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Return to the rainforest: A son's search for his Amazonian mother

This is a huge story about one of the most rarest families in the world, there is more at the link, as well as more pictures, too much to copy over!

David and his mom Yarima

BBC News - Return to the rainforest: A son's search for his Amazonian mother

Yarima, David and Vanessa at home in the US

BBC News - Return to the rainforest: A son's search for his Amazonian mother


David Good's parents come from different countries - hardly unusual in the US where he was raised. But the 25-year-old's family is far from ordinary - while his father is American, his mother is a tribeswoman living in a remote part of the Amazon. Two decades after she left, David realised he had to find her."They started screaming 'Motor! Motor!' because it's a big event - they don't hear motors too often," says David. He expected to see them with bows and arrows, but they had come unarmed. Word had gone ahead and the little boat was expected.

"I saw children and men and women on the riverbank just waiting for us to arrive. The women were all topless, the men had shirts and shorts on."

They had come from the village of Hasupuweteri. As David disembarked they began speaking rapidly in the Yanomami language and prodding him.

"I was just completely mobbed - all the women and the children gathered around me. I had so many hands all over me, pulling my ear, touching my nose, touching my hair," he recalls. At 5'5" (1.6m) David was used to being the smallest in a group, but he found himself nervously standing above the Yanomami, who are one of the world's shortest ethnic groups.

The Yanomami live in 200-250 villages in an area of 60,000 square miles (96,500 square kilometres) of jungle, sprawling across the Venezuela-Brazil border. It was as a graduate student of Chagnon's that David Good's father, Kenneth Good, first travelled to the Amazon in 1975. He travelled up the Orinoco past the Guajaribo Rapids, just as his son did 36 years later. He made his home in a little hut a short distance from the Hasupuweteri."He thought that the Yanomami weren't as fierce as they were represented to be," says David Good. "And I think there's some substance to that, because my father ended up living there 12 years, and I couldn't imagine living 12 years with a savage, warlike, fierce people.

"So he became enamoured with the people. And he fell in love - he fell in love with my mum."

One day in 1978, the headman of the Hasupuweteri presented Good with a proposition.

"'Shori,' he said, 'you come here all the time to visit us and live with us… I've been thinking that you should have a wife. It isn't good for you to live alone,'" wrote Good in his 1991 memoir, Into the Heart: An Amazonian Love Story.

At first Good refused, but over time he came around to the idea. "I found myself thinking that maybe being married down here wouldn't be so horrendous after all: certainly it would be in accordance with their customs. In a way the idea even became attractive. After all, what better affirmation could there be of my integration with the Hasupuweteri?"

When he relented, the headman said, "Take Yarima. You like her. She's your wife."

Yarima, the headman's younger sister, was a vivacious young girl whom Good did indeed like. But he was 36 and Yarima wasn't older than 12.

There was no wedding ceremony and the match was not consummated - it was part of the Yanomami system of child betrothal, designed to shore up ties between families and prevent conflict. Yarima remained at her mother's hearth in the shapono. She occasionally brought Good his food, and he spent more time with her than with the other children.

But with every trip he made upriver, Good and Yarima became closer, and the theoretical tie between them felt more real. The villagers began to treat them as a married couple, and he thought of her more and more when he was away from the Amazon.

The reason David was mobbed when he got off the boat on the Orinoco river was that he was famous. His father was remembered by the older Hasupuweteri, while the younger ones had grown up with stories of how Yarima and Kenneth's children had been raised in the world of the nabuh.

His mother, they told him, was at the village of Irokaiteri, 10 minutes further up the river. But he would not be permitted to complete the journey by boat - he was altogether too interesting.

Instead, he was taken to the village shapono. A young man called Mukashe was introduced to David as his half-brother. He ran off into the jungle to fetch their mother.

David's father married into an Amazonian tribe, but it was impossible for him to live in the Amazon indefinitely.

He could not hunt and live like a true Yanomami tribesman. He needed extra food and medicine and special permits to remain in the region. This meant he had to continue academic work. But getting grants for fieldwork was difficult. Moreover, whenever he temporarily left, to make contact with academics or raise funds, Yarima was left in danger in the male-dominated Yanomami society.

On one of his trips downriver, when he had been held up for several months, she had been gang-raped, abducted and badly assaulted - her ear was ripped.

This precipitated Yarima's first contact with the modern world. Good took her to the town of Puerto Ayacucho, to get her ear attended to.

