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Yanoama: The Story of Helen Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians

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A dramatic and uniquely intimate portrait of twenty years in an Amazonian Indian Village.

368 pages, Paperback

First published October 30, 1965

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Ettore Biocca

3 books4 followers

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Ian.
705 reviews65 followers
April 1, 2022
A book that tells the remarkable life story of Helena Valero, who in 1937 was living with her parents and siblings in the extreme north-west of Brazil when she was kidnapped by Yanoáma Indians. She was 12 years old at the time and spent around 2 decades living with various bands of Yanoáma before escaping back to “the world of white men”. In 1962-63 she was interviewed by Italian anthropologist Ettore Biocca. Apart from it being an amazing story in itself, the book is an extraordinary description of the Yanoáma at a time when they had very little contact with modern society.

Not much is said in the book about Valero’s background, but her father seems to have been a Spaniard. She refers to him as speaking Castilian Spanish. There’s a black and white photo of Helena after her return, and her facial features made me wonder whether she had some indigenous ancestry herself, possibly from her mother? Whether or not that was the case, she was culturally part of the “white” world up to her abduction.

The people Biocca calls Yanoáma are more often referred to in print as the Yanomamō. The culture of these people seems to have been the subject of furious debate amongst anthropologists, ever since Napoleon Chagnon published his 1967 book Yanomamō: The Fierce People, which I haven’t read. Chagnon portrayed the Yanomamō as warlike and aggressive. I’m not qualified to make a judgment between the competing interpretations, but Valero’s account provides strong support for the idea of constant violence amongst the Yanoáma. She tells of frequent raiding and warfare, as well as of individual homicides. Many of the raids seem to have been motivated by a desire to take female captives, others by revenge. The book also contains descriptions of elaborate rituals that dominated the life of the Yanoáma, as well as the regular use of hallucinogenic drugs by the men.

With an account like this, the question obviously arises as to how much was true. A couple of the early details seemed doubtful to me. At one point there’s a description of an attempt by some men to kill an apparently indestructible anaconda. We have to allow for the fact that Valero was recalling an event of 25 years previously, that occurred when she was 12 years old. On the whole though, I found her account persuasive. Partly that was because at times her storytelling is a bit clumsy – when describing events she includes lots of unnecessary details that sometimes left me thinking “Get on with it”. You can tell she isn’t a professional writer.

Another realistic feature was how individual Yanoáma rely heavily on kinfolk for support and protection, and of course Valero was entirely without relatives amongst them. Several times she is reminded that she has no-one to stand up for her. She eventually becomes the fifth wife of a village chief, with whom she has two sons and who provided her with the protection she needed. After he is killed she married again and had two further sons, but her second husband seems to have been an exceedingly violent man who mistreated her, and he eventually made so many enemies that the two fled together, with her sons, to seek refuge amongst the whites.

Although I’ve given the book a 5-star rating, Valero’s storytelling can get a bit wearisome. The reason I’ve gone for such a high rating is that for me this book was unique. I’ve read captivity narratives of people who were captured by North American Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries, but I’ve never read anything this detailed by someone with Valero’s perspective.

The book ends with Valero expressing her disappointment with her new life in 1960s Brazil, which was one of extreme poverty. A few years after this book was published she apparently returned to live amongst the Yanoáma, and was reportedly still alive and living amongst them in 1996/97.
A highly memorable account.
Profile Image for Joseph Pfeffer.
154 reviews16 followers
April 22, 2014
A neglected 20'th century masterpiece. Neither ethnography, autobiography, memoir, or work of "creative nonfiction," Yanoama encompasses all these elements in chronicling a life of perpetual, permanent exile. Helena Valero was abducted by Yanomama (Ettore Biocca's spelling is unique) tribesmen at the age of 11 or 12. As such, she entered an alien culture after spending her formative years in a traditional Brazilian Catholic family. Her position in Yanomamaland (the Venezuelan rainforest) was from the start ambivalent: as a young white woman (Napagnuma) she possessed quasi-magical otherness that made people fear and revere her. On the other hand, as an outsider to a rich, complex culture with rules having nothing to do with the one in which she was raised, she never quite fit in. She was by turns cared for and scapegoated, taken in by loving families and targeted for ritual murder. The most remarkable sections of the book chronicle her early years, when she learned to survive on her own in the rainforest, wandering through the jungle through moons at a time, dealing with jaguars, snakes, learning to eat whatever she could find, building her own huts, escaping people who wanted to shoot her with poison arrows. Eventually she settles in a village and becomes the wife of the headman Fusiwe, bearing two of his children. Fusiwe is a remarkable character, complex, delineated in swift, deft touches by the observant Valero. Though she never quite says so, it is clear that she is in love with him. He was the only real love of her life. Unlike most of the native woman, she challenges him, sometimes opposes his plans, calls him out on his occasional abusiveness, pleads with him not to exercise the peculiar sense of Yanomama honor that requires him to be ritualistically killed because he has killed the son of another leader. After a good deal of jockeying among the ever-feuding villages, Fusiwe gets himself killed and Helena's life essentially comes to an end. As long as he was alive, she occupied the position of "#1 wife," and would no doubt have done so as long as Fusiwe lived. The part of the book after his death becomes confusing, as Valero charts her going back and forth with her children among what seems like at least a dozen factions. She marries a man she despises, feels compelled to escape to the land of the white men, is bitterly disappointed by the whites when she gets there. Though it's not in this book, Helena Valero eventually returned to the village of the people who abducted her, where she lived out her long, unhappy life as an old blind woman. In the overall, her greatest strength became her undoing: she developed independence as a survival technique, but then could never settle into relationships with others (except Fusiwe, who understood her as she did him). She always had to tell people what she thought, and eventually leave, whether they were Indians or whites. Still, her choice was to return to her abductors. In a way rarely understood by outsiders, even professional ethnographers, their "humanness" trumps the callous individualism of the white world, where people don't really relate to their families and neighbors; they just compete with them in ways that do not contain the violence of the Indians, but at the same time have a coldness that no one brought up in a shabono can tolerate. The only problem with this book is that it's a double translation. The careful, respectful Italian anthropologist Ettore Biocca translated Helena's Yanomama narrative into his own language. Dennis Rhodes translated this into English. The result imparts to Helena and others a certain stilted formalism speech which makes the book a difficult read, because the language is without rhythm. Nonetheless, the read is well worth it. It opens whole worlds. The most singular quality of Valero's story is her intertwining of the personal with the ethnographic, a quality she herself was probably not aware of. It's as though Itard's Wild Child in 19'th century France had written his own story of being taken into "civilized" society after surviving alone for years in the forest.
Profile Image for Ushan.
801 reviews66 followers
November 26, 2013
In 1937, Brazilian farmer Carlos Valero and his wife and three children were canoeing down a river near the Venezuelan border to his brother-in-law's farm in a forest clearing. Suddenly they were attacked by the Yanomami Indians, and their oldest child Helena, who was 11 or 12 at the time, was wounded. The adults grabbed the younger children and ran, leaving the wounded girl behind, intending to come back for her later. The Indians kidnapped her. Helena Valero grew up among the various bands of Yanomamo, learned their language and adopted their culture, got married (becoming the fifth wife of a chief), had two children; when her first husband was killed, she remarried and had two more children. When her second husband became a wanted man, her family escaped to the white society. The year was 1956. Helena Valero found her parents and brothers, but as she and her husband had no property and no useful occupation, her family sank into poverty; her oldest son helped out shoppers at a market, who gave him tips, off which their family lived. In 1963-1964 she dictated her story to an Italian anthropologist, who published it in 1965. A Web search for her name shows that afterwards she moved back to the jungle.

