Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Public Comments on Research Ethics and the Yanomami
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.gettysburg.edu/~choward/yanomami-response/sponsel-7.html

A Response By Leslie E. Sponsel To Edward Hagen And Comments On Personal Security And Safety In Fieldwork

Dr. Leslie Sponsel, Professor
University of Hawai`i

Edward Hagen (2002a) asserts that I deliberately omit information, give a false impression, and misrepresent matters in discussing the weaponry Napoleon Chagnon took to the field (Sponsel 2002). I don't think so at all, and I am far from alone on this issue. Here are some additional considerations along with my response to Hagen.

For readers who may not know, Hagen is a proponent of evolutionary psychology, a former student of John Tooby (Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara), and a member of the "home team" defending Chagnon. (See http://www.anth.ucsb.edu). Hagen conducted dissertation field research with the Shuar in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Apparently he thinks a commando knife, electric stun gun, and chemical mace are standard field equipment for anthropologists in the Amazon, although he doesn't admit whether or not he was armed with such weaponry during his own fieldwork.

From 1972-1981, I made eight field trips to live and work in the Amazon forest regions of Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. I always traveled in the forests and on the rivers with indigenous companions. Indigenes are infinitely more perceptive and competent in their own natural habitat than any outsider. I was never concerned about my personal security or safety while traveling, visiting, living, and working with Yanomami, Ye'kuana, Curripaco, Geral, Pemon, Yagua, or Ticuna. I never imagined that any weaponry would be required for self-defense against any indigenous people.

Before I first entered a Yanomami community in 1974, individually Nelly Arvelo-Jimenez and Jacques Lizot each generously provided advice from their field experience. Neither mentioned that any weaponry was necessary for protection against Yanomami. However, both did say that Chagnon had grossly exaggerated and distorted aggression among the Yanomami, an assessment subsequently published independently by almost every contemporary anthropologist who has worked with the Yanomami. Once I started living with Yanomami in the Erebato River region I quickly found out that they were not “the fierce people.” Indeed, I had taken some books into the field for reference and also a copy of Chagnon’s case study. Initially it was shown to Yanomami to help explain the kind of activity in which I was engaged in order to obtain informed consent. Many of the villagers enjoyed looking at the pictures, but soon asked me to keep the book away from children because they did not approve of the violent behavior portrayed in some of the pictures! Moreover, I found any Yanomami I met just as friendly, hospitable, and helpful as any other indigenous people I ever met. Of course, conflict and even violence sometimes erupt among Yanomami, they are human. However, violence is far from ubiquitous among the Yanomami, despite Chagnon's persistent myopic characterization of them as “the fierce people” even though he dropped the subtitle from later editions of his book. Furthermore, nonviolence and peace prevail on a daily basis as Bruce Albert, Kenneth Good, Gale Goodwin Gomez, Jacques Lizot, John Peters, Alcida Ramos, and other long-term students of the Yanomami have observed (Sponsel 1998).

Obviously there are potentially dangerous wild animals in the Amazon. For example, a survey of the ethnographic literature revealed that on the average about 1-2% of village mortality is from poisonous snake bite (Sponsel 1981:194-197). However, most snakes avoid humans. Those snakes that do not flee are most likely to be detected by indigenous companions long before any outsider does so, and they would alert the outsider to avoid the area. As Nancy Howell (1990:80) concluded from her extensive survey for the American Anthropological Association on fieldwork risks and hazards: "Snakebite is probably the most misperceived problem in anthropological fieldwork, as it is emblematic of the dangers of an unknown environment." The rate of snakebite is low, and disability and death are quite rare (Howell 1990:81, U.S. Department of Army 1194:3-21). Howell (1990:81) writes that only 1% of a total of 204 anthropologists who responded to her survey reported being bitten by a snake. Indeed, Chagnon (1974:38) writes that on one trip he even left behind antivenin for snake bites, so presumably he wasn't always so preoccupied with snakes.

