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On the Yanomami Crisis in Anthropology

Darkness in El Dorado nominated for National Book Award
Tim Ingold's Comments
jeanne's field report on the AAA Discussion in San Francisco at the Annual Meetings 2000.



Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Participating Students

Part of Peacemaking Identity Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, September 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

What do we mean by "crisis?" Conceptual Links to Theory and Distributive Justice

We're describing "crisis" as a loud enough cry from voices not generally heard that we of the majority or dominant group are actually being forced into an awareness about the unstated assumptions on which we operate. That is not what everyone means by "crisis."

Some will think of "crisis" as meaning that "at last we've caught "them" at "it" and exposed the nefarious activities by which "they" harm Others." Some will think of "crisis" as meaning that once again those who are not disciplined and hard working are attacking those who have worked hard to make this world what it is today (unstated assumption: that what the world is today is what we want it to be). We are confident that after reading Fellman's Rambo and the Dalai Lama you will recognize that such thoughts are drawn from the extremes and from obsessive mutuality or obsessive adversarialism. Recall that Fellman would not embrace either position, for he constantly tries to remind us that we need not choose either adversarialism OR mutuality, but that we need to find a healthy balance somewhere in between.

Does our definition of "crisis" come closer to a balance between mutuality and adversarialism? We hope it does. We are not suggesting that we go back in time to when such studies were undertaken with little collective thought as to the harm they inflicted on others. For the social context was different then. But we are suggesting that one cannot continue to conduct business as though such harm to others is negligible. It is easy with hindsight to say what we "would have done." It is easy with hindsight to say what others "should have done." But we think Fellman, Freire, and others would tell us to look to our unstated assumptions, for they are no longer "unstated." We can no longer deny them in good faith.

Henry and Milovanovic will probably be pleased at the media play this issue receives. For they believe that the media must play an important role in transforming discourse, in finding alternative ways to think about the world and how we treat people in that world. So an article in the New Yorker calls attention to the issue, calls attention to our need to take another look at when and how we cause harm to others. But the media also thrive on exposes. To what extent are we really examining our own unstated assumptions reflexively, and to what extent are we just enjoying a good scandal at the expense of some well known scholars?

I'm not sure we can answer that question. I'm not even sure there is or should be an answer. But I am reasonably sure that it is good for us to be called to think reflexively about what we do in the name of science, about who we harm in the interest of what?

We ask that you use the following links from the archive of the Progressive Sociologists Network (Proceedings) with Fellman's position on balance in mind. Anthropology faces this crisis now. Soon enough sociology will face similar issues, as economics is facing them now in France. The social and behavioral sciences still have one foot solidly in the door of social context. That means we must take the social context, all of it, into account.

Notice in the readings that the research was sociobiology: part hard science, part sociology and anthropology. The interdependence with social context is unavoidable. As you read, please consider the meaning of this crisis for our concerns for aboriginal populations. And please try to stay open to hearing in good faith what each group has to say, and to recognizing the time and space conflicts into which we are drawn when we go back into our histories over hundreds of years.

Time and Space Conflicts: Defined

Just in case "time and space conflicts" confuses some of you, the dictionary won't help. The time conflicts to which I refer are the changing patterns of relationships over time. What might seem socially acceptable in the nineteenth century may not be at all acceptable in the twenty-first century. We need to be careful not to apply our standards of judgment by applying twenty-first century standards to nineteenth-century practitioners.

The space conflicts to which I refer are changing cultural patterns from one geographic location to another. When U.S. women went into Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, they found problems with driving, for Saudi women did not drive in similar circumstances. This conflict was hard for the young U.S. women to absorb, for their cultural experiences were so different.

Today when space and economic conditions have forced the world into a much more global stance than we have ever taken before, we are finding an intermingling of cultures within our metropolitan areas. This close proximity, together with the clash of cultures from different parts of the world with different histories, makes hearing each other in good faith difficult at best.

The Yanomami crisis is just one aspect of this phenomenon.

