Missing Words and Wrong Ideas: He Borara Ch 18

Lac pulls his canoe along the dock at Ocamo. He doesn’t want to return to Bisaasi-teri yet. The canoe trip up the Orinoco brought back for him the aftermath of his final acquiescence before the impossibility of sustaining his family in the field and his subsequent lonely journey back to his jungle exile from the nabä world. His original plan today was to stop for fuel at the mission outpost and then, time permitting, continue back to the Mouth of the Mavaca. But, though he saw Nelson’s team off in Esmeralda with time to spare, he can’t bring himself to embark on the second stretch of his voyage upriver.

Padre Morello ambles down to the dock as Lac is topping off the fuel tank under his robot friend’s fiberglass helmet. “Hello again, Padre,” Lac calls out. “I thought I might stay here tonight if it’s not too much trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Dr. Shackley; I was in fact going to invite you to stay. I also have a message to relay from IVIC: your friends from the University of Michigan contacted me over the shortwave to inform us about a second team that will be arriving the day after tomorrow to sample the other half of Bisaasi-teri.”

“Second team?” Lac slumps, releasing air from the lowermost depths of his lungs.

“That’s what the man said.”

I should have known Nelson would never leave the job half done, Lac thinks, shaking his head while shooing the gnats from his face. When had he arranged for this second team to fly in though? He couldn’t have known it would be necessary until he’d been in the village at least a few days. Yet he didn’t bother to confer with me, or even to let me in on the plan. It’s as though he had no thought whatsoever for my own plans and my own timetable.

Well, that’s not so hard to imagine.

“I take it,” the padre says, “this isn’t good news.”

“Let’s just say it demonstrates a degree of presumption on the part of my esteemed colleagues. But I also have to be grateful they’re satisfied with my work, because I may need their help to continue it.”

“Ah yes, your friend Dr. Nelson does walk about with an air of impatient urgency at times. He was very concerned about whether I felt our efforts on each other’s behalves are evenly balanced.”

“The Salesians aren’t the only ones with a strong sense of mission, I guess, though one of the things I like best about you, Padre, is the light touch you apply to recruiting others to yours.”

Morello laughs. “That’s a compliment I believe no one else has ever, or would ever, pay me.”

“Maybe you and I, despite our crossed purposes, have stumbled upon a sort of understanding.”

“One does what he can to stay even-keeled this far from civilization. And, just between you and me, I enjoy having someone to talk to who isn’t a priest or a brother or a nun.”

“Between you and me, I’m about sick to death of scientists.”

When they step inside and through the door to the office, Lac takes his customary seat in the recliner the padre has kept for him despite its condition, having observed how much comfort he takes in its familiar sinking dilapidation. Soon, they’ve exhausted the topic of their frustrations with their work and are back onto their long-accustomed theme of what will become of the Yąnomamö. One thing they agree is certain: change is coming to the villages—drastic, ineluctable change.

Lac, perhaps emboldened by his upcoming departure, risks some offense by taking liberties with his choice of sentiments to express, musing openly on the nuances between the strategies employed by the Salesians and the New Tribes. “The Protestants bribe or otherwise persuade parents to send their children off to learn Spanish through bible studies. They have guys like Chuck Clemens go out and bring back the young converts. Your people, on the other hand, rely on a method of attraction. You supply trade goods too of course, but demand labor in exchange for them, putting the men to work on projects like building these offices or clearing your airstrip. You also provide rich foods and medicines for all the common ailments. Then you basically sit back and let word spread until more and more people from more and more distant villages start showing up. You give them food and shelter and medicine as payment for their work, and you insist they attend mass and lessons in catechism.”

“Encourage may be a better word,” the padre interjects.

“Yes, encourage, okay. But you both begin the process by identifying promising locations near prominent villages and setting up your bases there. That’s the main source of your squabbles, as far as I can tell—that and your bickering over access to the air force to secure flights in and out of the territory.”

“You know, I’ve never considered what we do from quite that perspective. I’ve honestly always thought of my mission as going where the church deems I can do the most good, where the people are most in need, doing what I can to help them, and doing what I can to bring them into the light of Christ’s grace.”

“Grace? Wouldn’t you and your coreligionists argue the Yąnomamö need to be taught discipline and how to follow the holy strictures before you can offer them forgiveness for their trespasses? Don’t you have to introduce them to the Old Testament God before you can spread the good news to them about their salvation?”

“Ah, Dr. Shackley, you’re quite clever in your argumentation, but God has given us all a conscience—even the Yąnomamö. Their wild ways, their sinfulness—it’s simply a measure of how far removed they are from Christ’s loving embrace. We seek to bring them closer. But all this talk of strategies and methods—you make it sound like we Christians are bent on military conquest. Do you really believe we’re advancing such a destructive agenda, that we’re not really here to help?”

“No, Padre, it’s plain most of you genuinely believe you’re helping—that’s what worries me. I’m afraid anyone who thinks himself furthering some divine mission is likely to take more license…” Lac trails off. He’s come to the meat of their differences, both intellectual and moral, and finds himself standing at a precipice: should I ask him about the priest he wanted me to make disappear? “Forgive me, Padre. I think more highly of some missionaries than I do of others. But I have witnessed some things I, um, disapprove of.” Though, to be fair, he thinks, I’ve done some things I regret myself. “I should add, you’re one of the missionaries I think most highly of.” Though not as highly, he silently muses, as I think of Clemens.

“Oh, don’t worry my friend. I take no offense—I think we both know how complicated things can get in the jungle, how confusing. Men can easily lose their way. But you may be interested to know there are many in the circles I run in who believe you are the one with the unspoken agenda. You’re inclined to fault us for advancing, shall we say, a certain worldview, am I right? But aren’t you also here to advance your own system of beliefs?”

“I suppose I am, but I mean something different by term ‘advance’ than I think you and the other missionaries do. I’m not trying to convert the Yąnomamö to my worldview; I’m more interested in learning about their worldview.”

