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)/Turner3(part-two).htm

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


Terence Turner
Cornell University



It is time to call the bluff of those who have tried to dismiss Tierney’s book by extrapolating from the flaws of his chapter on the epidemic to discredit the book as a whole. The authors of the Santa Barbara and University of Michigan web pages have claimed to have revealed that the other chapters of the book are a mass of errors or worse, but they have in fact done no such thing. Many of the major allegations and general points in the book apart from the chapter on the epidemic remain unchallenged and appear to be well attested in the writings and statements of other anthropologists, journalists, NGO workers, government functionaries, medical workers, missionaries, and government records.

Hill, in his second round contribution to this round table, has countered that "there are considerably fewer parts of the book for which there is anything constituting good evidence [which parts? It would be interesting to know which ones Hill does consider well founded...] and many of the correct facts are trivial in nature." He adds, quite inaccurately, that "the anthropological testimony referred to by Turner consists mainly of ad hominem attacks through the reporting of unverifiable events supposedly witnessed by two ex-Chagnon students who both parted company with him under hostile circumstances" On the contrary, Tierney cites many anthropologists and the one biologist who have either worked closely with the Yanomami in the field or made scholarly studies of the historical and ethnographic literature on them--in effect, the great majority of contemporary scholars working with the Yanomami, or in one or two cases the wider Venezuelan indigenous rights scene. They include Bruce Albert, Leslie Sponsel, Jacques Lizot, Brian Ferguson, Leda Martins, Alcida Ramos, Nelly Arvelo, and IrenŠus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. Tierney draws heavily on writings and comments by all of these scholars, as well as ex-students of Chagnon like Kenneth Good, Raymond Hames and Jesus Cardozo, and ex-collaborators like Timothy Asch. That Good and Cardozo (whom I assume are the two ex-students alluded to by Hill) "parted company with Chagnon under hostile circumstances", like other ex-Chagnon associates including Time Asch and James Neel, does not necessarily invalidate what they have to say, as Hill seems to imply, any more than the steadfast loyalty of Chagnon’s ex-student, Raymond Hames, invalidates his supportive statements in behalf of his former teacher. Hill to the contrary, many of the correct facts reported in the body of the book are far from "trivial in nature", as the following list reveals at a glance.

Hill remarks in his round two paper, "I must simply conclude that Turner and I strongly disagree on the overall veracity of the book...If Turner were specific about which important allegations he considers well supported, I could respond directly as to whether I agree with his assessment of the evidence and whether the allegations are of a serious ethical or professional nature or simply charges of bad judgement and unadmirable behavior". Fair enough. I do indeed "strongly disagree" with Hill’s estimate of "the overall veracity" of Tierney’s book, despite my recognition of its serious errors. I do, however, agree with him that it is essential to specify which points in the book are well-founded and worth discussing if useful discussion is to proceed. This part of my paper offers an outline of such a reading of Tierney’s text.

Mindful that this round table is supposed to focus on ethical issues, I think that the best way to proceed is to attempt to identify and summarize in a concise manner the main allegations of ethically questionable conduct from the parts of Tierney’s text that have thus far remained outside the purview of critical discussions, which have focused primarily on Neel and the epidemic. This means dealing primarily with the parts of Tierney’s text that treat the actions, writings and public statements of Napoleon Chagnon, although others--Charles Brewer, Jacques Lizot, Helena Valero and a BBC film crew, for example--get a chapter apiece. Given and the relatively peripheral relevance of these latter figures to the current debate, however, I will have to pass over Tierney’s discussions of these figures, although I generally endorse what he has to say about them.

The errors of Tierney’s account of the epidemic and the 1968 AEC expedition are by now generally recognized. There has been no corresponding effort to recognize the major claims and analyses that appear to be well founded, let alone evaluate their ethical implications. An honest appraisal of the book will recognize that it is a mixed bag, but that a lot of what it has to say, even in parts of the chapter on the epidemic, is well founded and important. One contribution that even a necessarily abbreviated summary like this can make is to try to sort out the forest from the trees.

