women, and forcing women to share hammocks with men which treated them harshly.
Towards the end of Spirit of the Rainforest, it is clear that the Yanomamo believe in Yai-Pada and they want to follow him. But they still battle to rid themselves of their old ways and struggle to live “peacefully” as they know Yai-Pada wants them to live. The Christian living in America who grew up in a capitalistic economy similarly finds himself seeking to live a godly life now that he is saved instead of his past way of focusing on wealth and material accumulation.