“Ah yes, my friend, I take you at your word on that. However, I must point out you also mean something different by the word ‘learn’ when you use it in this context. You aren’t adopting the Yąnomamö worldview as your own, are you?”

“You’re right about that, but I do nonetheless believe they have much to teach us.”

“Not in the form of directly applicable lessons though, right? I shouldn’t expect to see you chanting to soul-eating demons in the terrible event that one of your children falls ill, should I?”

“Oh no, I still plan on taking my kids to the doctor. But the Yąnomamö’s beliefs should be incorporated into our understanding of what it means to be human. The Yąnomamö have a way of being human that’s different from people in any other culture.”

“Your interest in their ways—and the ways of all the other peoples you study—is driven by your desire to, shall we say, fill in your understanding of what it means to be human, as in make it more complete. And isn’t that, at least in part, because you hope having a more complete picture, a more filled-in understanding, will make your larger worldview more compelling than other worldviews—rival worldviews? For instance, wouldn’t you say Catholics—Venezuelan Catholics more specifically—represent yet another way of being human, and more importantly, that your scientific and anthropological worldview encompasses that way as much as it does the Yąnomamö way, making your worldview larger and more comprehensive than either the Catholics’ or the Yąnomamö’s?”

“I understand what you’re saying, but that’s a strange way to put it.”

“Indeed, my reaction was similar when I heard you breaking down the Salesians’ mission into strategies and methods for reaching and transforming the lives of as many Yąnomamö as we can. Still, I must acknowledge a strand of truth running through your description. Do you likewise recognize any element of truth in the strange terms I’ve used to describe your own mission?”

“Do I want to further our understanding of human nature and history and evolution in order to make science more seductive to young people weighing rival philosophies? You know, Padre, I’ve never thought about it like that, but, yeah, I can’t deny I’m hoping more people the world over adopt a scientific worldview as each generation passes the baton to the next. Am I motivated in my own work by that wish? Do I hope to gussy up the whole scientific enterprise with whizzbang discoveries about how the indigenous folk get on in the wilderness? I certainly hope to make a contribution to my field, and I would love if my work somehow inspires young people to pursue careers in anthropology—assuming there are any indigenous peoples left to study. But I have to say, in all honesty, the answer is no. Making science more complete for the sake of making it more attractive can’t be what drives me, because it isn’t something I ever think about.”

“What would you say does drive you then?”

“Well, frankly—curiosity. I explore because I want to know what there is to find. I seek answers to the big questions because I want to know what those answers are. Where did we come from? What’s our true nature? What are the benefits and drawbacks to one way of being human versus any other way of being human in the full range of cultural variation? I use the tools and methods of science because I believe they represent our best chance at coming up with answers that are valid—answers that are true.”

“Well, with passion like that, Dr. Shackley, I have no doubt you’ll get your wish and inspire generations of anthropologists. But I’d ask you to consider that my true motivation is something other than what your militarized characterization seems to imply.”

“Of course I’ll consider that. What is your motivation, Padre?”

“My motivation is love of Christ, and feeling His love for me. That’s what impels me to travel off the map so I can help others feel that same love. That’s what’s on my mind when I do my daily tasks. That’s what guides my hand when I make important decisions about methods and strategies. And that’s what gets me through when the struggles seem insurmountable.” The padre takes a sip of wine and savors it in silence as Lac turns his head and gazes through the darkened window at nothing. “And our shared tendency toward an outsider’s misperception extends, I fear, to a failure to perceive our own moral compromises in the proper light. I know, looking back on some of my decisions, I wouldn’t condone others making them. I’ve even thought maybe when it comes to our moral failings, we as insiders are the poorest guides to understanding just how far we’ve gone astray. That’s why I personally try to turn to God for such guidance, but I know He often speaks through emissaries—and the most unexpected ones at that.”

“Padre, I’ve often considered whether having an otherworldly mission might encourage people of your persuasion to grant themselves license when it comes to, well, earthly sins. But just now I’m realizing the mission need not be unworldly to provide cover, however flimsy, for wrongdoing. Which is to say, I also look back on my efforts with the Yąnomamö—how I’ve pursued my scientific mission—wishing I’d done things differently.”

“Well, Dr. Shackley,” he says through burbling laughter, “I’m glad to know your secular worldview hasn’t completely overridden your God-given sense of right and wrong, just as my Christian faith hasn’t made me invulnerable to the seductions of secular expediencies.”

Lac, instead of taking his turn to speak, recalls how this man petitioned him to murder someone, which is in nowise equivalent to accidently bringing about the death of one man while trying to save another. Yet there is that death tipping the scales. The padre, though, can’t claim to have no complicity in any killings, what with his arming of the Iyäwei-teri with shotguns. Perhaps, though, were Lac to remain in the field as long as Morello has, he’d find it increasingly difficult to keep his conscience—secular and reason-based or not—as clear as it is now. “I fear,” he says as the padre takes a second drink of wine instead of taking advantage of the prolonged silence to speak again, “as difficult as it is for men like us to avoid compromising ourselves, there must be plenty of other men who will succumb much more readily. And that doesn’t bode well for the Yąnomamö.”

“Have we introduced another form of license then? As bad as we are, the other men are worse, is that it?” The padre chuckles to signal that he endorses the sentiment he’s slathering in irony.

“Maybe,” Lac responds. “But I do find it heartening that a man like you is out here, keeping all the other Western exploiters in check—however dubious the source of your moral guidance.” Lac’s chest fills with knots of tension. He doesn’t know if the words he’s speaking are true. He does know they’re not true in any uncomplicated way.

“Yes, well, I would wager your presence is likewise going to redound to the Yąnomamö’s benefit over the years to come, my friend.”

It’s Lac’s turn to laugh. “I don’t even know if I’ll ever return after my time is up in March.”

“Oh, you’ll come back. You’re too stubborn not to.”


