June 20, 2013

"Why Do They Want to Destroy Us?": Letter from the Munduruku

In the past we, the Munduruku, were feared for our fame in the art of group warfare and we had strategies for attacking our enemies. We did not easily give up the pursuit of our enemies and our trophies were human heads that symbolized power.

With these ominous words the leaders of the Munduruku indigenous people introduce an open letter to the Brazilian government protesting the planned construction of several hydroelectric dams within their traditional territory and adjacent indigenous lands in the Brazilian state of Pará. 

"Why do they want to destroy us?" (Photo source: ARQUEOTROP).

The letter, drafted on June 8, presents an overview of Munduruku social norms and shamanic knowledge:

The shamans take care of the functions of the ecosystem of planetary life so that nothing bad happens, they maintain the balance of the perfect functioning of nature We know how the law of nature works through the teachings of the ancients and how we should respect nature.

These traditional values are compared with the invading European worldview, both by way of contrast and as a dire and urgent warning:

There are no rich or poor within our indigenous society, we do not favor some over others and much less discriminate. In our world such things do not exist, just love, respect, peace, humility, sincerity... We, the Munduruku, this is how we are: we value that which is around us...

So much research is being done, involving scientists, intellectuals, people gifted with scientific knowledge, but they discover nothing about themselves and they remain in the dark about the precious things that interest us. Every day nature gets farther away and hides itself from us because we are destroying it. Such a precious treasure, and people want to turn it into business. How far will they go with this destruction?...

Mankind is not just destroying nature, but also destroying its very own human nature, but they don't understand this: they are destroying themselves.

The letter includes a detailed presentation of Munduruku history and mythology as inscribed in geographical landmarks both within and beyond current Munduruku territory. The long and fascinating list includes important episodes from Munduruku myth and legend, battles with Portuguese invaders, sacred places that coincide with proposed dam sites, and even the distant Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro:

For us, Munduruku, the city of Belém is Kabia’ip: A meteorological phenomenon that controls the dry season. It is a scepter planted deep in the ocean, and when someone manages to pull it a few centimeters it reacts and causes a change in climate. It should never be pulled beyond its limit, as it would result in grave problems during that season. We recognize this phenomenon when there is intense drought... 

Guanabara Bay [in Rio de Janeiro] is Murekodoybu: The Giant Anaconda, an ancient warrior who taught the arts of war to Karodaybi. His movements are visible in the phenomenon of the tides, when the waves become agitated, and our spiritual leaders, the shamans, are able to hear his voice...

 São Luiz do Tapajós [a proposed dam site] is Joropari kõbie: An ancient locality of Munduruku presence, they lived along those rapids... According to the spiritual leaders, the shamans, they warn that absolutely no kind of alteration can be made to that place or it will destroy this sacred locality, which belongs to the mother of fish, or else disgrace will fall unto people's lives: this is a risk for all societies. But this, a non-Indian will never understand...

 It is just not possible to list here all the sacred places that exist in Munduruku territory. There are various others...

The letter goes on to note the presence of isolated indigenous populations within remote parts of Munduruku territory. 

After this extensive preamble, the letter addresses the Brazilian authorities in the most stringent of terms:

Dear sirs,

Given the facts related above about our situation, we hereby state that we are outraged by the way the Brazilian government has been treating us. We see the disrespect done to our peoples, the Constitution being torn to shreds, becoming invalid, in order for our rights not to be guaranteed by it. Now, our own territory has become a battleground, where we are being exterminated, assassinated at gunpoint by the government's armed forces...

Why do they want to destroy us, are we not Brazilian citizens? Are we so insignificant?...

May our demands be met with urgency:
  • That the armed forces leave our lands
  • That research studies be halted
  • That dam construction be halted
  • That they explain everything that is going to happen on our lands, and that they listen to us and respect our decision

A commission of indigenous peoples traveled to Brasilia last week to present their demands to the Brazilian government. A total of 144 Munduruku made the trip, and a group of representatives entered the presidential palace. Though their demand for a face-to-face meeting with president Dilma Roussef was denied, they did meet with one of the president's top advisers, Gilberto Carvalho.

Indigenous peoples in Brasilia protest hydroelectric dams (Photo source: Survival International)

The Munduruku letter was first translated into English for Survival International by archeologist Bruna Rocha

Below you will find the full text of my own revised translation as reproduced by Cultural Survival in a recent news story. 

