‘Among Friends’

Excerpt from Uni, an Unpublished Manuscript

By: Vincenzo Petrullo

Originally Published in 1993

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As the narrative begins, we find Petrullo and his compan­ion, Arthur Rossi, encamped on. the bank of the Kuluene River. Among the local groups who gathered around the camp, attracted by the strangers, teen’ the lawalapiti.

The Yawalapiti…renewed their request that I visit their, village. They indicated with pride that they were not afraid to reveal to me theirs secret waterways. I decided to go with them.

As we drew away from the Kamayitla, the Yawalapiti could not contain their joy. The rest of the journey to the village became a joyous picnic. Everything combined to make it an idyll The crystal clear water teeming with fish, turtles and some snakes, the perfect reflection of the tall

palms, and sky. the flowering bush­es, the hundreds of brightly plumaged birds,  the gay insects and, of course, the people themselves. They talked, laughed, produced wild calls by whistling in perfect imitation of the birds. They stood up in their canoes and shot fish, laughing when one was missed, laughing when the fish was transfixed….

The joy and merrymaking of the Yawalapiti seemed to mount the nearer we came to their village, until it reached a point that made me wonder. It could not be simply because we had elected to go to their village instead of to the Karnayula’s. Rossi had an explanation.

“They’re acting as if they’re going to throw us into the stewing pot,” he said. “I don’t like the way they’re looking at me. Jim, find out how to say ‘tough meat.’ [“Jim” was Yetrullo’s nickname.] Maybe if I convince them that this cameraman is too stringy, they’ll pick on one of these tender, juicy maidens instead and invite us to the meal.”

But the Yawalapiti had no intention of eating us, only to honor and please us in every possible way. It was an idyllic trip of primitive beauty and joy…. Finally, we entered an amphitheatre of dark water with walls of tall dark forest broken by a crack through which a shaft of sunlight came to play lightly on the water. Some white cranes perched on the bushes, looked on solemnly, took to lazy flight to come to rest again a little higher.

We beached the canoes. Everybody plunged into the water. What a picture!…The canoes unloaded, we took up the march to the village. First went two men, then I, with Tupi [Yetrullo’s fox ter­rier] close by; and then the rest in single file. The guides immediately began a chant which rose in intensity and loudness as we reached the edge of the village clearing a hundred yards away and fell again to a murmur as we walked to the center. Coming from the obscurity of the forest, the entrance to the clearing, being in intense sunlight, was, as usual, dramat­ic by its very suddenness. No one was about. It was almost like entering a dead city.

Not for long though. We had not sat on the log long when from two of the houses came the chiefs, chanting as they walked towards us. Each one was freshly painted and oiled and wore a jaguar band around the head. Each carried a stool carved in the shape of a bird. Behind each came several men and women. On arriving before Rossi and me, they offered us the stools, and then, as everybody became silent, one of them, a tall, powerful indi­vidual, made a long speech of welcome. Frequently, he pointed to the sky and traced a path in the air with his hand. He was talking about the plane, of course. Occasionally, he pointed to the women and indicated that they had wept in fear….The speech over, women and chil­dren filed from each house. They came forward, knelt before Rossi and me and offered us huge calabashes filled with a mixture of manioc flour and water We drank and passed them on to our men. They offered biiju (unleavened manioc bread], manioc bread and toasted manioe flour. I made a speech then, but, in this case, there was no one to interpret what I said. They listened attentively, though, and at the end, indicated by signs that we should enter the men’s house to rest in the hammocks which they had put up for us. We entered the house, and soon all of the Yawalapiti withdrew leaving us alone in the semidarkness and coolness of the house.

We lay down and were commenting to each other on the fine treatment we were receiving when we heard soft singing out­side. We rose and peered through the grass wall. The women had formed in a long line, arms linked. They were dancing slowly, taking three steps forward and three hack, beating time with the right foot as they sang softly, a sweet song nat­ural to the jungle that rose from every side of the village. It was almost a lullaby, and we returned to our hammocks to swing in them gently, wondering at these gentle folk, feeling almost shy at the attention we were receiving until tranquil sleep came upon both of us, and Tupi who had curled up beneath my hammock. For the first time since the departure from Simõe Lopes, I felt completely at peace and secure- We were among friends, and I was among the people who had called me away from the classroom. I was happy.

Tupi growled, and I came awake, Some men were entering the hut….They stood still by the waIl, hardly breathing, it seemed, watching us….One of them reached up the wall to take down a bun-dle rapped in a mat. Tupi, who must have been eyeing them, rose up and barked. I rolled out and collared him. The men laughed softly and easily. They showed me the contents of the bundle, bright feather headdresses, rolls of cotton string dyed red and yellow which they indicated was to be worn around the waist, a stone which they seemed to hold in ven­eration, and a few more odds and ends. They took three large flutes—and., in pan­tomime, told me that these were sacred and that no woman should ever look upon them. The breaking of this tabu was death.

