Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.gettysburg.edu/~choward/yanomami-response/sponsel-4.html

Public Comments on Research Ethics and the Yanomami - Leslie E. Sponsel

Dr. Leslie Sponsel, Professor
University of Hawai`i
General Comment

The members of the AAA Task Force on El Dorado are to be commended for agreeing to participate in an inquiry into an extremely complex, difficult, and sensitive controversy that is by far the worst in the entire history of anthropology which extends back at least 150 years. As Brian Ferguson remarked in comments he posted on the AAA web site about this historic initiative, whatever the conclusions, some people will be unhappy. But of course this is not a matter of making anyone happy; indeed, I rather doubt that anyone involved in any way in this controversy is happy about it. Instead of being a matter of happiness, this is a matter of a solid inquiry to reveal the truth about extremely serious allegations made by Patrick Tierney (2000, 2001) in his book , Darkness in El Dorado: How Anthropologists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.

It is also commendable that ultimately the Task Force, and more generally, the AAA and our profession, aim at identifying, discussing, and debating in a forthright, civil, and constructive manner the broader concerns, problems, issues, and questions that have and continue to emerge from this controversy, rather than becoming mired in the ugly specifics. At the same time, however, the ugly specifics can’t be ignored, if the Task Force is to fulfill its important responsibilities to the AAA, profession at large, Yanomami and other peoples with whom anthropologists live and work. Patrick Tierney's book contains numerous and diverse allegations that are so serious that they simply can not be ignored. The allegations are about actions of researchers which are most shocking, disturbing, and reprehensible. If the Task Force ignores any key points in its final report, then surely others will expose them and attend to them. Terence Turner and I took the initiative, after reading the bound galleys of Tierney’s book in July 2000, to write a confidential memo to six top officials of the AAA in order to alert them to the impending scandal as clearly stated in our first sentence. We did our best to summarize the main allegations in the book, but we never intended to make any claims of our own. We regret that one of the six officials forwarded our memo to one or more other individuals, and that one or more individuals eventually leaked it into cyberspace where it quickly circulated beyond anyone's control. The individual responsible for this leak has never confessed and apologized. Turner and I will never accept any responsibility for our confidential memo being leaked into cyberspace, because that was not our fault, and thus we make no apologies whatsoever to anyone about it. Circulation of our memo beyond the six top officials of the AAA was never our intention as should be clear from its sensitive contents and the specific individuals to whom it was addressed. It was not addressed "To Whom It May Concern" or as an "Open Letter." We never participated in the circulation in any way beyond those six officials. In fact, we regularly refused permission to circulate our memo further whenever some individuals had the professional courtesy and responsibility to first request permission. (We have this fact documented in copies of our email responses to their requests). We wrote the memo because of our previous work with the AAA and Yanomami in various capacities and because of our sense of professional, ethical, and moral responsibility. For several years both Turner and I served on the AAA Commission for Human Rights and the subsequent Committee for Human Rights. Turner (1991a,b) chaired the AAA Yanomami Commission. He was also involved in developing the first AAA code of ethics. I had conducted fieldwork with a northern subgroup of Yanomami as part of my dissertation research in 1974-75, and I have followed the literature and their situation as closely as possible ever since then (see Sponsel 1979, 1981, 1983, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998). Neither Turner nor I would hesitate to write a memo again, simply because Tierney's numerous and diverse allegations are so serious, as should be readily apparent from the coverage in cyberspace and the media, as well as various investigations in Brazil, the U.S.A., and Venezuela. When we wrote the memo in August 2000, we did not attempt any investigation of the allegations ourselves, believing that the AAA had far more resources and responsibility to do so, and given that we were acknowledged in the book and quoted on the back cover. However, we have since been compelled to respond with research and statements on certain aspects because of the failure of others to do so, or because of the misinformation and disinformation campaign conducted by partisans (Sponsel 2001, 2002a,b, Turner 2001a,b,c). This appears to be an extraordinary case where egotism, careerism, scientism, and evolutionism have been taken to such an extreme as to not only become abnormal, but pathological, infecting others in the process as well (e.g., Stenmark 1997).

