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Yanomami Marriage and Kin: managing my intercultural dilemma

Over the years, I’ve tried to classify my family members using Yanomami and Western based kinship terms. With very little training and knowledge in Yanomami genealogy, I found it difficult but fascinating. The Yanomami, whether you are genetically related or not, will eventually give you a kinship term after they have gotten to know you and trust you.

At first, one could begin as a “nohi” which means friend. But then after a while, they will call you father, or aunt, or brother-in-law. I skipped the “nohi” phase in my village since I was related by blood. I immediately was immersed in a matrix of lineages and it has been a challenge to keep it all straight.

I’ve learned more about my familial relationships with the other villagers using both Yanomami and Western based kinship terms. My brother, Ricky, was my half-brother but we don’t say half-brother in Yanomami. He is just brother, or “oshe”. “Shori” means brother-in-law.

If a man called me “shori”, I may not really be his brother in law as we define it here in Western society. However, to him, I may be already married, or potentially be married, to a girl related to him.

Taken in 2011 shortly after I met mom. I was introduced to my brother who has the nickname, "Ricky Martin."
First family photo with my mom and "oshe" which means brother.

“Shori,’ has a more intimate connection than “nohi”. Therefore, one could be called “shori” because they truly see you as a brother-in-law, or they may be trying to get you closer into their kin so that there is established sense of reciprocal obligations where I would be obliged to provide trade goods or other items.

One year, I was introduced to a man and was told, by mother, to call him “hapeh” which can mean father. I write, “can mean” because it does have other meanings under different contexts. Maybe father isn’t exactly the most accurate translation. When I write about him in my field notes, I simply refer to him as “father” and “the current husband of my mother”.

Then, in 2019, my mom had a different husband. She had gotten divorced. In Yanomami a divorce is called "hoyoramou" which means to throw away, or separate from. Mom instructed me to call her new husband “hapeh”. I was frustrated because I really liked the other guy, and this new one not so much. I joked to mom in English, “geez ma, you gotta settle down. I don’t know how many more fathers I can tolerate.” Of course, I was being facetious. This is a sliver of what I mean by some of the challenges of immediately being plugged into an extensive and complicated kinship network.

I had to learn the various kindship terms for my relatives and it was sometimes difficult to figure out the Yanomami system. In the video where my uncle was giving me my Yanomami name, he referred to me as his “hekemayah” and that means nephew, or the son of your sister. It could also mean grandson. For a while, I didn’t know if he was my grandfather or uncle.

Meeting my "shoape" which in uncle in Yanomami

After speaking with my father (my real father in the US), who knew the elder, we determined he was my uncle, or as I would call him, “shaope”. Sometimes it takes that kind of investigation to figure out how someone is related to me from a Yanomami, Western, and genetic relatedness perspectives. The Yanomami have different terms for cousins. This, I learned, is a very important classification in Yanomami culture because, from a male-centric perspective, knowing whether a girl is your cross-cousin vs a parallel cousin determines whether you can marry her.

The daughter of your father’s brother is your parallel cousin. The daughter of your mother’s sister is also a parallel cousin. The daughter of your father’s sister or the daughter of your mother’s brother are considered cross cousins. To me, they are all just cousins.

However, in Yanomami culture, they take on different meanings. For example, it would be taboo and incestual to marry your parallel cousin. However, it is perfectly fine to marry a cross-cousin. Since I am Yanomami by birth and am a part of my mother’s kinship network, I have cross-cousins. Therefore, they could be classified as my wife or potential wife.

I recognize that to not be married is "unnatural" in Yanomami society. It would disrupt the order of things. Not having a mate would make it harder for you to survive. Unlike here in the US, I don’t have to get married to survive. Naturally, being the son of Yarima, and a member of the Irokai-teri village, I was told that I needed to have a wife. I didn’t have much of a say in this. My mom and the headman presented me with some “potential wives”. I knew that these women were my cross-cousins. At many levels, I was in a bit of a cross-cultural dilemma. Yes, I am Yanomami. But I was born and raised in New Jersey. When, I rediscovered my Yanomami family in 2011, I was in my early twenties ready to take the world on. Having a wife was nowhere in my agenda in any culture.

Additionally, I hadn’t the slightest clue what it meant to be a Yanomami husband. We must understand that my concept of love, and courtship, and marriage was shaped by my upbringing in Western society. Think of all those Disney movies I watched. Normally, I would date a girl for a while. Take her our for dinner. See if things work out and share similar values. Maybe after several months we’d move in or go on a vacations somewhere. Maybe I’d meet the parents to see if we would get a long, and so on.

In the Amazon, marriage takes on a different hue. In the jungle, a man needs a wife. A wife needs a man. Collectively, they and their children comprise the village and they work together so that they all can survive and prosper as they have done for generations. You need kids to help you bring food. You need kids that can go get married and have their husbands/wives help you bring food and protection. It’s a necessity. A practicality that you can't afford to omit. Don’t get me wrong. Two Yanomami people love each other, care for each other, and flirt in their own way. They have kids because they want little ones of their own to cherish and care for. But it’s not like the Shakespearian notion of love and romance that influenced me in the US.

