September 3, 2016

This is your brain on Li-Lo: Ayahuasca in the Twenty-First Century

The genie is out of the bottle, tweeting about the next shamanic bodywork leadership seminar, and the bottle; well, check and see if it isn’t in the back of your fridge by the vegan TV dinner. 

"The genie is out of the bottle" [Photo: Pinterest]

Who would have ever imagined that ayahuasca, the enigmatic jungle potion William S. Burroughs once referred to as “the secret”[1] and whose very botanical identity was a matter of debate through the mid-twentieth century[2] would, within a matter decades, become a household (or at least, yoga-mat) word; the subject of hundreds of scientific, anthropological, and medical studies; a magnet for international tourism; the motor behind a global religious diaspora, and the victorious plaintiff in absentia of an historic Supreme Court case?

The rhyme “herbal brew”/“bamboo” in Paul Simon’s 1990 ayahuasca-inspired song “Spirit Voices” already rings of kitsch, but there is still something, if not fresh, then at least compelling about Sting
in his biography Broken Music,[3] revealing that “ayahuasca has brought me close to something, something fearful and profound and deadly serious.” But by the time Lindsay Lohan confides to a reality TV host in April of 2015 that ayahuasca helped her “let go of past things…it was intense,”[4] Burroughs’s “final fix” has finally entered the realm of cliché.

How did this happen? What is the special appeal of this bitter Amazonian brew in the post-post-modern global village toolbox of self-realization? How has it fared in the bustling marketplace of New Age spiritual entrepreneurism and on the battleground of the War on Drugs? And what does it all mean for the multiple, religiously and socially diverse communities and individuals who consume ayahuasca, as well as various ayahuasca-like analogs, around the world?

We can think of the global ayahuasca expansion of the past two decades as a kind of second wave to the psychedelic revolution, following upon that other, “fantastic universal… inevitable… high and beautiful wave,” Hunter S. Thompson describes as cresting in the mid-1960s only to crash so quickly, and so disappointingly:

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back

"Wave of the Future"

Will the “re-traditionalization” of global neo-ayahuasca ceremonies provide adequate social controls and ideological coherence to ensure that this “second wave” psychedelic revolution doesn’t crash and dissipate somewhere between the headwaters of the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef? Will the contradictions of the modern self and the temptations of capitalism undercut the radical vision of individual and planetary healing that some neo-ayahuasca enthusiasts prophecy? Will ayahuasca become another battlefield casualty in the global War on Drugs, or will legislation evolve to protect ayahuasca as a religious sacrament, as a medicine, as a tool of experiential freedom? We don’t yet have all the answers to these questions, but the authors of this book are on the crest of the wave, and if anyone can see ahead to the far shore, it is they. 


Excerpted from: "Ayahuasca in the Twenty-First Century: Having it Both Ways"[6], in:

edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Clancy Cavnar & Alex. K. Gearin

 Related links from this blog:
Agony and ecstasy in the Amazon
Return of the secret shaman
Dream tobacco
The cheerful pessimist
 Chronicle of a death foreclosed 
Between the cross and the Pleiades

[1] Burroughs, W. S., & Ginsberg, A. (2006 [1963]). The yage letters: Redux. San Francisco: City Lights Books
[2] Schultes, R. E. (1957). The identity of the malphigaceous narcotics of South America. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 18, 1–56.
[3] Sting. (2005). Broken Music: A Memoir. New York, NY: Dell, p. 18.
[4] Morris, B. (2014) Ayahuasca: A strong cup of tea. The New York Times, June 13, p.  ST1.
[5] Thompson, H. S. (1998 [1971]). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York, NY: Random House/Vintage Books, p.  68.
[6] Shepard, G.H. Jr. (2017). Ayahuasca in the Twenty-First Century: Having it both ways. In: B.C. Labate, C. Cavnar & A.K. Gearin (eds.), The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies. New York: Routledge.

May 27, 2016

Ceci N’est Pas un Contacte: the Fetishization of Isolated Indigenous People [Excerpt]

Words matter. Peruvian legislation recognizes two categories of indigenous peoples with little or no interaction with outsiders and the state: “peoples in voluntary isolation” and “peoples in initial contact.” And yet there is no term, process or protocol to describe that moment of transition from one category to another: the process we refer to, for lack of a better term as “contact,” which evokes cinematic images of encounters with alien civilizations.1

Throughout 2014, groups of "uncontacted"(?!) Mashco-Piro regularly approached tourism and transport boats along the banks of the upper Madre de Dios river asking for food, clothing and metal implements.