As I have noted, the papers in this exchange are supposed to focus on the discussion of ethical issues, rather than questions of fact or interpretation in and of themselves. I will therefore proceed by listing instances of ethically problematic behavior from Tierney’s text that seem to be sufficiently well documented and analyzed, and/or attested from other sources. I emphasize that instances of all five of these general ethically problematic modes of conduct were relatively well known among specialists before Tierney’s book appeared. Most had already been subjects of criticism and controversy in Brazil and Venezuela. What ever else they may be, they are not private fantasies or "deliberate frauds" on the part of Tierney, as the authors of the Santa Barbara web page claim. They would all be around to confront the profession of anthropology with the same ethical issues even if Tierney had never written his book.

My practical standard for judging an action, statement, or instance of inaction as "ethically problematic" is the Code of Ethics of the AAA. To assist readers in orienting themselves, I present a concise topical outline of the main types of ethically fraught actions described by Tierney that I deem to be well founded. At the head of this outline I list the six provisions of the AAA Code that I have found relevant, identified by their numerical designations in the text of the Code. These designations are included in the topical outline with each issue to which they seem relevant. Each topic in the outline carries chapter and page references to places in Tierney’s text and some other sources where it is mentioned. Following this outline I discuss each of the instances mentioned, in the same order of presentation.


III. Research: Introduction. "...Anthropological researchers should be alert to the danger of compromising anthropological ethics as a condition to engage in research, yet also be alert to proper demands of good citizenship or host-guest relations."

III.A. Responsibility to people and animals with whom anthropological researchers work and whose lives and cultures they study

III.A.1. "Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study ant to the people with whom they work. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to decisions not to undertake of to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities, such as those owed to sponsors or clients."

III.A.2. "Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities..."

III.A.4. "Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research..."

III.A.6. "While anthropologists may gain personally from their work, they must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials. They should recognize their debt to the societies in which they work and their obligation to reciprocate with people studied in appropriate ways."

III.B. Responsibility to scholarship and science

III.B.2. "Anthropological researchers bear responsibility for the integrity and reputation of their discipline, of scholarship, and of science. Thus, anthropological researchers are subject to the general moral rules of scientific and scholarly conduct: they should not deceive or knowingly misrepresent (i.e., fabricate evidence, falsify, plagiarize), or attempt to prevent reporting of misconduct, or obstruct the scientific/scholarly research of others."

III.C. Responsibility to the public

III.C.1. "Anthropological researchers should make the results of their research appropriately available to sponsors, students, decision makers, and other nonanthropologists. In so doing, they must be truthful; they are not only responsible for the factual content of their statements but also they must consider carefully the social and political implications of the information they disseminate. They must do everything in their power to insure that such information is well understood, properly contextualized, and responsibly utilized. They should make clear the empirical bases upon which their reports stand, be candid about their qualifications and philosophical or political biases, and recognize and make clear the limits of anthropological expertise. At the same time, they must be alert to possible harm their information may cause people with whom they work or colleagues."


Reference code: Roman numerals and Arabic numbers in parentheses refer respectively to chapters and pages in Darkness in El Dorado, except were clearly indicated otherwise.

I. Statements and silences by Chagnon damaging to the Yanomami (pertinent provisions of Code of Ethics: III.A.2., III.B.2., III. C.1., with specific relevance as indicated)

I.A. Statements and silences (failure to speak out against uses of statements about "fierceness" or violent aggressiveness as a dominant feature of Yanomami society damaging to the Yanomami (xxi, 8,13-14,160,164,232) pertinent provisions of Code of Ethics: III.A.2., III. C.1.)

I.B. Repeated and untruthful attacks on NGOs, anthropological activists, and Yanomami leaders

I.B.1. Untruthful attacks on NGOs and anthropological activists (xxii,xxiii,9-11)
Yanomami leaders: Davi Kopenawa (xii,11,201,227) (Chagnon 1997:252-4); Alfredo Aherowe (292-4)] (pertinent provisions of Code of Ethics: III.A.2.,III.B.2.)

