September 24, 2023

Star Girl: Making the prize-winning Kayapó-language film "Nhakpoti"

Over years and across long distances, an international filmmaking team collaborated to bring to life the origin story of how agriculture came to Kayapó communities, Indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon.

Just ahead, a Kayapó warrior in flip-flops slashes through forest undergrowth with his machete. Behind him, filmmaker Pat-i navigates the narrow path with a boom microphone. The rest of us on the filmmaking crew follow close behind. Suddenly, Pat-i stops. He points the boom mic into the forest and says, “I remember seeing a wang-ynh this way.”

It was late June 2019. We were searching the forest near the village of A’Ukre in the Brazilian Amazon for a particular species of flexible tree. The wang-ynh tree figures prominently in the Kayapó story of “Star Girl,” or “Nhakpoti.” The story recounts how a Kayapó boy declared his love to a beautiful star, who then came down from the heavens to marry him. Not satisfied with the meager mushroom diet of her primordial Kayapó in-laws, Star Girl flies back into the sky, propelled by a wang-ynh catapult, and brings down agricultural crops for the village.

A still from the short film Nhakpoti shows Star Girl descending from the heavens. 
Photo: Paul Chilsen

For the film adaptation of the story, our production team envisioned a scene catapulting a novice Kayapó actress into the heavens—using nothing more than a sapling, some vines and climbing rope for guy wires, and a little fancy camera work.

The Kayapó (who call themselves Mêbêngôkre) have been pioneers in the growing global Indigenous media movement. In the early 1990s, anthropologist Terence Turner described one community’s innovative use of video to document and defend their culture. Inspired by Turner’s work, co-author Glenn Shepard Jr. began collaborating with anthropologist Richard Pace in 2010 to train more Kayapó filmmakers and better understand their perspectives. In 2017, co-author and filmmaker Paul Chilsen joined forces with anthropologists Shepard, Pace, and Laura Zanotti (who had been working independently on Indigenous media in A’Ukre since 2012). The team started providing additional equipment and training for a growing cadre of Kayapó filmmakers in several villages.

Up until recently, Kayapó-made films have mainly focused on recording traditional ceremonies and political rallies in real time. However, as a result of training workshops and contact with other Indigenous media-makers, Kayapó filmmakers have started to explore other film storytelling genres beyond documentaries. Co-author Pat-i expressed an interest in experimenting with the fictionalized narrative genre—the first of its kind in his community. And so, we began adapting the tale of Nhakpoti into a short film.

The team films a pivotal scene for Nhakpoti featuring actress Boni Kayapó.
Photo: G. Shepard

“Growing up, Nhakpoti is one of many stories I heard from our elders,” explained Pat-i. “We chose this story to be our first narrative film because it’s short. We thought it would be easy to make as our first film. In our minds, it would take just a few days.”

However, the process turned out to be more complicated and time-consuming than the Kayapó team anticipated.

The entire filmmaking process—storyboarding, casting, writing dialogue, shooting, and, finally, editing—was carried out in collaboration with elders and the filmmaking collective from Pat-i’s home village of A’Ukre in the Brazilian Amazon. As part of a two-week training course in A’Ukre in 2019, a multicultural crew, including Indigenous filmmakers and actors, U.S. college students, and U.S. and Brazilian researchers, worked together to produce the film. With COVID-19 delays, travel restrictions, multilingual translations, and working across the miles, the film was finally completed in early 2023.

The film alternates between a scene of a current village elder, Krwyt, telling the story to his grandson in the present day, and a reenactment of the legendary story of Nhakpoti by Kayapó actors. By blending the mythical past with the present, the film is faithful to deeply rooted Kayapó notions of time and history. Kayapó rituals and aesthetics emphasize how ancient forms and values are always reproduced in the present. Indeed, during Nhakpoti’s wedding feast at the end of the film, mythical events become virtually indistinguishable from a current-day Kayapó ceremony, reflecting what Shepard and Pace have described as a distinctive “Kayapó film aesthetic.”

The production revealed the complexities of transcultural filmmaking. For example, the initial male lead was shy in front of the camera, so a collective decision was made to replace him with a more assertive actor. However, the female lead suddenly refused to speak her lines to the new actor, bringing production to a halt. We learned that kinship taboos prohibited her from addressing this particular relative directly. To respect Kayapó customs, we had to find a new female lead.

In another learning experience, Kayapó filmmakers who had previously worked mostly in documentaries realized they needed to shift their audio recording techniques for this film. They suddenly had to worry about roosters and gasoline generators interrupting the harmonious mythical soundscape the film was attempting to create.

To facilitate the creation of more narrative films in the future, the village filmmaking collective is now considering building a remote shooting location far from anachronistic sights and sounds. Such a site could help the Indigenous filmmaking collective in A’Ukre achieve even more independence within the global media industry.

For Chilsen, Shepard, and the other collaborators from outside of A’Ukre, the goal has always been to affirm and prioritize Indigenous voices and to understand the unique Kayapó cultural perspective on filmmaking. Rather than transposing a Hollywood studio model on A’Ukre, the making of Nhakpoti shows how Kayapó filmmakers are creating their own filmmaking tradition: a sort of “A’Ukrewood in the making,” as Shepard and Pace put it.

“It was a learning process,” Pat-i reflected on the collaboration. “We understood that this is how ‘White people’ make films. Now, hopefully, we can make our own narrative films without their help.”

The film shoot in the village of A’Ukre in 2019 brought together Kayapó filmmakers and actors, U.S. college students, and U.S. and Brazilian researchers.
Photo: G. Shepard

Back in the forest that day, we were nearing the end of our shoot, and we all could feel how this intense, critical scene embodied the depth and significance of this cultural, creative exchange.

After locating the wang-ynh tree in the forest, we set about working out the complexities of “catapulting” Nhakpoti into the heavens.

The non-Indigenous members of the film crew relied on the ingenuity of Kayapó woodsmen-grips as they lashed together saplings and vines, using a tree fork to create an improvised jib for the Star Girl’s heavenly flight. Likewise, Kayapó filmmakers were fully engrossed in seeing how strategic camera angles could produce the magic of special effects. Working together, we all helped Star Girl soar.


Nhakpoti debuted at the Montreal First Peoples Festival in August, taking home a prize for Best International Short Film


Nhakpoti was co-directed by Pat-i Kayapó and Paul Chilsen (view a trailer)

Text by Paul Chilsen, Glenn H. Shepard Jr. and Pat-i Kayapó

First published by Sapiens on Aug. 24, 2023 as "Bringing Nhakpoti, the Kayapó Story of Star Girl, to the Screen" 

April 18, 2022

The Cosmic Serpent: A poem on carnival and karma, first published by Sapiens

Most Carnival celebrations in Brazil were canceled for a second year in a row in 2022 due to the resurgence of COVID-19. This poem, which I wrote during Carnival preparations in the tropical city of Manaus many years prior, was recently published by Sapiens for the first time.

The Cosmic Serpent:

I am bit by a copy of a key
fitting the lock
of a door ajar
a melon wedge
of moon lent 
as a blessing by a sultry sun
upon slick yearning bodies
I fit snug in this body of nails
teeth hard things animate 
in a herd of elbows
with eyes
snapping in recoil from
pain slave to pleasure
shuddering at the pinwheel
I am hunger
in ebbs and flows
hormonal despot over the senses
one more consumer
lusting a wake
through this world
this mad race before the door
I am bit by a copy
of a copy of a key
a lock of helical hair
a serpent eating its tail
beneath the spiraling galaxies
wondering what is
why where is my sharp-toothed


Read the story behind this poem at Sapiens
Other poems:
      The Fish Trap 
               Unlikely Blessings
              Yellow Jessamine

December 13, 2021

The Mind of Plants: Book launch by Synergetic Press on December 15

  --Synergetic Press has just released The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, edited by John C. Ryan, Patricia Vieira and Monica Gagliano, and with a foreword by Dennis McKenna. Here is the jacket blurb I wrote for the book:

From apples to Ayahuasca, from spinach to Xiang-Si, this wide-ranging collection serves up forty essays and fourteen poems that, each in its own singular voice, collectively meditate on how and why plants scratch, sting, enchant, nourish, illuminate, intoxicate and enslave us. The contributors—including biologists, ethnobotanists, chemists, physicians, anthropologists, philosophers, writers and artists from diverse cultural backgrounds—enliven the emerging field of study on plant intelligence by interweaving poetry, personal stories, scientific findings and spiritual insights, sometimes within the same entry. Authors Jeremy Narby and Prudence Gibson invite us to “vegetalize” our thinking as well as our writing, while Alex Gearin warns of the dangers of projecting human intentions onto the radical otherness that constitutes the plant mind, lest we “reckless sorcerers of the Anthropocene” leave the world a sadder place. Equal parts herbal manual and alchemical spell book, this beautifully illustrated volume will appeal to scientists, shamans and poets alike. 

Join the editors for a conversation on December 15th at 1 PM PST. 


November 19, 2021

Women Have Hair, Men Have Nicknames: Remembering Jay Dautcher

When I first created this blog ten years ago, I had trouble deciding on a name for it. So I called Jay Dautcher, my multi-talented polyglot musician-climber-anthropologist friend and fellow Berkeley anthropology Ph.D. who had been my go-to title crisis counselor for years. We had a long brainstorming session over Skype (back when that was a thing), and after he had grilled and goaded me for almost an hour about my vision for the site, and mercilessly shot down all of my corny, half-baked title suggestions, somehow the name of Dostoevsky came up and he suddenly blurted out "Notes from the Ethnoground." 