I visited Peru in March of 2015 in the company of retired FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles and Brazilian physician Douglas Rodrigues, both with decades of experience among such peoples. My visit was an attempt to help the Peruvian Culture Ministry better address the precarious situation of isolated indigenous peoples along the Peru-Brazil border. It took years for the Peruvian government to even recognize the fact that isolated indigenous groups still exist in some parts of the Peruvian Amazon. Once such peoples were officially recognized in Peru about a decade ago, the official state policy, promoted by indigenous federations such as the Federacion Nativa de Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), has been “no contact.” Whereas in past years, religious and other organizations have sought to initiate contact with such isolated indigenous peoples, typically resulting in their decimation and cultural assimilation, this more enlightened, recent policy has recognized isolation as a form of cultural self-determination that should be respected and enforced.

Mashco-Piro women on the banks of the Madre Dios river. Photo: Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic, June 2016.

I first coined the term “voluntary isolation” in an open letter to Mobil Prospecting Peru protesting this company’s seismic exploration in the Rio Piedras known to be inhabited by Mashco-Piro and perhaps other poorly known indigenous groups, referred to at that time with inaccurate and pejorative terms such as “uncontacted,” “Stone Age,” “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “naked.” The point of the term “voluntary isolation” is to recognize this situation, not as an accident of nature or history
a human group lost in the backwaters of human evolution — but rather as a conscious choice of these indigenous peoples to isolate themselves from outsiders, often due to disastrous prior experiences, as a mode of survival and self-determination.2 The term seemed to catch on, initially through the activism of FENAMAD and the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs in Peru, and ultimately spread to neighboring Amazonian countries like Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.

What do we do when a group of isolated people, such as the Mashco-Piro along the upper Madre de Dios River, who had previously rejected all attempts at “contact” by missionaries, scientists, government agents and nearby indigenous brethren, have suddenly emerged along river banks, calling to tourist boats and loggers asking for food, clothes, and metal implements? Mashco-Piro bowmen have raided legally recognized native communities to take food and trade goods, sometimes wounding and even killing apparently inoffensive indigenous “brethren” with their arrows.

Faced with such difficult challenges, one Peruvian Culture Ministry representative asked the Brazilian specialists, “Don’t we need a new category to refer to these people? ‘People in sporadic contact’ perhaps?” This person, and others we met during this visit of exchange between Peru and Brazil, seemed to be contorting the language to find ways of respecting the inviolable principle of “no contact.” Meirelles responded in his characteristically sardonic manner: “Can a person be considered ‘sporadically pregnant’? No. Either they are, or they aren’t.” 

An evangelical missionary communicates with a group of Mashco-Piro through a local Piro interpreter, 2014.

Viewing numerous photographs of Mashco-Piro individuals approaching boats, receiving clothes, metal implements, food, even a Coca Cola bottle, Meirelles commented: “Contact has already happened. You people are in denial.”

The official Peruvian policy of “no-contact” is reinforced by vehement, idealistic media campaigns by indigenous rights organizations and concerned individuals who post on social media networks
“leave them alone!” While their intentions are of course noble, such a simplistic view of the complex and quickly changing situation tends to romanticize and fetishize the condition of “isolation” as a pristine, natural, unadulterated state of the last autonomous, free peoples of the planet beyond the clutches of capitalism, organized religion and the state. People forget that the very state of “isolation” is most often a historical product, a conscious choice by certain groups of people, in certain moments, to defend themselves from moments of violence and territorial invasion, notably during the Rubber Boom at the turn of the 20th century. For this very reason I have resisted the idea that such peoples should be referred to as “uncontacted.” 

Mashco-Piro children remove clothing and food from a tourism boat. Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD

As Felipe Milanez has written, “Contact is a myth: it is a colonial myth.” It is a myth that fetishizes as a primordial condition
“uncontacted,” autonomous, free, beyond the state what is in fact a historically contingent response.  The response of isolated peoples is evolving, in some cases rapidly, in a rapidly changing world impacted not only by roads, mining, logging, gas pipelines, and colonization, but also by global warming, environmental change, and changing social relationships with neighboring peoples.3 It is only by looking beyond these myths and the idealistic, sometimes naïve notions they evoke, that scholars and supporters of indigenous rights and the relevant government institutions can develop policies that defend the long-term rights of survival, territory and self-determination of indigenous peoples, rather than blindly defending their own fantasies about them.


