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The Amazon's Pirahã People's Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future

In 1977, Daniel Everett came to Amazonia to live among the Pirahãs. He came to convert them; instead, they converted him. He originally came to stay with the “straight people” (as they call themselves) to serve as a Bible translator for the Wycliffe missionary organization, but a few years after his arrival, his life changed: through his evolving understanding of their culture and unique language, he says he discovered new values, and abandoned his faith, his “mission,” his old life.

Everett is now a professor of sociology at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where he has devoted himself to the study of the Pirahã language for the past 20 years. He tells his remarkable story in a 2008 book, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. Those experiences have now been vividly captured in a documentary, The Grammar of Happiness, which demonstrates how the Pirahãs are able to communicate in a unique manner that involves singing, humming and whistling. And in so doing, seem to be fully enjoying the moment, not worried about what happened yesterday, or might happen tomorrow. Everett says they have no words for colors or numbers; nor do they even have any memories, art or even stories from their ancestors. They shun the past and experience each day without preconceptions. He says they are, as a result, extraordinarily happy.

What was the purpose, initially, of your visit among the Pirahãs? Why did you choose them, of all Amazonian tribes?

I went as a missionary, to translate the Bible into their language; they were suggested to me by the Wycliffe missionary organization I was with—other missionaries had tried to understand their language, and had not done very well. I was required to take classes in linguistics, as well as doing field research, to do this Bible translation. The Wycliffe people do not do evangelization per se: They translate the Bible, hoping Natives will believe in it. They have translated several New Testaments in tribal languages around the world.

Did you know much about other tribes before going to the Pirahãs?

I delivered mail on a reservation, to the Barona Indians, in San Diego County, when I was in college in Southern California, and I had a few [Native] friends from high school, but [I had] no significant knowledge [of any tribes]. Later, [after college], I went to live in Chiapas, Mexico, with the Tzeltales.

Where do the Pirahãs live, and how many are there today?

The census today indicates 700. Depending on whether it is dry or rainy season, the communities vary: extended families are split in villages. In my community, there were 20 people in the rainy season, and 80 during the dry season. They canoe up and down the Maici River, and visit all the time—even when they live 10 days apart by canoe. They live a four-day boat ride from Porto Velho, Brazil, isolated, right at the edge of the river. The first story, by a Portuguese missionary, referring to them on this river, is dated in 1784. They came as part of a larger nation, out of Peru, the Mura, during the time of the Incas. We think they arrived in the 16th century.

How did they welcome you?

Very positively; the relationship was good from the first day. But my missionary desire to interfere caused conflicts a couple of times. The Pirahãs got upset whenever I interfered, [such as] when the Brazilian traders visiting them to get Brazil nuts and rubber wanted to give them whiskey. But I got used to not interfering; and then it went well.

How long were you living with them before you were “adopted?”

There was no adoption, but they consider me the only person who speaks Pirahã, [which took me] three years. You have to speak their language to be accepted. They refer to me as “brother,” which they usually do not do with strangers.

Did you learn with a specific person?

Yes, with Bernardo, “Kohoi” in Pirahã: He had taught the missionary before me. When I arrived, he told me he would be willing to teach me. He was very patient, and taught me distinctions I would not have thought of.

You learned by repeating the words of each object. Did you write too?

Yes, I would write words on little cards, and practice every day. They helped me a lot, but it took a long time before I knew they had no colors, and no numbers, which is unique: No other group lacks numbers. The no-color thing—some other [languages] have [none] as well. The way they hum their language, they way they organize words, the tones and their sound system is unique too: From the very start, I could tell this language is not like any other. It is tonal: If you do not hear the tone, you cannot communicate. And they only use present tense.

How does that affect how they live?

Their philosophy affects the way they talk: Their priority is the immediacy of experience.

What in the philosophy of the Pirahãs made you abandon your faith? When did that shift happen?

It affected me immediately—going there as a missionary, I thought they needed my message. But they had their own views and were not convinced by anything I said. They would ask me: have I seen Jesus? Then they would say, “So why do you tell us about things that you have never seen?” What struck me was their

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lack of superstition, their contentment with life as they found it. And their happiness. I have never seen people facing so many difficulties, with so much grace: it deeply impressed me. One day, after a few years, one of them told me, “We know why you are here—you want to tell us about Jesus. We like you, but do not want to hear any more about Jesus. We are not Americans.” And I thought, What right do I have to be here, telling them about my beliefs? It made me think about the missionary enterprise in another way; that was in 1980, three years after I arrived. And I got the same response in all the other villages. So I was struggling with my faith.

Because they have their own beliefs?

Yes, there are jungle entities, called fast mouths, who are like humans. Someone will walk in the village at night, and they will say, “Here is a fast mouth.” Those characters look like Pirahãs but talk differently. If you want a Pirahã to believe something, you have to show it to him.

What do they value most?

The immediacy of experience, not to worry about the future or past, and not talk about what you have not seen or heard. They hunt, fish and share their food; the rest of the time they laugh, talk, spend time enjoying themselves. I worked with a dozen Amazonian groups—these other groups always wanted things from the outside, [were always] feeling bad if they did not have the material things that Brazilians have: trucks, guns.… But the Pirahãs never asked for all that. Not because they do not know about it—they just do not need it. They are proud of being Pirahãs, contented with their culture and lifestyle; and even if they see all I have, they feel no desire to become like me.

They do not have creation myths, but do they practice storytelling?

No; they get together, as they love to gossip about how are people doing, is anyone sick, or [has anyone] died? They share the news about what is going on.

What is their family system?

They have a nuclear family system, based on the couple, but the children are taken care of by the whole village: if the mother of a child dies or leaves, the child will be taken care of. Same if you are old or sick: They make sure everybody is taken care of.

Today, the Pirahãs are learning Portuguese, and Brazil’s National Indian Foundation has built houses in one village. What is the impact of such changes on their life?

I lived in that village for a couple of years: Today, because of the food given to them by the foundation, the men have gained weight and children have cavities from eating sugar. Pirahãs traditionally fish and hunt, eat fruits from the jungle. They have small fields [for growing], but do not depend on that. My fear is that they will go from contempt [for the government] to dependency on it. And [they will learn to] feel poor, as they are shown machines they do not have.

All that builds up dependency; it is a risk that they might be less happy. But the positive aspect is the government’s involvement in health, helping them with vaccinations.

What medicine do they practice?

They know about the jungle plants. Like the plant one man rubs on his eyes not to sleep: so much could be studied about that.

How do they relate to wild animals?

Their knowledge of animals is unbelievable. They train wild animals, and some of them live around the villages. They had an eagle, from a baby, and they let him fly; but he would come back to the village whenever they called him. I had never seen that. They love to point out animal behavior. One of them showed me the ants at night, “That is how we are: We work all the time, like ants!”

What did you learn from them? Is there any special memory?

I learned life lessons. They are self-reliant. They do not worry about the past, or the future. They have no regrets. I learned to focus on one day at a time, and not worry about unnecessary issues: being more reliant. My best memory is before sunset. Every evening, I made coffee for everybody. We talked, laughed and drank coffee.

Did you choose the title of the documentary, The Grammar of Happiness?

No, it was based on something I mentioned to the filmmakers. I took a group of psychologists down there, and one of them said, “The Pirahãs look the most happy of all the people we ever saw; they laugh the most of all the populations we have seen.”