I said, "Jay, that's it! You're a genius."

And the rest, so they say, is history.

Jay Todd Dautcher was indeed a genius, and he left this world, tragically young and still in peak physical and mental condition, just over three years ago, victim of a uniquely severe allergic reaction caused by a rare immune system disease known as systemic mastocytosis that he himself, in typical Jay fashion, correctly diagnosed after months of inconclusive medical testing and his own obsessive online research. 

Jay on the beach near his home in Santa Cruz, 2018. Photo: Lyn Jefferey.

Jay was a child prodigy. He finished high school a year early and went on to take college-level math and science courses as well as foreign languages in Switzerland. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1985 with a degree in physics, and from there pursued a Master's in physics in China (and in Chinese!) at Peking University. Yet in the end, his passion for languages and cultural immersion outstripped his natural talent for math and science. He left the hard sciences for the social sciences, continuing his studies in China and getting a Master's Degree in Folklore at Beijing Normal University in 1991. 

Jay was a great lover of music and a talented musician in his own right. He played guitar and sang at bars around Beijing, where he met and befriended a number of prominent folk musicians, notably Uyghur artist Alimjan Tursun from Xinjiang in western China. Alimjan later achieved international recognition for his perfomance of traditional music in the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Jay at Lake Karakul in Xinjiang ca. 1995. Photo: Eric Karchmer, courtesy of Lyn Jefferey.

Already fluent in Chinese after living and studying in China for five years, Jay began traveling in Xinjiang and learning Uyghur, the Turkic language spoken by this Muslim ethnic group that has long suffered under Han Chinese domination. In 1991, he entered the Ph.D. program in anthropology at U.C. Berkeley (a year after I did) where he studied under the legendary folklore scholar Alan Dundes. As part of his dissertation fieldwork, he entered Xinjiang University in Urumqi to study the Uyghur language formally. With his tireless drive and prodigal language skills, he become fluent in Uyghur as well. 

With our shared interest in languages, travel and acoustic music, it was inevitable that Jay and I would become friends. I will never forget sunny days sitting in the eucalyptus grove along Strawberry Creek on the Berkeley campus, Jay with his Martin D-28 and I with my banjo, picking away at bluegrass classics, bossa nova, swing tunes and the occasional Charlie Parker bebop standard. 

Pickin' and grinnin' (and Wild Turkey). Berkeley, 1995. Photo: Maria N.F. da Silva.

Jay's mind never stopped, and yet his body was never far behind. As he reinvented himself intellectually and professionally, time and time again over the years, he also maintained himself in prime physical condition through weight training and rock climbing. In his youth, he accompanied mountaineering legend Rob Robinson in discovering the "Tennessee Wall" near Chattanooga for climbers in the mid-1980s. Jay made a number of first ascents on routes that still bear his name, and of course his creative titles such as "Finger Lockin' Good" and "Jay Walker." 

After finishing his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1999, Jay went on to a post-doctoral position at Harvard, where he began work on his pioneering book about the Uyghur people, Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China (Harvard University Press: 2009). 

Being one of the few fluent American speakers of Uyghur in the U.S. in the early 2000s, Jay was called upon by public defense attorneys to translate for a number of Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention camp who had been captured during the U.S. war in Afghanistan. A total of 22 Uyghur were captured and detained despite being unarmed and not apparently involved in hostilities against the U.S. The last Uyghur captives were finally released only in 2013 after more than ten years of imprisonment. 

Jay's notes from his visit to Guantanamo.

Jay was a brilliant and acclaimed scholar, and he landed the most coveted position in the entire United States in the field of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001. Yet he walked away from this dream job a few years later and moved to Santa Cruz, California, to be with the love of his life, Lynn Jeffery, and her son Ethan, whom he raised as his own. 

The academic grind was ultimately too narrow for Jay's warp-speed mind and voracious curiosity. After leaving academia, he held numerous jobs and consulting positions in translation, industrial ethnography and data analysis, working for a telescope manufacturing company based in China, a medical facility in the Midwest, Ricoh electronics and the "TurboTax" parent company, Intuit. 

During the last three years of his life, Jay returned to his roots in the hard sciences, reinventing himself once again as a data scientist. He spent a year teaching himself machine learning and then immediately landed a job at one of Silicon valley's top internet security firms. Throughout these permutations and reinventions, Jay was also an avid amateur inventor, and spent years creating designs for a "fish suit" that would allow people to swim with greater mechanical efficiency. 

As a consummate folklorist, Jay amassed vast collections of jokes, sayings, scams, folk songs and urban legends in Uyghur as well as Chinese. I remember one particular Uyghur saying that was important to his research into masculine identity: "Women have hair, men have nicknames." The saying refers to male joking practices among the Uyghur, a major focus of one chapter in his book. Uyghur boys receive nicknames, usually in reference to some embarrassing childhood incident that haunts them for the rest of their lives. Just as hair for women represents an intimate part of their social identity that must be hidden from all but their closest relations, men's nicknames are also a reflection of both intimacy and danger. Or to put it in another way, that which is dearest to us can also be our greatest vulnerability. 

As someone who always maintained both his body and mind in top condition through rigorous exercise and constant intellectual challenges, it was a sad irony that he was ultimately felled by the excessive vigor of his immune system, rather than by any weakness of it. My youngest son, who shares the same birthday with Jay, also coincidentally suffered from a mysterious and exceedingly rare immune system disease as a child.

Jay with my eldest son in 2002.

Another favorite Uyghur saying of Jay's was, "If you have teeth, eat meat!", an exhortation to live and enjoy life to one's fullest capacity. There is no question that Jay lived up to that motto. Though he spent his grad-school days subsisting on a minimalist diet based on the principal of time efficiency, his life with Lyn and Ethan inspired him to become a creative, and of course studious and prolific chef. 

During his last few years, and inspired by his adopted son Ethan, Jay got turned on to mycology. Like everything else in his life, Jay did not take to this new hobby casually. He enrolled in mushroom workshops with the famous Santa Cruz-based mycologist, David Arora. He made frequent mushroom hunting expeditions in the woods near his house and throughout the Santa Cruz mountains, occasionally sending me scale photos of his latest finds. He studied, learned and obsessively documented the full suite of fungi in the region, and discovered dozens of secret, reliable spots to gather favorite species to cook for his family. 

The last jar of porcini: September, 2018.

Though we talked occasionally on Skype, I hadn't seen Jay in person since 2008. We both suffered life-threatening illness episodes in 2015-2016, and decided it was time to see each other again soon. The last time we spoke, around May of 2018, I had finalized my plans to attend the upcoming American Anthropological Association meetings in nearby San José that November. We eagerly plotted out a busy itinerary of music, hiking, rock climbing, bonfires on the beach, a Thanksgiving mushroom extravaganza, and otherwise enjoying the scenery, the coffee shops and one another's company.

Instead I found myself in Santa Cruz in mid-September, stunned and in shock alongside family, co-workers, and friends both old and new, attending an inspiring and poignant memorial service, a month after his death and just two months before his 55th birthday. That night, Lyn and a few friends and I made risotto al funghi out of the last remnants of a jar of dried porcini mushrooms he had gathered the previous Spring. 

There is nothing quite like the bittersweet experience of cooking, savoring and consuming the fragrant harvest of a beloved friend who has departed the world so recently, and so prematurely. Grok?

In memory of his contribution to this web log from its very inception, ten years ago, and to his inimitable genius and our years of friendship, sadly cut short, I dedicate this posting to Jay, on what would have been his 58th birthday. 

"Hallelujah, done my duty, put on my travelin' shoes"

Jay Todd Dautcher: November 19, 1963 - August 4, 2018.


Jay's family created a website of memories and stories for those who wish to learn or share more about his remarkable life.

Jay's friend and fellow Xinjiang expert Gardner Bovington receives donations for the Jay Dautcher Memorial Fund supporting young scholars in the field of Uyghur studies at Indiana University.

June 21, 2021

A wildcat doesn’t change its spots: Gold mining on Indigenous lands in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

A shootout on May 10 between Yanomami Indigenous people and heavily armed illegal miners in Roraima state, Brazil, left three miners and two Yanomami children dead. Since then, invaders have returned by boatloads, firing on community members and even Federal Police agents. Emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the Brazilian presidency in 2018, wildcat gold miners have invaded federally protected Indigenous lands with impunity, knowing that the president has their back. 

Illegal mining on Yanomami lands has altered the course of rivers: photo Instituto Socioambiental

Bolsonaro has always had a soft spot for gold miners. During his presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro bragged about driving around with a kit of sieves in the trunk of his car so he could stop whenever he wanted to pan for gold. “Mining is addictive, it runs in the blood,” he stated, referring to his father, Percy Geraldo Bolsonaro, who joined over 100,000 wildcat miners in the notorious gold rush at Serra Pelada in the Amazonian state of Pará in the 1980s. 