Excerpt: Full text at Tipiti 14(1): 135-137 (article 8)

Read more from the special forum on isolated peoples at Tipiti 14(1), with articles by Felipe Milanez & yrs truly, Lucas Bessire, John Hemming, Minna Opas, and Warren Thompson & Obed Garcia


1. Shepard, G.H. 2002. “Prólogo.” In: Huertas, B., Los Pueblos Indígenas en Aislamiento: Su lucha por la sobrevivencia y la libertad. Lima: IWGIA, 11-14.

2. Shepard, G.H. et al. 2010. “Trouble in Paradise: Indigenous populations, anthropological policies, and     biodiversity conservation in Manu National Park, Peru.” Journal of Sustainable Forestry     29(2): 252-301.

3. Walker, R. S., and Hill, K. 2015. “Protecting isolated tribes,” Science 5 June 2015: 1061.


May 12, 2016

Water in Yomibato: Guest post by National Geographic writer Emma Marris

I traveled last November to Manu Park in the Peruvian Amazon with writer Emma Marris to guide her among the Matsigenka people for a story she published this week in National Geographic. In this post from the science blog The Last Word on Nothing (reproduced with permission), Emma describes her visit to the water purification system recently inaugurated in this remote village by the charity organization Rainforest Flow.

Text: Emma Marris
Photography: Glenn Shepard

Durable, hygienic drinking taps, sinks and bathrooms were installed near the Yomibato village school by Rainforest Flow.
Last November, I went to the Peruvian Amazon on assignment for National Geographic.  I focused on a group of indigenous people, the Matsigenka, living inside Manu National Park.

One of these people is Alejo Machipango
[1], a hunter, farmer, and member of the water committee for the village of Yomibato. Alejo is about 32, but I would have guessed his age at 22. He is married and has several kids. He is a jokester. He likes chewing coca, drinking manioc beer. He takes his arrows with him most places, just in case. I saw him shoot at some birds, but never hit one. And he always laughs when he misses.
Alejo with his arrows, just in case.

One day, Alejo takes me to see the spring where Yomibato gets its water. The water system in the village was installed by a charity called Rainforest Flow between 2012 and 2015.

A few generations ago, the Matsigenka used to be more dispersed on the landscape. Each family lived apart, and households moved often. The whole community would gather together once a month, on the full moon, and have a big party with manioc beer. But many families decided to move to Yomibato to be near the school and clinic. As the community grew to several hundred, the local river and streams became contaminated with bacteria and waterborne illness became a chronic problem.

The slow sand filtration treatment tanks, with water committee members.

The newly-installed water system itself is a very simple slow sand filtration setup. Water is piped from a spring away from the main village to a series of three portable geomembrane tanks[2] filled with sand and rocks. Microbes living on the sand gobble up bacteria, viruses, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and parasites. The water is stored in a 30,000 liter bladder tank that is essentially a big tough geomembrane pillow, then is distributed throughout the village through pipes. The whole system is gravity fed, so there are no pumps, no electricity required, no moving parts. It is also light and easy to transport by canoe. It was designed by hydrological engineer Humphrey Blackburn. The water committee clean the filters every couple of months and repair pipe breaks, and that’s about it.

We cross the river by canoe, stop to look at the filters and reservoir, and then start climbing the foothills of the Andes towards the spring. When we get there, the spring itself looks like nothing. A wet spot in the ground. A pipe with holes in it is buried below the surface, I am told.

We sit down to rest in the hollows made by the huge buttressed roots of massive fig trees. Alejo says he knows a tree nearby that is fruiting, and he and his friend Alex disappear, then reappear with their T-shirts filled with brown seed pods, about five inches long. They are called azucar huayo in Spanish; koveni in Matsigenka
[3]. The water committee hack them open with machetes and begin eating the sweet brown fluffy stuff inside. It is almost too sweet.

Alex with azucar huayo.

I ask Alejo about laying the 16 kilometers of pipe the project required. “Everybody came to work,” he says. “The women came. We all suffered a lot.”

I ask him if it was worth it. Sometimes, I think, development projects are more about what rich people think a community ought to want, rather than what they actually do want. “If we had to do it again, we would.” Alejo says. “One of my children died of diarrhea, and I had it many times.”

