Source: Yanoáma: The Story of Helena Valero
Yanoáma: The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians is a first-person captive narrative. Helena Valero was an 11- or 12-year-old Spanish girl captured by the Yąnomamö in the late 1930s. The Yąnomamö live in a remote part of the Amazon region, a dense tropical forest between Brazil and Venezuela. This excerpt recounts only the first weeks of her captivity, but the book covers the more than 20 years that she lived with the Yąnomamö. During her stay with the Yąnomamö, she married twice and had four children. Her first husband was killed and, fearing his enemies, she moved to a distant community and married again. Her second husband was unkind and, again fearing for her life, she gathered her children and found her way out of the jungle. Sadly, when she was reunited with her father and brothers, they were reluctant to accept her, and she eventually returned to live near a mission at the edge of the Yąnomamö territory. It was here that she was interviewed by the Italian parasitologist Ettore Biocca in the early 1960s. Biocca’s interest in the Yąnomamö was scientific, but he realized the importance of Helena’s story and decided to tape and later publish it.
Captive narratives are not uncommon, but first-person accounts presented verbatim, like Helena’s, are highly unusual. Without a written language, the Yąnomamö had a strong oral tradition. During her years with the group, Helena told and retold the story of her capture and the subsequent events of her life with the Yąnomamö and she had heard others tell these same stories. This allowed her to repeat them to Biocca with such clarity. This segment of the book has many elements that are common experiences for captives around the world. Helena was suddenly and dramatically separated from her family; she was terrified in the first days of captivity; she was forced to walk a long distance in spite of a painful injury to her leg; her captors were attacked and she was taken captive by a different group – this happened twice in the first months of her captivity. Although she spent over 20 years with the Yąnomamö, she was always something of an outsider; they called her “white woman” for the entire time she was with them. While many captive women live miserable lives, their position between cultures allowed some of them to gain status. Helena became the wife of a powerful chief and she became influential among the women of her group. She managed to survive and to some extent thrive while living with the Yąnomamö, as captives occasionally did in other cultures (Barr 2007; Brooks 2002).
Contributed by Catherine Cameron. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. This text published in Ettore Biocca, Yanoáma: The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians (New York: Kodansha International, 1996), chapters 1-3.
- How was Helena treated by her Yąnomamö captors? Can you discern differences in the way she was treated by women and men?
- In what ways did Helena attempt to retain some level of agency or control over her life? How successful was she?
- What can we learn about how Helena’s value among the Yąnomamö groups? Did she become simply another member of the group or did they see other values in this white girl?
- Compare Helena’s capture with those of women in the other sources you have read. What similarities and differences do you perceive?
Related Primary Sources
- La Cautiva Marcelina
- Indian soldiers from the province of Coritiba, bringing back captives
- Miracles of Saint Opportuna
Related Secondary Sources
- Barr, Juliana. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
- Brooks, James. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
- Snyder, Christina. Slavery in Indian Country. The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.