This book confirms the customary notions of stone age life in the Amazon rainforest. Curare-tipped arrows, shamans who ingest psychoactive substances; the spirit of the sun, of bats, of white men; anacondas, crocodiles, whose short tongues are explained in a Kiplinguesque myth of the origin of fire, jaguars. The Yanomami are (were?) a very violent people; a band could raid another band, kill all the men they could find and seize all the women; this is how Helena Valero passed from one band to another at least twice. There was controversy about anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who studied the Yanomami and wrote a book about them called The Yanomamo: Fierce People; an activist journalist accused Chagnon of both instigating violence among the Yanomami and falsifying the reports about it in order to create supporting data for his weird sociobiological theories; however, other anthropologists seem to have refuted the journalist's allegations. I read neither Chagnon's book nor the journalist's, just the Internet reviews, but Helena Valero's book, which describes events long before the Chagnon expeditions, seems to show that the Yanomami were in fact a fierce people.

A cliche of science fiction (in fact, of other genres of fiction as well) is a child of one culture being adopted into another culture, and after reaching adulthood going back to his native people and bringing the knowledge of his adoptive people to them - Moses, Mowgli and many others. I read this book because I was wondering if these stories have any relevance to reality as experienced by Helena Valero. They do not; unlike Mowgli and his brothers, Helena Valero was always considered a foreign woman ("Napagnuma" in the Yanomami language) by her captors; having been a big child when captured, she never forgot Spanish and Portuguese and continued saying Roman Catholic prayers. Nor did the white society, except for the Italian anthropologist, care much about her experiences. I am sure that there have been many Indian children captured by whites who eventually came back to their own peoples, such as Jemmy Button, but they haven't left any accounts of their captivity that I am aware of.
1 review
January 23, 2022
This Book is an ethnographically incorrect representation of the Yanomami, living between Venezuela and Brazil. This is most certainly due to the time it was published in (1960s) where the discovery of the Yanomami was a sensation and due to the fact that the English version cut out all the parts where the reader would learn anthropological important aspects of the Yanomami’s life! It leaves the reader with a violent and cannibalistic image of the Yanomami. Only to attract more readers, to sell the book better.
Profile Image for Velta Gūtmane.
71 reviews3 followers
November 21, 2019
Stāsts par meiteni no Spānijas kuru nolaupīja Indijāņi, un sāka audzināt džungļos, tomēr vienmēr paliekot svešo statusā. Grāmata ir par to kā ir izaugt indiāņu vidū, džungļos, par pastāvīgiem kariem savā starpā, par bēgšanām, par izdzīvošanu, par rituāliem. Sižets tiek papildināts ar ilustrācijām, kas attaino lielākoties dažādus sadzīviskus priekšmetus.

Stāsts beidzās, ka meitene atgriežas pie Baltajiem cilvēkiem, kur saskaras ar tādām pašām grūtībām kā iepriekš, un mūžīgi nepieņēmta ne pie baltajiem, ne indiāņiem.
Profile Image for Tomáš Sekerka.
186 reviews9 followers
April 3, 2021
Verdikt: Nahlédnutí do jiného světa, do jiných myslí a jiných zvyklostí. Časem trochu omrzí stylistika, nebo spíš její absence, což ale vyváží fakt, že je vyprávění sepsáno podle skutečnosti.

Více na: sekerkatomas.cz
Profile Image for Rolando S. Medeiros.
100 reviews1 follower
September 7, 2022
"Problemas no Paraíso

Em 1937, Helena Valero, na época uma menina de doze anos, foi sequestrada em circunstâncias dramáticas pelos índios Yanomami, que habitavam as florestas localizadas entre o Rio Negro e o alto Orinoco.

Após vinte anos de cativeiro, ela conseguiu retornar à sua civilização natal, e sua história (registrada por um etnógrafo italiano) tornou-se um documento etnográfico e psicológico único. Até aquele momento, o homem civilizado não sabia praticamente nada sobre a vida dos Yanomami. Além disso, eles não queriam ter nenhum contato com o a civilização. Isolados pela mata virgem, viviam em uma realidade própria, "impermeável", perdida em um tempo que chamam de pré-histórico.