He says this so matter of factly that I don’t say the kinds of things I would say if someone back home told me their child had died. I suppose that in a place where people have a dozen kids and where childhood mortality is relatively common, it is possible that the etiquette is a bit different. But in truth, I am stunned that this happy-go-lucky guy who looks like a teenager has lost a child. And as a mother, I feel that vaguely sick feeling you get whenever you hear about any child dying.

I wonder if he is on the water committee because his child died, or if he just thought he’d make a little money without having to leave the village—which is the way most people make money in Yomibato, if they need some for soap or cooking pots or gasoline. But I don’t know how to ask him any more about this dead child.

Nancy Santullo, founder and director of Rainforest Flow.

The American woman who runs Rainforest Flow, Nancy Santullo, sees clean water as a basic step on the road towards empowering indigenous communities that have historically been victimized by outsiders: paid less than non-natives for their work, denied benefits owed to them as citizens, abused by those sent to help them

She is on a spiritual quest to make the Matisgenka strong and confident. Alejo already seems strong and confident, but I don’t know. His smiles may cover a shell thicker than the koveni

We walk back along the pipe, and it is a hot day, like every day. When we get to the first house of the village, I stop and take a long cool drink from the tap.

Access to clean, safe water has transformed health and sanitary conditions in the project communities, benefiting children especially.

Find out about Rainforest Flow's water projects in indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon at

Read more about the Matsigenka people and Manu Park in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic:

by Emma Marris
photography by Charlie Hamilton James

by Susan Goldberg
photography by Glenn Shepard


1.  As a young boy, Alejo appeared in the Discovery channel documentaries Spirits of the Rainforest (winner of two Emmys) and The Spirit Hunters, both filmed in Yomibato in 1992. Alejo's grandfather, Mariano Vicente, a storyteller, shaman, and "star" of the films, passed away in 2012. The Spirit Hunters , narrated by James Earl Jones, streams free online at Culture Unplugged.
2.  Slow sand filtration is a centuries-old technology used by many small towns as well as by the U.S. military on extended combat missions and the U.N. in disaster relief efforts. Read more at
3.  Azucar huayo (or jatobá in Brazil) is a legume seed pod from the tree Hymenaea courbaril L.


September 30, 2015

The Vampire Pipeline: Unhealth and undevelopment in the lower Urubamba

The Vilcabamba mountain range, last holdout of the Inca empire in the 16th century, looms in the distance as a man in a cotton tunic and baseball cap scrolls through the photographs on his laptop: dozens of people, adults and children, gravely ill from what was ultimately attributed to a rabies outbreak, but which many Matsigenka people of Camaná in southeastern Peru blame on a leak in the gas pipeline which passes near their village.

“Lots of people died. Children! Fourteen years and below, he said. They took them to Lima and they died there. The doctors came and said ‘It’s not gas, it’s not gas, it’s the bat-illness that bit them.’ I said, ‘What if you’re lying?’”

Young girl from the community of Camana who died, presumably of rabies, in May 2012. Photo taken by a community member and used with permission.

 “In 2012 the pipeline broke. They said it didn’t break, but it just leaked a little. In the month of March, at the beginning. They said ‘Don’t worry, the water is safe, the contamination isn’t coming downstream.’ But then it started raining and the floods bought all that contamination down here close to the community. 

Ohohoh!," he shook his head and then continued in the staccato cadences of the Matsigenka language, It messed up the river… At first I didn’t notice it, I was eating armored catfish and they had a strange smell. And then I thought, ‘It has come down here after all. People are going to get sick. We might die.’ And then my wife got sick. And the doctors came and said it was rabies. The bat-illness that bit her. I said ‘No way! It was gas!’ Has a bat bitten my wife? She was never bitten by a bat. I built my house carefully. You don’t get rabies so easily.”

A 600 km pipeline carries natural gas from the Camisea gas fields—among the largest natural gas deposits in all of South America—from the Urubamba region in the upper Amazon, across the Andes to refineries near Paracas Marine Reserve on the Peruvian coast. The pipeline supplies over 40% of Peru's natural gas, representing a contribution to the Peruvian economy of about 28% of GDP.[1] The Camisea gas fields are located in the heart of the territory of the Matsigenka, an indigenous Amazonian people of about 12,000 who live in the lower Urubamba, Manu and upper Madre de Dios rivers; some Matsigenka in the Camisea region maintain little or no contact with the outside world. And yet because of Peru's subsoil mineral laws, the Matsigenka people have no direct ownership stake in the gas deposits, which are leased by the government to private companies.

