December 5, 2013

Why I Sometimes Wish I Were an Armchair Anthropologist

No figure in the discipline is more despised than that smug Victorian fixture, the Armchair Anthropologist. The best antidote for this regrettable legacy is Fieldwork, philosopher’s stone of ethnographic pursuance. Hence, I spent much of the past three decades squatting in canoes, slithering up muddy banks and trekking to remote villages. Scorched by the sun, wracked by fever, gnawed by pests, turned inside out by parasites and ritual narcotics. More than ever, the cozy, urbane musings of the Armchair Anthropologist should seem anathema. Yet as I approach fifty, my body begins to ache and I sense the allure of a temperate climate and a comfortable place to sit. I find myself reflecting on my maligned predecessor with envy as I count the reasons...

(1) The Armchair: Ah! Just the sound of it soothes my suffering coccyx. What an accessory on protracted canoe trips, and a cozy alternative to planks and dwarf school desks for taking field notes. I have been admiring an Italian reading chair in a chic store in torpid downtown Manaus. I sink into its cool leather embrace and imagine sipping tea and nibbling scones over the yellowed parchment of The Golden Bough. But the price tag startles me back to reality and I return to my sweltering apartment to peruse Anthropology News atop my humble porcelain throne.

(2) The Menu: Actually, I’ve grown quite fond of smoked fish, endangered species soup and manioc in all conceivable forms and some inconceivable ones. Beats Victorian British fare, and I’ll take cool manioc beer over warm bitters any day. The problem of fieldwork cuisine is not quality but rather variety. Colonialism, for all its errors, brought a plethora of take-out options: Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern. Let the floodwaters wash away my field notes, but please, not my tin of curry.

(3) Biodiversity: Fact: there are more ant species in a single Amazonian tree than in all the British Isles. I haven’t seen the figures for mosquitoes, gnats, sand flies, ticks, chiggers, bedbugs, fleas, bot flies, chigoes, filaria, pinworms... Biodiversity sure looks great on those BBC specials. Maybe I’ll join the Armchair Anthropologist for a warm beer and tellie after all.

(4) The Language Barrier: English, German, Russian, even Sanskrit were important languages for 19th century armchair anthropologist. French is the language of choice for 21st century neo-armchair anthropology, though much of it is Greek to me. French names sound impressive, especially hyphenated ones. I have considered publishing under the pseudonym Harvée-Chepardieu. My métier is among Amerindian languages, complex and poetic tongues, but thanks to an over-zealous Gideon, the only book available is the Bible. Try explaining to a native of the upper Amazon what a camel is, how hard it is get one through the eye of a needle, and why anyone would go to so much trouble when three sips of ayahuasca will take you there any night of the week.

(5) The Edible Complex: Anthropology is a curious science: only one syllable distinguishes it from cannibalism. Who’s on the menu for this year’s Anthropophagy Association Meetings? The best way to achieve notoriety in the field is by publishing a lurid exposé about a renowned anthropologist. The technical term is endocannibalism:  consuming one’s own kind, usually the dead or infirm, often with a degree of reverence. Exocannibalism by foreign tribes is rarer and more violent, sometimes associated with severe nutritional stress. Either way, the armchair provides a safe view from the sidelines.

(6) Foggy Discourse Breakdown: The banjo is a hefty and temperature-sensitive instrument, not amenable to travel in the tropics. It is not useful for firewood, though the taut strings grate manioc (earplugs recommended) and the hide can be boiled into soup stock in an emergency. Both my banjo and I would have fared better on a plush fauteuil. Banjo virtuosos play breakneck solos improvised around a vocabulary of licks or ‘riffs’. Trendy anthropologists riff floridly on the latest jargon. Neither kind performance is very pleasant to listen to, but one can’t help but admire the skill required. 

(7) La Mode: Armchair anthropologists dress and theorize more fashionably than I do. The last time I made a fashion statement was in a Peruvian village at the turn of the century. I figured I had nothing to lose, what with Y2K (little did I realize the apocalypse had been postponed). After much manioc beer and three rusty needles, I won a dangling nose ornament and a lingering infection of the nasal septum. ‘Going native’, apart from dangerous, is hopelessly obsolete. But what today is old-fashioned, next year is retro and by mid-century, could be high fashion. The key is patience and an occasional daub of antibiotic ointment.