June 14, 2013

Kaya-Pop: The brave new world of indigenous music in Brazil

The lead singer crooning catchy pop lyrics, the gyrating chorus-line of girls in mini-skirts, the ecstatic crowd of teenagers swaying and snapping photos with their cell phones, the infectious beats pumping out of an electronic keyboard -- it would all be a typical Friday night forró dance party in the Brazilian Amazon if it weren't for one essential detail: practically all the participants, from the singer to the scanitly clad dancers to the raucous audience armed with digital cameras and cell phones -- everyone except the keyboard player, in fact -- are Kayapó Indians living in a vast expanse of protected forest lands in southern Pará.

Kayapó pop star Bepdjyre

This past 19th of April, the Kayapó village of Turedjam hosted an elaborate festival to celebrate Brazil's National Indian Day. Some 800 people from 15 villages as well as special guests from neighboring Brazilian towns attended the two-day event that included traditional dance presentations, an inter-village sports competition, the 2013 Miss Kayapó and Mister Kayapó beauty contests, and the high point of the evening, a concert by Kayapó pop star Bepdjyre.

The festival included sporting events and the "Miss Kayapó 2013" beauty contest

Bepdjyre, who comes from the village of Kabaú, composes his own lyrics in Kayapó but sets them to popular Brazilian dance rhythms such as forró, brega and sertaneja. He records his CDs in the city of Novo Progresso in southern Pará near the Mato Grosso border. Pykatire, from Las Casas village, has posted a video on YouTube of an acoustic performance in a lovely natural setting. Tewakrã is another young Kayapó singer who, in addition to his own compositions, has covered the Beatles. Mokuká is a 50-year old Kayapó chief from Moikorakô village who composes and performs as avidly as these younger musicians, and has posted a number of lively tunes on YouTubeLive and studio recordings by this handful of emerging Kayapó pop artists circulate virally through villages and Brazilian towns on CDs, cell phones, pen drives, SD cards and portable MP3 players.

One of Bepdjyre's most popular songs, played constantly in Turedjam in the weeks following the concert, is "Waiter bring me another soda" (Pidjo kangô nhoro ondjwy amry ja on dja), borrowing a common refrain from Brazilian drinking songs but adapting it to the Kayapó's tee-totaling prohibition of alcoholic beverages in many villages. 

Bepdjyre onstage with a chorus-line of Kayapó girls

Five girls from Turedjam practiced for several weeks before the show to master the hip-swaying choreography, and they danced in perfect synchrony onstage. They wore matching white mini-skirts bought especially for the show, but underneath the skirts they had on traditional Kayapó ornaments and body paint, adding bright red lipstick to the typical geometric designs in black Genipa and red annatto on their faces.

Teenage fans sing along and snap photos with their phones and cameras

Appearing with Bepdjyre was Mokuká who, unlike Bepdjyre -- in his tight-fitting jeans, white tennis shoes and rhinestone-studded "Tribe" T-shirt -- appeared onstage in traditional Kayapó body paint, bead ornaments and feather headdress. And yet Mokuká swayed and dipped onstage as well as any Brazilian teenager. He sang an extended, encore performance of his contagious Portuguese-language composition, "Tem, tem, tem mulher bonita" ('There are lots of pretty women'). A crowd of teenage boys in the audience sang along with the refrain, "In the village too, in the city too, in the world too: There are lots pretty women!" and pointed out their favorite girls in the crowd or on the stage.

Mokuká sings "Tem mulher bonita"

Alongside Mokuká, a high school student from the remote village of Kuben-Kan-Kren showed off highly erotic, hip-thrusting dance moves wearing ultra-tight, ultra-short-shorts: the Kayapó incarnation of Brazilian dance goddess Carla Peres. As men, both young and old repeated to me, in awe over her performance, "She's the only Kayapó girl who can dance like that. She practiced for months in front of the DVD player." 

"The Kayapó incarnation of Brazilian dance goddess Carla Peres"

The Kayapó cameramen and film makers I have trained over the past three years captured the concert on film and immediately edited a DVD which they distributed in the village and throughout Kayapó territory. On my recent visit to Turedjam, this DVD, as well as MP3 knock-offs of the live audio, was playing constantly. Kayapó men and boys alike are especially enamored of Mokuká's song, "There are lots of pretty women," and the sexy choreography of the girl from Kuben-Kan-Kren.

