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Between Two Worlds : When in the Amazon, Michael Stuart Ani adopts the lifestyle of the Yanomamo Indians. Back home in Los Angeles, he champions their cause. ‘If the forest perishes, where will the untamed like . . . me go?’ he asks.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A month ago, as Indian children searched his hair for insects and sucked poison from tiny bites on his arms and legs, Michael Stuart Ani lay dozing in a hammock in the Amazon. It was hot, and he was reveling in the social grooming that is a sign of affection among the Yanomamo, the “fierce people” of Venezuela and Brazil with whom he has lived off and on for five years.

This day, as he recalls that scene, Ani reclines in a hammock in the living room of his Hollywood Hills home, surrounded by the trappings of two decades in the jungle--a vast collection of carved, beaded and feathered artifacts that chronicles his experiences with more than two dozen tribes in Mexico and Central and South America.

A jaguar skull on the fireplace mantel reminds him of the night he says he was forced to shoot the huge cat as it leaped, wide-jawed and roaring, into his boat. On narrow shelves specially built to hold ceremonial items is a Yanomamo woven basket that held the ashen bones of the dead, which were “drunk” in an ancient ritual, the Indian’s name never to be spoken again.

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But these aren’t the memories of an anthropologist who--in safari dress and lunching on Spam--came, saw and documented a jungle ecosystem. Ani is a musician and impassioned Yanomamo advocate, a refugee from the urban jungle of the Bronx who has fully adopted the Yanomamo lifestyle when in the Amazon--and fully adopted their cause wherever he is.

To Yanomamo holy men, he is a “white witch doctor.” But he prefers to be seen as a “crazy uncle,” a self-described witty storyteller who declares: “I am to the Yanomamo what Jerry Lewis is to the French.”

“I don’t bring instruments to study them, take their blood, have them (urinate) in jars,” he says. “I bring a piccolo to play music for them. . . . We fish, hunt, go swimming a lot. Sometimes we lay around and talk about the sky, the moon, women.”

Indeed, Ani has been able to live the ultimate adventurer’s dream: A lean and dark-eyed man, he is a survivalist who hunts with the skill of the Yanomamo and whose tales of raging beasts and death-defying escapades have a fantastic quality about them. At the same time, he funds his life in the Amazon through his success as a “retro-’70s hip-hop” songwriter in the more tame world of Los Angeles.

Now, he sees himself as a creature of both worlds who may be a bridge to saving those he calls “the last of the untamed people.”

They have taken Ani into their secret lives, allowing him behind the face put on for all but a few civilizados, as city dwellers are known, and introducing him to their mysticism and sacred rituals.

During the three to four months a year he lives in the Amazon, he joins in the daily routines like a family member, “trying not to eat too many grubs.”

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He tends their wounds with natural cures: tea tree oil for infected bug bites. He teaches them skills like fishing. He’s taught them to make flutes, “but out of bamboo so they can get involved in the process. I wouldn’t bring them a metal flute.”

At the same time, Ani counsels them on the outside world and what they may have to face in the near future.

It is a future that deeply worries him. Only about 17,000 remain of this semi-nomadic people, who occupy about 25,000 square miles of dense rain forest. They fish, hunt monkey, rodent-like lapa, marsh-footed tapir and other game, and comb the forest for plantain, the jungle banana.

Once thought to be exceptionally brutal--almost half the tribe’s men have participated in killings--Yanomamo are now perceived by some to be not much more violent than similar societies. (Ani contends: “They are a young society and have that ‘Lord of the Fly’-ish aggressiveness that you could find in any nightclub in L.A.”)

The tribe is “an anthropologist’s dream,” according to Kenneth Good, an anthropology professor at Jersey City State College, who’s also lived with the Yanomamo. “They are truly the last uncontacted people on Earth.”

But as exploitation of rain forests increases, contact is more and more frequent. In 1987, a jungle fever for gold not seen since the Spanish conquest of the Incas 400 years ago was rekindled. Miners from resource-poor Brazil poured into Yanomamo territory by the thousands, bringing with them malaria, measles and mercury used in mining that poisoned fishing grounds and water supplies.

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Yanomamo protecting their villages were gunned down. The Amazon Gold Rush was on.

Since then, thousands of Yanomamo have fled Brazil and sought refuge in Venezuela, an oil-rich country that has not begun serious exploitation of its rain forests. More than 80% of the tribe now is found in Venezuela under the protection of the government.

Still, even in Venezuela the Yanomamo are dying of malaria and other maladies at a rate never before seen in the region. Among his friends, Ani says, 70 have perished in the last year alone. Missionaries and a handful of anthropologists and naturalists are the only semblance of health workers in the region.

In spite of the extraordinary hardships, it is the jungle’s untamed spirit that hooked him and draws him back. He thrives on it. While others bemoan the insects and incessant heat, he says he finds solace amid nature and a people who still live naked and count only one, two and “more than two.”