I.C. False accusations against Missions and NGO’s of "killing, Yanomami or otherwise being responsible for raising their death rate (pertinent provision of Code of Ethics: III.B.2.)

(1) Deceptive statistics on mission death rate (Ch. X; Appendix, 317-326)
(2) The massacre at Haximu Ch. XII (195-214)
(3)"The guns of Mucaja’" (210-213)
(4) The Lechoza massacre.(238-240)

I.D. Misrepresentation of ethnographic reality (non-correspondence of data and theoretical claims supportive of theses on "fierceness", violence and warfare: Tierney’s critique of Chagnon’s article "Life histories, blood revenge, and warfare in a tribal population. [Science 239: 985-992(1988)] (26, Ch X) (pertinent provision of Code of Ethics: III.B.2.) (Note:this topic will not be discussed for lack of space)

I.E. Misrepresentation of Yanomami reality in films: "choreographed violence", misrepresentation in films (Ch.XIV, 85-88,101-104,114-119, 216-217) (pertinent provision of Code of Ethics: III.B.2.) (Note: this topic will not be discussed for lack of space)

II. Field methods disruptive of Yanomami society (pertinent provision of Code of Ethics: III.A.2.: Applies to all the following sub-headings)

II.A. Elicitation of pedigrees in ways that exacerbate tensions among enemies, factions and communities (e.g., obtaining names of dead from enemies) (30, 32, 33; 42, 45-6-8; 185)

II.B. Resort to threatening methods by Chagnon to secure cooperation by informants (e.g.,brandishing and shooting off firearms, performances as "vulture-spirit" shaman, etc.)

II.B.1. use of firearms to intimidate (pistol, shotgun) (31, 46, 89, 232, 283, 362, fn 21);
I.B.2. shamanic vulture spirit children-killing performances (46-7, 89)

IIC. Gift-giving on massive scale as cause of conflicts. (Ch. III. 18-35). See also Ferguson 1995, Ch.s XIII, XIV

II.C.1. wars between villages attached to sources of trade goods (anthropologists or independent Yanomami cooperative organization, SUYAO).
(a) between "Chagnon’s village"and "Lizot’s village" (141-143);
(b) between "Chagnon’s village" and "SUYAO village" (227)

II.C.2. personal participation by Chagnon in raids (providing transportation to raiding parties) (33, 166)

III. Failure to get informed consent (and obtaining consent with misinformation) for research on human subjects (pertinent provision of Code of Ethics: III.A.4): applies to both the following sub-headings)

III.A. No informed consent for research practices, including vaccinations (failure to explain that there was a research motive for collecting specimens and vaccinations; failure to explain that the blood would be stored indefinitely, potentially outlasting the lives of the donors)(43-45)

III.B. Misinformed consent: Yanomami and missionaries led to believe that taking blood was for medical help(44) 4-5)

IV. The Siapa biosphere project in collaboration with Brewer-Carias and FUNDAFACI: Alliances with political and extractivist interests hostile to Yanomami control of land and resources; active collaboration in projects potentially harmful to Yanomami rights and interests (pertinent provisions of Code of Ethics to all three of the following sub-headings: Introduction excerpt; III.A.1.; III.A.2.; III.A.4)

V.A. Brewer-Chagnon project for research reserve in the Siapa valley, FUNDAFACI support. This project was intended to exclude "acculturated" and "mission" Yanomami, leaving 5/6 the Yanomami area and population contained in the previously projected biosphere reserve unprotected (Ch. XI, 181-194)

IV.B. FUNDAFACI flights with unquarantined journalists and political figures: illegality, medical risks, damage to shelters and persons from helicopters (3-5, 282, 290-91,294)

IV.C. misrepresentation of Siapa "1st contact" to generate press support for Siapa preserve (187, 290)

