Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Peters2.htm

Roundtable Forum: Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado



John F. Peters
Wilfrid Laurier University

This has been a fascinating read. The editor has done well in selecting individuals representing a spectrum of perspectives, positions, interests and concerns. We have the rainbow, and I am aware that readers may choose particular colours from the grand spread. We have new information, historical clarifications (Martins, Turner) and detailed exactness in addressing ethic research (Hill) and writing (Hames). For some writers, attacks against Tierney are vehement (Albert), or his writings are considered as ideological terrorism (Hill). Chagnon certainly does not come out clean (Martins and Albert). For other contributors, there is a fundamental desire to move to new horizons, even possibly a restructured science for anthropological research and writing.

I find the themes to be two areas: health or research. All contributors seek cultural and human sensitivity. No one should gain at the expense of a vulnerable people. The western researcher's quality of life and resources far exceed that of the Yanomami, and therefore should be shared, not only during but after his/her time in the field. Book royalties are not adequate! I fully support this position. Such modeling could have significant and monumental impact upon our students as well as the western world. This is a worthy route, along side the more democratic voices and demonstrations currently at world free trade conferences. Such considerations challenge perceptions of our "superiority" and right to unlimited resources at the expense of others, in the world community. For Albert this includes adequate compensation for blood samples drawn from the Yanomami over three decades ago, now lodged in obscure rooms in Pennsylvania.

I am encouraged by the critique of science. The contributors recognize that poor science (and poor methodology) has and is being practiced. I believe it is more pervasive than we recognize. Our scientific goals (an article, a degree) do not justify our practice. A revision of guidelines will address the concern, but not totally resolve the problem. Established scholars must exemplify these principles, and insist these standards be met. (Here is a small related point on methodology. Hames' mention of Chagnon and infanticide does not prove its absence. There are other ways of recognizing infanticide. In 1958, after six weeks in the field, a once pregnant woman was no longer pregnant, and was not embracing an infant. Further inquiry led to details of infanticide. I never SAW the act.) I'll add a further note. Science does have limitations in the anthropological task. However it may well be the best we have at this time.

I am disturbed that no contributor identifies the Yanomami role in relation to change in the past, present or future. This is particularly irritating, in that those of us with European roots have a shameful history of attempting to "fix" things for First Nation peoples or natives of this continent. No significant, genuine, long-term change will take place until Yanomami identify and resolve problems among themselves, as well as with those powers they encounter. We cannot wait for a perfect world, nor for the day when NGOs have fully socialized them to our goals. There are social issues that might be addressed within their own communities now.

Contributors have done well to critique the discipline of anthropology, as well as science. We recognize that the government has done less than their best. They (and Indian government agencies) have done some good, admittedly not adequate. Despite the bold efforts and victories of NGOs, which Albert identifies, there are areas that the NGOs have not, cannot, and will not address. These are issues on the micro level, where Yanomami on the grass roots level, or committed individuals or groups who understand them, and who live with them, can assist. Institutions are often not good at this kind of thing.

I support Albert and Martins' plea that the AAA recognize, evaluate and support the efforts of other anthropology societies, in this case the Brazilian Anthropological Association (ABA).

I find the golden thread in this dialogue to be that we follow the principle of doing good for the health and welfare of indigenous people, even above our research interests. In some instances this will mean sacrificing, and more often, revising our research plans. This is a high standard and a significant break with the past. With such a stance we recognize that we will not always be in agreement as to what is "good health and welfare" for the studied population in terms of both research and writing. There are grey areas, some more grey than others. Our understanding of the culture is often partial. There are both short and long term implications. There will be different opinions (and energy) between PhD candidate and supervisor, between government agencies, and between members in the researched population. The impact will vary from time x and y. Hill's paper carefully examines some of these complexities. He also challenges us to thoroughly think through the concept of ethics, void of bias.

Let us continue the discussion constructively.