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Love Among the 'Fierce People' in the Amazon Jungle

January 06, 1991|Kenneth Good | Kenneth Good, who teaches anthropology at Jersey City State College, is author, with David Chanoff, of "Into the Heart." In "Into the Heart," anthropologist Kenneth Good describes the stone-age life of the Hasupuweteri Yanomama, the "Fierce People , " who live in the heart of the Venezuelan Amazon. In the course of his 12 years of study, he married one of them, Yarima. An excerpt:

Longbeard, the Hasupuweteri headman, came over to my hammock and struck up a conversation. The large tobacco roll bulging inside his lower lip seemed to heighten his already serious demeanor. He started slowly, as if this were something he had given a lot of consideration to. "I've been thinking," he said, stroking the wispy hairs that grew out of his chin, "I've been thinking that you should have a wife. It isn't good for you to live alone."

I couldn't think what in the world had brought this on. I had lived with the Hasupuweteri for two straight years, and no one had ever mentioned the subject. "No, brother-in-law," I said, "I'm doing fine. I don't need a wife. I'm not looking for one."

But that didn't satisfy him.

Longbeard's persistence began to wear on me, and I found myself thinking that maybe being married 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?

But I vacillated. No "marriage" here was going to endure. I wasn't going to stay with the Yanomama forever, and aside from my personal plans, the practical requirements involved simply in mounting an expedition here (not to speak of living here) were immense--none of which meant anything at all to Longbeard. But if he felt so strongly about it, why not? You want me to have a wife, brother-in-law? Sure, OK, I'll have a wife.

"Good," he said, smiling broadly. "Take Yarima. You like her. She's your wife."

Not only a wife, but Yarima no less, who couldn't be more than 12 years old.

Yarima herself quite obviously knew nothing at all about this. I looked around the enclosure and didn't see her. She was probably out in the garden with her mother. I was sure she had been "married" before--that is, betrothed. All Yanomama girls her age got betrothed. Of course Yarima had been betrothed before. And she would be betrothed again, maybe four or five times more before she began to menstruate. After that, she would become someone's wife for real.

Young Yanomama girls have a relationship arranged for them by their parents or older relatives, but nothing changes in their lives. They still live with their parents and carry on exactly as before, except that they are generally acknowledged to be betrothed. During a betrothal, the girl will be sent over to her "husband's" hammock area to give him some food that her mother has prepared. He in turn--the prospective husband is always a productive man, never a child--might send back his own gifts of food.

Eventually, the girl feels comfortable being around his hearth and being around him. If things work out well, they become friends, in the same way that an uncle is friendly toward a favorite niece--the difference being, of course, that if they are still betrothed when she undergoes her first menses ritual, she will then hang her hammock next to his and they will truly become husband and wife.

From an anthropological point of view, the Yanomama custom of child betrothal made a lot of sense. It created strengthened ties between families in the community and between different lineages--marriages within a lineage are prohibited as incest. Since girls are already spoken for when they reach adolescence, there is no competition for them. Much potentially destructive rivalry is precluded this way, as are the problems of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In Yanomama land, every woman is considered sexually available once she has begun to menstruate. And since there are no moral inhibitions against premarital or extramarital sex, having unattached adolescent girls around would create all sorts of difficult and disruptive conflicts.

From a personal point of view, this was not particularly serious. These were an inventive people in some respects, and one of the things they were inventive at was in devising ways to keep a nabuh (outsider) around, with his immense and distributable wealth.

The origin of Longbeard's approach may well have been simply to provide me with an additional attachment to the Hasupuweteri. He was the headman, and it was his responsibility to think of the group's well-being. Or it might have been a gesture of friendship, a surge of brotherly feeling. As for me, in my wildest dreams it had never occurred to me to marry an Indian woman in the Amazon jungle. I was from suburban Philadelphia. I had no intention of going native.

But I did say OK, and in this somewhat casual, offhand manner Yarima became betrothed to me.

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