NAPOLEON IN EXILE
from National Geographic Adventure, April 2002
by Scott Wallace
NOTE: In July 2001, Scott Wallace traveled to the homelands of the Yanomami Indians in the Venezuelan rainforests to look into charges of misconduct among anthropologists and other scientists who have studied the Yanomami. Wallace is the only journalist to have gained access to the Yanomami since the 2000 publication of Patrick Tierney’s book “Darkness in El Dorado,” in which the charges were made. An excerpt from Wallace’s story:
The mist was just starting to lift off the treetops that rose above a circle of thatched huts when we made our way into the village. Pungent campfire smoke – the unmistakable smell of life, and death, in the Amazon – drifted with hysterical wails from the porous stick walls of a nearby dwelling. Mongrel dogs yapped. A pair of shrieking parrots zipped low overhead.
Suddenly, a solitary warrior appeared from the opposite end of the clearing. A red loincloth swishing from his waist, his face painted with swirls of black, he strode toward us across the sun-baked earth. He bore a long wooden staff in one hand and, with the other, held aloft a football-sized, hollowed out bamboo vase still used in this corner of the world to transport the ashes of a recently cremated kinsman. Another man, sparsely clad in Nike shorts, macaw feathers affixed to his biceps, followed several steps behind lugging a shotgun.
We followed them into the gloom of the hut. In one corner, weeping women swung in hammocks arranged in a tight triangle astride a smoldering fire. Close beside them, a cluster of men – some in t-shirts, others sporting painted chests and monkey-tail headbands – crouched around the fire. Freshly smoked wild boar and armadillo dangled from a wire above the hearth. The men intoned a repetitive, mono-melodious chant that rose and fell in perfect counterpoint to the women’s baleful lament.
Now the warrior placed the vessel on the dirt floor and set his full weight into grinding the charred bone and ashes with his staff. When he finished, he snapped the lance over his knee and fed it to the flames. With the reverence of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, his companion sprinkled the ashes into a battered tin pot and stirred them into a steaming yellowish soup of boiled plantains. Soon the bucket was making its way around the room, mourners scooping the stew and guzzling it down by the cupful. The host shoved a pot under my nose, filled the communal ladle, and beckoned me to drink.
In other far-flung corners of the planet, I’d mustered the courage to savor such exotic delicacies as the fermented brew of masticated cassava and steaming bowls of moose snout soup. On occasion I have ingested the symbolic flesh and blood of the Savior. But I had never been called upon to partake of real human remains, no matter how well incinerated. And there were other, no less existential considerations – like the hepatitis and other epidemics now decimating Yanomami villages along the Upper Orinoco and its tributaries here in one of the most impenetrable redoubts of the Amazon Basin.
I reluctantly hoisted the chalice to my lips.
We found ways to assuage Yanomami nerves over the question of taking stills and video. Sometimes it was enough to put my video camera in the hands of a Yanomami apprentice, allowing him to shoot as I guided his movements from over his shoulder with the pop-out screen. Having a fellow Yanomami in control of the camera seemed to put the subjects at ease. The Polaroid Les brought along often proved to be the clincher. Among the Kashora-teri, whom we found living in lean-tos under the forest canopy, young women scrambled to bedeck themselves as soon as Les broke out the camera instantanea. They smeared each other’s faces with red berries, then added dots or swirls with masticated charcoal. They slid wooden shoots through their pierced noses and cheeks. Amid squeals of delight, the headman commandeered my DV and trained it on the nape visitors.
One day as we traveled from village to village, our guides warned that a sorceress upriver was plotting to throw a poisonous worm on our heads that would kill us. The guides deemed the threat serious, and our safety was assured only after an advance party went ahead and paid her off.
At a bend in the Mavaca, we came ashore one to visit an offshoot of the Washewe people. They were throwing up a new shabono at the entrance to a crystalline stream they called Kreepiwe. The headman was in the midst of outfitting a new set of cane-shaft arrows with turkey tail feathers. His brother crouched over a nearby fire, painting bamboo arrow points with curare, a dark, syrupy poison that can drop tapirs, monkeys, and, when push comes to shove, human enemies. We had come with gifts, I told the headman through an interpreter, and we would leave behind a cash donation to the community upon our departure. He agreed.
We immediately endeared ourselves to men and women alike by handing out highly coveted green tobacco leaves, which the Yanomami roll up and stuff inside the lower lip. The next morning, I was filming a father eating a breakfast of boiled monkey as he swung in a hammock with his two young boys. He licked his fingers and grunted, indicating his expectation of further payment. I dug through my pack and produced a box of Crayola markers, figuring his kids might want to draw.
Within minutes, nearly every villager was getting painted with the markers. One guy covered another’s back, torso and legs with random two-digit numbers. A small boy’s face was scrawled with blue lines. Yet another had a single word written in brown block letters along the length of both forearms. It said “NAPE” — or “white man.” And they wanted to have their pictures taken.