Links to Information on Yanomami Crisis:

  • Scientist 'killed Amazon indians to test race --Guardian Unlimited The Guardian by Andrew Hund. First alert to PSN. September 23, 2000.
  • Editorial Reviews of Darkness in El Dorado. Posted by Alan Spector. Amazon.com reviews. September 23, 2000.
  • Fw: The Anthropology Scandal by George Snedeker. Responses by anthropologists who knew Neel or have seen book draft. September 24, 2000.
  • ethics of research by George Snedeker. " the real problem is this kind of research . . ." September 24, 2000.
  • Yanomami by Steve Rosenthal. "Chagnon apparently shed no tears over the rapid disappearance of peoples like the Yanomami. He wrote, "The primitive world is, after all, on the wane and unless research is done now, only questions will remain." In other words, Chagnon's only concern over the extinction of "primitive" peoples was that he complete his sociobiological field studies before they disappeared altogether." Posted on September 29, 2000.

    Like other progressive sociologists, I am not an anthropologist. This is not an issue to be resolved without serious study and without some knowledge of the field. But I agree with Steven Rosenthal and George Snedeker that the real problem is this kind of research which privileges "science" over the safety and well-being of humans.

Related Links:

Many of the following links were on the Texas A&M Anthropology Breaking News Page. Thanks to Texas A&M for gathering this information and for making it readily available to all of us. Social Science Hub: Social Science News
  • Report of the Special Commission to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami American Anthropological Association (AAA). Terry Turner, Chair. Link added September 29, 2000.
  • STATEMENT BY DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI Davi Kopenawa served on the AAA Special Commission on the Yanomami. Link added September 29, 2000.
  • Statement by the University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Anthropology

  • Dr. Napoleon Chagnon's response to the charges
  • Picture of Dr. Chagnon with the Yanomami Scroll a little more than half way down the file.
  • Recent news on Neel/Chagnon allegations
  • Darkness in El Dorado AAA Questions and Answers on the Controversy. Link added September 29, 2000.
  • Dr. Les Sponsel's comments on the crisis.Dr. Sponsel warns against jumping to conclusions, against deciding this controversy without even having read the book. Like most issues in public discourse, this is complex and demanding. Perhaps this letter will help you understand why I insisted upon finding many views. I should very much like all of you to do the Interactive Project (Not up yet. Friday) that accompanies this series on the Yanomami.
  • Dr. Alan Fix's comments on the crisis. Dr. Fix finds the charges unfounded. He suggests that some answers to the charges can be found in Neel's published work. I like his phrase: "It is worth waiting and seeing before judging this work." That's not quite mutuality, but it's at least not so adversarial that it's willing to attack without considering the matter in good faith. But then we slip right back to "this letter is scary" . . . "McCarthyism of the classic sort . . ." Dr. Fix may be right. We don't have the letter that was "leaked" to cyberspace. But words like "scary" and "McCarthyism" are as value-laden as the "character assassination" that makes the letter "scary." We must proceed with caution when the affect runs so high. Remember Jonathan Lear's caution against "knowingness." There are some things we may never "know" to our satisfaction.
  • Dr. Susan Lindee's Review of Neel Field Notes A beautifully moderate discussion of the crisis. Balanced. Very few value-laden terms. And I include here "elitist" and " confident about his hierarchical rankings of races, sexes, civilizations, fields of knowledge production, and forms of social organization." There are those to whom such terms are provocative and value-laden. Link added September 29, 2000.
  • Ian Pitchford's Summary of of the more useful correspondence on the forthcoming title 'Darkness in El Dorado' by Patrick Tierney. Link added September 29, 2000.
  • Letter from Dr. Katz on Edmonson B vaccine Link added September 29, 2000.

  • Book Seeks to Indict Anthropologists Who Studied Brazil Indians By John Noble Wilford and Simon Romero. New York Times article, September 28, 2000. Link added September 29, 2000.


  • Macho Anthropology by Juno Gregory. Salon Magazine. (Recall "I was Michel Foucault's Love Slave) Gregory, who has had access to the Tierney book, points out the exaggerations, the harm, the misconceptions encouraged by anthropologists having privileged their own theories without regard to the perceptions of the indigenous peoples. Details on Napoleon Chagnon's insistence upon access to the Yanomami lands, and his cooperation with one of the gold miners who caused so much devastation to the Yanomami. This article was the first in which I read that Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa had been discredited. In Pinker's work I had read extensively about the inaccuracies of Benjamin Whorf's linguistic work. But Margaret Mead, too?