The End: These days, students and activists challenge me with the retort I once leveled at the ethnographers of yore: “You took much information, but what did you leave behind?” The answer is complex, and not likely to satisfy those who have not sat there themselves. But among the most valuable assets left behind in those far flung villages was my youth. Youth and the lumbar spine. Few things are more precious. Still, I have few regrets, and in exchange, I have gained fine friends, a sense of humor and an appreciation for many small comforts. I’m willing to overlook my petty differences with the Armchair Anthropologist, if only he’ll make room for me and my sore end on his couch. 

Posted with minor revisions from the original text published in
Anthropology News 43(1):60 (Jan. 2002).
Cartoon image © C. Suddick

For a darker piece of humor from Anthropology News, see:

November 19, 2013

The Eye of the Needle: On jaguars and transformation

The path was too dangerous: she might encounter the enemy. She crawled through a maze of roots and vines and branches that clawed and grappled from her blind side like an invisible foe. She turned her head from side to side, seeking a way with her good eye. Her nostrils flared and she found the familiar odor: she was close now. 

She trailed the scent towards a faint glow and emerged at the edge of a circle of huts. The moon raked low over the ragged shadows of treetops. She found meat smoking in a small hut and devoured it, barely chewing with what remained of her rotten teeth. She emerged from the smokehouse calling to her daughters to strain fresh masato to quench her thirst. But instead the men burst from the huts clutching bows and arrows, looked at her with panic and called her that horrible name.

“Kinsmen, what has come over you? Why do you greet me so rudely? It’s me! I was lost all night in the forest. I’m hungry. Now I have found my way home!”

She spoke to them but they didn’t understand. Their voices too were fearsome, wild, incomprehensible. Bowstrings cracked and arrows began to whistle past her ears and pelt the mud around her. She heard a grim metallic creaking as one of them loaded an old rifle. 

She fled into the black tangle as the voices dwindled behind her and were lost to the giddy buzzing of the forest. Forgetting fatigue and her barely sated hunger, she raced far and deep into the shadows until she splashed into a small clearing where the moon reflected off the surface of a shallow rainwater pond. The panicky, concentric halos of light and shadow subsided and she looked down. A multitude of quivering yellow crescents resolved into a single glowing feline eye.

She should be afraid, and yet she wanted to laugh: the jaguar seemed to be winking at her. She stared, fascinated by the incongruous gaze as the jaguar crouched closer. It reached towards her with a huge paw, and by no will of her own she extended her hand towards it. She looked down from the bewitching eye and saw her forearm disappearing into the dark mirror of the pond. 

The two limbs, human and beast, were joined at an obtuse angle across the shuddering membrane. She looked up and the creature stared back with its single eye into her own. Panic filled her again. She turned to run, to wrench herself from the transmogrifying clutch and fly across the rippling black surface to some safe place. But the grip on her arm tightened and a talon punctured her flesh. The yellow eye swam again before her and she fell into the refractive darkness.

Read another excerpt from The Eye of the Needle

 Published by Anthropology and Humanism

Download the full story at and ResearchGate

Read more about jaguar transformation in the Amazon and beyond in:
"Old and in the Way: Jaguar Transformation in Matsigenka"

This is a pre-publication excerpt from my short story, "The Eye of the Needle," which was awarded Honorable Mention in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's 2013 Ethnographic Fiction Contest. The tale dramatizes indigenous Amazonian beliefs about human-jaguar transformation, using the were-jaguar as a metaphor for the fraught and treacherous nature of relationships across boundaries between different cultures, beings and layers of the cosmos.

The awards ceremony was held on November 22 at the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Chicago. The full story was published in the June 2014 issue of Anthropology and Humanism.

Image: Edo-period tiger scroll by Watanabe Shuseki from the Kobe Municipal Museum

November 13, 2013

Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

In late August a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. 

Mascho-Piro in grainy footage released by FENAMAD in August
Image source: BBC

After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.