More men crawled into the house, including my Bakairi and the Mehinaku who had accompanied us. Three of the men began to play on the flutes….The men played and danced a little. They talked to me, so eager to make me under­stand. I tried hard to do so; but it was so difficult, Arawak, Carib, Portuguese and gestures. It took so long, and when what they said finally reached me, I received only the barest facts, the gener­al meaning….

After a while, we went outside. A stool was brought for me, and I sat in the mid­dle of a happy people while Rossi took pictures. The women brought more to drink and to eat. The men brought us fish. One of the Bakairi was at my side with a sack filled with trade goods….I began to distribute what we had. I gave the chiefs a long knife each. Then to each man, woman and child, even to the infants, I gave something. Their joy and gratitude was overwhelming….So effusive was the demonstration that I wondered and was puzzled. In their attitude there was more than euriosity, more than happiness at receiving a few trinkets. They not only showered me with food but with atten­tions which almost amounted to venera­tion. Tupi was included, though he, the rascal that he was, persisted in holding himself aloof.

There was a tremendous coming and going as they emptied their houses of new baskets, hammocks, bows, arrows, manioc in bread form, manioc as dry toasted flour, manioc in dry mass, all of which they laid at my feet. Every one brought me some­thing, including the babies at the breast. It seemed as if they were giving to me the entire village with themselves ineluded, as indeed they were! They made numerous attempts to tell me something in connec­tion with the plane. If only we had had a language in common!

A glowing sunset caught us still in the village clearing. They turned to look at it, becoming silent and still. I looked with them. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that the sun had some special meaning to them. Possibly one of their gods. They had point­ed to it often and then at themselves. I had gathered that the gee-string which the men wore and the loin-string that the women wore were things which they believed they had been given by the sun originally, possibly as magical, protective amulets. Now they sat or stood there with me in the stillness that comes upon the jungle at the end of the day, looking at the fiery glow in the west and the gentle pinks of the sky above us. Only the gold-bird broke upon us with his shrill whistle, and then there was silence again.

One does not sleep much at night in the jungles of Matto Grosso….I awoke early in the Yayvalapiti men’s house. I was cold and mosquitoes were bothering me somewhat, but what made me roll out of my hammock, gun in hand, was the sound of subdued voices near the house and an even-booming heat from further away. I crawled tinder the wall and out into the open, Tnpi with me. I stood close to the house, but I could see nothing. From somewhere in the clearing a man was chanting, accompanying his song on some drum-like instrument…. In the course of the day, I learned that the oldest chief in the village awakened his people that way. His song urged them not to be lazy, to rise from the hammock, to bathe, and to com­mence the day’s work; they must not shame their ancestors by lying in their hammocks when they should be up and doing, especially since in the village, they had with them a great visitor and friend.

The song and accompaniment were resumed at intervals until dawn broke in the sky To the sound of the “drum” beat was added that of the manioc pestles, wielded with a will by the women. They, too, started a soft chant. The men moved away from the village to fish, and as they paddled away in different directions, they kept up a continuous harmonious calling back and forth to each other with perfect imitations of the songs of the various birds which contributed their bit until there was a symphony of music rising, as it were, from the jungle itself. It seemed as if the tall purities, the wild figs, the jatuhas, the creepers and the flowering hushes, the very water, the manioc fields, and the houses themselves took up the old main’s chant and rhythm, and the grey sky tonk on rosy tinges, it blended with this music, giving it warmth and color….

I walked to the water, a pool almost completely surrounded by solid walls of forests, and there bathed, but not alone. All who could, men, women, and children followed me. We frolicked in the water, free of piranha, stingrays, and electric eels which disturb the enjoyment of bathing in Matto Grosso rivers. We bathed not even aware of each others nakedness, and then we walked hack to the village togeth­er….There was so much I wanted them to tell me, and perhaps there was so much they wanted me to tell them, but the only language I understood was their treatment of me and the music which they made so easily with their friendly chatter.

There was one message they tried again and again to give me….Now seated in the village clearing in the clear sunlight they began again. They talked excitedly, described paths in the sky with their hands, pretended to be afraid. After a while it became obvious that they were trying to tell me something about the plane. Thinking that they wanted to tell me that something had happened to it since its departure, I put everything else aside to get at the bottom of the story. Noticing that I was paying attention to them, they redoubled their efforts. Apacanu and Manuelsinho struggled hard to piece the story together. Fortunately, one of the Yawalapiti and one of the Mehinaku who had accompanied us knew a little Carib. We worked at it all morn­ing, and finally I got the story:

“They say,’ began Manuelsinho [sic] in broken Portuguese, “that they are happy that you are here. They find much fish. They say you must stay here all the time. The women are glad too. They make much biju. They dance and they sing.”

“They say that some moons ago they heard a noise in the southern sky. They were afraid. Never had they heard such a noise before. They asked their shaman. He said that it was the kind of noise the spirits make when they travel through the air, only no one can hear it except the shaman when his soul leaves his body and goes visiting. They looked at the sky afraid. This man here who has good eyes shouted that he saw a tiny speck in the sky. It got larger and larger, and the noise became louder. They were very much afraid. They thought the spirits were com­ing. The women ran to hide in the jungle; the shaman shook his rattle and sang, but he could not make magic because it was day time. They saw now that what was approaching so swiftly had wings like a bird, but it was much, much bigger. They did not know what to do, and they were glad when it turned around and went away again before it reached the village. It dis­appeared the way it came.