By now I have read the entire Preliminary Report of the Task Force on El Dorado, and some sections repeatedly. My own general conclusion is that this report, even as a preliminary statement, is as remarkable for what it does not discuss as for what it does discuss, as for example, omitting any inquiry into the negative consequences on Yanomami in Brazil and their supporters of the libelous "fierce people" characterization which has so stigmatized and brutalized the Yanomami people for three decades (also see Carneiro da Cunha 2002). Furthermore, in my considered opinion, the Preliminary Report is more frequently than not grossly uninformed, embarrassingly shallow, and blatantly biased. This Preliminary Report, in my opinion and that of many others, is a disgrace to the AAA, profession, and Yanomami in contents as well as in procedures. This was recognized by the Society for Latin American Anthropology in its unanimous resolution during the business meeting at the last annual convention of the AAA to call for the withdrawal of the report from circulation.

Apparently one of the initial reactions of then AAA President Louise Lamphere to the controversy that exploded around the publication of Tierney's book was to schedule two evening forums at the 2000 annual convention in San Francisco called "Ethical Issues in Field Research Among the Yanomami" (November 16-17) (Tierney 2000a,b). The first evening displayed a panel that was obviously almost completely stacked against Tierney, rather than a fair and impartial airing of the diverse aspects and viewpoints on the controversy. For instance, one of the panelists was Magdalena Hurtado, who like her husband, Kim Hill, is clearly partisan in favor of Napoleon Chagnon (Hurtado 1990). (For example, see Kim Hill's contributions to the El Dorado roundtable: http://www.publicanthropology.org . (Hurtado also admitted at a subsequent press conference that she is the daughter of a research assistant to Marcel Roche, a researcher accused of serious violations of professional ethics and human rights by Tierney). Since both Hurtado and Hill are colleagues with Lamphere in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. Did Lamphere have greater concern for her colleagues than for her AAA office, profession, and the Yanomami? If so, is that ethical? Fortunately, the second evening at the convention allowed an open microphone, and was just the opposite of the first, most who spoke being outraged at the blatantly biased panel during the previous evening, and calling for a serious and thorough investigation of Tierney's numerous and diverse allegations (Dalton 2000). Next the AAA "leadership" decided to launch a committee to investigate whether or not to have a committee to investigate! That is, the Peacock Commission explored Tierney's book and then recommended the establishment of the Task Force on El Dorado. However, the Commission's analysis was never made public, even though the AAA is supposed to represent the membership. Is that democratic? Is that ethical? Then the Executive Board of the AAA set the framework and charges for the Task Force's inquiry. Has the Task Force always faithfully followed that framework and those charges? (See the charges on the AAA website http://www.aaanet.org ). Furthermore, the appointment of some members to the Task Force is highly irregular (Lamphere 2002). Two members, Raymond Hames and Trudy Turner, have actually demonstrated in their own statements their conflict of interest. Hames was a student of Chagnon and has long collaborated with him in research, grants, publications, and defense against critics. Trudy Turner held a post-doctorate in association with James Neel in human genetics at the University of Michigan. Raymond Hames clearly demonstrates in his statements in the El Dorado roundtable that he is incapable of being objective and impartial in this controversy (http://www.publicanthropology.org ). Hames also does this in every one of the sections of the Preliminary Report where he has been listed as sharing some responsibility. Trudy Turner clearly demonstrates in the sections of the Preliminary Report which she researched and wrote that she is incapable of objective and impartial investigation of Tierney's allegations regarding James Neel. (See the point by point refutation of her statements by Terence Turner on the AAA web site). Hames finally had the decency to recuse himself and resign from the Task Force, even if rather late in the process (see his letter on the AAA web site). Trudy Turner has yet to do so. Can she, Jane Hill (Chair, Task Force on El Dorado), or anyone explain and justify her continuation on the Task Force? Unfortunately, as long as Trudy Turner remains on the Task Force its legitimacy will be questionable. Lamphere (2001), while still President of the AAA, wrote that: "We are not the American Bar Association, we do not license our members, nor do we have a process in place by which we can impose sanctions." Of course, the AAA can not disbar an individual unlike the law profession, or revoke a license to practice unlike the medical profession. Nevertheless, it does not follow that if the AAA is not a certifying or licensing body, then it can not condemn serious misconduct. Undoubtedly this is the most serious scandal and controversy in the entire 150 year history of anthropology. If the Task Force finds any of the more serous allegations to be true, then how can the AAA not condemn them? Likewise, if it does not condemn them, then what are the implications for the future of the AAA, Committee on Ethics, Committee for Human Rights, and profession?