O único objeto que conheciam da nossa cultura era o facão que usavam para cortar ervas daninhas. Embora tivessem conseguido apoderar-se dele por meio do comércio esporádico ribeirinho, não tornou-se uma ferramenta de matança nas mãos dos índios, nem um símbolo maligno de uma cultura "superior". Os Yanomami já estavam se dizimando com através das suas próprias armas convencionais: porretes e as flechas envenenadas. E o fizeram com tanta eficácia que a fertilidade das mulheres não compensava a belicosidade dos homens.

Por que ocorriam essas guerras entre tribos, guerras sem começo nem fim? Bem, não se deviam a necessidades básicas: as tribos não tinham fome e tinham terras para caçar e materiais abundantes para construir. Mas ainda assim eles se matavam; pelo menos, essa foi a impressão que tive ao ler este livro incrível.

Um certo costume parece ser o culpado, um costume tão forte que substitui todos os outros costumes que essa cultura forjou para garantir sua sobrevivência contínua.

Desde a adolescência, os homens inalam ritualmente epená, um narcótico obtido de plantas locais. Sua fumaça estimula poderosamente a agressividade e, após uso prolongado, causa graves transtornos mentais.

As mulheres sabem que quando seus maridos, irmãos e filhos se reúnem para inalar epená, algo ruim acontecerá, pois sempre há um motivo para brigar depois de algumas boas inalações. É uma grande honra para os homens se tornarem Waiteri. Um Waiteri é aquele que consegue matar um homem que, por sua vez, já conseguiu matar outros homens antes. Desta forma, a ideia do cavaleiro errante se espalha por toda a comunidade. A existência de cavaleiros errantes é conhecida na nossa Idade Média, embora estes fossem sempre indivíduos que apenas procuravam preencher com algo o tédio entre as guerras. Em vez disso, todo índio Yanomami tinha que se tornar Waiteri, circunstância que colocava em questão o destino daquelas tribos.

As pessoas da tribo pareciam ter uma saúde paradisíaca; quase não havia doenças (eles viviam o suficiente para adoecer?). Será que estamos lidando com alguma forma de degeneração mental? Todos os caçadores-coletores pré-históricos eram governados por leis semelhantes? Então como eles sobreviveram? O que fez com que essas leis evoluíssem? As perguntas são ingênuas, mas diante de Sua Majestade a Antropologia prefiro não fingir saber o que não sei."
— Projeto de Tradução Wislawa
Profile Image for Dymbula.
912 reviews31 followers
April 7, 2016
Poněkud jiný pohled než nám ho nastínil Karel May prostřednictvím Vinnetoua - rudého gentlemana, Rybany a dalších krásných a ušlechtilých lidí. Ač nejsem žádný etnolog, knížka mě tak trošku obohatila. Bylo to čtení surové, ale podané s přesvědčivou lhostejností a nadhledem. Asi to tak prostě v Amazonii chodí. My -odjinud- se je snažíme pochopit, což nám moc nejde. Oni se o to ani nesnaží, což jim jde, a tak o sobě nikdy nic doopravdy vědět nebudeme.
citát z knihy: Tomu, kdo prchá v noci, trvá dlouho, než přijde ráno.
Profile Image for Ogi Ogas.
Author 11 books85 followers
March 6, 2020
My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.
Profile Image for Luboš.
407 reviews53 followers
October 23, 2013
Vraždění stále dokola. Lépe, kdyby byla kniha o polovinu kratší.

Z recenze v Respektu: K mýtu o ušlechtilých divoších má daleko, vypovídá spíš leccos o násilné přirozenosti člověka a prvopočátcích utváření lidské společnosti.

Tomu, kdo prchá v noci, trvá dlouho, než přijde ráno.

Den nato, co se narodil můj syn, jsem už byla v lese na dříví.

„Ty nevíš, že ty, které se v dětství bojí všech, jako velké se nebojí nikoho?“

Představovala jsem si u bílých všechno jinak.
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