Lac’s dugout collides gently against his makeshift dock on the Mavaca with its customary hollow knock. Scant light overflows the high trees, but the shouts of the children proclaim he’s already been spotted. My family was here and gone, he thinks; Nelson’s team was here and gone—the first wave of it anyway. I’ll host the second wave over the next couple of weeks and then I’ll have a month to round off my research before being gone myself. Home, back in the States, where everyone speaks English and bathes or showers daily, where you can have a cold beer almost whenever you want. But home is also the hut at the top of this rise, where I’ve returned to seek refuge after so many shocks and ordeals.

Tying his canoe to the dock post and swiveling to toss his pack onto the platform, he looks over the tall grass at his hut, experiencing a pleasant sense of contented solitude he knows will soon be dashed. He can just make out the top of the shabono in the gloaming over the tall grass; it makes him intensely curious about his friends’ responses to the blood sampling program. What will Mobaräkäwa have to say about Nelson? What did Warotobowä think of Bob and Glen and Miguel? How has Rowahirawa sized up the other nabäs—are they mostly like Lac himself or are they a whole different animal? He’s only taken a few steps on dry land when he hears laughter and shouting and nasal chanting.

If he were to wander over to the gardens, he may come across a trysting couple—not lovers exactly—enjoying a clandestine romp whose repercussions may endanger the integrity of the entire village, or this half of the he borara arrangement anyway. How far have the Yąnomamö spread by this process of fissioning? Where did it all begin? How can I, he thinks, help to preserve and protect them as the diaspora continues to unfold, with me in the middle of it, observing, taking notes, snapping photos?

Lac hasn’t yet reached his hut when he arrives at the decision: he will come back. As supercilious and presumptuous as Nelson and his band of scrawny geneticists are, they’re his ticket to a research program—a whole career—the likes of which no one has ever undertaken in the history of anthropology. He’ll come back for the next dry season if it can be arranged, and as many subsequent dry seasons as he can manage into the indefinite future. A few months away won’t be nearly as hard on Laura and the kids as this past year and a half—though with all the traveling he plans on doing, all the villages he hopes to make first contact with, it may well be just as hard on him. He won’t make another attempt at reaching Mishimishimaböwei-teri on this trip; there’s still plenty to learn right here from Mobaräkäwa and the other Bisaasi-teri. He can start asking more questions about their spiritual beliefs and practices, the nature of their relationships, their thoughts on the rising tide of nabä encroachment. Mishimishimaböwei-teri can wait for the next expedition. For now, the raharas will have to go hungry. As the padre said, I’m too stubborn not to return. And I’m too stubborn as well not to someday reach this village I keep hearing about where so many notorious waiteri live.


“Aîwä, when I come back next dry season, or perhaps the dry season after next, what would you most like me to bring to trade with you?” Lac sits in a hammock across from the recumbent headman, who responds to the question by turning his head and looking over at him with greedy eyes.

“We’ve had visitors from Iyäwei-teri who say the nabä there gave them shotguns.”

Lac figured news of the padre’s tragic blunder would eventually spread to Bisaasi-teri; the biggest surprise is that it’s taken this long for anyone to mention it to him. “Awei, but that nabä took the shotguns back after the Iyäwei-teri raided the Makorima-teri and killed this many men.” Lac holds up the six fingers. “The nabä made them promise before he gave them the weapons they would only use them for hunting, but they broke their promise and the nabä was angry.”

“That nabä was angry. He won’t give the Iyäwei-teri any more shotguns. But the nabä across the river from this shabono says he’ll be bringing lots of shotguns for us soon. He says if we move over there and help him with his ohodemou he’ll give us the shotguns to keep. And he’ll give us shells every time we help him after that.”

“Believe me, you won’t want to take part in the ohodemou he has planned for you. He wants you and the other Bisaasi-teri to work with him to build up his shabono—his wooden yahis. He wants you to stop taking ebene and communing with the hekura. Mostly, he wants you to learn about the one hekura he believes in, the one all the missionaries pray to, and once you’ve learned all about this hekura, he’ll want you to teach what you know to other Yąnomamö from other villages.”

“We’ve been told of this hekura the nabäs think is so big. Most of us figure the one they’re talking about is just Yoawä, who’s up to his old tricks. We know him too. His tricks don’t work on us.”

“But you’ll have to teach the nabäs’ beliefs about him to many other Yąnomamö if you want to keep getting your shotgun shells from Padre Sanchez across the river. And he’ll insist you stop talking to any of the other hekura, because the Christians believe they’re all evil and false.”

Mobaräkäwa barks out an incredulous laugh as he lays his head back on the hammock strings. “These Christians are too easy to trick. We Yąnomamö possess the truth about the hekura—because we see them every day.”

“The padre thinks it is the Yąnomamö who have been tricked; the Christians have a bundle of leaves like the ones I use to draw names in. But this one is filled with stories about their hekura and no badabö, and they believe this one big hekura helped their ancestors draw all the stories, which means they all have to be true.”

“Ha, that Yoawä, he’s making real fools out of these Christians. Maybe I could trick them too and get shotguns for me and my male kin.”

“I wouldn’t count on it; they’ll be watching you very close.”

“Shaki, you must bring us shotguns then.”

“Ma, I can’t do that. The Salesians like Padre Sanchez, they know many of the patas in Puerta Ayacucho and Caracas-teri, so they can get away with much that would make the one who truly lives there angry. The headman of this huge village has the same beliefs as the Catholic missionaries, and so he lets them do whatever they want. But I have to do whatever they make every other person do. If I tried to smuggle more than one shotgun into Yąnomamöland, I would be locked away. And bad things happen in Caracas-teri to men who are locked away.” Here I am lying again, Lac thinks; I could easily get shotguns into the village. But how could I possibly explain my reasons for not doing so to Mobaräkäwa, a man I might actually trust with such a powerful weapon, but one I couldn’t trust not to give it away to someone else?