V. Failure to reciprocate, return benefits to Yanomami: "Yanomami survival fund" apparently inactive (188-9) (pertinent provision of Code of Ethics: III.A.6)


I. Statements--and silences--by Chagnon damaging to the Yanomami

I.A. Statements about "Fierceness" or violent aggressiveness as a dominant feature of Yanomami society, and silences (failure to speak out against uses of statements to this effect damaging to the Yanomami, especially in the Brazilian media between 1988 and 1994)

Chagnon stood by virtually without demur during the crisis of 1988-92 over the push to dismantle the Brazilian Yanomami reserve while politicians, military leaders and journalists allied with mining interests employed his portrayal of the Yanomami as ferocious savages involved in chronic warfare over women, to justify the dismemberment of Yanomami territory. Their argument ran that Yanomami communities needed for their own safety to be isolated from one another by "corridors" of open land, which would incidentally be accessible to gold miners). Chagnon’s refusal to disown this use of his work became understood by both sides in the struggle over the Yanomami reserve from 1988 to 1992 as a statement by omission in support of the miners and their political allies. While he maintained silence over the miners’ representatives’ misuse of his writings, he freely denounced NGOs and missionaries for spending the money they were ostensibly raising for the support of Indians on themselves (he never gave specific evidence to back up these charges), thus damaging their ability to raise funds for valuable projects. All this had a serious enough impact that the Brazilian Anthropological Association formally appealed to the American Anthropological Association in 1988 demanding that the U.S. Association investigate the ethics of its member’s tacit support of those who were exploiting his statements.(Carneiro da Cunha AN 1989) The American Association failed to take action, and this failure has come back to haunt it. At the AAA Meetings just held in San Francisco, the Brazilian Association sent a new message recalling its former appeal and the American Association’s failure to act, and renewing its challenge to the AAA to take a stand on the ethical status of Chagnon’s statements, silences, and activities towards the Brazilian Yanomami. (ABA public letter read at AAA Annual Meeting, Nov. 2000, San Francisco).

I.B. Untruthful attacks on NGOs, anthropological activists , and Yanomami leaders

I.B.1. Attacks on NGOs, anthropological activists

Tierney reports, accurately, how Chagnon, in a series of published writings and extensive quotations in long interviews with conservative Brazilian journalists, accused the NGOs who were supporting the Yanomami in Brazil and Venezuela of being interested only in using the Yanomami cause as a fund-raising gimmick to feather their own nests. He accused them, untruthfully, with being primarily engaged in a chronic competition with one another for the exclusive right to represent (and raise money on behalf of) the Yanomami. His most shocking charge was shocking charge "that the very people who posed as defenders of the Indians were actually destroying them" ("killing with kindness", in his words)(Tierney 2000: xxii). From my extensive personal experience of working with Brazilian and international NGOs engaged in supporting the Yanomami struggle, I have no hesitation in saying that these allegations were reckless and irresponsible as well as untrue. They were meant to inflict damage on those engaged in supporting the Yanomami of Brazil in the worst crisis of their history. Others have debated whether Chagnon’s statements actually had real political effects (see the contributions of Hames and Martins in this volume). Martins, in her first two papers, makes a convincing case that they did. This is obviously an important issue, but I do not think that it is the decisive ethical question. The essential question for ethical purposes is that of intent (in this case, the intent to damage) The basic question is, did Chagnon repeatedly make untruthful statements which he had every reason to believe would, if taken seriously (as they were clearly intended to be) damage the Yanomami by discrediting and undermining their struggle, and that of their supporters, to defend their reserve? The answer is clearly, Yes.

