Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: About.com, November 20, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://anthropology.about.com/science/anthropology/library/weekly/aa112000a.htm

Fierce Anthropologists

Tierney at the AAAs, Part II

T wo other speakers, both from Venezuela , were added to the program at the last minute, in between Hurtado and Irons. The second was Noeli Pocaterra, a Wayu ú Indian, one of three indigenous representatives to the Venezuelan Congress, and leader of the Comisión Permanente de Pueblos Indígenas (Permanent Commission for Indigenous People). In that role, she will lead that country's official investigation of Tierney's charges.

She spoke in Spanish, through a translator, and received by far the most applause of any presenter. It is hard to know to what degree this was because she was Native American, and emphasized the importance of a positive relationship between indigenous people and anthropologists, and to what degree it was because she was less condemnatory of Tierney. She urged an investigation of the "scandalous" affair, and said that "if any of Mr. Tierney's accusations are true, then such violations of human rights against indigenous people all over the world must never take place again."

Finally, Tierney had the opportunity to respond. To my mind, he was the most eloquent, but also the least substantial, speaker. He did not directly respond to any of the critiques-- which admittedly would have been difficult to do in a brief speech. He said that while many of us must have found the book difficult to read, he also found it difficult to write. "I understand the anger, and I do understand the grief people have. They feel I have destroyed the reputations of great scientists." As I took it, his moral was that factual errors were unimportant, as long as his book made us reassess our relationship with indigenous peoples.

T he next night, a public forum on the subject was introduced by Louise Lamphere, the President of the AAA. She read a resolution from the previous night's business meeting of the Association which called for the creation of a seven member Special Ad Hoc Task Force to determine over the next three months which of the allegations contained within Darkness were worth investigating and propose a plan for such investigation.

This statement was followed by formal statements from the Brazilian Anthropological Association and Office of Indigenous Affairs (DAI) of Venezuela. The former focused on an article of Chagnon's from 1988, which was widely reported in the popular press and seized upon as a justification for mistreatment of the "violent" Yanomama by many people in Brazil. "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."

"Perhaps the controversy ... should move us to reflect on certain methods and practices wherein by conceiving of indigenous societies as mere arenas for the testing of research hypotheses human subjects are in fact reduced to human objects." -- Gabriela Croes & Jesús Ignacio Cardozo

The DAI statement, by Gabriela Croes and Jes ús Ignacio Cardozo, called for investigation of the charges, and emphasized that "we believe our greatest concern and priority should be oriented towards determining whether the Yanomami were harmed in the manners and to the extent the book claims. The Yanomami are undoubtedly the most significant audience these sessions have."

The floor was then opened to the public, who each had the opportunity to speak for three minutes. At least early on, most of the speakers were more sympathetic to Tierney than Chagnon. Leslie Sponsel asked "What have the Yanomami contributed to us?" followed by "What have we contributed to the Yanomami?" Others asked what Chagnon had done to help the Yanomama over the past thirty years.

Terence Turner focused on one specific charge against Chagnon that is at least partially supported by his own writings: that in order to collect genealogical information, he regularly lied to his subjects. Because the Yanomama have a strong taboo against mentioning the names of dead people, he would tell one group that their enemies had already told him their ancestors' names, and the only way they could get their revenge was to tell him their enemies' ancestors names. Such deceit may plausibly have led to heightened tensions within communities, but it seems a far cry from genocide.

A letter was read from an evangelical missionary who was present in the Yanomama region in December, 1967, and who believes his own daughter was actually the measles carrier. On the other hand, another speaker accepted the charge that vaccination had caused the measles epidemic, and connected it with charges that scientists had spread both HIV and Ebola in Africa.

As the line of speakers kept growing, I departed with the general sense that the one thing everyone present could agree on was that the Yanomama, and other South American indigenous peoples, are in dire straits medically, politically, and socially. How will this debate affect them?