October 2, 2013

The Cheerful Pessimist: A shaman's farewell to Mariano Vicente Kicha

"Ariota pairani…"

'And so it was long ago…'

With those simple words in his rich, sonorous voice, Mariano began each one of the dozens of myths, folk tales and local histories that I recorded with him over more than 25 years of field research in the Matsigenka Native Community of Yomibato in Manu National Park, a tropical rainforest reserve in southeastern Peru.

Mariano Vicente Kicha was recognized as a true leader among the Matsigenka, and that is quite a distinction among this notoriously acephalous indigenous society that does not easily recognize political authority above the level of small, dispersed, autonomous residence groups. So intense was the Matsigenka's aversion to authority that the only leaders to exist prior to the 1974 "Law of Native Communities" (imposing democratic-style elections) were despotic, self-imposed opportunists, often outsiders, who took advantage of their knowledge of foreign languages and trade contacts to exploit remote Matsigenka communities, economically as well as sexually. The "Kurakas" -- the term itself is a loan word from highland Quechua peoples, reinforcing its exogenous nature -- typically maintained multiple wives and served as intermediaries with outside economic interests.

Mariano was a different kind of leader.

Mariano Vicente Kicha: 1930? - 2013

He was recognized among the Matsigenka throughout the Manu River as a shaman and herbal healer, and was respected for never using these powers to cause harm. His mother, Kicha, was a prominent shamaness herself, and Mariano apprenticed as a youth under Peremperem, a legendary Matsigenka shaman. Though he was hardly forthcoming (the Matsigenka never are), Mariano over many years and in many unexpected and subtle moments shared his deep shamanistic and botanical knowledge with me. 

Mariano was also one of a handful of the most respected Matsigenka elders known as Kenkitantatsiriri, the transmitters of oral tradition. The term in Matsigenka means literally, "those who pass on memory," though it was translated somewhat unfortunately by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa as El Hablador ('The Talker, Gossiper') in a novel based loosely on Matsigenka myth and history. 

On a trip back to the region in 2009 I took a stack of CDs containing digitized audio of a few stories from Mariano's vast repertoire. As I walked through the village, I heard his voice and his stories everywhere, pouring forth from battered boom boxes that moments before had been playing perky Peruvian huaynos.

In the Emmy-Award winning Discovery Channel film, Spirits of the Rainforest, Mariano takes center stage, sharing his knowledge of medicinal plants and telling numerous important myths and oral histories, truncated rather savagely by the feature-length television format. His mother, Kicha, makes a charming cameo appearance in the film reprimanding her husband, Manuel. A second film, The Spirit Hunters, was edited using some of the same footage, and can now be viewed online at Culture Unplugged

Mariano applying medicinal eyedrops to improve a hunter's aim

As a young man, perhaps in the early 1950s, Mariano and his step-father Manuel led a daring raid against the enemy Toyeri people. The Toyeri had been decimated by disease, rubber tapper massacres and inter-group warfare, to the point where only a single family was left in their traditional territory along the upper Manu. The Toyeri had taken to attacking Matsigenka villages and abducting girls in the hopes of re-building their population. After many deadly attacks, the Matsigenka finally decided to take revenge. Mariano and Manuel led a group that wiped out the final Toyeri outpost, rescuing two abducted Matsigenka girls. The older one was already pregnant with the Toyeri chief's last offspring. The younger of the two rescued girls, Justina, soon married Mariano.

Justina Shamoko and Mariano Vicente raised a large family, and the communities of Tayakome and Yomibato today are populated by a vast clan of their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren, many of whom occupy important leadership roles in the community. 

In the early 1960s, Protestant missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) contacted many dispersed, isolated Matsigenka families throughout the Manu headwaters and convinced them to settle at Tayakome. Although the missionaries provided badly needed health care and schools with native-language literacy materials, they also interfered with traditional practices, especially shamanism. In 1973, the Peruvian government established Manu National Park and expelled the SIL missionaries. 