    What this says to us is that we must always remain alert to new information cropping up which forces us to recalculate the certainty with which we believe the knowledge handed down for so long.

  • 1995 Debate in Native Net's archives on the Human Genome Diversity Project and the Commodification of Human Genes Scroll a little more than halfway down for the index of links to this debate. Link added September 30, 2000.

    This piece is not on the Yanomami. It is on other aspects of aboriginal exploitation by the dominant hierarchy. I'd like you to run quickly through the debate to consider the extent to which each side is indignant with the other over the patenting of the genetic material of an indigenous man. There is reason (of some sort) on both sides. But notice:



  • Exam Questions

    Please prepare for these questions by skimming through most of the available materials. Do not read them for test-taking, but to get a general picture of the crisis.

    General Question

    What did you discover in reading about the Yanomami crisis from so many different perspectives?

    Notice how you begin to be able to read much more quickly, because you have a sense of what the gist is. Notice how you begin to recognize names. Ausubel and advance organizers - theory. Triangulation. If you didn't notice these effects, try again. It's important for you to discover that point at which using different sources really helps you to learn.

    Theory Question

    Fellman speaks of the fact that we must reappropriate the parts of our selves that permit us to see mutuality alternatives, so that we may choose mutuality when appropriate. Reread Dr. Susan Lindee's Review of Neel's Field Notes. What approach does she use to making mutuality an alternative?

    Look to how she approaches the issue of balance. Does this seem to bear any resemblance to what we call conflict negotiation? What balance does she ask for from each of the involved parties?

    Distributive Justice - Graduate

    Aboriginal peoples are usually isolated before their colonization by those who have led a more cosmopolitan life in contact with other much broader cultures. Read again the STATEMENT BY DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI "We only want to live in peace" and "The Yanomami do not want to live from dealing with money, with gold, we are not prepared for this. We need time to learn." They have no use for money, armor, the more cosmopolitan trappings of "civilization."

    Is it then just if they not share in the resource of money? What if they desire to pursue their aboriginal way of life? What would be a just share of the world's resources? Is it just access to the resources that must be shared for justice? Or is it the resources that must be shared? How has capitalism dealt with that question? Does Davi Kopenawa say "We don't want the gold."? Or does he say, "We need time to learn."? Are those two sentences equivalent? Do you think this might be another time and space conflict?

    Consider the Amish. Will put up some information.

    Distributive Justice - Undergraduate

    Berthena espressed somewhat more than mild disbelief that when Gunnar's wife was having a baby they invited everyone to the local park. "Just bring a towel and come!" See if you can explain both Berthena's disbelief and the community's joyous response.

    Consider adversarialism as enforcing what is right. Consider that hygiene is an important "right" in child birth. Then consider that Fellman says we must learn to deconstruct the world to see mutuality alternatives. Consider the community's joyous response as a possibility of transforming discourse about how to have children. Ask jeanne about Milton Rokeach's Open and Closed Mind and Joe the bug in chapter 3, or was it 4.

    Now consider Davi Kopenawa's statement about the Yanomami not wanting the gold. Can you imagine a way that Gunnar might be able to lead the Yanomami to a mutuality alternative? How do you think Gunnar would feel about that task? What does he say about such a task in the prolog and the epilog?

    Statistics Question

    Is the material on the Yanomami based on qualitative or quantitative data? What criteria will you look for? What are the variables involved? Can you figure out what some of the unstated assumptions were?

    Look for numbers and for stories. Could this difference account for some of the bitter reactions in this crisis? How?

    Read again Dr. Susan Lindee's Review of Neel's Field Notes. What kind of data does she depend on for her review of the notes, qualitative or quantitative?

    Love and Peace

    How do you think Fellman would handle the Yanomami crisis? If you were to mediate this quarrel, how would you go about it? What would Buscaglia suggest? Is it possible to handle such quarrels with love?