The AAA has many avenues for condemning serious misconduct by anthropologists, including a public statement by the leadership and/or Task Force on El Dorado in the Anthropology Newsletter, a news release, a written and/or oral statement at the business meeting of the annual convention, and so on. If the Task Force finds that any of Tierney's key allegations about serious violations of professional ethics, and in some instances, resulting abuses of human rights, hold true, then surely it has no choice but to condemn them. Otherwise doesn't it indirectly sanctions such misconduct and become guilty of complicity? Either certain behaviors were unethical, or they were not. There is no room for indecisiveness in such a serious matter, and neither smoke and mirrors tactics nor pleas to boycott the book will make the controversy disappear (cf. Irons 2000, 2001). It is time for intellectual and moral integrity and courage, given that this is the worst scandal and controversy in the entire history of anthropology, an embarrassment to the entire profession, and a public relations disaster for the AAA (Fluehr-Lobban 2002a, b, Miller 2000). If any of the more serious allegations are found to be true, then wouldn't the failure of the AAA to publicly condemn them be an even worse public relations disaster? Who would want to be a member of such an ethically and morally irresponsible professional organization? Wouldn't the very legitimacy of the AAA, Committee on Ethics, and Committee for Human Rights be seriously questionable? The leadership of other organizations has not hesitated to condemn some of Chagnon's words and deeds. Nearly three decades ago Shelton Davis (1976:23), then Director of the Anthropology Resource Center, wrote:

"When a people is being exterminated, it is more than an academic question whether an anthropologist chooses to describe that people as "harmless" or "fierce." The images which anthropologists present of other peoples and cultures are often determinant elements in the course of human events. Some of these images touch the roots of human sentiments and lead people to struggle for the national and international protection of aboriginal peoples' rights. Other images reinforce popular prejudices and, in the hands of more powerful elements, become convenient rationalizations for wiping native peoples off the face of the earth. In the 19th century, ideas of "savagery" provided a national ideology for the slaughter and extermination of scores of North American Indian tribes. It would be an affront to the humanistic concerns of anthropology if, in the last quarter of the 20th century, more sophisticated theories of "savagery," enshrouded in the language of science, served a similar purpose in the hands of the government of Venezuela or Brazil."

Unfortunately, this statement by Davis proved prescient! The former President of the Brazilian Anthropological Association, Manuela Maria Carneiro da Cunha (1989:3) wrote:

"We would like, therefore, to emphasize that the academic reification of "violence" and "sexual competition" as the dominant features of Yanomami society, as well as the tendency to encourage their propagation in the mass media with all the sensationalism it generates are not devoid of serious implications for the people who become the object of these public images. This is a very grave matter and leads us to ponder on the social responsibility of anthropological work.... Wide publicity about Yanomami "violence" in racist terms at precisely this time and in this context is being used by the powerful lobby of mining interests as an excuse for the invasion of these Indians' lands."

Two to three decades latter this issue endures. Fiona Watson and others at Survival International in London (2001) state:

"This extremely sensationalist, and racist, image of what he called `the fierce people' is very important because it was, and remains, widely used in the teaching of anthropology, and has thus gained credibility. There is no doubt whatsoever that it has been detrimental to Yanomami welfare. It was, for example--- as Tierney recounts and Survival can confirm--- referred to by the Brazilian government when it planned to fragment Yanomami land in 1989 (a proposal which would have been catastrophic for the Indians and which was prevented by a vigorous and successful campaign).
"Survival's own work with the Yanomami has been hindered by this image in ways not recounted by Tierney. For example, the doyen of British anthropology, Sir Edmund Leach, refused to back Yanomami land rights in the 1970s, saying that they would all `exterminate each other': and the British government rejected a funding proposal for an education programme with the Yanomami in the 1990s saying that any project with them had to `reduce violence'.

"It is incontrovertible that the image Chagnon invented of the Yanomami has done them a great deal of damage over the lad 30 years. There is no doubt that the Yanomami would be in a better position if Chagnon had chosen to work elsewhere."