Bolsonaro's father participated in the "Hellish" devastation at Serra Pelada in the 1980s: photo by Sebastião Salgado

A year after winning the election, Bolsonaro invited miners from Serra Pelada to the presidential palace, reminiscing about “happier” times for miners during Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship and making the widely criticized and crude remark, “Interest in the Amazon isn’t about the Indians or the f***ing trees. It’s about mining."

"It's about mining" 

Bolsonaro’s frequent derogatory comments about Indigenous land titling, his systematic rollback of environmental policing and his promises of a “blank check” for miners fueled a massive surge in illegal mining on Indigenous lands throughout Brazil, even as the coronavirus pandemic threatened vulnerable Indigenous populations. The invasion of the Yanomami Indigenous Lands by tens of thousands of illegal miners helped spread the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed over 20 Yanomami people (out of a total population of 20,000) while increasing deforestation by 30% in just one year. 

Health studies among the Munduruku people of Pará state showed that 60% exhibited unsafe levels of mercury that has been introduced to the food chain by illegal miners. Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s pro-business environmental minister Ernesto Salles has intervened in support of illegal mining operations in the region. More recently, Minister Salles has become implicated in an international investigation over illegal lumber exports from Brazil to Europe and the US.

Mining in Munduruku lands has fueled an epidemic of mercury contamination.

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 does not forbid mining on Indigenous lands. Rather, it stipulates that mining will only be permitted after the passage of regulatory legislation by Congress, which would include congressional hearings with affected Indigenous communities and the formalization of agreements on benefit sharing. 

Even before Bolsonaro’s time, Indigenous communities in different regions had considered the possibility of sustainable mining projects. However, experiences with informal mining prior to Indigenous land demarcation highlighted numerous risks, while calling into question the ability of governmental agencies to carry out proper oversight. There are currently over 4,000 requests for mining concessions that would affect nearly a third of Brazil’s Indigenous lands if such legislation were to be passed.

As soon as Bolsonaro consolidated majority control over both of Brazil’s congressional houses in February of 2021, his government announced a list of legislative priorities that included the legalization of mining on Indigenous lands. Bolsonaro has met personally with minority pro-mining voices among some Indigenous communities in order to move this agenda forward.

Bolsonaro has met with Indigenous leaders to promote mining as an economic alternative

Even though Bolsonaro touts himself as a crusader for Indigenous peoples’ rights to benefit from the development of mineral and other resources on their lands, a recent comparative study of data from municipal authorities throughout Brazil has concluded that gold and diamond mining operations do not bring about lasting improvements to socioeconomic indicators, but rather “leave the region poor, sick and lacking in education”.

Growing criticisms of Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 500,000 Brazilians, has weakened his political position. An open admirer of former U.S. president Trump, Bolsonaro is also facing pushback from the Biden administration for his lax attitude towards deforestation and forest fires in the Amazon. 

Just before the Global Climate Summit in April, Bolsonaro wrote president Biden promising to end deforestation in the Amazon, apparently eager to cinch a billion dollar aid deal. Brazilian indigenous leaders warned Biden not to trust such disingenuous overtures. 

Bolsonaro and Salles announce measures to monitor deforestation

The economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil as well as Bolsonaro’s falling popularity in 2022 election polls put the Biden administration in a strong position to seek major concessions for any cash-for-conservation deal. High on that list should be reining in illegal incursions and withdrawing the legislative bid to legalize mining on indigenous lands.

After over a month of inaction from federal authorities, the Brazilian Supreme Court has finally mandated the immediate removal of illegal miners from Yanomami and other indigenous lands. It remains to be seen whether this judicial victory will bring about meaningful enforcement, or whether it will only further embolden president Bolsonaro and the wildcat miners he has so vociferously supported.


This text is the full and updated version of my letter in Nature Correspondence, first published in abbreviated form on June 8.  

April 27, 2021

Unlikely Blessings: A poem on hope, despair and periwinkle

 This poem, written fifteen years ago as my youngest son began (thankfully successful) chemotherapy for a rare immune system disease, was recently published for the first time by Sapiens.

"Salvation can be danger thinly veiled"

Unlikely Blessings

Peace can be a sky-blue hospice with daffodils
a grave green lawn for innocents
bald and serene as Buddhist monks

Happiness can be written in Chinese
on a decal clinging to a jade bar of soap
at the visitors’ sink

Beauty can be simple and fragile as children laughing
the play of skin and shadow
under the unknowing sun

Fate can be exactly the size and shape of an olive
diagnosis or misdiagnosis
a surgeon squinting over a slide

Salvation can be danger thinly veiled
caustic milk of the periwinkle
halfway from malignant to benign

Faith can be a near empty chapel
waiting for you to get desperate enough
to sing with the others Ha-ha-hallelujah
Hope can be the worst kind of houseguest
hanging between the quick and the damned
counting unlikely blessings


Listen to my reading of the poem at Soundcloud.