Obviously a commando knife or electric stun gun could be used for personal safety against animals. But, of course, conceivably such weaponry also could be used against other humans if the need arose. A commando knife is not merely a pocket knife, but a military weapon designed to injure and kill other humans. Given Chagnon's obvious obsession with Yanomami fierceness and his dismal rapport with some Yanomami by his own published accounts, carrying such weaponry is likely to be for more than protection against wild animals, whatever his or Hagen's rationalizations or spin. This suspicion is sustained by the fact that Chagnon (Hagen 2002b), by his own admission, as well as according to the published testimony of Kenneth Good (1996:33), armed three students with law-enforcement grade chemical mace. That also appears to reflect Chagnon's paranoia about the fierceness of the Yanomami and also his dismal quality of rapport with some individuals. Furthermore, even if these students were armed with this chemical mace with the best of intentions simply to safeguard their own security on their first entry into fieldwork with Yanomami, nevertheless, the mace was apparently obtained and carried illegally which is yet another among a multitude of problems with professional ethics. Moreover, to even imagine using chemical mace against members of the community hosting research or any Yanomami reveals an alarming attitude toward them to say the least. Such an attitude and the associated weaponry directly contradict the foremost principle of professional ethics— to avoid harming in any way members of the community who host research.

In sharp contrast, Jeffrey Sluka (1995:277), who works in the conflict situation in Northern Ireland, advises foresight, planning, and skillful maneuver including impression management to maintain personal security and safety in a dangerous field situation. Sluka doesn't even mention the possibility of being armed with weaponry as a precaution against some assault during field work even though the explosive situation in Northern Ireland can be far more dangerous than any Yanomami village. Like Sluka, many anthropologists have worked in conflict situations far more dangerous than among the Yanomami yet not armed themselves with weaponry (Kovats-Bernat 2002, Nordstrom and Robben 1995, Sluka 1995, 2000).

If any anthropologist requires any kind of weaponry for self-defense against members of the community hosting research because rapport is so dismal and/or some of the people are so hostile toward him/her, then surely that anthropologist would be far better off working elsewhere. Moreover, surely a community would be far better off without an anthropologist that they find troublesome. The attitude of the host community toward the anthropologist should be respected as a matter of professional ethics as well as personal security and safety. Anthropologists do not have a free license to invade people's communities and privacy against their will. Respect for human dignity, which is pivotal to human rights, is more important than data collection in any circumstance. There should be limits to egotism, careerism, scientism, biologism, and evolutionism when they impact negatively on communities hosting research and on one's profession.

Timothy Asch (1991:35), who collaborated on making films with Chagnon, commented: "`The fierce people' indeed, you can't call an entire society the fierce people or any one thing for that matter.... You could say, however, that Chagnon is `the fierce person.'" Ten years later Scott Wallace (2002:59), who visited the Yanomami in the Venezuelan Amazon in the summer of 2001, commented similarly: "I would come to realize that Chagnon, despite nearly a decade of absence, has left an indelible mark on the Yanomami psyche. People told us tales of the fierce outsider, or nape, whom they called Shaki--- Pesky Little Bee--- and how he painted himself in red and black, dressed in parrot feathers, and performed witchcraft that terrified some villagers while amusing others." Later in his article, Wallace (2002:99) mentions that, according to Ernest Migliazza, Chagnon had a reputation as a "hotheaded tyrant." Migliazza also says that Chagnon was trying to be fierce in order to intimidate the Yanomami. According to Wallace (2002:99), "The fiercest man in the jungle was Chagnon himself." In the opinion of many, therein lies the beginnings of many of Chagnon's idiosyncratic problems. Some of Chagnon’s impact on Yanomami tension, conflict, and violence has been documented by Brian Ferguson (1995). (Also see Sponsel 1998:101-105).