I.B.2. Chagnon’s attacks on Yanomami leaders: (1) Davi Kopenawa

Chagnon has publicly charged on several occasions, beginning in the late 1980's and early 1990's, that the Brazilian Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa was a mere "parrot" of NGOs, mouthing lines he was fed by the do-gooding organizations that supposedly kept him as a useful symbol for self-serving fund-raising campaigns Again, he never cited specific utterances or texts: but see, as a text that powerfully conveys Davi’s ides and personality, Turner 1991b, 1991c). Davi Kopenawa was a major asset in these struggles, as virtually the only Yanomami leader capable of speaking out for Yanomami interests in the Brazilian and international political arenas, who at the same time commanded genuine support among the Yanomami of his own and other communities. Kopenawa was and remains the most important spokesman for the Brazilian Yanomami : he is a dynamic, effective, and independent person and leader, and Chagnon’s gratuitous and untruthful attacks damaged not only him but the cause of all Brazilian Yanomami (Chagnon is still at it: A CNN TV crew that interviewed Chagnon in November 2000 was startled to hear Chagnon refer to Kopenawa as "a cigar store Indian").

I.B.2. Attacks on Yanomami leaders (2): Alfredo Aherowe

Tierney reports another instance of the same type. Chagnon charged Alfredo Aherowe, the headman of the village of Mokarita-teri, with responsibility for an ax attack on him by the son of the headman of Dorita-teri. This attack occurred spontaneously during a bitter confrontation between his father and Chagnon. Aherowe is widely respected in many villages of the Upper Orinoco and the elected leader of SUYAO, the Yanomami cooperative association. SUYAO was initially formed with support from the Salesians but is now independent of them. Chagnon nevertheless called Aherowe a "representative of the Salesians", thus in effect charging Aherowe with conspiracy to commit murder and implicitly linking the Salesians to the attack on him. Aherowe told Tierney he had encouraged the headman to confront Chagnon to keep him and Brewer from entering his village to film (the Yanomami being convinced that this would bring back the epidemic disease that had followed previous filming episodes). There is, however, no evidence that he or anyone else instigated the attack by the headman’s son. The biologist Eibl-Eibesfeldt said of these charges,

It is clear that Chagnon makes things up. Alfredo Aherowe is not a ÔSalesian representative’, whatever that may be...By 1991 he had already been elected representative of the SUYAO...a cooperative which does not belong to the mission, but to the Yanomami themselves. Chagnon should know that and not maintain otherwise. (quoted Tierney 2000: 292-294)

I.C. False accusations against Missions and NGO’s of "killing" Yanomami (responsibility for raising their death rate)

(1) Deceptive statistics on mission death rate (Ch. X;205-7; Appendix, 317-326)

In an OpEd column in the NYT of October 1993, Chagnon claimed that Yanomami at mission villages were dying at four times the rate reported from "remote" villages. This was supposedly based on statistics Chagnon had collected and was the key data he cited in support of his shocking allegation that the Salesian missionaries were "killing the Yanomami with kindness". Tierney notes that this has become "one of the most frequently quoted statements in the Yanomami controversy," but shows that it is actually a misleading effect obtained by switching statistical data between categories of the study. He explains,

Chagnon divided the villages in three categories of mission contact: "remote", "intermediate", and "maximum". The villages with maximum [mission] contact had a thirty percent lower mortality rate than remote groups, while the "intermediate" villages suffered four times as many deaths as the missions. Chagnon’s data thus confirmed what all other researchers have found, but in the NYT Chagnon converted the "intermediate" villages into "missions", which they are not...There is no doubt that the debate about mission mortality has been based on misinformation" (205-6)

(2) The massacre at Haximu Ch 12 (195-214)