The Matsigenka's health declined severely after the missionaries left Tayakome, and they were also victims of increasingly frequent and fatal attacks by the isolated and bellicose Nahua people of the Manu River headwaters, themselves subject to intrusion by oil companies and loggers. In the late 1970s, Mariano led a large contingent of his kinsmen to break from Tayakome and establish the new community of Yomibato, seeking refuge from disease outbreaks, social conflict and Nahua attacks in Tayakome. A mysterious and horrific epidemic of burning, gangrenous infections beset the new community during these difficult times, and Mariano identified and expelled the sorcerer believed responsible for causing it. 

[More details on the history of Matisgenka communities of Manu Park can be found in the article "Trouble in Paradise," Journal of Sustainable Forestry 29(2): 252-301]

I first went to Yomibato in 1987 -- I was 22 years old -- just two years after the Nahua's final attack against the Matsigenka at Herinkapanko, a settlement upstream from the main Yomibato community. During the raid Mariano's stepfather, Manuel, took seven arrows to his body, but miraculously survived. In The Spirit Hunters, Manuel shows these arrow wounds to one of his great-grandchildren. The Nahua were "pacified" in 1985 by loggers and soon succumbed to overwhelming epidemics, losing nearly half of their population: the Matsigenka blame the Nahua's decimation on the same sorcerer Mariano had expelled from Yomibato.

In Yomibato, 1992

Since my first days in Yomibato, Mariano adopted me into his family, and thus began over twenty-five years of research, mentorship and friendship that has marked my life. 

I learned much from Mariano, including the Matsigenka's characteristic dark humor encapsulated in an endearingly fatalistic attitude that I have described as "cheerful pessimism":

Matsigenka discourses of farewell demonstrate this outlook quite clearly. Whenever I leave a village to travel elsewhere or return home, Matsigenka friends go into an elaborate enumeration of all the misfortunes that might befall them: “I might get bitten by a snake. My canoe could turn over and I could drown. Or I could fall from a tree harvesting sweet fruits.  An epidemic of colds or diarrhea could take me.  If you're gone too long, I could even die of old age.” The tone, half earnest, half joking, belies both fatalism and a rather dark sense of humor. I respond with my own litany:  “The motor could stall and the boat turn over in the rapids. The airplane might fall from the sky. I could get highjacked by terrorists or mugged in Lima...” After registering such hyperbolic, albeit plausible, considerations, the farewell concludes: “But if I am still alive when you return, I'll be happy to see you again.”

[excerpted from "Three Days for Weeping: Dreams, Emotions and Death in the Peruvian Amazon" Medical Athropology Quarterly 16(2): 200-229.]

I returned often to Manu and to Yomibato on various research grants, community development projects and films through the 1990s and 2000s. However as Mariano got older, he began to spend more and more time at a distant settlement, some four hours' walk from the main community. I think he wanted to get away from the bustle of the quickly growing and changing community, as well as to spare himself the increasingly frequent waves of respiratory epidemics that beset the village as the Matsigenka greatly intensified their contacts with outsiders through an ecotourism project. I made the trek once, just to visit him, around 2006. As we said our goodbyes that time, he went through the fatalistic litany that had become so familiar to me:  "An epidemic of colds or diarrhea could take me.  If you're gone too long, I could even die of old age...”  

I made a few shorter visits to the community through the end of 2011, but Mariano was never in the main community and I was frustrated that my schedule didn't leave me time for the long walk to his house. I always inquired about his health and sent my greetings. Everyone told me that he was getting quite old, and I wondered whether I would see him again. 

I recently received news from Yomibato that Mariano passed away on June 15th. As much as I was saddened, having hoped to see him one last time to say goodbye, I noticed -- in a kind of unanticipated emotional double-take -- that my sentiment stopped short of regret. After all, we had already said our goodbyes, in the darkest, most hyperbolic and pessimistic terms, over and over again, for years. 

I suddenly understood the profound wisdom contained in the Matsigenkas' fatalistic salutations of departure. To Candide's affirmation, "You're a hard man," the pessimistic Martin replies, "I've lived." Pangloss's manic optimism, on the other hand, sows only regret and disillusionment. Little wonder the Matsigenka have always cultivated their gardens.