The headman listens to his lies with interest, not frustration or suspicion. He’s considering the obstacles Lac has described practically, working at a way to circumvent them. “You could bring in the shells. That’s all we’ll need. We’ll go to the nabä across the river and work for him long enough to get the guns, and then whenever we need more bullets we’ll trade with you for them.”

Lac didn’t know Mobaräkäwa understood how shotguns worked, but here he is devising a clever plan for procuring guns and ammo without having to convert. “It’s a good idea, Aîwä. You have the best ideas. But the policiá search my bags whenever I come in on a plane. They would find the shells and then they would be able to do whatever they wanted to me. These policiá are waiteri, so I have to be careful.”

Mobaräkäwa snaps his head to the side to look directly at Lac as he sits up from the netting. “Shaki,” he says with enough force to startle, “you must stop being so cautious—everyone thinks you’re frightened of the Yąnomamö and now you’re acting scared of the nabäs too.”

A simple message, one Lac has thought he’d long since picked up from his observations of Yąnomamö bullying—but one the headman senses he needs to hear. Lac was expecting anger at his refusal to arm the Bisaasi-teri. But this is genuine concern. Mobaräkäwa has had it explained to him that this nabä Shaki is asking his endless series of stupid questions in an effort to learn how to be human. Now that they’ve spent so much time together and traded so many goods for favors, the headman must be starting to see him as one. Lac’s eyes start to well, both because he feels unmanned by the correction and because he’s touched by this man’s concern.

How am I anything to this man, he wonders, but a source of manufactured tools, and an annoying one at that?


Lac wanders to his hut after finishing the interview. It’s late February already and, the notebook at the ready in his hand notwithstanding, he recognizes the interviews have degraded into conversations, which isn’t to say he’s no longer learning anything from them. On the contrary, he’s finding them so gratifyingly insightful he’s wondering why he didn’t lay the foundation of his work with more of this type of child-like questioning. Hadn’t he though? It’s already nearly impossible to conjure up the details of exchanges he had in those early days back in ‘64, but he must’ve asked plenty of spontaneous questions as he was learning the language, acclimating to the culture, and becoming acquainted with the villagers.

From one angle, he looks back on his time in the field and it seems like nothing, a quick jaunt through the wilderness. But then he twists the totality of his memories like a crystal in a ray of light and it seems like all his life before that first shock of arrival is the truly insignificant part; by the light of this facet, it feels like he’s always been here, dividing his time between this hut and some pata’s yahi, or striking out on some journey to a distant village, hoping all the while he’s brought along enough madohe to make him more valuable alive than dead. In this light, his impending departure strikes him as worrying.

Jesus, what am I going to do back in Ann Arbor? It’s going to be at least thirty degrees cooler every day. There’ll be crowds of domesticated bovine bureaucrats, buttoned-up, blasé, downright boring to behold. But that’s you too. Mobaräkäwa knows it. He just called you out for it. For all your supposed insight into Yąnomamö power dynamics, you’ve never once shed your nabä tameness, your polite Western proclivity toward throwing trade goods at people to keep them from bullying you. If you really are going to come back, you need to grow a spine—or at least straighten the one you’ve bent to shoulder all those civilized beatitudes. Blessed are the meek indeed—but not out here.

He sets his notebook on the table, looks around at the moldy dust-covered shelves and mildew-covered mud walls, and says aloud, “I can’t believe it but I’m going to miss this place.” Another thought catches in his mind, arresting the descent of his diaphragm. I’m afraid to go home, afraid I’ll no longer be able to pass for a civilized man, afraid that in trying to fit back in I’ll be undoing all the progress I’ve made adapting to life among the Yąnomamö, afraid coming back to Bisaasi-teri I’ll fail to fit in again here too, afraid I don’t belong anywhere anymore, with anyone, afraid of how much I’m afraid of, after one of the most impressive men I’ve ever met just excoriated me for acting afraid.

He sits in his chair and listens to its creaking as he would the pleasantly familiar old-age gripes of a favorite uncle. Since Laura and Dominic and Kara flew out of Esmeralda with those damn otters back in November, Lac has felt a settledness to their separation, allowing him to cease his formerly incessant worrying over its lasting effects on them—on their relationship to him. His family will welcome him back, even if it takes them time to warm to his presence, even if it takes him time to warm to theirs. It’s not that he’s lost the sense of having wronged them, but rather that he’s somehow put a stamp of finality on the deed. Whatever harm I’ve done them, he thinks, I’ve already done. Reconciliation begins next month, one of the main considerations making him as nervous about returning to civilization—to his own proper place in a technologically advanced society—as he was about stepping away from it all.

It’s a funny thing about careers as we conceive of them in the West, he muses: you have no idea what any one of them is about until you’ve chosen it and committed to it fully, forsaking all others. I suppose I could go back and work at Connor’s factory. But having seen what I’ve seen, learned what I’ve learned, I could never shrink the scope of my thinking enough to squeeze it into that life. Dad was right; I’ve ruined myself for that type of work, lost my capacity to grind it out in that type of life. Of course he was right. The man knew whereof he spoke. And this life I’ve chosen instead: insect-infested swamps, big ideas, airplanes, dugout canoes, snake-infested trails you can barely find, and let’s not forget the scary Indians? I can’t possibly predict how it will end up.

But that’s part of the appeal, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll get my head smashed in by a huya in some village no white man has ever seen—but I would hate to put Laura and the kids through that. Maybe I’ll be an old professor emeritus at some august university. Maybe I won’t even pass my exams to get my PhD and have to scramble to find other work, or else right the ship with more courses, more hoops to jump through. Maybe Laura will eventually get fed up with waiting for me to return and I’ll come home one year to an empty house with a letter waiting on the table about how the kids need a father who’s actually around once in a while. Maybe I’ll just lose more of my mind with each expedition until I can no longer function either in Yąnomamöland or in the States, so I’ll have to hunker down in a hovel on the outskirts of wherever and live out my days as a deranged hermit.

