When twenty-five year old missionary Dan Everett landed among the Pirahãs Tribe in 1977, with the intention of evangelizing the lost Amazonian community, he could not possibly envision the idea that he would, one day, become “one of them.”
But it took him only a few years before he reevaluated his faith, and his “mission” among one of the most isolated tribes of Amazonia, a four-day boat ride from the town of Porto Velho, Brazil.
Everett lived among the Pirahãs for eight years, with his ex-wife and children, patiently learning their unwritten language by repeating the name of each object: he discovered a unique linguistic system, with no other tense then the present, no numbers, and no colors. This new perception of reality revolutionized his life. The Pirahas live in the immediacy, do not keep possessions, or wealth, do not plan for the future, or project themselves in the past; and do not work more then they need to. Their stunning melodious language covers the range of spoken, whistled, sung, hummed sounds. When hunting, they communicate by whistles, akin to the natural sounds of their Amazonian environment.
This remarkable adventure is released in the documentary, The Grammar of Happiness, directed by Australians filmmakers Michael O’ Neil and Randall Wood.
Shot in 2009 and 2010, the film depicts the life of this small tribe, living on the edge of the impressive Maici River, in the heart of Amazonia. The one-hour documentary film will be aired on the Smithsonian Channel on Saturday May 12, at 9 p.m.
Soon after his arrival, the film shows an indigenous member approach Everett and say, “we know why you are here: you want to tell us about Jesus. We like you, but we do not want to hear any more about Jesus: we are not Americans.”
The more than 400 Pirahãs are settled in four villages along the river, visiting each other constantly by canoe.
“It took me six years to achieve this film,” O’Neil said in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. “And at one point, the process had become so difficult, that we were going to call it the Grammar of Unhappiness! But the Pirahãs were welcoming, generous, and helping. And [Everett] was very patient, remaining present during all those years. I was appealed by his story of multiple conversions: from a rock star to a Christian missionary, then an atheist, and an academist. And getting to know the Pirahãs, I was fascinated by how different we can be, and at the same time, so similar.”
Everett, today a professor of linguistics at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, 10 miles outside of Boston, remembers, “I used to be a passionate believer, but living with the Pirahãs, I realized that trying to convert people is just another form of colonialism.”
Resilient and happy, the Pirahãs taught Everett another way of life, through their hyper presence, and their openness, welcoming his desire of knowledge for their language.
“We do not want any strangers here,” insists an elder in the film. “Only Pirahãs!”
After 30 years among the Pirahãs, Everett was adopted into the tribe. “Dan speaks Pirahã,” his Pirahã teacher confirmed in the documentary.
The Grammar of Happiness reveals this improbable encounter between one of the most ancient tribes in the world, with a North American, whose life, transformed by their astonishing philosophy of life, ended up converting his values while researching their secret language – until today.
Watch the trailer for The Grammar of Happiness below: