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 (Megengôkrê) 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:

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 Chacruna.net 

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 Chacruna.net


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. 
Purchase the fine art print.

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 Sapiens.org 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---

May 5, 2020

Covid-19: Lessons from the Yanomami [New York Times Op-Ed]

This essay, which I translated and edited from an original draft written in French by anthropologist Bruce Albert, was first published by the New York Times on April 27.
The Yanomami people are no strangers to fatal epidemics, and yet on April 9, many around the world were shocked to learn that Covid-19 had taken its first victim among this relatively isolated Indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest along the Brazil-Venezuela border.
Alvaney Xirixana was a 15-year-old boy from the Helepe community of the Rio Uraricoera river basin in the Brazilian state of Roraima, a region afflicted by a huge invasion of illegal gold miners. Malnourished and anemic from successive bouts of malaria, the teenager began showing characteristic respiratory symptoms in mid-March.
Illegal miners are penetrating the most remote parts of Yanomami territory, threatening villages with isolated and highly vulnerable indigenous populations.
Photo: FUNAI 

For 21 days he was admitted four times to a local health care facility, three times receiving treatment for other diseases and the fourth time being discharged. He was finally given a coronavirus test on April 3, when he was hospitalized yet again, this time in critical condition. He died six days later. A victim of the absurd negligence of local health services, he probably infected numerous other members of his community as well as health care workers during those three wasted weeks before he was tested. This appalling episode has raised the specter of a major new health disaster among the Yanomami people. And it is a warning for other Indigenous people of the Amazon.
Today, we are all frightened about Covid-19. What we’re feeling is perhaps not unlike what the Yanomami have historically experienced when faced with the mysterious and lethal epidemics that our world has inflicted on them.
Since their initial contacts with outsiders beginning in the 1940s, the Yanomami have lived through wave after wave of deadly viral epidemics, notably the measles and flu.
Many Yanomami still lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, trekking through the forest to hunt, visit distant villages or relocate to areas with more abundant game. 
Photo G.H. Shepard Jr. 
The expansion of the internal colonization frontier intensified in the 1970s when Brazil’s military dictatorship opened the Perimetral Norte highway in Yanomami territory. Since the late 1980s, Yanomami lands have suffered from regular invasions by illegal gold miners, who have unleashed epidemics of malaria, flu, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.
Over 20,000 garimperos, or illegal miners, are currently devastating Yanomami lands. These invaders, who are nearly as numerous as the Yanomami themselves (current population 26,780), are most likely responsible for introducing the coronavirus to the region. Even amid the pandemic, illegal mining operations have continued to expand. More generally, rainforest destruction throughout the Brazilian Amazon has accelerated, with deforestation alerts for the first three months of 2020 increasing 51 percent over the same period last year.
Yanomami territories in Brazil have suffered from a massive influx of illegal miners. Photo: Rogerio Assis.
In this context of increasing lawlessness and invasion, Indigenous people throughout Brazil face an intensified risk of infection. So far, over 80 Indigenous people in Brazil have been found to have Covid-19, and seven have died — Mr. Xirixana, three other members of different ethnic groups in the Amazon interior, as well as three residents of the city of Manaus, including an Indigenous health care worker. Yet given the precarious state of Indigenous health care, there are most likely many more cases.

Yanomami ethno-environmental agent inspects illegal gold mining operation.
Photo: Bruno Kelly.
The disease appears to be spreading quickly in poor Indigenous ghettos on the outskirts of large Amazonian cities like Manaus and Belém, which were already overburdened by an influx of Venezuelan Indigenous refugees. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on such urban Indigenous people has been overlooked in the general flood of data.
The roughly 900,000 Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable to this epidemic in Brazil. Abandoned by weak, underfunded national institutions, some Indigenous communities have taken it upon themselves to close off their villages or isolate themselves in town as best they can, suspending social and political activities and distributing prevention materials in their native languages.
The Yanomami, one of the largest and most well-known Indigenous communities of the Amazon, continue to suffer from inadequate health care and a persistent climate of indifference, negligence and lawlessness concerning the invasion of their lands by miners.
Anthropologist Bruce Albert and Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-authors of the book The Falling Sky. Photo: Beto Ricardo/Instituto Socioambiental.
The press, the global scientific community and Indigenous peoples themselves must continue to expose such negligence and denounce violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights. And yet given the chaotic response of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration to the pandemic throughout Brazil, on top of its open hostility to science, Indigenous peoples and the environment, there seems little hope of significant policy change in the short term.
But something fundamental has changed: We are all united by a tragedy that is unfolding around the world.

Yanomami woman preparing for Wayamo visitation ceremony.
Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr.
We still know little about this disease. We do know that the origins of the new virus appear related to habitat destruction and the commercialization of wild animals. But we don’t yet have immunity, drugs or vaccines to stop it. We are reduced to confining ourselves at home with our families in the hope of evading infection. In some way it reminds me of the stories the Yanomami elders have told me about times when they fled to the forest in small groups to hide from the cannibalistic “Epidemic Spirit,” Xawarari.
However this time, we have become our own victims by loosing on ourselves the epidemiological consequences of this predatory hubris, just as Indigenous leaders like Yanomami shaman and philosopher Davi Kopenawa have been warning us for decades. In today’s hyper-connected industrial world, ecological imbalances or disease vectors that might once have affected only one corner of the planet now threaten us all. And perhaps now, as we are all exposed to an invisible new enemy for which we have no defenses, this harrowing experience of our shared fragility may stir global society to rethink its current course.
Photo G.H. Shepard Jr.


Special thanks to Boris Muñoz for editorial input and support.

April 14, 2020

Coronavirus Brings Back Memories: Indigenous priest reflects on the global pandemic [excerpt]

Justino Sarmento Rezende, a Salesian priest of the Tuyuka indigenous people from the upper Rio Negro in Brazil, reflects on the coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of his people’s history. Excerpted from the interview published by Chacruna.net.

“I was born far from the city, at ‘Jaguar-Creek’.

“Whenever my father heard that a dangerous disease was coming, he took us to an even more isolated place. There, we waited until the latest news finally reached us: ‘the disease has passed’.

Justino Sarmento Rezende.
Photo: Luis Miguel Modino.

“We had no doctors or nurses to take care of us. But we were watched over constantly by our sage grandparents who performed protective ceremonies using white pitch incense to fumigate the environment, the people and their pets.

“Every day the sages smoked their cigars and talked about what they had seen in their dreams, what protective prayers they had composed in their nighttime meditations...

..."They protected our lives within rays of sunlight, within the clouds.

"They protected our lives within rays of sunlight..."
Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr.

“This current time with its current viruses, with their own proper names, it takes me back to the past and reminds me of the wisdom of my grandparents who helped to defend life.

“It reminds me of our defensive technique: fleeing from the enemy, not exposing oneself, retreating to a safe place until the disease passes.”


Interview conducted by Luis Miguel Modino for Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, translated to the English by Glenn H. Shepard Jr. and excerpted for "Notes from the Ethnoground." Read the full interview at Chacruna.net.

April 7, 2020

Voluntary Isolation in the Age of Coronavirus

As governments around the world decide on public health measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, indigenous peoples across the Amazon, from the Madre de Dios region in Peru to the Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil, have taken the lead by declaring self-imposed states of quarantine to avoid the introduction of this virulent new disease to their communities. While such drastic measures of social distancing are novel and challenging in our hyper-connected contemporary world, indigenous peoples have long used the strategy of “voluntary isolation” to protect themselves from the immunological and existential threats of European colonization. 

The Chitonahua people spent decades fleeing from intruders until they were forcefully contacted by Peruvian loggers in the late 1990s, losing about half their population to new diseases. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (1997).

Indigenous peoples of lowland South America have contributed to global health with important biomedical compounds derived from plant medicines such as quinine, curare, ipecac and pilocarpine, as well as shamanic preparations like ayahuasca, sananga, and kambô that have attracted the attention of psychonauts and pharmaceutical researchers alike. And yet, tragically, the indigenous people of South America were also highly susceptible to introduced Old World diseases like smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and influenza that, in conjunction with violence and territorial invasion, killed some 90-95% of the original population. 

The Mashco-Piro people were probably village-dwelling farmers until they were massacred by rubber tappers at the turn of the 20th century. They became fully nomadic hunter-gatherers and have only entered into tentative contact with indigenous neighbors and Peruvian Health Ministry agents in the past few years. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2015).

Especially during the so-called “Rubber Boom” at the turn of the twentieth century, rubber tappers seeking to profit from the high price of natural latex on international markets penetrated the deepest reaches of the Amazon, co-opting or enslaving indigenous people and spreading deadly diseases. To survive, some indigenous populations fled to remote regions and cut off all contact with outsiders, even their indigenous neighbors. In some cases, indigenous communities have been forced to abandon settled village life and agriculture altogether, adopting a fully nomadic lifestyle in the forest. Previous, at times misleading, descriptions of such groups as “uncontacted,” “Stone Age” or “hunter-gatherer” peoples implied that they were passive victims of some accident of geography or history — human societies left behind in the backwaters of human evolution. Today, scholars and indigenous protection agents have come to understand their isolation not as a natural condition, but rather, a conscious choice of survival and self-determination

Isolated indigenous peoples of the Amazon are increasingly threatened by the expansion of road networks, mining and oil concessions, illegal loggers and drug traffickers. Map graphic by J. You / Science Magazine using data from Antenor Vaz and RAISG.

The spike in burning, destruction, and invasion of the Amazon rainforest over the past few years, especially in Brazil, threatens all indigenous people, and isolated peoples in particular. The global outbreak of this highly contagious, virulent new disease poses a special danger to such immunologically vulnerable peoples. So, as people around the world hunker down in self-quarantine and follow the latest worrisome news, we are all getting a small taste of the kind of mortal panic that has motivated different indigenous peoples to isolate themselves from outsiders, in some cases, through the present. We all hope, as they have, that such radical measures will save us from this deadly epidemic. Perhaps we will come through this experience with a heightened appreciation of our shared fragility. 


First published March 24, 2020, by Chacruna.net

March 23, 2020

Yellow Jessamine: A coronavirus haiku

Yellow jessamine
infects a premature Spring:
Fragrant and lethal.

Gelsemium sempervirens, known as yellow jessamine or Carolina
is a toxic plant with alkaloids related to strychnine that 
figures i
the plot of an Agatha Christie mystery and an episode of House of Cards

March 23, 2020
Williamsburg, Virginia


#CoronaHaiku at the suggestion of Daniel Mendelsohn

See also "The Fish Trap," winner of Sapiens.org anthropological poetry prize

March 20, 2020

The Fish Trap: Winning poem featured by Sapiens.org for World Poetry Day

The fish trap

The fish trap is sun bleached dry half
buried in squeaking white
sand under an equatorial
moon that wants to walk across the black
mirror but instead is twice
swallowed by river and 

It is both an elegant and obsolete
thing this hybrid carcass of palm
staves lashed with sinewy vines an incongruous
coil of copper wire binding some
ancient fracture burnished
golden by the 

He dismembers it like some beast on a
skewer its ribs and sinews yielding to dark
vegetable hands function
not lost but transformed as he starts
a fire and the flattened
helix glows among the 

The fish lie on the bank by the haul
net sucking at the futile night
air through pumping gills still
they watch him stunned through
glazing water as red
halos ebb behind open

And he feeds the last
of the trap to the
flames under a gnarled
pot on the beach flickering between
an empty village and the black
river under the smothered 


Poem chosen as a winner in the 2020 anthropological poetry prize by Sapiens.org

Read my introduction to the poem for #WorldPoetryDay

Hear me read "The Fish Trap" on SoundCloud

Thanks to Christine Weeber, Eshe Lewis, Kim Herbst and Daniel Salas for editorial input, graphic design, artwork and web design on behalf of Sapiens.org

See also "Yellow Jessamine," a haiku for a toxic coronavirus Spring

November 7, 2019

Amazon under Fire: A letter of protest by Brazilian scientists published by the New York Review of Books

As Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stood before the United Nations in September of 2019 downplaying media reports of increasing forest fires under his administration and denouncing world-renowned indigenous leaders such as Raoni Mektuktire and Sonia Guajajara, who he claimed were being manipulated by foreign interests, the Brazilian Amazon continued to burn. Enormous fires have broken out in different parts of it as deforestation has reached levels not seen for over a decade, with an area of forest the size of Hong Kong cut down in the month of August alone. 

During the first dry season after Bolsonaro's inauguration, forest fires in the Amazon were up 80% over the previous year. Photo: Dado Galdieri / Wall Street Journal (2019)

Since taking office in January of 2019, President Bolsonaro has used his powers to undermine the cultural, territorial, and human rights of indigenous peoples that are guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution. His public statements have contributed to a climate of lawlessness and impunity, and to a tacit understanding that legislation protecting indigenous territories and other areas will not be enforced. Over the past year, indigenous lands in Brazil have seen a surge in invasion by illegal loggers, gold miners, and land speculators, and there has been an alarming increase in aggression against indigenous peoples. In early September, 2019, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a contractor for FUNAI, Brazil’s federal Indian agency, who had over a decade of experience protecting isolated indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, was murdered execution-style on a busy street in the town of Tabatinga. A little over a week later, men associated with illegal loggers and hunters staged an armed attack on a FUNAI guard post in the region. 

Photo: Agencia Jovem de Notícias (2018)

Scientists such as ourselves have documented how the traditional knowledge and management strategies of Amazonian indigenous peoples have contributed to safeguarding global biodiversity and climate stability. To an outsider, these territories may seem “uninhabited” or “unused,” but in fact the vast expanses of intact forests that constitute indigenous lands are essential to their sustenance. Indigenous peoples occupy and use their land in ways that take advantage of hundreds of species of plants and animals while preserving the place of other organisms in the ecosystem; in many cases, landscapes have been enriched with useful plants and groves of fruit and nut trees such as the Brazil nut and the açai palm. Villages and communities are surrounded by gardens that produce staple foods, old gardens in various stages of regeneration, and rivers, forests, and mountains, all of which provide a rich and dispersed base of resources—such as fish, game, fruits, garden lands, and the raw materials for adornments, canoes, houses, and so on—that have sustained indigenous peoples’ way of life for centuries or millenia, dating back to pre-colonial times when indigenous populations were much larger. These lands may also constitute sacred spaces, places of mythical origin, or sites of ancestral history.

Since 1988, the Brazilian Constitution has recognized the central importance of indigenous lands for these peoples’ continuing existence and has guaranteed a legal process for demarcating them for indigenous peoples to inhabit and use. Once they are demarcated and signed into law, indigenous lands become inalienable assets of the Brazilian state.  

A recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brazil overturned the administration’s attempt to remove the legal responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from FUNAI and give to the Agriculture Ministry, which is controlled by the ranching lobby. Despite this victory, the ongoing and wide-ranging initiatives to weaken environmental, indigenous, and scientific institutions remain deeply troubling. Moreover, expressions of hatred and aggression, widely disseminated in the media, have further encouraged illegal invasions as well as violent actions against indigenous peoples in different parts of our country, including the Wajãpi of Amapá state, the Awá-Guajá of Maranhão, the Kayapó, Munduruku and Apyterewa-Parakanã of Pará, the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau of Rondônia, and the Yanomami of Roraima and Amazonas states. The current administration’s ongoing actions of dismantling and defunding FUNAI, Brazil’s federal indigenous protection agency, only increase the risk of further violence to these people.

Illegal gold miners have expanded their activities with impunity in indigenous territories such as the Kayapo Indigenous Lands in southern Pará state. See more reporting by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2019).

Ranching and mining lobbies have spread a false dichotomy between indigenous peoples’ rights and economic growth. There are currently large areas of abandoned farm- and pastureland that could be put to productive use without having to cut down a single acre of indigenous lands. Furthermore, the destruction of forest cover to serve the agricultural industry is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating, since well-established scientific evidence points to the necessity of the Amazon rainforest in creating an “aerial river” that delivers rainfall to the rich agricultural lands of southern Brazil. Scientists fear that deforestation in the Amazon could soon upset rain patterns throughout Brazil and further destabilize the global climate. 