Learn more about the composition of this poem, and how it was inspired by the work of Paul Celan, at Sapiens.

See my previous blog post about my son's chemotherapy with vinblastine, a cancer-treating drug derived from traditional medicine: "Three Cheers for Periwinkle!"

Read the prize-winning poem "The Fish Trap" featured last year by Sapiens for World Poetry Day.

Read my coronavirus haiku, "Yellow Jessamine." 

July 27, 2020

"The Camera is our Weapon": Kayapó video warriors featured in new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York

The Kayapó (Mebengôkrê) people of Brazil are living proof of the resistance and adaptability of Indigenous cultures. A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York highlights the dynamism and creativity of this warrior tribe, and their historical struggle to preserve their lands and culture. Originally inhabiting the dry savannahs of central Brazil, the Kayapó were pushed farther north and west by Portuguese invaders, ultimately moving into the Amazon basin hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands. In order to survive in this new environment, the Kayapó had to conquer, capture and appropriate new lands, technologies and knowledge from their enemies and retool them for their own ends. The Kayapó people maintain this warrior heritage through the present day, as they have seized on video cameras, international media visibility and even "Kaya-pop music" to broadcast their voices and defend their culture.

Self-portrait of video warrior Bepunu Kayapó, July 2020.

The exhibit is centered on a striking self-portrait of Kayapó warrior Bepunu in full ritual regalia gazing back at the spectator armed with a video camera. This image creates a dialog with an existing exhibit case in the American Museum's Hall of South American Indians that contains a mannequin depicting a Kayapó warrior brandishing a traditional war club. During the course of creating the exhibit, I was able to locate Kubei, a Kayapó activist who had visited the American Museum in 1990 in the company of anthropologist Terence Turner. Kayapó film maker Pat-I recorded an interview with Kubei in March of 2020, especially for this exhibit, in which he reflects on his visit to New York 30 years ago, describes his reaction to meeting his Kayapó "friend" (his name for the mannequin) and responds to how Kayapó culture was displayed at the museum. 

Above: Kayapó activists Kubei and Tapiet visited the American Museum in 1990 and gifted their Kayapó "friend" with a feather headdress and other body ornaments that remain in the exhibit case to this day (photo: American Museum library). Below: the Kayapó warrior mannequin at the American Museum (photo: David Harvey). 

The exhibit was designed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University's Museum Anthropology program in collaboration with American Museum curator Laurel Kendall, exhibit designer David Harvey and other American Museum staff as part of an annual practical course that invites outside specialists like myself to help develop a new exhibit case every Spring. Because of the COVID pandemic, installation of the physical case was postponed, and instead we prepared an online version that includes a 3D virtual reality visualization of the actual exhibit case containing various Kayapó cultural objects. 

Virtual reality 3D visualization of the exhibit case

The online exhibit includes a series of short films made by Kayapó film makers, an activity booklet for children as well as information and donation links regarding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kayapó and other indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Playable audio files present the pronunciation of key Kayapó language terms and provide an example of the lively rhythms of "Kaya-pop" music. The exhibit also features images by photojournalist Dado Galdieri. A Portuguese translation of the exhibit website was prepared in a co-launch with the Goeldi Museum in Brazil:

Read our recent paper on Kayapó film-making in Current Anthropology 

Related stories from this blog: 


Special thanks to Laura Zanotti, Janet Chernela, Pat-I Kayapó and Bepunu Kayapó for their invaluable contributions to this exhibit.  

June 4, 2020

Fifty Shades of Green: Reflecting back on the Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent in the age of coronavirus [excerpt]

The tragic death from coronavirus of indigenous actor Antonio Bolivar, star of the Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent, has made me reflect back on all the facts the film got wrong and the truths it got right: Excerpted from 

As the lights in the cinema went down and the opening scene of Ciro Guerra’s 2015 film The Embrace of the Serpent began to flicker on the screen, I was primed to be blown away. The film, based loosely on the field experiences of legendary Amazon explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Schultes, and shot on location in the Colombian Amazon with indigenous actors, was being hailed as visionary. Within the first few seconds my already high expectations of ethnographic authenticity were already surpassed. In the opening sequence, the protagonist Karamakate, whose youthful self is played by Cubeo indigenous actor Nibio Torres, brandishes a long, slender spear that buzzes like a rattle snake when shaken. As a researcher and museum curator who has worked in adjacent regions of the northwest Brazilian Amazon, I have seen identical ceremonial rattle-spears in ethnographic collections and heard them deployed in rituals. 

Antonio Bolivar, the Ocaina indigenous actor who played the elder version of solitary shaman Karamakate in the film, died at the end of May from coronavirus in the jungle town of Leticia, Colombia.