David Maybury-Lewis (2000), founder of Cultural Survival, Inc., says:

"The ways in which anthropologists portray the societies they study have consequences, sometimes serious consequences in the real world. Indigenous societies have all too often been maligned in the past, denigrated as savages and marginalized at the edges of the modern world and the modern societies in it. It is not therefore a trivial matter to insist on the fierceness of a people or to maintain that they represent an especially primitive stage in human evolution. On the contrary, he has done so deliberately, systematically, and over a long period of time, in spite of the remonstrances of his fellow anthropologists. We at Cultural Survival consider this to be not only bad science but also a bad example of harmful writing about an indigenous people."

Ruben George Oliven, the recent President of the Brazilian Anthropological Association, read a statement at the annual AAA convention on November 16, 2000, which included these points:

"The ABA recognizes the right and the responsibility of a researcher to report his or her results, regardless of their political acceptability; however, if those results are taken up and used by others for political or social purposes inconsistent with the original intent of the researcher, it is his or her ethical responsibility to speak out against such misuse. Professor Chagnon has never publicly objected to the use of his statements by forces attempting to justify the invasion and dismemberment of Yanomami territory in Brazil."

Brazilian anthropologist Leda Martins (2001) has forcefully and convincingly documented the real impact on the ground in Brazil for the Yanomami of their image as "the fierce people" and associated libelous "scientific" characterization (http://www.publicanthropology.org ). Martins (2001: Round Two, p. 3) concludes:

"The problem is not that Chagnon wrote the "truth" instead of lying or deceiving nor that government officials in Brazil would or would not have disregarded indigenous rights in the same way with or without Chagnon. The problem is that Chagnon insisted in emphasizing violence as the driving feature of Yanomami society even after being warned of the negative shadow his work cast on the already difficult situation of the Yanomami; that his ideas were openly and broadly used against the Yanomami rights and he did not oppose that; and finally that he joined the attacks, usually made by mining supporters, on Yanomami leaders and their supporters further compromising the survival of Yanomami people. These are the ethical breaches of Chagnon."

Martins (2001, Round Two, p. 4) also notes:

"When asked in Veja to define the `real Indians, Chagnon said `the real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other's women, fornicate and make war.'"

Then Martins asks: "Is this the great science that some academics are rushing to defend?" (Also see Albert and Ramos 1989, Bodley, 1999, Jahoda 1999, Klein 1997, Ramos 1987, Slater 2002).

In short, the image of the Yanomami as "the fierce people" is not simply a matter of being either politically correct or incorrect, it is a matter of land rights, genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide, in short, of life or death for the Yanomami. That an anthropologist who has worked with the Yanomami would provide "scientific" characterizations that help to undermine their very existence is by far the most ethically and morally reprehensible development in the entire history of anthropology. Moreover, this stigmatization and brutalization of the Yanomami persists to this day. As just one among numerous examples, Brown (1997:115) writes:

"There are fashions in noble savages as in other things, and the Yanomamo, a warlike and intermittently cannibal tribe living on the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, were in the Seventies and Eighties one of the most heavily studied and nastiest in their habits of all the unspoiled peoples left.... The tribes is exceptionally violent and sexist."

As an example of just how absurd this can get, Terence Kealey (2001) uses the Yanomami, among other examples, to try to argue for the "instinctively tribal, xenophobic and bellicose" nature of humankind in relation to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Such absurdities continue even though for many years most anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami have published statements to the effect that Chagnon greatly exaggerated and distorted the nature of Yanomami aggression (Sponsel 1998:101-105). Furthermore, Brian Ferguson (1995:277-306) asserts that Chagnon was a catalyst of some of the aggression. Moreover, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami relates that some Yanomami visiting from Venezuela told him that Chagnon even paid trade goods for aggression (Kopenawa Yanomami 2002). Is everyone of these numerous and diverse individuals wrong and only Chagnon right? Various anthropological organizations have voiced their condemnation of the distorted image of the "fierce people" and its serious negative consequences for over three decades now, including the Anthropology Resource Center, Brazilian Anthropological Association, Cultural Survival, Pro-Yanomami Commission, and Survival International. Can the AAA remain silent about such an atrocity? Can this image be allowed to dominate the characterization of the Yanomami in the 21st century? What can the AAA and the profession do to rectify this public image disaster for the Yanomami? Given the above considerations regarding the current Preliminary Report and prospective Final Report of the AAA Task Force on El Dorado, some further questions arise: Should there be an independent committee established to investigate the Task Force, the setting up of the stacked Thursday evening forum at the 2000 annual convention, and the appointment of members Raymond Hames and Trudy Turner to the Task Force in spite of their obvious conflict of interest? It appears that there are scandals within scandals within scandals in this ugly and sad controversy!

