Hushahu Yawanawa is the first woman in the history of the indigenous Yawanawa community – from the Northwestern part of today’s Brazil – to be named their spiritual leader. She is also a visual artist, singer and healer, and she broke with her tribe’s tradition, namely that of women not being allowed to fully participate in social, spiritual and political activities. The director and writer Bartosz Żurowski talks to her about breaking with patriarchal tradition, the importance of rituals and art to the Yawanawa and the crisis as an opportunity for the people of the Amazon to establish new forms of (postcolonial) relationships.

© Hushahu Yawanawa

Bartosz Żurowski: How lucky are we to live in these unique times!? We can travel across the world; we have enough trust and positive experiences not to be afraid of each other. You have more reasons to be afraid of me than vice versa. I promise not to try to Christianise you. Where is this trust coming from?

Hushahu Yawanawa: Yes, in the past our culture was very closed. This had a reason: At some point in history, our tribe went nearly extinct. There were only a few Yawanawa families left. We used to keep “white men” away from our traditions. But this was not the only intercultural barrier: There were plenty of wars between different native tribes. However, the generation of my father decided to make a change and engage in a peaceful relationship with the Westerners. The main purpose was to protect our heritage and the forest. All of our treasures, our wealth, medicine and knowledge come from the forest. It wasn’t easy to build this relationship: It has its dark sides, but in the long run, it works better than the wars we had before. The new time has come. If we find a mutual purpose, all the wars between peoples can end.

BŻ: Protection of the forest is definitely a good unifying purpose from a local and a global perspective. It is heart-warming to hear that you find the relationship with the Western world mutually beneficial. It was your teacher Tatá who took this decision and a few other progressive ones. What made him decide to do so?

HY: Tatá was a very powerful Shaman and a brave man who trusted his intuitions. He had spent his whole life in the forest, by the river. He had never seen the sea. One day he had a vision, where he saw the endless water and a woman, coming out of it, shining a brilliant light. Her hair spread out over the water’s surface: she floated in the air. She brought him a message. She asked our tribe to plant a very special seed of Kairau. Kairau is the wisdom we pass from one person to the next. It’s something that doesn’t end and it can create alliances, even with the Westerners. After this dream, he decided we would open up. Now guests visit us bringing what they know, and, in exchange, we show them our world: how we make connections with our land and our forest. This helps us to grow and helps them to understand the mystery of nature. Kairau keeps expanding, spreading around the world, like a net. My teacher’s vision is being realised right now, as we speak. Look, here I am today sharing our message with you.

BŻ: You are here and people from Europe are in your village, so the exchange is happening. I find it partly terrifying. I know you are planning to open The House of Arts in the village soon. Do you imagine it as a museum or as a place for new art to be created?

HY: When I enter any museum I start to look at each piece and have visions imagining who these people were: what were their stories and experiences? It’s as if I start to feel the presence of their ancestry, as if I am hearing their voices. In the same way, I want to make people feel at home in the place we are opening in the forest. I know that the new generations will have a lot of curiosity to discover themselves, their ancestry, their roots and memories of their people. There are large pieces of our culture that have already been lost. There is a lot we can still preserve. We have many treasures: beautiful arts, crafts, paintings, bows, arrows, spears, but also non-material elements that need to be taken care of. Our ancestors coded a path for our spirituality in stories, allowing us to find healing in our tradition. I wish to create a place in the forest to bring together all of our stories, our paintings, the artworks of the women, etc. So yes, that part would serve as a museum but that’s not everything. We also wish to bring together artists and people from different traditions so The House of Arts will also be a place of exchange. And one day, when I pass away, the wisdom and beauty will continue to spread. That’s the dream.

BŻ: You travel the world sharing the wisdom and tradition of your tribe. Paradoxically, the change you made breaks with your tribe’s tradition but is of equal interest. You initiated a serious sociopolitical revolution. That’s what makes your story so powerful and inspiring. Was it your decision to become the first female leader in your tribe?