In March 12, 2012, the pipeline administered by Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP) near the Matsigenka Native Community of Camana on the Rio Picha (an affluent of the Lower Urubamba) leaked into a small stream known locally as Tsirompia. According to the people of Camana, not only did fish die and become contaminated with a strange odor, but also large animals such as tapir and peccaries that drank contaminated water also died and were found lying in the forest or along the river.

Water samples collected on March 13 by a team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate showed unsafe levels of petrochemicals at two of eight collection points, namely, the points closest to the site where the leak was detected. Unsafe levels continued at these two points through March 18, and a final collection on March 22 showed a return to safe levels at one of these points, although no data is given for the second point.1 The health team concluded that, by the date of its return on March 23, the water in the region was now safe.

Yet a number of people fell ill beginning late March through mid-April, and by May 10 five children had died. According to media reports at the time, the people of Camana blamed these illnesses and deaths on contamination from the gas leak.

A health team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate in May concluded that the deaths did not result from water contamination but rather were probably due to rabies transmitted by vampire bats.
[2] In all, eight suspected cases of rabies were documented of which seven (all children or adolescents 14 years old or less) proved fatal. The only survivor was an adult woman, the wife of the man interviewed above. One of the fatal cases was confirmed as rabies by autopsy, and two additional cases showed indications of rabies by indirect laboratory results. The exact cause of the initial five deaths could not be confirmed due to lack of blood or tissue samples, however the report classified them as “probable” rabies cases.

However during my visit to the community in April of 2014 as part of an independent evaluation of social, economic and environmental impacts of gas development in southern Peru, many community members suspected that some or perhaps all of these illnesses and deaths were not a result of rabies, but rather consequences of the gas leak in March.

We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.”

As one man said, “There has not been one case of rabies for years and years. There’s a gas spill, and suddenly people start dying. It’s not rabies: it’s the gas. It’s been another two years since then and not a single case of rabies: it was the gas!”

August 11, 2015

Surreal Specters: Martin Gusinde and The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego, reviewed in the New York Review of Books

The surrealists’ 1929 Map of the World depicts Tierra del Fuego as larger than Australia: Martin Gusinde's photographs show us why.

When Martin Gusinde was ordained as a priest in Germany in 1911, he hoped to travel to New Guinea to work as a missionary among exotic tribes. Instead, his superiors sent him to Chile to teach at the German school in Santiago. Within a few years, however, he found his calling at Chile’s Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, carrying out expeditions to Tierra del Fuego in the far south of Chile and Argentina

Photography was an important aspect of Gusinde’s scientific and humanistic endeavor, and The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego is the first book to address this work in its own rightHis portraits especially reveal a tension between Gusinde’s ethnographic training and his humanistic (and artistic) instincts.

Ulen is a clown­like male spirit, whose role is to entertain the audience of the Selk’nam Hain ceremony (1923) © Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Editions Xavier Barral

Gusinde’s expeditions predate the surrealist movement and the irreverent 1929 map showing Tierra del Fuego as disproportionately large; but his first monograph, including 250 images, was not published until 1931. And yet even if only by coincidence, there is something bewitchingly surreal about Gusinde's photographs of the Hain initiation ceremony, in which young Selk’nam men are hazed by a pantheon of spirits that are revealed, in the final moments (forbidden to women), to be kinsmen in elaborate masks. Several photos show naked male figures standing barefoot in the snow, their bodies painted in bold white stripes on dark ochre and wearing eerie, phallic headdresses

In 1923 Gusinde photographed the last Hain ritual before the Selk’nam were decimated by a final wave of measles and forced to assimilate. 

The last fluent Selk’nam speakers died in the 1980s,
[1] and Herminia Vera, who spoke the language as a child, lived until 2014: at ninety-one, she was born the same year Gusinde photographed the final Hain ceremony documented in this book. But Joubert Yanten, a linguistically talented mestizo man (he goes by the tribal name Keyuk) has sought to encourage a cultural revival

In a recent interview with the New Yorker[2]  Keyuk explains the etymology of the group’s name: “The word ‘Selk’nam’ can mean ‘We are equal,’… though it can also mean ‘we are separate.’” Gusinde’s camera captures the essence of this fundamental enigma of the ethnographic encounter.