The short flight there was terrifying for Yarima - but the town itself was overwhelming. Upriver Yanomami pictured nabuhs living in villages much like their own, but with more nabuhs wearing their nabuh clothes. They had no idea that the forest ever came to an end, to be replaced by open spaces of cool hard ground and huge square houses.

"Every little aspect of this world was new and unique and strange to her," says David Good. "When you turn on a car, it kind of looks like an animal with the headlights - I heard stories she would hide behind a bush."

Another surprise awaited Yarima when she and Kenneth Good checked into a hotel - the mirror. She had never seen her full reflection before. "She freaked out," says David. "She hid behind a bed and my dad had to cover the mirror with blankets, just so she wouldn't be scared anymore."

Good familyThe end of Kenneth and Yarima's Amazonian life together came in 1986, four years after they had consummated their marriage and eight years after their betrothal.

Kenneth had failed to secure the grants he needed to stay in the region and sank deeper and deeper into debt. On 17 October 1986, they took a Pan Am flight to New York.

Within a week they were married legally at Delaware County Courthouse. Nine days later, David was born on a hospital bed in Philadelphia.

His sister Vanessa was born just over a year afterwards on a banana leaf in the Amazon, while the family were on a trip back to Hasupuweteri. A baby brother, Daniel, came along three years later.

David has happy memories of his mother.

"I remember being with her - we used to have this little routine, where we'd stop by Dunkin' Donuts and get coffee and donuts," he says. He recalls her love of rollercoasters and how they would wrestle together. "I don't remember a sad or distressed mum, not at all," he says.

But life in New Jersey was not working out for Yarima. It wasn't the weather, food or modern technology but the absence of close human relations. The Yanomami day begins and ends in the shapono, open to relatives, friends, neighbours and enemies. But Yarima's day in the US began and ended in a closed box, cut off from society.

Other than Kenneth, no-one could communicate with Yarima in her own language and she had no means of speaking with her family back home.

In Hasupuweteri, the men disappeared for a few hours in the day to go hunting, but husbands did not disappear all day, every day. Yarima would spend the day at home or roaming the shopping malls. Good also gave her video and sound recordings from Hasupuweteri that she would listen to over and over.

A 1992 film with National Geographic charted the family's first visit back to the jungle for almost four years.

A five year-old David is seen squabbling with Vanessa over a heavy bunch of plantains, while baby Daniel is carried on Yarima's back in a sling attached to a headband, in the traditional Yanomami style.

The film contains some joyful moments of Yarima showing off her children to her sister and going crab hunting again in the creeks, but it also captures her despondency.

"They say I have become a nabuh," Yarima's translated voiceover tells us.

"I live in a place where I do not gather wood and no-one hunts. The women do not call me to go kill fish. Sometimes I get tired of being in the house, so I get angry with my husband. I go to the stores and look at clothing.

"It isn't like in the jungle. People are separate and alone. It must be that they do not like their mothers."

A few months after the making of the film, on another return trip to Hasupuweteri, Yarima decided to stay.

When he (David) was about 21 he watched, for the first time, the National Geographic film that he had participated in when he was five. When he saw his mother's face and heard her speak, he broke down in floods of tears.

He was with a friend at the time. "She put it so simply. She said, 'You know, there's nothing really wrong with you. You lost your mum.'"

Shortly afterwards, David read his father's memoir and began to read up on Yanomami culture.

"I started having an understanding as to why she left and what she'd dealt with up here," he says. "I realised that… I don't think she could've made it up here, you know? As far as her being a Yanomami mother is concerned, teaching me Yanomami ways - it's virtually impossible."

After David had been waiting for about three hours, Yarima burst into the Hasupuweteri shapono. She had run all the way there.

She was in her mid-40s, short, vigorous and strong. She had a basket around her head filled with roots she had gathered, which she threw to the ground while she tried to catch her breath. The village became hushed.

It had been two decades, but David recognised his mother.

"I knew it was her right away," he says. "I stood up and approached her. And then it just hit me - what do I do? Everything in me just wanted to hold her, to hug her, but that's not the Yanomami way of greeting people.

"So it was just this awkward encounter. I put my hand on her shoulder and she started trembling and crying. And I looked into her eyes and I just couldn't help but start crying myself."

"There was a silence," says Hortensia Caballero, who had come upriver with David. "What I remember was a silence. It was a very beautiful, intense moment. Of course all the women in the village, including me, found we had tears on our cheeks."