Hagen accuses Kenneth Good of exaggerating his account of Chagnon, but he fails to cite any documentation to substantiate his accusation. In fact, reliable professional reviews of Good's book have all been most positive, including even one by Asch (1992). None of the reviewers have accused Good of exaggerating or being a liar. Moreover, in the case of the illegal law-enforcement grade chemical mace, there are at least two other witnesses who could testify as to whether this is in any way Good's exaggeration or lie, Eric Fredlund and Raymond Hames. Recently Chagnon admitted giving chemical mace to these three students and carrying it himself previously. Also Chagnon writes: “I basically brought the chemical mace to ward off Yanomami dogs...” (Hagen 2002b). Does the word “basically” mean exclusively for use against dogs or also include other uses? If the latter, then what were they? Good claims that he was instructed by Chagnon to demonstrate the power of the chemical mace on village dogs to intimidate Yanomami in order to prevent any aggression from being directed toward him. Also Good says that he was instructed by Chagnon to change the labels on the cans at Penn State (personal communication). Chagnon says: “The ones left over I brought into the field with me in 1975 and gave them to Good, Hames, and Fredlund” (Hagen 2002b). Apparently Chagnon was bothered by Yanomami dogs, even though he himself trained attack dogs. Yet Good says that in 12 years of living with the Yanomami he never had a serious problem with their dogs. Good also recalls that dogs can be highly valued by Yanomami for trade and hunting as well as pets, and that any assault on a prized dog would be quite offensive to its owner (personal communication). Chagnon mentions that he eventually realized that chemical mace doesn’t work against dogs (Hagen 2002b). Did this realization come before or after he armed the three students with chemical mace? If this realization came before he armed them, then for what other purpose(s) did he arm them with chemical mace? Given these and other flat contradictions, who is telling the truth and who is lying? Is this yet another example of a habitual pattern of lies and deception? Such a serious matter should be clarified, given its potential practical, moral, ethical, and legal implications.

It is highly unlikely that any Yanomami would harm or alienate an outsider who is an actual or potential source of highly valued trade goods, unless for some reason they were very seriously provoked and others like the headman could not mediate or resolve the conflict nonviolently. Three thought questions point to the absurdity of paranoia about Yanomami violence toward foreign (= non-Yanomami) visitors. Disregarding gold miners, how many foreigners have worked among the Yanomami (anthropologists, missionaries, government agents, etc.)? Probably the answer is hundreds. Also excepting gold miners, how many Yanomami have been killed through physical force by foreigners? Probably the answer is dozens if not hundreds. Again, excepting miners, how many foreigners have been killed by Yanomami? Probably the answer is none or very few. In short, it is likely that foreigners are far more of a threat to Yanomami than the converse. Living with the Yanomami is probably safer than living in many communities in the U.S.A., the Middle East, and elsewhere. Paranoia about personal security and safety among the Yanomami is just as exaggerated as that regarding wild animals in the "jungle." Furthermore, if any of the relevant allegations made by Patrick Tierney (2001) and many others hold, then actually the personal security and safety of the Yanomami were endangered and sometimes violated in numerous and diverse ways by Chagnon and associates. Repeatedly flying a helicopter into villages, with resulting damage to the communal shelter and injury to people is just one example, and again there were multiple witnesses to such reckless arrogance.

There must be about two hundred anthropologists specializing in the Amazon and at least five dozen anthropologists have worked with the Yanomami at one time or another, yet I have never heard of a single one being seriously injured or killed by a poisonous snake, jaguar, caiman, anaconda, or other wild animal. Except for Jacque Lizot, who suffered a broken arm from a fight with a Yanomami, I have never heard of any anthropologist being injured by a Yanomami let alone killed by one. At the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) in January 2001, I asked an audience of some 50 Amazonianists if they had ever carried such weaponry in the field and none answered in the affirmative. This is just another indication that for a fieldworker to be armed with weaponry like a commando knife, electric stun gun, and chemical mace is paranoia and/or perhaps an attempt to create or act out some machismo fantasy like Indiana Jones or Rambo! Obviously such weaponry is not standard field equipment, contrary to Hagen.