Bolsonaro insists that development in the Amazon is a question of Brazilian sovereignty, and that foreign interests should not intervene. Yet Brazilian indigenous representatives and environmentalists are calling for nothing more nor less than the enforcement of existing laws and the protection of indigenous rights as enshrined in the Constitution and in multiple international agreements to which Brazil is a signatory. International treaties and economic accords should include provisions to guarantee these constitutional, human, cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

Kayapó warriors rehearse battle maneuvers in a war dance to protest the administration's hostile policies. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2019). See additional reporting by Andres Schipani and photos by Dado Galdieri in The Financial Times.

The struggle for land remains a perennial source of political mobilization for indigenous peoples, as backlogs of land demarcation claims remain unresolved, and many other issues related to their rights remain unfulfilled. Anthropologists, cultural heritage professionals, and other researchers have been crucial allies of indigenous peoples in these struggles. Moreover, indigenous leaders and intellectuals today increasingly speak in their own names, defend their own interests, elect their own political leaders, and have an ever-greater role in protecting their cultural and territorial heritage. While there are a plurality of indigenous voices in contemporary Brazil, including a small number who favor the opening up of indigenous lands to mining and other outside interests, to date all of the historically recognized, broadly representative indigenous organizations who have expressed their views on the current administration have condemned its assaults on indigenous territories and rights. 

As scientists working in Brazilian research institutions and universities, we are deeply concerned about these grave threats to indigenous peoples’ territory, heritage, and well-being, which are inextricably connected to the well-being of Amazonia, global biodiversity, and climate stability.

This letter, signed by 65 Brazilian scientists in protest of president Jair Bolsonaro's attacks on indigenous peoples, was first published by the editors of the New York Review of Books on November 7, 2019. 


Adriana Queiroz Testa, anthropologist 
Alexandre Clistenes, biologist
Aline da Cruz, linguist 
Ana Rosa Guimarães Bastos Proença, tourism researcher
Ana Vilacy Galúcio, linguist
Bruna Franchetto, linguist
Caio Ferrari de Castro Melo, lawyer
Camila Loureiro Dias, historian
Carmen Lúcia Reis Rodrigues, linguist
Carlos Fausto, anthropologist
Carlos Zimpel, archeologist
Claide de Paulo Moraes, archeologist
Claudia Lopez, anthropologist
Cristiane Barreto, archeologist
Cristina Adams, human ecologist
Décio Guzmán, historian
Denny Moore, linguist
Edithe Pereira, archeoloigst
Eduardo S. Brondizio, anthropologist
Eduardo Góes Neves, archeologist
Eduardo Nunes, anthropologist
Eduardo Ribeiro, linguist
Fabíola Andréa Silva, archeologist
Felipe Milanez, political ecologist 
Gabriel Soares, anthropologist
Gabriela Prestes Carneiro, archeologist
Geraldo Andrello, anthropologist
Gessiane Picanço, linguist
Glenn H. Shepard Jr., anthropologist
Hein van der Voort, linguist
Helena Pinto Lima, archeologist
Ian Packer, anthropologist
Ima Guimarães Vieira, botanist
Isabela Galarda Varassin, botanist
Julia Otero, anthropologist
Juliano Franco Moraes, ecologist
Kristine Stenzel, linguist
Lucila de Jesus Mello Gonçalves, psychologist
Lucia Hussak van Velthem, anthropologist
Lúcia Sá, Professor of Brazilian Studies
Márcio Meira, anthropologist and former FUNAI president
Marcos Magalhães, archeologist
Marcos Vital, biologist
Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, anthropologist
Maria Candida Barros, linguist
Maria Carolina Loureiro Fernandes, social scientist
Marília Fernanda Pereira de Freitas, linguist
Marinus Hoogmoed, zoologist
Mark Harris, anthropologist
Marta Amoroso, anthropologist
Myrtle Shock, archeologist
Nelson Sanjad, historian
Orlando Calheiros, anthropologist and photographer
Nicole Soares-Pinto, social scientist
Regina Oliveira, biologist
Renato Sztutman, anthropologist
Ricardo Ventura Santos, anthropologist
Rita Natalio, artist, anthropologist and member of the Indigenous Forum of Lisbon 
Roberto Araujo, anthropologist
Roberto Ventura Santos, geologist
Ruth Monserrat, linguist
Sidney da Silva Facundes, linguist
Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, anthropologist
Teresa Avila Pires, zoologist  
Tiago Gomes dos Santos, zoologist