How would you like your career to go, he poses to himself, from this point on? How would you like it to end? What a thing to think about. I’d like to keep coming out here and working on my migration tracking and political histories, visiting as many villages as I can, maybe helping Nelson make important discoveries about genetics along the way. I’d like to contribute to our knowledge of human history and human evolution by building up a rigorously recorded dataset, maybe proffering a theory or two myself. I’d like to do all this with Laura by my side through it all, helping to raise Dominic and Kara to be strong, curious, hardworking adults, much less fearful and wracked with self-doubt than their dad. I’d like to retire to a remote house on a few acres in Northern Michigan, go out hunting pheasants or whatever with my dogs, live out my remaining days, as always, with Laura by my side.


What does it matter at this point anyway if those idiots undid our work on the boat? I’ll be leaving in less than a month, Lac thinks, and it’s not like I’m going to have a place to store a dugout canoe for the next year until I come back—unless I build a storage shed for it at Ocamo. Lac plops down on the dock, exasperated, running through his standard litany of allowances for the huyas, who after all lack the conception of ownership Westerners are brought up with, who are taught from an early age not to respect outsiders, especially white nabäs who never fight. Still, it makes him angry.

He and Rowahirawa carved long planks from palmwood trees to fashion flooring for his canoe because he was tired of finding his equipment soaked at the end of every journey. It took them the better part of an afternoon. Today, Lac awoke to sounds of cheering as the Bisaasi-teri caught sight of a boat full of supplies chugging up the Orinoco and docking on the far bank. Padre Sanchez probably counted on this delivery causing a stir, taking the opportunity to entice the villagers while properly inventorying his provisions as they’re carted from the dock to the mission offices. Sure enough, the huyas lost all compunction in their desperation to secure transportation across the river. Lac saw three Ye’kwana canoes being pushed and crudely rowed along the expanse of darkly riffled water by young men holding wooden planks, the same wooden planks, he quickly realized, he and Rowahirawa had carved and fixed to the bottom of his own canoe.

At least they didn’t steal the whole boat, he thinks now, though assuming they’d bring it back eventually that may have been preferable. A young boy prances up behind him, stops abruptly when he sees the carnage, and blurts, “Shaki, you should shoot those huyas for what they’ve done to your boat.”

Lac cranes to see the boy, one of Mobaräkäwa’s brother’s grandchildren. “Awei, I should,” he says, struggling with a forced smile. Now his reaction will be witnessed and reported back to the village. Smiling forbearance will not cut it this time. Lac pushes himself up to his feet and trudges up the bank to his hut to retrieve the outboard.  By the time he’s waddling with the awkwardly heavy robot back down to the dugout, there are six kids instead of one. Good, he thinks. I’ll give them a real show. After fixing the motor to the aft wall, he pulls it into life and rushes to untie the ropes securing the craft to the dock. The kids laugh and cheer as he motors out through the Mouth of the Mavaca and begins his gliding transit of the Orinoco. Do they have any idea what I’m planning, he wonders? Do I?

The supplies are being unloaded onto the dock built by the Salesians and hauled back along a passage of cleared brush to the alarmingly fast-developing outpost. The huyas have tied their canoes haphazardly to trees some distance downriver and run to oversee the provisioning operation, hoping for a chance to get their hands on some of the rich foods or high-end tools in exchange for a bit of easy labor. Lac’s anger has begun to subside, but he’s able to latch onto the huyas’ eager susceptibility to seduction and betrayal as a further incitement. The little shits, he thinks. Where’s their dignity?

He has to forestall his accustomed cogitations to cling to his ire. You have all this anger surging up in you—use it for what it evolved for. He steers his canoe toward the shore where the huyas’ own boats are docked. He leaps over the side into the shallow water and reaches down to drag the carved-wood hull onto the bank. He calls out to the thieving, traitorous vandals, “You idiots have stolen from me and wrecked my canoe! Why do you have such little respect for other people’s property? These nabäs are turning you away from the Yąnomamö—and good riddance! Go off and work for them so you can get rich with their madohe! At least, if you do I’ll no longer have to worry about you destroying my possessions or stealing them, you bunch of thieves. I worked all day on those poles yesterday, suffering enough bareto bites to kill anyone as skinny and weak as you lot.”

Lac makes a show of untying the three canoes and using his own carved planks to shove them away from the bank to be taken up by the current. The kids on the far bank won’t be able to hear him or see what he’s doing, but he’s confident word will spread. He’ll just need to keep an eye out for these huyas when they return, but they should know better than to threaten or attack him. By Yąnomamö logic, he can rest even more assured now that he’s flown off the handle. Look, they must be thinking, Shaki’s learning to be human. He’s discovered a seam of rage running through the bedrock of his marmoreal good humor.

He laughs at the preposterous of his own metaphor, laughs to relieve tension, laughs to release the adrenaline surge of exhilaration. I really am breaking new ground, he thinks—just before I leave for a place where it won’t be nearly as effective, and not at all appropriate. I’ll just have to hope that learning to tap into my rage won’t mean I can’t rein it back in. And I’ll just have to hope I can still access it at will when I come back to this place.


“They’ll never touch your boat again!” Rowahirawa says in a nasally roar, slapping Lac hard on the shoulder. He loves it. Insofar as it’s possible to experience a culture as a work of art, Lac has come to believe that, all the Yąnomamö crudities and cruelty aside, their humor is truly sublime—at once crass and sophisticated, base and elevated, filthy and aesthetically balanced, wicked and humane. Mostly though his friend’s laugh suffuses him with lightness and vibrant warmth.

 “Owa, what will you do when I’m gone?” Lac asks as the laughter fades. Still smiling, Rowahirawa steps backward and folds himself into a sitting position within the netting of his hammock in his father-in-law’s yahi. “Will you stay here, with your wife’s father, and finally plant your own garden outside? Or will you go back to Karohi-teri?”

“I don’t think I’ll stay here much longer, though the one who truly lives here has much to teach about the hekura.”