“That night the shaman made magic. His soul talked with the spirits of our ancestors and the gods. They told him not to he afraid, that the monstrous bird came from far away, that it would do them no harm. The shaman worked hard every night, but before the gods explained everything, it came again one morning. This time it landed in the river. Some of the people were fishing. They were so afraid that they abandoned their canoes and fled to hide in the jungle. The bird made more noise than thunder and made waves in the water higher than the wind….Suddenly the noise stopped. They hid in the forest, shaking with fear. They beard no more noise; so after a while, they walked back, hiding all of the time. They thought that the bird had gone away, hut soon they saw it from between the trees. They saw two men sitting on the body of the bird eating. They say that the wings of the bird were longer than two houses put together. They watched the men. Then they saw a beautiful white dog. They say that Tnpi is the clog they saw. They say they sawn you too, dressed as you are now. They waited and watched you a long time. They called to other Yawalapiti hidden across the river. They made the sound of the gold bird. Then they saw you place a bag on a bush. Afterwards, they saw you enter the bird’s body. The noise started again, and there was much wind. They ran away again, but after a while, they saw that the bird was not coming their way. It was going very fast in the water. After a while, it rose in the air, made a circle and flew away to the south. They came back to the village.

“The people remained hidden a long time, until almost dark, fearing that the bird might come back. They then came out of the forest, and they talked over what to do. They decided to get the hag. They found in it strange things that they had never seen before. They brought them back to the shaman.”

“Here in the village the fright had been greater. First, they heard the noise from afar off; then they saw the bird getting big­ger and bigger; then they saw it fall in the river, and after a while, there was no noise….Then, suddenly, they heard the noise again. A little later, it was flying very low right over the village. It was bigger than the houses. No one had ever heard so much noise and seen such a big bird. They were very much afraid. The women and children ran to the forest. The women even took off their ulumi string which they never take off after the flow of blood begins. They thought maybe this sacrifice would make strong magic against the bird, but it didn’t. The bird circled around the village and came lower. The men were afraid too, hut stood in the clearing here and tried to kill the monster with their arrows, but it did not come low enough for them to reach it. Then they saw something drop from it and catch on the top of a nearby tree. After that, the monster flew southward acain and disappeared….

The men who had been out on the river came back at night and told them what they had seen. At first, nobody believed them when they said that men dressed in a strange way came out of the bird’s belly and ate food. They told of see­ing a white dog. Then they showed the bag filled with strange things. They talked in the men’s house all night. The women sat outside crying and very much afraid. The shaman made magic. They sang, and they played the flutes. The women danced, but they did this because they were afraid. In the morning, they decided to get what had fallen onto the tree. Two young men climbed up and brought it down. They looked into it. They found strange things which they had never seen before. They found knives, beautiful beads, cloth. They were marvelous things. They talked about them and decided to put them away in the men’s house with the sacred objects. They realized now that the men in the bird were not enemies. That night the shaman made magic and dreamed. He said that the men in the bird were powerful magicians, or maybe even gods, who had come to pay a visit. but because we had shot the arrows at them they were angry. They were so angry that they might come back to kill us. So they danced and sang. In the morning, the women prepared much biiju and manioc water. The men went fishing. They pre­pared their dance dress, and every day they faced the south and called out to the bird to please come back. They placed all the food out in the clearing of the village, and they danced all night while the shaman made magic sometimes in the men’s house and sometimes outside. He wore his mask and his dress. They did this for many days, and because the bird did nut come back, they thought it was angry with them. At last, they gave up hope, and they were very sad.

“Then one day the noise was heard again, and soon the bird was in the river again. This time they were not afraid. They got into their canoes and with food offerings, paddled swiftly out to the liver. When they saw the bird, they were afraid again. it was resting on the bank, and it was so very big. But after a while, they went up to the men who came out of its belly. They gave them food, and the men gave them more marvelous things. Then you came down the river in canoes. They recognized you and the dog.

“They were very happy. They say they will give you food, will dance and sing because they are happy. They want you to stay in the village all the time. They will give you wives. The women will make biiju. The men will bring you much fish.

“I told them that you must go hack to your people. They said they will go with you then. They don’t want you to leave theme.”

Can we place ourselves for the moment in the position of these primitive people whose mechanical appliances are limited to the fibre drill and the bow when they saw and heard descending upon them from the high heavens, as if about to destroy them, the huge plane? What Fear would we suffer, were we, with our knowl­edge of physical laws, to see a satellite come crashing down on us? How are we really to gauge the courage of that hand­ful of men who, instead of running away in terror, went for their bows and arrows and defied the unknown peril? The tale impressed me and always has. The mys­tery of my reception was explained, but what was more important. I received a lesson in human courage which made me feel humble.

Cite This Article

Petrullo, Vincenzo. "‘Among Friends’." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 3 (November, 1993): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/among-friends/

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