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Between Two Worlds : When in the Amazon, Michael Stuart Ani adopts the lifestyle of the Yanomamo Indians. Back home in Los Angeles, he champions their cause. 'If the forest perishes, where will the untamed like . . . me go?' he asks.

June 20, 1991|LESLIE BAER-BROWN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A month ago, as Indian children searched his hair for insects and sucked poison from tiny bites on his arms and legs, Michael Stuart Ani lay dozing in a hammock in the Amazon. It was hot, and he was reveling in the social grooming that is a sign of affection among the Yanomamo, the "fierce people" of Venezuela and Brazil with whom he has lived off and on for five years.

This day, as he recalls that scene, Ani reclines in a hammock in the living room of his Hollywood Hills home, surrounded by the trappings of two decades in the jungle--a vast collection of carved, beaded and feathered artifacts that chronicles his experiences with more than two dozen tribes in Mexico and Central and South America.

A jaguar skull on the fireplace mantel reminds him of the night he says he was forced to shoot the huge cat as it leaped, wide-jawed and roaring, into his boat. On narrow shelves specially built to hold ceremonial items is a Yanomamo woven basket that held the ashen bones of the dead, which were "drunk" in an ancient ritual, the Indian's name never to be spoken again.

But these aren't the memories of an anthropologist who--in safari dress and lunching on Spam--came, saw and documented a jungle ecosystem. Ani is a musician and impassioned Yanomamo advocate, a refugee from the urban jungle of the Bronx who has fully adopted the Yanomamo lifestyle when in the Amazon--and fully adopted their cause wherever he is.

To Yanomamo holy men, he is a "white witch doctor." But he prefers to be seen as a "crazy uncle," a self-described witty storyteller who declares: "I am to the Yanomamo what Jerry Lewis is to the French."

"I don't bring instruments to study them, take their blood, have them (urinate) in jars," he says. "I bring a piccolo to play music for them. . . . We fish, hunt, go swimming a lot. Sometimes we lay around and talk about the sky, the moon, women."

Indeed, Ani has been able to live the ultimate adventurer's dream: A lean and dark-eyed man, he is a survivalist who hunts with the skill of the Yanomamo and whose tales of raging beasts and death-defying escapades have a fantastic quality about them. At the same time, he funds his life in the Amazon through his success as a "retro-'70s hip-hop" songwriter in the more tame world of Los Angeles.

Now, he sees himself as a creature of both worlds who may be a bridge to saving those he calls "the last of the untamed people."

They have taken Ani into their secret lives, allowing him behind the face put on for all but a few civilizados, as city dwellers are known, and introducing him to their mysticism and sacred rituals.

During the three to four months a year he lives in the Amazon, he joins in the daily routines like a family member, "trying not to eat too many grubs."

He tends their wounds with natural cures: tea tree oil for infected bug bites. He teaches them skills like fishing. He's taught them to make flutes, "but out of bamboo so they can get involved in the process. I wouldn't bring them a metal flute."

At the same time, Ani counsels them on the outside world and what they may have to face in the near future.

It is a future that deeply worries him. Only about 17,000 remain of this semi-nomadic people, who occupy about 25,000 square miles of dense rain forest. They fish, hunt monkey, rodent-like lapa, marsh-footed tapir and other game, and comb the forest for plantain, the jungle banana.

Once thought to be exceptionally brutal--almost half the tribe's men have participated in killings--Yanomamo are now perceived by some to be not much more violent than similar societies. (Ani contends: "They are a young society and have that 'Lord of the Fly'-ish aggressiveness that you could find in any nightclub in L.A.")

The tribe is "an anthropologist's dream," according to Kenneth Good, an anthropology professor at Jersey City State College, who's also lived with the Yanomamo. "They are truly the last uncontacted people on Earth."

But as exploitation of rain forests increases, contact is more and more frequent. In 1987, a jungle fever for gold not seen since the Spanish conquest of the Incas 400 years ago was rekindled. Miners from resource-poor Brazil poured into Yanomamo territory by the thousands, bringing with them malaria, measles and mercury used in mining that poisoned fishing grounds and water supplies.

Yanomamo protecting their villages were gunned down. The Amazon Gold Rush was on.

Since then, thousands of Yanomamo have fled Brazil and sought refuge in Venezuela, an oil-rich country that has not begun serious exploitation of its rain forests. More than 80% of the tribe now is found in Venezuela under the protection of the government.

Still, even in Venezuela the Yanomamo are dying of malaria and other maladies at a rate never before seen in the region. Among his friends, Ani says, 70 have perished in the last year alone. Missionaries and a handful of anthropologists and naturalists are the only semblance of health workers in the region.

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