THE STORY OF THE GHOST DANCER PHOTOGRAPH
Lately people have been asking me about the story behind the photo of the woman on the cover of my book, The Ghost Dance. For me, the photo tells a tale of courageous beauty and the triumph of the female spirit in the face of tragedy. This is the heart of the Ghost Dance.
The story of the photo began in 1987 when the Brazilian news media created a gold rush that sent hundreds of gold miners across the border into Venezuela’s Amazon jungle searching for the riches of El Dorado. Financed by Canadian mining companies and wealthy Brazilian developers, landing strips were cut out of the jungle and gold miners soon arrived on planes and helicopters. Almost immediately they began to pollute the virgin forest with mercury and explosives, showing no mercy for the indigenous people or the land. Even though the Venezuelan Government was furious over the clandestine invasion, which threatened the Yanomami, the last intact tribal nation on earth, they did little, fearing the might of the US backed Brazilian military.
With automatic weapons supplied by the developers, the Brazilian gold miners kidnapped Yanomami girls as young as ten years old who they forced into prostitution in the gold camps. When the girls were too ravaged to continue, the miners released them into the jungle where they were accepted back into their villages. Unfortunately, the girls had contracted infectious diseases from the gold miners and unknowingly infected their tribes. A year after the gold rush began, a full-blown epidemic broke out among the Yanomami, killing off large percentages of the indigenous population.
There were too many dead to cremate, so the bodies were hung from the trees along the Ocamo River in an attempt to keep them out of the reach of scavenging animals. This was an eerie image, as if the bodies were strange, decaying fruit filling the jungle with their scent of death. I had entered the very heart of darkness and the sheer sadness was beyond anything I could have imagined.
In 1990, the Yanomami woman whose photograph is now on the cover of my book, “The Ghost Dance,” seemingly fell dead on the Alto Ocamo River above the Puda Putaco confluent. At the time we were too busy trying to keep the living alive to pay much attention to someone who had already died. But later, when I thought back on what occurred, I wondered if she had suffered a brain aneurism.
Almost an hour after I watched her hit the mud, the woman began to spasm and then appeared to come back to life, which scared the hell out of the Yanomami. Then she got up and began washing herself with dirt, saying in Yanomami that she needed to wash the fumes of the “Xawara” (disease,) off of her. This immediately caught my attention because the Plains Tribes of North America did the exact same thing when they Ghost Danced. I took out my camera, something I rarely did in these types of situations.
At first her steps were awkward and spasmodic as she chanted, “I can see the bleeding eye-balls of my dead relations all around me. Yomawe help us survive the evil spell your brother Omave has accidently brought back from the land of the dead.”
Animated by the death wails of those who had survived, woman’s steps became a thing of grace and beauty as her dance took flight. Purely by accident, I snapped the photograph at the very moment her spirit rose up, capturing the essence of who she was. Then the shadow of night fell like a cloak upon the Yanomami woman and her Ghost Dance became darkly surreal, backlit and illuminated by the ritual cremation of the dead.
All the way up the Alto Ocamo, funeral piers burned in abundance like the stars in the sky. In the village where the woman continued to Ghost Dance, a medicine man’s body, wrapped in his hammock, was placed on a funeral pier to burn. A crackle sent sparks and ambers flying as the medicine man contracted and sat up in the towering flames of his funeral pier. This last action attracted everyone’s attention, including my own, and we all joined the lady in her Ghost Dance, calling for Yomawe to remove the evil stench of disease that they thought the helicopter had brought.
So this is why I put that image on the cover. Today, there exist few, if any photographs of pre-reservation era Native Americans Ghost Dancing. I was astonished that from thousands of miles away, (although still in the Americas,) there were native people ghost dancing just as the North American native people danced when introduced diseases came to wipe them off the face of the earth. It gives me hope that the Yanomami are still there and through this image, the Yanomami Ghost Dancer is still keeping the ritual alive.