Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Sponsel reply to Geertz review

Clifford Geertz's "Life among the Anthros" requires a response on at least two points. First, he asserts that it is "implausable" that the letter about Patrick Tierney's book which Terry Turner and I wrote to top officials of the American Anthropological Association was intended to be confidential because it was sent by email. However, we addressed the letter specifically to the President and President-elect of the AAA. Also one copy was sent to the head of each of the most relevant units of the AAA: Committee for Human Rights, Committee on Ethics, Society for Latin American Anthropology, and Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists. One or more of these individuals is responsible for leaking our letter into cyberspace, thereby violating half of the Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics of the Computer Ethics Institute. Subsequently, when some individuals were responsible enough to first ask us before circulating the letter elsewhere, both of us consistently denied permission. If we intended our letter for the public, then it would have been addressed "To Whom It May Concern" or "Open Letter," and, obviously, it would have been written quite differently. We had only one purpose in writing our letter--- to alert the most appropriate officials of the AAA to the gravity of Tierney's book by summarizing the main allegations. We wrote the letter because of our obligation as anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami and following well-established AAA concerns for professional ethics and human rights (see www.aaanet.org).

Unlike Geertz, those who are specialists on the Yanomami, or who are at least well-informed about such matters, know very well that there is good reason to be confident that at least some of Tierney's allegations are true because they have been made before in many contexts by different combinations of diverse individuals over the last three decades. To cite just one example, anthropologists affiliated with Amnesty International, Anthropology Resource Center, Brazilian Anthropological Association, Cultural Survival, Pro-Yanomami Commission, Rainforest Foundation, Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, and Survival International have expressed concern regarding the harm done to the Yanomami by the persistent characterization of them for over three decades as essentially "Hobbesian savages." (See www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/ darkness).

The second point is actually by far the most important of any, and not only in Geertz's essay, but also in this entire scandalous controversy. However, it is a point that Geertz, like most others, has neglected if not completely ignored. This point is the harm done to the Yanomami if any of the relevant allegations made by Tierney prove true. Tierney's book is about the characterization of the Yanomami as "the fierce people" as well as about the disruption, disease, and death resulting from the invasion of numerous outsiders into Yanomami territory and the lack of adequate medical precautions and assistance, among many other things. The pivotal principle of professional ethics in statements by the AAA since at least 1948 has been for anthropologists to do no harm to the people they study. If any of the relevant allegations made by Tierney hold true, then the Yanomami deserve reparations as well as much more humanitarian assistance, and the anthropologists who have harmed them deserve full exposure and condemnation by their profession and perhaps legal action on behalf of the Yanomami as well. Geertz appears to be oblivious to the gravity of this and related concerns. While at first the humor in his clever review might appear to be welcome as comic relief given the hysteria in much of cyberspace and the media since last September, genocide and ethnocide are certainly not laughing matters.