HY: Our culture, like all the others, has its form. Traditionally only the men were in positions where they could take decisions for our people. Only men could lead rituals. Only men decided what directions to take for our future. I felt this was not right. To bring freedom to the women, to change the mindset of all the people already born into certain customs, is a very strong mission – especially in a tradition as strong as ours. It sometimes feels like it wasn’t me who decided this path but as if I was chosen, together with my sister: guided to become the first female leader and change the course of my people’s history. Tatá, and my father Tuin Kuru, through their various spiritual practices and training, gained some very special abilities. It felt like they could see the future. They felt the verity of my call. I wanted to choose this path but back then it was impossible, completely unrealistic. Some men would tell me that if I were to try, I would die very quickly because that’s what awaits females in such spaces, but I knew I’d rather die than give up on this idea. My father and Tatá knew they needed to pass their knowledge on and arrange for someone to continue the growth of Kairau. When they were sure that it was what I wanted, they began preparing me for the moment when I would be able to transform the history of our people, our women, and become the woman I am today.

f.l.t.r.: Hushahu Yawanawa’s brother Matsini, her teacher Tatá and herself. © Hushahu Yawanawa

BŻ: Do you see your story as a part of the movement of female empowerment taking its rightful place all around the world?

HY: Many women have had enough suffering and are fighting for change. People seek a better world and a better future. I can feel their need for harmony. This brings me a lot of joy because I see that it’s spreading in many places. It’s very beautiful to feel the change. Not just the virus but also positive elements are arriving in many places.

BŻ: It’s already been over a decade since the change happened. I am sure it made women’s lives in your tribe much better, but how do the men experience the change?

HY: In our tribe and all around the world the energy is unbalanced and we all suffer from it: not only women, but men as well. Times have changed, now men can learn a lot from women and vice versa. Men are learning these days to have more patience and to be more gentle, not just to be strong. They are strong, they are still warriors, but their hearts are opening for love: to share, live and learn together. At the same time, the women learn with them, work with them, share joy, and grow together respecting each other’s space. It is possible. In the past of our tradition, there were areas restricted to men or to women. Now the men, women, and children spend more time together. Sometimes the men look after the children while the women are doing something traditionally masculine. Nobody is excluded, everyone can be together, learning with and from each other, growing more and more. This gives the men more capacity for strength, not only physically, but also spiritually. My ability to overcome them was not an indication of weakness on the part of the men of the past. They were very strong, real warriors. I was able to bring this transformation about because my strength was coming from nature. It was the forest that gave me the vision and the power to bring freedom to the women, to inspire the youth, and give strength to the people. It’s all the forest.

BŻ: The forest plays a central role and brings a lot of treasures to your life. Do you see the impact of climate change on the nature around you? Does it worry you?

HY: This is difficult for me to talk about because it affects me greatly. My connection to the forest is very strong: Each tree that falls feels like a part of me falling with it. It’s very strong. My people do protect a part of the forest but I feel that it’s not enough for what is happening to the world now. I think all these illnesses that keep appearing come from the destruction of the forests. As if nature were fighting back. You won’t see a forest in revolt with walking trees, but they have spirits. The spirits are connected to the earth. There are many places where the forests are being destroyed as if they had no importance. We are managing to hold on to a piece of forest but it’s a tiny piece in the face of a whole which was present there before. We are trying to secure our small piece to help everyone to survive. Today we are wearing masks to protect from the virus, but underneath we are breathing. Masks are not going to help us when we cut all the trees. The curses that would come from the destruction of nature, its revolt, would be so strong that they would destroy everything. If we don’t come together with people around the world to truly see this and protect the forests, the most secure of places will no longer be safe.

BŻ: Is your village safe now in times of coronavirus?

HY: When it all started, I was traveling and it took me a long time to be able to come back to the village. When I arrived, many people were ill with the virus, they were nearly dead. We brought together various plants. Not just one type, we used many. It’s as if we joined their forces together. We brought many plants, applied them and made a huge fire. We burned incense and cleaned everything in our land. Now people are playing together, swimming in the rivers, fishing and eating together just as they did before. The virus is no longer there. It’s as if the plants gave us their protection.

BŻ: Your forest is there but scientists have been sending final warnings for quite a while. I also remember your brother describing certain anomalies in the cycles of nature. Do you feel it is all leading us towards an unavoidable catastrophe?

HY: I think people lose hope because there are so many things happening around the world. Everything starts to lose meaning, it brings a lot of confusion and fear, enabling illness a way into the body and mind. People can talk about their spiritualities but if they don’t truly have faith, they may fall into despair. I don’t think the world is ending: I think it’s in a moment of transformation. So we can see what changes need to be made to prepare for a better future. If we have spirituality, we have trust. We can make ourselves stronger instead of looking back or becoming fearful. It’s like walking a tightrope: you can’t look left or right. If you think you will fall, it will start to wobble. You have to concentrate and trust that you can make it through. Everyone has enough strength. We all have a spirit inside. It doesn’t matter where we’re from or what language we speak. All change is difficult, but it provides the best moment to wake up.