David started to speak softly in English. He said "I'm here, I'm finally here," and "I made it, I'm back" and "It's been so long"David and Yarima reunitedIn fact, the Irokaiteri had a plan to cement David's place in the village. Soon after his meeting with his uncle, David's mother came up to him with two beautiful young girls.

"She said, 'This is your wife and this is your wife. You're going to have children with them.'"

David listened politely, thinking that perhaps "wife" was being used as a loose kinship term. The Yanomami classify relatives in a different way from Americans. For example, a maternal aunt is also addressed as "mother" and a paternal uncle as "father" (hence the mix-up over David's own uncle).

"I just sort of thought, you know, I have a brother there, a sister there, an uncle there - oh - and a wife here," he says. "But then, as I spent more time in the village it became evident to me that they were absolutely serious in becoming my wives."

Yarima began to push David to consummate marriages to the girls, who David thinks were in their late teens. On one occasion, while David was bathing in the river, the women ganged up on him, saying "Come on, we have to do this!" David instructed his translator to tell them he had a wife waiting for him back home - not true, but it made no difference to them anyway. He receded into the water, resisting their pleas.

Like his father before him, David found he was a constant source of amusement.

"The Yanomami have a particular sense of humour," says Caballero. "They always make jokes of everything and they love to tease, especially nabuhs."

The Yanomami have little concept of the very different lives of outsiders. Many put nabuhs' lack of practical and language skills down to the only thing it could be - stupidity.

"I would say Yanomami keye - I am Yanomami," says David. "And then I would fall down riverbanks, I'd trip over vines, I'd hit the wrong tree and all these biting ants would fall on my head… They just thought it was absolutely hilarious."

On a separate visit to the mission - this time with his mother - David managed to establish a Skype connection with his father.

"My father said to my mum, 'You still look young and beautiful'. And she said, 'You look old!'"

Yarima was disturbed by Kenneth Good's baldness, since the Yanomami do not go bald. He had to run and get a baseball cap before they could continue the conversation.

David watched his father making his mother laugh - the two seemed to be getting on well.

He knew when he left for the final time it would be hard.

"When you untie the knot that hangs your hammock - in their eyes that's the ultimate symbolic gesture that you're leaving. And as soon as I untied that knot, there were tears all over. It just moved me so much."

Yarima was devastated. It seems she really had believed David would settle in the village forever.

"I told her, 'I'll be back'. Unfortunately, it's been two years and a lot longer than I wanted it to be," he says.

Who are the Yanomami?

One of the most isolated of the Amazonian tribes

Semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, but also gardeners who grow plantains in family allotments

Yanomami men take hallucinogenic drugs, which they blow up one another's nostrils

Disputes are often resolved by duels of chest pounding or clubbing to stop them becoming wars

Napoleon Chagnon characterised them as violent, others have seen them as "noble savages"

The documentary maker Adam Curtis points out that while the hippie generation were fascinated by their drug-taking, Cold War political scientists focused on the complex alliances and conflicts between villages

Yanomami Territory

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Not sure I understand why he left instead of staying in the village.

The story is kind of choppy, because I picked and choose what to post here, due to the article being so long.

I believe David's dad's research ended, so he had to go back to America to survive and make a living.  Davids mom came with, but after a few years, did not assimilate into our culture, and she decided to stay back in the village on a visit back.

Here is what Yarima (David's mom) said about the culture in America:

"But life in New Jersey was not working out for Yarima. It wasn't the weather, food or modern technology but the absence of close human relations. The Yanomami day begins and ends in the shapono, open to relatives, friends, neighbours and enemies. But Yarima's day in the US began and ended in a closed box, cut off from society."

and during the filming of a documentary:

""They say I have become a nabuh (foreigner ?)," Yarima's translated voiceover tells us.

"I live in a place where I do not gather wood and no-one hunts. The women do not call me to go kill fish. Sometimes I get tired of being in the house, so I get angry with my husband. I go to the stores and look at clothing.

"It isn't like in the jungle. People are separate and alone. It must be that they do not like their mothers.""

I see. So it's a real culture shock where the mom can't live in America and he can't live in the tribe.

Kind of amazing David's parents could fall in love given those circumstances. 

And it gives us a unique perspective from someone who was probably much like ourselves 100's of  years ago, before all this stuff we have now, and living in a small group, and what that person thinks of the way we live now; which is disconnected from each other.  We have transitioned to it so slowly, that we didn't notice it, but to a Yanomami it's night and day. 

It gives us perspective into the modern ailments:  anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc; which probably did not exist in the great numbers that they do now, in our past when we lived in closer groups.

Really makes me think about what is best for humans.

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