Read the full review at The New York Review of Books

by Martin Gusinde, edited by Christine Barthe and Xavier Barral
with text by Marisol Palma Behnke, Anne Chapman and Dominique Legoupil
English edition: Thames & Hudson; French and Spanish editions: Editions Xavier Barral
Photographs © Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Editions Xavier Barral

     [1] Rojas-Berscia, Luis Miguel (2014) A Heritage Reference Grammar of Selk'nam. MA Thesis, Dept. Linguistics, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.
     [2] Thurman, Judith (2015) “A loss for words: Can a dying language be saved?,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2015.

June 30, 2015

Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon: Excerpt from 'Broad Street'

Never tell a Matsigenka shaman his tobacco snuff is anything but katsi, “extremely painful.”

I learned this lesson the way I learned most of my lessons during fieldwork and in life generally—the hard way. Many years ago, in a village at the headwaters of the Manu River in the Peruvian Amazon, my friend Shumarapage initiated me into the pungent delights of seri[1], a fine green powder of tobacco and ash that Matsigenka men blast up one another’s nostrils to dispel fatigue, treat colds, build bonds of friendship, share shamanic powers, or just get plain smashed.

"Tobacco is the shaman’s soul. The more 'painful' or 'pungent' (katsi) the tobacco, the more powerful the shaman."

That first time, Shumarapage punished me with an intentional overdose. “Just one more puff,” he kept saying, until ten hits later I was lying in a puddle of green snot and vomit while a crowd of men, raucous on manioc beer, laughed all around me (the Matsigenka have a rather harsh sense of humor). Among the Matsigenka, such an episode is nothing to be ashamed of: on the contrary, guests are expected to overindulge as a sign of appreciation. And so despite this traumatic initiation, I soon came to savor the sharp sting of tobacco, crave the euphoric rush of nicotine, even appreciate the purifying bouts of retching that sometimes follow an overindulgence. 

Matsigenka men usually share tobacco at dusk, as the cooking fires begin to flicker against the black wall of the surrounding forest and crickets, frogs, and nocturnal birds tune up for an all-night symphony. A pair of men, usually brothers-in-law or other close kinsmen, sit facing one another on a dingy cane mat in the sandy plaza between thatched houses where women cook, gossip, nurture and laugh while children sleep or play.

The men are often grimy and tired, having just arrived from their slash-and-burn gardens or a hunting foray. They may chat softly for a few minutes about the day’s toils and revelations—peccaries plundering the manioc crop, tapir tracks along the stream—or they may be too tired, and so remain silent. One of them reaches into a coarsely woven net bag slung across his chest and removes the shell of a giant snail (Megalobulimus sp.), known as pompori in Matsigenka, which can be as white and polished as porcelain from years of use. He extracts a cloth wad from the shell’s orifice, careful not to spill any of the precious green powder stored inside. He raps the shell with his knuckles, tilting it slightly downward so the powder sifts down from the coiled innards towards the mouth.

"Green tobacco powder is mixed with the ash obtained from burning the bark of an exceedingly rare tree species known simply as seritaki, 'tobacco bark'.[2]"

The tobacco’s owner brandishes his seritonki, or “tobacco bone,” an L-shaped tube made from two leg bones of the curassow, a pheasant-sized game bird with silky black feathers and a hooked, bright red beak. The bones are secured with sticky brown resin and twists of handspun cotton. Then follows a brief but animated conversation as the two men decide who will go first—which is to say, who will start out on the receiving end of the seritonki

“You first!” says the tobacco’s owner. 

“No, you first!” says the other man. “Your tobacco is very painful! I’ll never get used to it.”

“You first!” insists the tobacco’s owner. It’s like watching two gentlemen bicker over who will hold the door.

“All right, I’ll go ahead, but just two nostrils’ full,” the second man acquiesces. He rubs his nose and scratches his head in anticipation.  

May 30, 2015

A Welcome of Tears, and Farewell to Chief Mro’ô

When you cry for someone you’ve lost, you cry for everything you’ve ever lost.