Because for three decades Chagnon has been criticized on scientific, academic, and ethical grounds on numerous occasions by a diversity of individuals including almost every specialist on the Yanomami on many different aspects of his research, the AAA and profession in general should have been alerted and taken action long ago (Albert, et al. , 2001, Borofsky 2001, Monaghan 1994, Sponsel 1998, Turner 2001a,b). For instance, several years before Tierney, anthropologist Brian Ferguson (1995:277-306) ) argued that Chagnon himself had precipitated tension, conflict, and even violence among Yanomami. However, nobody seemed to pay much attention to the implications of this regarding the nature and explanation of Yanomami aggression let alone professional ethics and human rights. The most embarrassing of all incidents was the AAA handling of the 1989 protest by the Brazilian Anthropological Association (Carneiro da Cunha 1989, Oliven 2000). Whatever else may be the consequences of Tierney's publications, he served the AAA and our profession with an effective wake-up call. Is the AAA about to go back to sleep with a final report by the Task Force that is a just a white-wash? Or, will the members of the Task Force and the elected officials of the AAA produce a final report that is responsible and responsive to this association, profession, and Yanomami? We may all finally learn the answer to such questions within a few weeks, and hopefully that may provide some degree of closure for everyone involved. Should an executive summary of the report in Spanish and Portuguese be made available to the Yanomami in Venezuela and Brazil? If some of the more serious and pertinent allegations hold true, such as the repeated collection of blood samples from Yanomami over nearly three decades without informed consent and with the promise of benefits for health care, then aren't appropriate reparations certainly owed to the Yanomami for this ethical and human rights disaster? (Hurtado, et al. , 2001a, b). Shouldn't an independent bioethics commission be established to explore this matter in depth and also the possibilities for reparations as well as humanitarian assistance? (See Albert 2001:55, 104). This is not only an unprecedented scandalous controversy, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for the profession to reflect on where it has been in the 20th century and where it is going in the 21st century, and then accordingly to enhance its practice and relations with the people who host field research and make the profession possible.

The current chair of the Task Force, Jane H. Hill (2000) advocated that: "It is possible to turn this public-relations disaster not only into a `teachable moment' inside the profession but into an unforeseen opportunity to get out the good word about anthropology and anthropologists?" By posting the Preliminary Report of the Task Force on the AAA web site and inviting commentary, this public relations disaster for the AAA and anthropologists has become something of a teachable moment. If it does likewise with its final report, then that focus on scholarship and openness will continue to be useful. The time is long overdue for the truth to be revealed and for anthropologists and others to discuss it openly and act accordingly for the betterment of our association, our profession, and the people we depend on to survive and flourish professionally--the communities who host research like the Yanomami. Can the AAA get out the real story? Can it act realistically and effectively on the true story? In time history will tell and then the individuals and organizations involved will be judged accordingly as well. Finally, for the sake of our profession and its relationships with the people who host our research, would it be desirable for the AAA leadership to henceforth develop at least one invited session at each of the annual conventions to thoroughly discuss and debate in depth each of the key issues that have emerged from this controversy? These could be sponsored by the Committee on Ethics, and they could be chaired by anthropologists of high stature and integrity like Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (see Fluehr-Lobban 2002a,b, and Borofsky 2002). Each of the issues identified by the AAA Executive Board in its charges to the Task Force could in turn be explored each year in a session, and others as well in subsequent sessions. Isn't it obvious by now that professional ethics is important enough to merit at least one session at every annual convention of the AAA? There are serious issues that transcend the specifics of the controversy and are of great relevance to all anthropologists and the peoples who host our research. Also should the AAA launch a commission to scrutinize and develop further curriculum materials which provide a balanced coverage of the ethnography and contemporary situation of the Yanomami for teachers and students? By far most important of all, should the AAA launch a commission to identify and develop ways to provide appropriate humanitarian assistance to the Yanomami? Can the AAA and our profession do any less in the face of this unprecedented controversy and public relations disaster?

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