“The Indians lack that neurosis of looking in the mirror and not knowing who they are,” he says, adding: “Like us, there are good and bad Indians, smart Indians, dumb Indians, average Indians. They are us, naked--what is beautiful and ugly, and with all our human frailties.”

But Ani is uncomfortable with topics that might reveal his own frailties and bristles at questions about his personal life. His exact age remains a mystery, although he says he is in his late 30s.

He is equally reluctant to discuss his past, including the murder of his Indian wife many years ago, or how, even earlier, a shooting death in his family and a Vietnam War draft notice propelled him, angry and disillusioned, on his “life quest.”

“What can’t be seen can’t be hunted,” he declares.

However, he is not in the least reticent to discuss his life with the Yanomamo. With them, he seems to have a “spiritual kinship,” according to Anina Maurier, a Los Angeles attorney who has been to the jungle with him twice.

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“Michael has an uncanny ability to move among even hostile groups, gaining their friendship as he goes,” says Maurier. “He has a real affection for the Indians and a great deal of character. He’s a very noble character.”

Napoleon Chagnon, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and granddaddy of professional Yanomamologists, had a less noble impression of Ani when he first heard about him.

“I thought he was another foolhardy adventurer,” says Chagnon, whose book “Yanomamo: The Fierce People” established him as the foremost authority on the tribe in the 1960s.

But Ani found Chagnon, known among anthropologists as a curmudgeon, “fascinating and full of life, with a ton of heart.” In time, Chagnon was equally impressed: “Michael gave a brilliant account of his work with the Yanomamo. He is extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and has their best interests at heart.”

Even so, Ani’s style may be too intense for some, according to Robert Pendergast, special projects coordinator for the Los Angeles-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

“In some ways he scares your average environmentalist,” Pendergast says. “He has so much passion for what he’s doing, and he’s not political; he says what he feels without pulling punches. He is an incredible force in the environmental movement.”

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In an unpublished book, Ani says his passion for the Indians started at age 17. At that time, he left New York and wound up in the rain forest of the Mazatecs, a tribe in southern Mexico renowned for its hostility to outsiders. After the widow of a great brujo, or witch doctor, died in Ani’s hut, he found that the site of her death was considered an omen by the Mazatecs, who believed he thus had a connection to the brujo.

For the next three years he was initiated into the Indians’ complex weave of creation, a lineage between man, animal and plant called the “Rope of the Dead.” They taught him how to observe elements of nature to understand the basis of their beliefs, and he learned rituals such as ti-ji, finding one’s own “spirit animal,” which Ani says becomes a personal guide into the hidden world of the sorcerer.

But Ani wasn’t a prime candidate for witch doctorhood. “I was brought up to believe that religions were created to control, subdue and get money out of people,” he says. “The guru thing of the ‘70s was like a bunch of used-car salesmen from New Delhi pawning their trade in L.A. I never went for it.”

What changed his mind, he says, is that the widely scattered tribes with whom he eventually came into contact all shared the belief in the Rope of the Dead, “meaning either that their beliefs all came from a common source through their migration or that somehow a single source was fueling them.”

After five years with the Mazatecs, he says, they sent him south following “the map of the Rope of the Dead.” They told him to gather the knowledge and possessions of dying Indian sages, by which he allegedly would find the source of a witch doctor’s power.

What Ani found, however, in his travels to Indian tribes in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela was a Western brand of progress crushing Indian cultures like thin tin cans.

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“I found myself running just ahead of it, warning the Indians that this storm was coming,” he says.

He reached the Yanomamo two years before the gold rush.

Now, Ani believes hope for the tribe hinges on a plan proposed by Chagnon through FUNDAFACI, Venezuela’s native rights organization. Under the plan, known as “Biosphere,” the Yanomamo themselves, as well as their lands in Venezuela, would be protected from exploitation and development. At the center of the project is a nonpartisan medical facility that would serve the Yanomamo and, eventually, Indians in neighboring areas.

Working with FUNDAFACI and with American environmental organizations such as RAN, Ani’s Amazonia Foundation and Chagnon’s Yanomamo Survival Fund are teaming to coordinate speaking engagements and benefit concerts to fund Biosphere.

Some American environmentalists involved in the Amazon charge that Ani, like Chagnon, is too hotheaded, “too Yanomamo,” to lead a successful cultural rescue. But Ani calls the charges “more foolishness.”

“I’ve actually seen people in the Amazon in little boats in pink leotards, supposedly using telepathy to ‘call’ pink river dolphins that feed there every day at the same time anyway. It’s simply ludicrous,” he says. “I’m trying to get something done in the jungle, for God’s sake.”

Day or night, friends say, he’s possessed by thoughts of the jungle and grieved by the Yanomamo plight. But for Ani, it’s more personal than that.

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“If the forest perishes, where will the untamed like (Chagnon) and me go?” he asks. “Like the Yanomamo, part of us will die with it.”

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