Of course, Lac thinks, he’s seen Rowahirawa taking ebene and chanting with Mobaräkäwa more than once. He wonders how common it is for a village’s headman to strike up a friendship with a sioha. It’s probably another mark of my interference, he thinks, like the fact that he’s even still alive. Such a mess.

These thoughts no longer fill him with the same jolting doubt and scalding anxiety as they did just months ago; he’s applying the forbearance he’s withdrawn from the huyas to himself.

“I like what you’re doing with your etnoggassy,” Rowahirawa says, surprising Lac. “You travel from one village to the next, learn about the lineages and who’s in charge, make friends with the patas, and ask about their hekura.”

“I haven’t asked much about the hekura. That’s something I’ve only recently started, now that I understand the language better.”

“But that’s how you become a powerful shabori. I want to learn about all the hekura from all the most respected shaboris. That’s how I’ll become not only the greatest waiteri but the greatest healer as well.”

“Awei, I too wish I knew more about healing.”

“I can’t travel like you do, though, because you bring madohe and that’s why they welcome you so eagerly.”

“Well, it’s not my immaculate forehead.”

They both laugh.
            “So I may stay in Bisaasi-teri for a while and see what I can learn of the headman’s hekura, and then go back to Karohi-teri and see how my kin are faring. But, Shaki, when you return, you must send word. We’ll travel together to every village you’ve ever heard of. You can grow your stacks of leaves till they reach the bottom of the sky layer, and I’ll become the most powerful waiteri the Yąnomamö have ever known.”

“Or we’ll get shot full of arrows.”

“Don’t worry, Shaki. Stick by me and no one would dare shoot you.”

Lac is overwhelmed by competing emotions: pity for this man who is not part of a formidable lineage or an intimidating village—so has little deterrence value—and of gratitude that someone forced to be so waiteri would make a place in his life, in his heart, for a nabä nobody like him.


Mobaräkäwa likewise approves of Lac’s stunt with the huyas’ boats. “They’ll remember,” he says, “and soon everyone will know the story.”

Lac takes the opportunity to request of the headman that he keep an eye on his hut while he’s back in Michigan-urhi-teri, even though he knows not to expect much by way of guarantees. Even if Mobaräkäwa was determined to keep everyone away from the place, he couldn’t guard it every minute. Plus, he likes to go on hunting trips and visits to neighboring villages as much as any other man in Bisaasi-teri.

“What dangers do you need to be on the lookout for yourself?” Lac asks for reasons unknown to himself. “Will Pärurätowa keep trying to challenge your authority? Will Mahekodo-teri raid Bisaasi-teri? Will Patanowä-teri?”

“I’ve taken measures to keep Patanowä-teri from getting too angry,” he responds cryptically, prompting Lac to begin reviewing his memories of the incidents leading up to the raid last spring. Was there something other than an abdominal infection behind Mobaräkäwa’s bowing out and returning home early with his brother? Maybe that’s how he managed to drag his brother the rest of the way home after he was bitten by a snake.

Lac is about to pose this question when Mobaräkäwa continues, “Pärurätowa won’t challenge me because he’s a coward and he knows I’ll kill him.” Despite his use of the would-be usurper’s name, the headman betrays neither ire nor worry. Lac is astonished—until he considers Pärurätowa’s character for himself and decides Mobaräkäwa has made an accurate assessment. “As for Mahekodo-teri,” he goes on, “I don’t know what they’re planning, but I’ve heard the people there are more interested in working for the Christians than they are in raiding other villages.”

Lac has no way of knowing if this is true. Obviously, Mobaräkäwa has thought about all these dangers and determined none of them is cause for excitement—he’d never use any word translatable as worry or concern. Though perhaps his nonchalance is disproportionate to the threat as he himself has calculated it. Lac will never know. What he does know is that, while he will no longer say anything of the sort, the thought of this man getting deposed or killed is all but unbearable. He tries not to let it show.

Now he’s thinking of the rest of the village, the children who love to follow him around, the huyas who annoy the hell out of him, the men who’ve spent most of the past year and a half harassing him and begging for more madohe. He should love these people, shouldn’t he? But then there are all the half-starved yellow dogs scurrying and skulking around with tucked tails, and the women with mangled appendages or missing ears—why do men in so many cultures light on that as the appropriate punishment for infidelity, or suspected infidelity? After all this time, Lac still doesn’t know what to make of this culture, doesn’t know what to think of these people—or how to feel about any of it. He likes the headman, for the most part, admires him even. He’s come to depend on Rowahirawa and wishes him the best; he’s the closest thing Lac has to a friend among the Yąnomamö. But is he my friend, Lac wonders, really?

The Yąnomamö don’t have the same concept of friendship as we do in the West. They separate their world into kin and nonkin, closer kin and more distant kin, our village versus their village, villages with more or closer kin versus villages with no one you’re related to. Most of the kids you see playing together are close cousins—even the woman any individual boy grows up to marry is a cousin. But in Bisaasi-teri, Rowahirawa is on his own, far from his family. Might it just be possible he could form a bond with another outsider of a type the Yąnomamö would have no cause to coin a word for? He’s stopped withholding favors and services until his demands for madohe are met. Hell, even Mobaräkäwa no longer maintains any strict accounting of the quid pro quo. They get nearly any tool they need from me simply by asking, so there’s plenty in the partnerships for them.

But is that any different from how it is between friends in the West? You hang out together and do favors for each other. The Yąnomamö must at least have the capacity for such bonds, as I imagine they must have the emotional machinery for romantic love or infatuation or whatever, even though they never speak of it. After all, biologically we’re mostly the same—though they are shorter, with invariably thick black hair and Asiatic features. Maybe there are emotional and behavioral nuances encoded in the genes as well. Maybe together with Nelson and some other geneticists we’ll work all that out. We’ll just have to be careful in the process not to usher in a new age of racial hierarchies, returning to the horrors wrought by bogus categorizations shot through with bigotry, the heinous legacy of conquest and colonization Boas did so much to purge from anthropology.