There is yet another problem with Chagnon’s fixation on internal aggression among the Yanomami as “the fierce people.” In the process he all but ignores external aggression which creates far more problems, suffering, and deaths among the Yanomami. This omission not only contributes to a misleading ethnographic representation of the Yanomami as well as an incomplete understanding and explanation of their aggression (Ferguson 1995), but it is yet another ethical problem. Chagnon has claimed that in some areas of Yanomami territory about a quarter of the males die from internal aggression, but what about the other 75% and the rest of the population including women and children who die mainly from introduced diseases? Aren’t epidemics to be taken seriously? Why is mortality from disease and epidemics treated as far less important? Furthermore, couldn’t that in turn have an impact on internal aggression? Yes, indeed, there is violence in Yanomami society, but much of it is precipitated by external forces such as the Hashimu massacre of Yanomami by goldminers in 1993 (Albert 1994). Furthermore, Ferguson (1995) even argued that Chagnon was one of those external forces contributing to tension, conflict, and violence whenever he worked among the Yanomami.

In any case, clearly in some field circumstances there is the potential for danger to the anthropologist from elements of nature or even other humans. 1 Furthermore, in general dangers from other people in the field may well be on the rise, given the trend toward increase in conflicts, violence, and war in many parts of the world as well as what Americans now face overseas as a result of the "war on terrorism." In recent times, about one third of the world's countries are involved in some kind of warfare, and about two-thirds regularly resort to abuses of human rights (Sluka 1995:276-277). 2 Thus, it is more important than ever that open and critical discussion and debate be initiated on the problems and issues surrounding the personal security and safety of anthropologists in fieldwork, something the current AAA Committee on Ethics and the Task Force on El Dorado don't seem to have considered much if at all. The writings of Chagnon and Tierney provide a springboard for such discussion and debate. Also relevant are some of the cases previously investigated and acted on by the AAA Committee for Human Rights and its predecessor, the Commission for Human Rights. Indeed, the very first case that the Commission acted on while I was its Chair was that of Ricardo Falla, an anthropologist whose life was threatened as a result of his documentation of massacres of Mayan people by the military in Guatemala (Falla 1994, Manz 1995).

Finally, returning to Hagen, one needn't rely solely on Tierney (2001) or previous sources by anthropologists such as Ferguson (1995) or Good (1996) to find ample documentation of unprofessional and unethical behavior by Chagnon. In fact, a critical reading of Chagnon's own publications provides sufficient evidence of many problems (e.g., Sponsel 1998). That is a major reason why he has had numerous and diverse critics for three decades. Since Hagen did not bother to challenge several other points in my general comments, it can only be assumed that he agreed with them. In any case, I am grateful to Hagen and his fellow partisans for their continued comments because they provide an opportunity and stimulus for me to research and develop further background for a book I am writing on these matters (Sponsel 2003). In connection with this book, I would appreciate the complete citation and page reference for publications where Chagnon's partisans express any genuine concern about Yanomami survival, welfare, and rights, or for that matter, about professional ethics in anthropology. So far I have not been able to find any evidence of such concern in their published statements on this scandalous controversy during the last two years.


1 See Amnesty International 2002; Cote and Simpson 2000; Howell 1990; Human Rights Watch 2002, Kovats-Bernat 2002; Lee 1995, Manz 1995; Nesbitt, et al., 1959; Nordstrom and Robben 1995; Pelton 2000; Sluka 1995, 2000; Sponsel 2000; and U.S. Department of Army 1994.

2 See, for example, Homer-Dixon, et al., 1993, Kaplan 1994, 2000, and Myers 1996.

References Cited

Albert, Bruce, 1994, “Gold Miners and Yanomami Indians in the Brazilian Amazon: The Hashimu Massacre,” Who Pays the Price? The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis, Barbara Rose Johnston, ed., Washington, D.C.: Island Press, pp. 47-55.

Amnesty International, 2002, Amnesty International Report 2001, London, UK: Amnesty International, http://www.amnesty.org.

Asch, Timothy, 1991, "The Defense of Yanomami Society and Culture: Its Importance and Significance," La Iglesia en Amazonas XII:35-38.