There is a distinctively masculine gaze in productions by the current all-male cadre of Kayapó film makers: even in traditional ceremonies, women strip down to their underwear for the duration of the dancing, while men wear the same shorts they use in daily life. As the inherent machismo of Kayapó culture blends with the sexism implicit in erotic lyrics and choreographies from Brazilian pop music, I get the impression that Kayapó men and teenage boys don’t just watch home-grown films like Miss Kayapó and the Bepdjyre concert documentary: they ogle.

Kayapó cameramen exhibit a distinctively male gaze

At first glance, this indigenous aping of Brazilian pop music genres and sexually charged dance styles seems shocking, disorienting, even degrading: an affront to traditional Kayapó aesthetic values. And yet a closer examination of Kayapó culture reveals the fundamental role of appropriation and re-invention in their relationship with outsiders. Prior to sustained contact with Brazilian society, the Kayapó raided neighboring groups and among themselves, and placed a high value on capturing ornaments, weapons, names, songs and other material or immaterial goods from the enemy, incorporating them into their own cultural repertoire and displaying them as signs of personal and group prestige.[1]

Kayapó body ornamentation is continually evolving to incorporate new materials and aesthetic references

Even after inter-group raiding ceased, the Kayapó continue to value the capture and appropriation of trappings and technologies of the kuben -- Brazilian "white" society -- such as firearms, trade goods, territorial maps[2] and video cameras. The Kayapó made especially powerful use of video cameras in the late 1980s to mobilize an international protest movement[3], blocking international funding for the Belo Monte dam project and paralyzing the project until just a few years ago. The Kayapó continue to use their technological and political savvy and their penchant for spectacle to draw international attention to their cause

With funding from the National Science Foundation and approval from Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq), Middle Tennessee State University anthropologist Richard Pace and I are currently studying how the Kayapó use video cameras and other digital media in their increasingly complex interactions with Brazilian and global society.

A Kayapó film maker at work in his home village

According to Kayapó film maker Tatajyre, having young, sparsely clad Kayapó women strut and dance like Brazilian pop stars does not degrade traditional beauty standards: "We are showing Kayapó beauty to the Brazilians."

Rather than seeing culture as a stark choice between opposing, exclusive categories such as "Kayapó" and "Brazilian" or "traditional" and "modern," the Kayapó today, as always, see culture as an additive process, continually appropriating, incorporating and re-signifying new ornaments, weapons, goods and knowledge from enemies and rivals as a way of highlighting their own strength and perseverance. Does any of this make the Kayapó less "authentic" or "indigenous" or "Kayapó"? Of course not. On the contrary.

Miss Kayapó: "Beautiful as Indians and as Brazilians"
With local village girls dressed both in mini-skirts and traditional body paint, showing off trendy dance moves alongside a native-language pop singer like Bepjdyre, the Kayapó get to have it both ways: they get to be beautiful as Indians and as Brazilians. As Mokuká sings: "In the village too, in the city too, in the world too: There are lots of pretty women."

As I was packing my bags to leave Turedjam, I heard the distant strains of a hauntingly familiar tune: No, my ears were playing tricks on me, it couldn't be. So I followed the sound towards a thatched hut where I found a group of teenage boys listening to a portable MP3 device playing Tewakrã's electronic Kayapó-language cover of, yes: "Hey Jude." 

A brave new world indeed. 


First published in "Knowledge Exchange" in the June 2013 issue of Anthropology News (link no longer active, available to AAA members only).
  Special thanks to Amy Goldenberg for editorial input. 

Cite as:

G.H. Shepard Jr. (2013) Kaya-Pop: The brave new world of indigenous music in Brazil. Anthropology News 54(6): 47-48. 

Video stills courtesy of Tatajyre Kayapó, other photos by G.H. Shepard


[1] Lea, V. 2012. Riquezas Intangíveis de Pessoas Partíveis: Os Mebengkokre (Kayapó) do Brasil Central. São Paulo: USP.

[2] de Robert, P. 2004. Terre coupée: Recompositions des territorialités indigènes dans une reserve d'Amazonie. Ethnologie Française 34(1): 79-88.

[3] Turner, T. 1990. The Kayapó Video Project. Revue de la Commission d'Anthropologie Visuelle, Univ. Montreal.