To be fair, the Yąnomamö are plenty racist themselves—chauvinistic as hell too. If I’m so eager to claim a few of them as friends, I have to square all that with my own moral convictions somehow, don’t I?

Lac leans back in his hammock and listens as Mobaräkäwa tells him stories about men like Pärurätowa, the history of Mahekodo-teri, and his past dealings with missionaries. There’s so much he can’t even begin to grasp, Lac thinks, so much I feel desperate to warn him about, but the words just don’t exist. How do you explain a city—with its population in the millions, cars by the tens of thousands, skyscrapers, trains, and factories—to someone who’s spent most of his life in a crude lean-to arranged with other crude lean-tos into an oval, or else walking along barely perceptible trails through the jungle? How can you explain to him the inevitability of his culture’s absorption into the all-devouring machine of technological advancement? How do you break it to him that his way of life is doomed? Would it even come as the blow to him it would come as to people like me?

Lac hopes the process can be slowed, so that at least this man—his own friend even if he doesn’t think of Lac as one—can live out his days much the way his ancestors did.

Rowahirawa said his farewells yesterday and set out for Karohi-teri with his young wife, making his father-in-law livid. He won’t do anything about it, of course, because Rowahirawa has already amply demonstrated he’s more waiteri. “Come back soon, Shaki,” he said before turning around unceremoniously and setting off. Lac felt the tug at his heartstrings, but if Rowahirawa felt any similar pulling at his, he gave no outward sign.

Now Mobaräkäwa likewise treats Lac’s impending departure as a mere curiosity. Oh, our resident nabä is leaving, the one who doesn’t try to get us to relocate and do strange ohodemou for madohe but instead asks endless questions of us and learns the names of our ancestors from our most hated enemies? Well, we’ll certainly miss all the steel tools, but I can’t say I’m too upset to see him go.

Maybe it’s true they lack any feeling for me, Lac thinks, but more likely they’re in the same position I am: not knowing what to think, not knowing what to feel.

“Ah, I almost forgot,” Mobaräkäwa says, interrupting the story he was telling, one Lac has heard on more than one occasion already, one he even has recorded and filed away somewhere in his bags. “You asked me for a well-crafted bow you can take back to show to the other nabäs. I considered giving you a bow that has been used to kill important men, but I know you won’t use it for hunting or raiding yourself. So I’ve made you a new one.” He swivels his feet out of the netting and places them on the ground.

When the Yąnomamö trade bows or other weapons, they always share the stories of how they’ve been put to use. They seem to believe success sticks to their tools. So it makes perfect sense that Mobaräkäwa wouldn’t vouchsafe him any storied weapon. When he returns with the palmwood bow he’s carved especially for the occasion, Lac can see it’s of high quality. Mobaräkäwa has spent a good deal of time finding and fashioning the materials into this highly workable weapon.

“Aîwä,” Lac says, “this bow is brilliantly crafted. I think I’ll take it into the woods for some hunting before I deliver it to the museum.” Lac has explained to him about museums—does he remember? Did he understand in the first place?

Lac is now reevaluating his impression that Mobaräkäwa cares nothing about his departure. With the adjustment comes a shock of mortification: “You’ve given me an invaluable gift? What can I possibly bring back when I return to repay you?”
            “I would like you to try to get me a shotgun and lots of shells, but I understand you may not be able to. We always need machetes, axes, pots, and medicine.”

“Whatever I bring you, it won’t match your own generosity. You are the most generous of men.”

“Awei, I am more generous than anyone.”

Lac wants to embrace him, but instead they smile and slap each other on the shoulder repeatedly.


You feel hollowed out any time you leave a place, Lac thinks, wondering if he wants to write one last letter to Ken and have it sent out from Ocamo. I haven’t sent anything lately, because it’s hard to figure out what to say anymore. So much of what I’m going through and thinking about is personal, not the sort of things one man confides to another.

His equipment is all packed, notebooks, tapes in plastic cases, the shortwave Laura bought for him. So strange to just walk away from the hut, away from the shabono, knowing he’ll motor downstream, away from the Mouth of the Mavaca. The thing that most frightens him is that where his excitement to be reunited with Laura and the kids ought to be, there’s nothing but apprehension. He knows Laura will humor him, conceding that the importance of his work necessitated his absence, outweighing any inconvenience she was made to suffer for the past year and a half. But how will his decision to come back to the field—as often as he can manage—play out with her? How much anger over this trip has she tamped down, leaving it primed to explode with the next uptick of tension?

Really, though, he’s most worried about all the strange habits he’s picked up: Am I pricklier, quicker to lose my temper? I’ve had to learn the art of volatility to keep up with the Yąnomamö, but will I be able to dial down the heat when I’m safe at home with my family, with my colleagues, with students? And then there are the deeper transformations I’ve undergone, the bottom falling out from under my sense of who I am and the casting into doubt of everything I once believed.

He steps out of his hut, pulls shut the door, and secures the weighty padlock on the outer latch. They’ll have that broken before the sound of my motor has faded, he thinks, faintly smiling. The kids are standing by to see him off with their gleefully inquisitive faces. He hands one of the older boys a canister of fishhooks and says something roughly translatable as “Have fun.”

“Come back soon,” another boy shouts as Lac steps onto the planks of his crude dock. “Bring us back lots of honey and axes and motors for our fathers’ canoes.”

Lac wants to say something funny in response but is at a loss. He waves instead and then steps into the boat. The motor starts on the third pull and the lining of his throat grows thick until he can neither swallow nor draw in an adequate breath of the dank, gnat-strewn, riparian air. From the middle of the Orinoco, he looks back at the enormous trees hiding Bisaasi-teri. He’d forgotten the uplift he once routinely experienced from taking in the gargantuan scale of the trees, with the looming basalt mountains sporadically roaming into view in the distance, black and fading to blue, the gaping vistas of the wide and storied river. These big places of the world put us so gratifyingly in our place. The worst feeling you can have is of a small and contracting existence, and since his days as a boy walking Josephine along the beaches of Lake Michigan, he’s found both solace and inspiration in nature’s most extravagantly proportioned scenes.