Asch, Timothy, 1992, "Book Review: Into the Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomama, Kenneth Good with David Chanoff," American Anthropologist 94:481-482.

Chagnon, Napoleon A., 1974, Studying the Yanomamo, New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Cote, William, and Roger Simpson, 2000, Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Falla, Ricardo, 1994, Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcan, Guatemala, 1975-1982, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Ferguson, R. Brian, 1995, "The Yanomamo and the Anthropologist: 1960 to 1966," in his Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, Santa Fe, NM: School for American Research, Ch. 13, pp. 277-306.

Good, Kenneth R., 1996, Into the Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomama, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hagen, Edward, 2002a (May 30), "General Comment [on Chagnon's field weapons]" AAA Task Force on El Dorado, http://www.aaanet.org.

Hagen, Edward, 2002b (May 31), "General Comment [Chagnon's response to Good] AAA Task Force on El Dorado, http://www.aaanet.org.

Homer-Dixon, T.F., J.H. Boutwell, and G.W. Rathjens, 1993, "Environmental Change and Violent Conflict," Scientific American 263(2):38-45.

Howell, Nancy, 1990, Surviving Fieldwork: A Report of the Advisory Panel on Health and Safety in Fieldwork, Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association Special Publication No. 26.

Human Rights Watch, 2002, World Report 2002, New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org.

Kaplan, Robert D., 1994, "The Coming Anarchy," Atlantic Monthly 273(2):44-76.

Kaplan, Robert D., 2000, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, New York, NY: Random House/Vintage Books.

Kovats-Bernat, J. Christopher, 2002, "Negotiating Dangerous Fields: Pragmatic Strategies for Fieldwork amid Violence and Terror," American Anthropologist 104(1):208-222.

Lee, Raymond M., 1995, Dangerous Fieldwork, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Manz, Beatriz, 1995, "Reflections on an Antropologia Comprometida: Conversations with Ricardo Falla," Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C.G.M. Robben, eds., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 261-274.

Myers, Norman, 1996, Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability, Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Nesbitt, Paul H., Alonzo W. Pond, and William H. Allen, 1959, The Survival Book, New York, NY: Funk and Wagnalls.

Nordstrom, Carolyn, and Antonius C.G.M. Robben, eds., 1995, Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Pelton, Robert Young, 2000, The World's Most Dangerous Places, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers (Fourth Edition).

Sluka, Jeffrey A., 1995, "Reflections on Managing Danger in Fieldwork: Dangerous Anthropology in Belfast," Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C.G.M. Robben, eds., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 276-294.

Sluka, Jeffrey A., 2000, Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terrorism, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1981, The Hunter and the Hunted in the Amazon: An Integrated Biological and Cultural Approach to the Behavioral Ecology of Human Predation (Cornell University Doctoral Dissertation), Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1998, "Yanomami: An Arena of Conflict and Aggression in the Amazon," Aggressive Behavior 24(2):97-112 (see link under Bibliography under Sponsel at Darkness: http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume).

Sponsel, Leslie E., 2000, "Comments as Discussant," session organized by Lucia Ann McSpadden for the AAA Committee for Human Rights on "Fieldwork in High-Intensity Conflict Zones: Praxis, Ethics, and Human Rights," San Francisco, CA: AAA Annual Convention (unpublished manuscript).

Sponsel, Leslie E., 2002 (May 26), "General Comments: Response to Kent V. Flannery and Other Partisans," AAA Task Force on El Dorado, http://www.aaanet.org.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 2003, The Noble and The Savage: The Yanomami and Anthropologists, Human Rights and Professional Ethics (book manuscript in preparation).

Tierney, Patrick, 2001, Darkness in El Dorado: How Anthropologists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

U.S. Department of Army, 1994, US Army Survival Manual, New York, NY: Dorset Press.

Wallace, Scott, 2002 (April), "Napoleon in Exile," National Geographic Adventure 4(3):52-61, 98-100.