Although it is perhaps the most universal human emotion, grief weighs uniquely upon each of us, and we each must find our own way through the wastelands of loss and bereavement, shadowed by the patterns and compulsions of our distinctive personalities, families and societies. Modern American society seems bent on classifying, five-stepping and pressing on through grief; other societies across the globe give witness to a wide diversity of strategies, from strong repression
[1] to cathartic indulgence.[2]

The Kayapó people of Brazil enact the lingering toll of grief through the ritual “welcome of tears,”[3] in which friends or family members who haven’t seen each other for some time cry, wail, embrace and wipe tears away as they remember loved ones they have lost since their last meeting. This custom attracted international attention in 2011, when a photograph of Kayapó chief Raoni in tears was circulated widely with a caption stating (incorrectly) that he was crying over the approval of the Belo Monte dam project. In fact, he was enacting the tearful ritual of greeting with a relative

Kayapó chief Raoni greets a relative in the traditional "welcome of tears"

When a young Kayapó filmmaker called me at 2 AM on the second of January this year to tell me that the chief of Turedjam village, Mro’ô, had died, I thought I must have misunderstood. This just couldn’t be: Mro’ô is younger than I am. I had seen him a little more than a month before, if ever preoccupied with the burdens of leadership on a violent frontier, still alive, healthy and happy, surrounded by his grandchildren at an idyllic small village where one of his daughters had moved. 

Mro'ô Kayapo, 1969-2015

When I had last seen him, Mro’ô was proud to learn that yet another of his many ambitious dreams would soon come true: three Kayapó film makers, including one novice cameraman from his own village, had been invited to travel in March of 2015 to represent his people’s concerns and show images from Kayapó culture at an international event on digital media in the United States. I had come to Turedjam in late November of 2014 with anthropologist/journalist Felipe Milanez to convey the good news to the people of Turedjam, and to begin the complex and time-consuming arrangements for obtaining passports and U.S. visas for the Kayapó film makers who would be traveling.

A soft-spoken yet determined leader, Mro’ô had first approached me at the Goeldi Museum in Belem during my first month curating the ethnographic collections there in 2009. He was visiting the museum with French anthropologist Pascale de Robert, and asked me for help to obtain ongoing support for this exchange with the Goeldi Museum. He was especially eager to equip and train a cohort of Kayapó youth to use video cameras and digital editing equipment to record Kayapó culture, both material objects preserved in the Goeldi Museum collections, and the living culture of traditional dances, songs, orations and ceremonies that still take place regularly in modern Kayapó villages : “The old people are all dying,” he had said. “We need to register our culture so that our children and grandchildren will not forget.” 

January 21, 2015

Indigenous Engagement with Digital and Electronic Media: InDigital Conference at Vanderbilt University, March 26-28

A cartoon by Gary Larson from 1984 shows natives in grass skirts rushing to hide TV, VCR and telephone before the anthropologists arrive. As these devices have become smaller, cheaper, and more widely available, the penetration of electronic media into indigenous cultures has only grown.

Native peoples of the Amazon and elsewhere in Latin America have become engaged consumers of electronic media, while also making use of video cameras, cell phones and laptops to create and transmit their own artistic and cultural productions and political views. The results can be complex and surprising, ranging from videos about traditional ceremonies to catchy electronic music and even a native-language cover of the Beatles. Among the works made by Kayapó film makers I trained as part of an indigenous media project at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil are films documenting tug-of-war at an interethnic sports competition; a professional soccer game in Rio de Janeiro; the “Miss Kayapó” beauty contest at a local fairground; and a concert by the indigenous pop star Bepdjyre, who composes his own lyrics in Kayapó but sets them to popular Brazilian dance rhythms.

Bepdjyre's stage show includes Kayapó girls showing off sensual dance moves gleaned from watching TV and DVDs.

This conference, sponsored by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee University, brings together anthropologists, media scholars and indigenous filmmakers to reflect on the appropriations and interpretations of digital media by indigenous peoples, and to discuss the transformations this use of technology is bringing about.

The "Miss Kayapó" beauty contest captured by film maker Tatajere.

Faye Ginsberg of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University will give the keynote address at the event. Indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuru and Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Fausto present their documentary “The Hyper-Women,” which follows a village on the Upper Xingu River as it strives to rescue, rehearse and host a traditional song festival before the last woman who knows the repertoire dies. The film has won several international awards including the Jury Prize at Brazil’s prestigious Gramado Festival, Best Film at the Curitiba International Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Hollywood Brazilian Film Festival. Kayapó film makers Bepunu and Krakrax will show works produced on their own village-based laptop editing suites as part of the Goeldi Museum media project, and Richard Pace of Middle Tennessee University will present results of a study financed by the National Science Foundation on the uses and impacts of satellite TV, DVD players and cell phones in a Kayapó village.

Conference registration is open through February 16. For more information, visit

Updated from the original posting by The New York Review of Books.