But now it’s different. Now he’s different.


Dear Ken,

I’m dashing off a quick letter from Ocamo before I finish the trip to Esmeralda for my flight back to Caracas and my voyage home. I’ve got so much to tell you, but that can wait a few weeks. Wouldn’t you know it, though, as soon as I start making my way out of the territory, I hear some big news. Apparently, some men from Patanowä-teri showed up among the Iyäwei-teri talking about some major developments occurring in their home village.

A young man tried to steal a woman from an older man. She was inclined to go with the younger guy because her current husband was overly rough with her. Unfortunately, the young suitor ended up with a spear through his belly, and the woman had both her ears cut off as punishment for her defiance.

I’ll never get used to this stuff. I’ve heard of the long clubs being used as spears like this, but have never witnessed it. But here’s the amazing thing—Patanowä-teri has broken into two separate villages. I won’t know the details until I get to come back to the field. (It may be too tense to travel there now anyway.) My guess is that with as many raids as Patanowä-teri suffers (something like 25 just since I’ve arrived in the territory), the two factions will stay close, living “he borara” as they call it, separate but near enough to protect each other from attacks by rival villages. These fissionings are how the Yąnomamö spread throughout the region.

That’s all for now, see you soon,



A pretty student, her skin so radiantly smooth and immaculate it gives off an amniotic sheen—can she even be the same species?—slowly fans her eyebrows as she lowers her hand and says, “It sounds like the way the people you’re studying live is pretty scary, with all the fighting and the kidnapping of women from their villages.” She makes a face, perfectly, startlingly scrutable, before going on to ask, “Was there anything about their way of life you thought was—I don’t know—superior, or at least preferable?” She doesn’t bother signaling to what exactly it might be superior. We are always our own reference point, our own automatic baseline for comparison.

Lac nods his well-groomed and pricklingly dry head to indicate he understands the sentiment behind her response, but he needs a moment to formulate his answer because his thoughts are being tossed into disarray by the questioner’s beauty; the stirring is predominantly aesthetic as opposed to sexual—after a month back in Ann Arbor he and Laura are at each other like honeymooners again. All these girls have made themselves into exquisite works of art, he thinks; only we fail to see it because we’ve been habituated, seeing them every day by the dozens—or by the classroom-full.

Lac is taking a break from writing up his thesis to do a favor for a newly hired professor who asked him to come and share his experiences, while summarizing his findings, to her intro anthropology class. None of the students looking at him with their simultaneously bored and enthusiastic expressions looks old enough to be in college—or old enough to drive for that matter. But he hears rumblings about a war in Southeast Asia, and these boys are deemed mature enough to be drafted into military service. Yąnomamö huyas would certainly have had a few club fights by their age, possibly participated in a raid or two.

“I know where you’re coming from with that question,” he manages to get out after an overlong pause. “Even with all the courses I’d taken, all the books and ethnographies I’d read, all the training I’d undergone, I still showed up in the territory with more of those old romantic notions than I’d like to admit, the noble savage and all that, the perpetual boyhood that’s the envy of the civilized world, the people living in a true state of nature who surprise the world with their beneficence, as people like us sit so much of our lives away in neat rows of desks and lines of seats in lecture halls, at our office desks or stations along assembly lines. It’s easy to feel nostalgic for times of less structure, less order, less constraint, more spontaneity. For me, it was my childhood days walking around Northern Michigan with my German shepherd, my head filled with big dreams.

“But of course that’s not right, is it? There’s a reason we have all this structure and all these constraints. I can honestly say I never came close to fully appreciating our orderliness until I’d spent some time with the Yąnomamö. It’s hard to be nostalgic for that kind of past now—so many sick and dying kids for one thing. But, to answer your actual question, there were times when I was out with some of the men, hunting or traveling to some allied village, and it did feel a little like I remember my boyhood days felt. You’re so far from your workaday troubles, no thought of money or timeclocks, just a bunch of guys joking and having fun, excited about what they’re about to get into. So I guess the takeaway is that, yeah, we’ve lost something, but what we got in return may have been well worth the price. It won’t, however, be worth the price we’ll be made to pay if we fail to protect people like the Yąnomamö from all the dangers and depredations of indigenous peoples living on the fringes of our civilizations.”


Rhonda dashes down the hall after him as the space fills with dry, cloth-wrapped students, their powdery scents mingling with the building’s pungent assault of polish and disinfectant. She’s already thanked him profusely before the class, but now she wants a semi-private aside.

“That was some presentation, Lachlan.” She pauses for a steadying breath as Lac tries to read beyond the obvious reticence in her expression. She’s in her early thirties, working at getting tenure. Her wispy light brown hair is unkempt, her style forcefully conveying a sense of ease, as though she’s straining after an appearance of naturalness. When he met her, just before setting out on his voyage to Venezuela, she was slenderer, almost to the point of looking sickly, having recently returned from her own first experience of fieldwork in Hawaii.

God, Lac thinks, why couldn’t I have gone there instead?

“Why thank you,” he says.

“I want to stress I’m not mad about what you said or anything.”


“It’s just that, well, maybe you shouldn’t talk to the students about the violence. They’re impressionable, you know? We wouldn’t want to give them the wrong idea.”

Lac feels the frowning pinch between his eyebrows. “No, we wouldn’t that.”

“But, really, it was a wonderful presentation. I can’t wait to read your thesis. It must’ve been some introduction to fieldwork you had.”

“You’re too kind. Yes, it was that indeed.”

And just like that she’s turned around and has started weaving her way back toward her office through the crowd of students. Lac stands watching her, bemused. He mutters, “The wrong idea,” and then turns around himself and continues onward. Oh yes, he thinks, there’s going to be no end to the problems we have with these damn wrong ideas floating around.