Cinematic representations of the Amazon have a long and dismal history of exoticism, sensationalism and pure fantasy, from The Emerald Forest to Medicine Man to Anaconda. At last, a popular feature film that represents Amazonian peoples accurately! And yet instants later these admittedly high hopes were dashed. When the canoe containing the German explorer “Theo” (Koch-Grünberg’s pseudonym in the movie) gets closer to the bank, Karamakate pops off the spear’s rattle-tip to reveal a blowgun which he aims menacingly at the intruder. Though indigenous peoples of the Vaupes region indeed use blowguns with curare-tipped darts for hunting, I am not aware of any culture that combines these two pieces of material into a single, interchangeable multi-purpose weapon. “Sssssss”, began the hissing sound, not of a serpent but of my rapidly deflating enchantment...

Continue reading the full article at


May 21, 2020

Catching up with Glenn Shepard: Interview to launch benefit photography sale with Linda Matney Gallery

This interview launches a new partnership with Linda Matney Gallery. Proceeds from the sale of selected photographs will directly support vital health services including emergency Covid-19 prevention aid for the indigenous peoples of Manu National Park.

1. What is your connection with the Linda Matney Gallery and John Lee Matney?

I have known “Lee” since second grade and we have been friends ever since. Lee was always an avid photographer and had his own darkroom in the basement of his house. He taught me how to shoot, develop and print black and white film when I was about twelve years old. Lee’s first photos were artistic closeups of everyday objects, which his father referred to jokingly as “doorknobs.” His instinct of using the camera to look at the world in new ways was an influence on me since the very beginning.We both worked on the school newspaper and I remember he took dramatic photographs of the remarkably professional theater productions at our school’s drama department. Lee’s mother Linda was a kind and generous woman, she always had a smile on her face and a meal on her table. She had excellent taste in art and antiques, and she and my mother were dear friends. We both lost our mothers in their prime, and that has been another bond in our friendship over the years. I was happy when he opened his own gallery and named it after his mother. We went our separate ways after college, but always stayed in touch. And when Lee moved back to the Tidewater area after living many years in Athens, we renewed our friendship whenever I was home visiting my parents. We have collaborated on several creative projects over the years, including gallery exhibits of my photographs and collection of ethnographic objects from the Amazon, fund-raising events for indigenous causes and a prize-winning avant-garde film.

Taking aim. Manu National Park, 1992. 
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2. Give us some background about your use of photography in your work

I am an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, and I have traveled and carried out fieldwork with different indigenous peoples throughout the world, including Bedouin tribes in Jordan, hill tribes of northern Thailand, Mayan peoples of southern Mexico and numerous indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. Though I have always used photography to document the scientific aspects of my work, from indigenous healing ceremonies to medicinal plants, I always saw photography as a way to express aspects of my experiences in different cultures that don’t come across in dry, scientific studies. I especially enjoy taking portraits of people that I know. A photographic subject whom you have known for years looks at the camera in a very different way than someone who is encountering a journalistic photographer for the first time. I appreciate it when this sense of trust and familiarity comes across in my photos, such that their subjects appear first and foremost as friends, companions, fellow humans who share their experiences with a knowing glance.

Elena. Manu National Park, 1992.

3. Comment on how art intersects with your work and your life in Brazil and Peru.

Before the days of digital photography, I would always travel to the field with equal numbers of rolls of color and black and white film. Of course, surrounded by the lush colors of the tropical rainforest I would usually shoot up all my color film first, and then be left with only black and white for the second half of my trip. As frustrating as it was to run out of color film hundreds of miles and months away from the nearest film store, I always appreciated this forcing of black and white film upon myself when returning to develop the photos. As beautiful as the colors of the tropical rainforest are, and as useful are the chrome slides I used to present my work in the days before PowerPoint, I always found the black and white photos to have a more abstract and timeless feel to them, pushing aside all the distractions of color to get at the true essence of form, composition and human connection.

Ayahuasca vine. Manu National Park, 1992. 
Purchase the fine art print.

4. Comment on your piece in the New York Review of Books about Martin Gusinde's photography in the book The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego. What are your personal feelings about Gusinde's photographs? How does that work inspire you?

I was delighted when the New York Review approached me about reviewing a collection of Martin Gusinde’s ethnographic photographs published by Thames & Hudson. Many professional photographers don’t understand the first thing about anthropology, and most anthropologists are even worse at photography than photographers are at anthropology. Gusinde is that rare talent who was able to capture the surrealistic quality of the ritual life of native peoples of Tierra del Fuego in high-quality artistic images, while also conducting meticulous documentation of the last vestiges of their ceremonies before the people succumbed to disease and acculturation. His photographs speak to that unique dynamic of truly anthropological photography which is to capture our fundamental shared humanity while also respecting the deep and beautiful cultural differences that make human life so diverse and fascinating. 