Mom was adamant about making sure that I cement my place in the village. When I pointed to my classified wife, mom would respond by saying, “suwe”, Yanomami for wife, and I was her “heãrõpi” or husband.

My "suwe" which means wife in Yanomami. Though I never officially "married" her we developed a great friendship.

See video clip:

I meant no offense by calling them Wife 1 and Wife 2. I just referred them as such in my notes. Since the Yanomami don’t share their names, and I didn't know if they had any nicknames, I just gave them a numerical classification. Though it wasn’t really a laughing matter for them, I couldn’t help but shed some comedic light on my sticky situation. If was back home in New Jersey and someone I never met before came up to me and said, "Hey how you doing? Listen, I'm your wife so let's start having kids". This may sound preposterous but that is exactly what happened when I met my Yanomami wife in 2011.

I also discovered that, since they are my wives, their children are also my children. A young boy I called Felipe is the son of Wife 2 and is also considered my son. In US society, he is my nephew but in Yanomami he is classified as my “ihiru” a term for son. To complicate my understanding of the kinship network among the Yanomami, I had quickly learned that my so-called wives already had husbands and are the biological fathers of these children. I had no idea how to navigate this especially on my first day in the village

From what I was explained, these husbands are considered my brothers, not an “oshe” but something else. It wouldn’t be too outrageous for me to marry or copulate with my brother’s wife. But they wouldn’t be too happy about that! I didn't know how they felt or if they were expected to accept that their wife was now married to me. I sensed tension between me and them and I was scared, confused, and nervous.

I remember wishing that I knew enough Yanomami to tell them, “Hey, I have zero interest in sleeping with your wife.” After several weeks or so, that became apparent to them and they became more friendly. It didn’t help that my mom, the village headman, and just about everyone else in the village were pushing me to take these women as my wives. She just wouldn't let up. One time, she instructed my wife to climb into the hammock with me. She often scolded me for not impregnating them. Even the children chimed in telling me that I am now husband to these women. From mom’s perspective, I totally get it. She wanted grandkids and she wanted them from me. We had been separated fro 20 years and she missed out on the opportunity to see me take on a wife and have kids. Perhaps, she thought that if I took a wife and started a Yanomami family I would stay longer, or maybe never leave.

Despite my dilemma and refusal to “marry”, I did develop a great friendship and camaraderie with my “wives: They were nice, friendly, and critical in helping me learn the language and Yanomami culture. They were patient in teaching me how to go crabbing, collecting firewood, and weave baskets. This was quite comical to them, and the village, because those are task normally reserved for women only.

Here in the US, in 2020, I have started my own family. I have a significant other, a son, and a daughter. Imagine the difficult conversations in trying to explain to my girlfriend that I have “wives” in the Amazon. I'm in trouble in one world because I won't "marry my wife", and I'm in trouble in the other for "having a wife." Maintaining a foot in two radically different cultures is getting more and more complicated and difficult. I wonder if mom grew more impatient with me thinking that, "if I could start a family here in the US, then surely, I can start one in the Amazon. I am Yanomami after all."

After nine years, I was so sure that my village and mom would eventually come to understand that I was not going to marry and start a Yanomami family and forget about the whole thing. After all, we are all getting older. My classificatory wives are on the their 3rd or 4th kids by now.

But I was wrong.

Earlier this year, on my last expedition, I was hanging out with my team and a Yanomami translator. Sitting beside us were some of my Yanomami family members including a beautiful young girl. She was decorated and adorned with long hii-ii sticks, a painted face, and flowers in her ears. I didn’t know what to call her, but I assumed she was a relative of some kind. The village called her “suweheri” which means “on the path to be a woman."

We were all just chatting around the fire when the headman got out of his hammock, walked straight to this girl with a rather serious demeanor, shared some words, pointed at me, and then walked back to his hammock. I knew enough Yanomami to get an idea of what he said but I looked to my translator for confirmation. We asked him, “what did he just say?” The translator, knowing full well of my “marital situations”, replied with a wide grin, “David…el tiene mucho mujeres. He has many women.” We all laughed and I let out a big sight.

The headman had just betrothed me a new wife-to-be. He had told her that I was to be her future husband. My intercultural dilemma continues. I expect to return to my village in the summer of 2022. I have no idea what my marital status will be but I'm sure mom will not forget to remind me.

I do feel really bad for my mother. I know that I am greatly disappointing her. But that’s the nature of our unique, intercultural family. We are part of two very different societies and in very different family structures. Sure, I am grateful and honored to know and be part of my two worlds but It’s not all perfect. And it’s certainly not always idyllic.

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