Mariano in an old garden site, 1999

And yet Matsigenka shamans, unlike ordinary mortals, never really die: they walk off into the forest and ascend the sky, shedding their old skin to join the ranks of the immortal shamans who protect the Matsigenka from evil; they inhabit the magical forest clearings where invisible guardian spirits convene and share their knowledge with apprentice shamans. 

In recent years, ever since the last time I saw him, I sometimes look up into a clear night sky or into the depths of the forest and can almost hear the rich baritone of Mariano's voice.

"Arioro," he would always say at the end of each story:

'And so it was.'


In memory of Mariano's passing I also posted a previously published piece about how he initiated me with "Dream Tobacco"

September 4, 2013

Dream Tobacco: For "Apa" Mariano

It was a brilliant September afternoon on the upper Manu river, at the end of the dry season when strong breezes and gathering clouds announce the coming of the long season of rains. I had walked an hour along a well-used path through the forest connecting the central Matsigenka village of Yomybato to the outlying residence and gardens of Mariano and his family. Mariano, one of my key informants during many months of ethnographic and ethnobotanical research, was sitting in a rustic, open-sided construction thatched with palm leaves, the unfinished kitchen area of his new house.

We talked for a few minutes, and then he got a mischievous look in his eye, and said, “I’ve got something for you.”

He reached between the panels of palm thatch on the underside of the low roof and removed a short bamboo tube plugged with corn husks. He uncapped the tube and dug in with a pointed stick, extracting a few wads of a sticky black substance.

“What is that?” I asked.

Opatsa seri,” he replied.

He put a pinch into his mouth and chewed, grimacing at the taste.

"Opatsa seri was the philosopher's stone, the stuff of legend":
Mariano preparing dream tobacco in 1992.

I was surprised. I had heard about opatsa seri, ‘tobacco paste,’ during some twelve prior months of fieldwork among the Matsigenka. Mariano and other storytellers had described this magical substance in legends about ancient times. Opatsa seri, a highly concentrated paste made of tobacco and Banisteriopsis ["ayahuasca"] was the substance that first gave ‘Blowing Spirit,’ Tasorintsi, the transformative powers needed to create the world and all its creatures. It was also used by ancient shamans to change themselves into animals or fly to distant realms. But until that afternoon, none had hinted to me that this mythical substance was still manufactured and consumed. 

Opatsa seri was the philosopher’s stone, the stuff of legend.

“Open your mouth,” said Mariano.

He removed the masticated black quid -- about the size of a pencil eraser -- from his own tongue and placed it on mine.


The little piece of opatsa seri was perhaps the most bitter thing I had ever put in my mouth, tasting like a mixture of unsweetened coffee powder, coal tar and Vegemite. A dry, burning sensation slid down the back of my throat.

“Is it bitter?” Mariano asked.

“Very,” I shook my head and winced.

“Swallow,” he said.

I hiccuped a few times as the bitter quid descended, settling uneasily in my stomach. Mariano explained the use of opatsa seri to me in this way: 

"You take opatsa seri in the afternoon. Not too late, or you won’t be able to sleep, but like now, when the sun is over there [about 4 PM]. It makes you dream. Only good things. People, lots of people. Come back tomorrow and tell me if what I say is not true."

"...beautiful Matsigenka tunics decorated with geometric designs...":
Mariano as he appeared in the 1994 film "The Spirit Hunters"
That night, my dreams were nothing short of fantastic. I had returned to Yomybato a decade in the future, and found the village transformed. Matsigenka ethnobotany had become the focus of international medical research. Doctors, chemists and botanists from around the world came and went from vast research facilities, fashioned as neo-Mayan pyramids of gleaming white stone. All the foreign visitors wore beautiful Matsigenka tunics decorated with geometric designs. Matsigenka had become a required language in medical schools around the world. I felt a sharp pang of jealousy when I met a team of Yankee doctors who spoke Matsigenka better than I, notwithstanding their distinct New York accent.