Yanomami headman making an arrow point. Marari River, Brazil, 2004.

You also reviewed Davi Kopenawa's book The Falling Sky for the New York Review. Tell us about that book.

The autobiography of Yanomami shaman and philosopher Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky, is one of the great works of anthropology of the 21st century. Rather than using academic jargon, anthropologist/translator Bruce Albert takes advantage of his deep understanding of the Yanomami language and his long friendship with Davi to craft an elegant, direct, first-person narrative told in Davi’s own voice, as selected and edited from over 100 hours of audiotape that Albert had recorded over many years. The book provides a vivid account of Davi’s shamanic visions while also presenting his philosophical reflections on his own people’s world view. It also presents a passionate appeal for indigenous rights and a condemnation of the damage brought by missionaries and gold miners.

5. Comment on your own photography as art and the new works we are presenting

I was a slow convert to digital photography, precisely because I enjoyed the luminosity of color chromes as well as the abstract quality of black and white. I was always a big fan of the alchemical magic of darkroom work, and the ability to control every square inch of the print. I didn’t buy my first digital camera until 2007 when I got back from the field and literally spent three months tracking down a lab to develop my film. But once I began to get used to the new technology, I appreciated the way digital photography takes away so many constraints imposed by film photography, from rationing your film stock to missing photos in low light settings. So I am especially excited over this new collaboration with Linda Matney Gallery to go back to my old black and white negatives while also reworking some of my more recent digital images in monochrome.

Baby doll. Manu National Park, 2007.

6. Comment on your poetry and other fiction

From a young age I always wanted to be a writer. I saw a career in anthropology as a way of gathering tales and adventures to write about when I get too old to travel. But even in my academic writing I try to make use of my story-telling skills to share the experience of cultural difference in a direct way that hopefully anyone could read and appreciate. I have always tried to avoid using theoretical jargon in my writing, and won a number of anthropology writing awards for this more accessible and evocative style of writing. In 2011, I became so frustrated with the straight jacket of academic jargon that I created my blog, Notes from the Ethnoground. I had submitted an article to an anthropological journal, with the explicit intention of relating indigenous concepts through stories without using abstract jargon. The article was sent back requesting precisely the kind of theoretical discussion I was hoping to avoid, so I gave up on trying to rework the text and began writing short posts about my experiences in the field using accessible language and plenty of photos as well. In 2014, my first “ethno-fictional” short story, about a villager who turned into a jaguar, won a prize from the Society for Anthropology and Humanism. I hope to continue writing fiction that is firmly grounded in actual cultural experiences. I also wrote lots of poetry when I was younger, and occasionally produce new poems usually based on my experiences in indigenous cultures. Recently, my poem The Fish Trap was recognized by to honor World Poetry Day.

Forest overlook. Manu National Park, Peru, 1995.

7. Tell me about how you have used your anthropological knowledge and photographic skills to help the indigenous communities where you have worked.

I have always felt a deep responsibility to provide practical assistance to the indigenous communities that have been so generous and patient with me through the years. When the Discovery Channel film that I worked on, Spirits of the Rainforest, won two Emmys in 1993, I worked through Peruvian and New York based NGOs to hold a fund raising event that benefited the community political organizations and health post. More recently I have worked with the non-profit organization Rainforest Flow to bring sustainable clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects to these remote communities, transforming their health status. Curiously, Nancy Santullo, director and founder of Rainforest Flow, was formerly a successful commercial photographer. For the past fifteen years, we have used our photography to document and spread the word about the project and draw attention to the health needs in these communities. We appreciate the support of Linda Matney Gallery over the years in hosting various fund-raising initiatives for this project. 

Because of this long term work in these communities, and the established relationship of trust and collaboration, Rainforest Flow is in a unique position to help prevent the deadly Covid-19 virus from entering Manu Park. I helped Rainforest Flow mobilize early communications between communities and park authorities to institute an immediate lockdown even before the Peruvian government took preventative action. There are currently no Covid-19 infections in any of the native communities where we work. However indigenous high school students studying outside the reserve have been stranded far from their home villages and need food, protective equipment, medicine, information, support and transportation to a safe place to carry out their quarantine. Rainforest Flow is creating an emergency Covid-19 relief fund to continue this vital work with native communities and Manu Park authorities to maintain the quarantine and develop safe protocols for the delivery of badly needed equipment and assistance. 

Safe water. Manu National Park, 2015.

Proceeds from selected photographs sold will benefit a community health and hygiene project, including vital Covid-19 prevention, in the same native communities where these photos were taken.  

---Visit the benefit photography sale on Artsy---