I was given a tour of a labyrinthine museum of exquisite pre-Columbian artifacts and Matsigenka objets d’art. Then I was taken through endless rows of greenhouses and orchards, where hundreds of medicinal plants were being cultivated for cutting-edge medical research: aromatic herbs, fantastic fruit trees, beautiful flowers, succulent vines. Young Matsigenka botanists, fluent in English, explained the names and uses of different plants and showed me laboratories and clinics where researchers tested new drugs on human and animal subjects.

The images were lucid and vivid, in full color, with clear sounds and smells. The dream seemed to last for many hours, and when I woke up it was dark. I wondered whether I had slept an entire day. But when I checked my watch, it was still very early in the morning: only a few hours had passed since I had fallen asleep.

I took notes on the dream, amused by the more absurd parts but nonetheless intrigued by the powerful images, apparently induced by Mariano’s ‘dream tobacco.’

I went excitedly to Mariano’s the next morning to tell him of my extraordinary dreams.

He laughed, not surprised, and responded: 

"I told you so. Tobacco paste is kepigari, ‘intoxicating’. It is very strong. It was calling to you, it wanted you. It took you to visit the Sangariite, the guardian spirits. They are very wise and good, like doctors and teachers. They can show you many things." 

 -- In Memoriam, Mariano Vicente Kicha, 1930?-2013 --

"They are very wise and good, like doctors and teachers":
Mariano in 2012 (photo courtesy of Nancy Santullo)
This text first appeared independently as “An ethnobotanist dreams of scientists and shamans collaborating.” In: J. Narby & F. Huxley (Eds.) Shamans through Time. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 298-300 (2001), as excerpted from "Psychoactive plants and ethnopsychiatric medicines of the Matsigenka." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30(4): 321-332 (1998).

August 8, 2013

A letter of protest: In defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional populations in Amazonia

We, the researchers, professors and technicians in Anthropology and Linguistics at the National Museum/Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the Goeldi Museum/Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology, honoring a tradition of more than a century working with diverse indigenous peoples and traditional populations, hereby declare:

Our repudiation of proposed Complementary Law No. 227 of 2012 in the Brazilian House of Representatives, which aims to make changes to Article 231 of the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988 defining the public interest in demarcating Indigenous Lands. These changes threaten the rights of indigenous peoples to the exclusive use of their territories, thus allowing the legalization of large private landholdings, hydroelectric dams, highways, and mining and other resource extraction projects on Indigenous Lands;

Our repudiation of the murders of indigenous Terena and Guarani people, killed in the context of defending their territories from invasion by ranchers in the state of Mato Grosso. Elsewhere in Amazonia, many other indigenous people have been murdered over conflicts involving land and access to natural resources, though the press does not always cover these stories nor do the authorities adequately investigate these crimes;

We express our support for the struggles of indigenous peoples and traditional populations in defense of their ancestral territories, and our solidarity with indigenous groups of Pará such as the Munduruku, Arara, Xipaia-Curuaia and Mebêngôkre-Kayapó, who have resorted to lawful protest to publicly express their resistance to government policies that infringe on their Constitutionally guaranteed rights. They oppose the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam but they have sought peaceful dialog with the Brazilian authorities; 

Based on the recognition of indigenous rights expressed in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization as ratified by the Brazilian Congress, we pronounce ourselves against government policies that seek to restrict the demarcation of indigenous and quilombo (traditional Afro-Amazonian community) lands. In this respect we join our voices with popular movements that protest against the hollowing out of agrarian reform and the delays in identifying and demarcating indigenous lands and quilombos. The only solution to the current wave of violence in rural Amazonia is to address the socioeconomic inequalities, socio-environmental injustices, illegal land seizures and political and criminal impunity that reign today in Brazil. 

Finally, based on the principles of socially engaged science, we consider the ethnic and cultural diversity of Brazil and Latin America do be one of its greatest riches. This diversity of life ways and knowledge systems is a collective heritage of the Brazilian nation and the Latin American continent. We recognize native peoples and other traditional populations in Amazonia, including those currently emerging to demand their collective rights, as a fundamental element of this continent. Our ethical role as scientists is also to fight together with them in defense of their territories and other rights, for the preservation of indigenous and traditional peoples’ knowledge, including their full recognition in the educational system and interaction with other knowledge systems. 

August 8, 2013

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.