Tierney accurately chronicles Chagnon’s attempt to spin the tragic episode of the massacre of twelve Yanomami from the village of Haximu by Brazilian gold miners in July 1993 into a series of spurious charges against the Salesians and Yanomami from the village of Paapiu. In a New York Times Op Ed column, Chagnon alleged that the Salesians were in effect accessories after the fact to the massacre for trying to cover it up. The "cover up", in Chagnon’s version, chiefly consisted in a campaign by the missionaries to block his "investigation" of the massacre. Their motive for obstructing his investigation, Chagnon claimed, was to conceal their guilt for the soaring Yanomami death rate at their medical outposts and mission stations, where they were, in Chagnon’s words, "killing" the Yanomami "with kindness", and also for giving out shotguns which the Yanomami from mission villages used to kill people in more "remote" villages. As Tierney explains, none of this was true. Chagnon, in short, appropriated the Haximu tragedy to make a whole series of false charges against his enemies of the moment. I published a rejoinder to Chagnon’s untruthful claims in the AAA Newsletter for May 1994, rebutting a number of his false assertions (Turner 1994; see also, on the Haximu massacre, Turner 1991a ). Charles Monaghan of the Chronicle of Higher Education, quoted me (accurately) as saying that Chagnon was "using aspects of the Yanomami tragedy to dramatize himself on the basis of patently false claims". Monaghan commented in his story in the Chronicle that "[Turner] contends openly what many other Amazonian researchers say privately."(Monaghan 1994: A10) As Tierney reports, Chagnon included in his account false charges that a group of Yanomami from the distant village of Paapiu (Marashi-teri) had served as guides to the garimpeiros and thus become accessories or a co-perpetrators of the Haximu massacre. Bruce Albert protested this unfounded calumny in the strongest terms: "This is a true scandal!...I believe this is the worst piece of Chagnon’s manipulation: to give the impression that the Yanomami are partly responsible for the massacre." (Albert, personal conversation quoted by Tierney 2000: 210 )

(3)"The guns of Mucaja’" 210-213

Another of Chagnon’s attempts to implicate missionaries in fomenting Yanomami killings by distributing shotguns was his attack, in the fourth edition of his book, on the Protestant Missionaries of the Evangelical Mission of Amazonia, supposedly stationed at Mucaja’. Tierney shows that this account is a fictional pastiche, combining aspects of the geography, personnel and history of the distant, and long-abandoned, mission station of Surucucu with those of Mucaja’, and adding elements of fantasy and distortions of actual actions. For example, the refusal of missionaries at Surucucu to sell shotguns to the Indians, and their abandonment of the mission post there rather than be obliged to do so, becomes transmuted in Chagnon’s version into the provision of shotguns by the Mucaja’ missionaries to the Yanomami. Everyone with any knowledge of these events, including the missionaries in question and others familiar with the missions Chagnon had conflated, agrees that Chagnon’s account is fictional. As Tierney remarks, this is not an isolated example:

I have done an archeological dig into this story because it is similar to many of Chagnon’s startling, anonymous tales, including his improbable version of the Haximu massacre--and because he has been promoting this Mucaja’ myth to substantiate his version of the Haximu killings. In the case of "The Guns of Mucaja’," there is no wiggle room. "It is false, and it can be proven that it is false," said Milton Camargo, the head of the MEVA mission. "It is obviously absurd". (Tierney 2000: 214)

(4) The Lechoza massacre

Chagnon’s account of the 1992 massacre at Lechoza, was published as part of his article in the Times Literary Supplement, "Killed by kindness" (Chagnon 1993). This was an attack on missionaries, NGOs, "left-wing anthropologists," and others engaged in supporting the Yanomami during the campaign to save the still unconfirmed Yanomami Reserve. Chagnon claimed the Lechoza massacre was one of a series of attacks by "mission Yanomami", using shotguns supplied by the missionaries, upon "extremely remote" Yanomami communities with whom they had had no previous contact, let alone"quarrel". His account of the massacre thus served as potent documentation of his anti-missionary diatribe. The key factual claims on which he based his version of the episode, however, were false. The raid on Lechoza by a group from Mavaca was not an attack by missionized Yanomami on an unmissionized and unacculturated community. Lechoza is located near Ocamo, which has a mission, an infirmary and a Venezuelan military post. The raid on Lechoza pitted a coalition led by Cesar Dimanawa, who had become Chagnon’s fiercest enemy, against a force led by Chagnon’s ally, Alberto Karakawe, who had become a rival and enemy of Dimanawa (partly, Tierney suggests, as a result of his alliance with Chagnon). In Chagnon’s version of the story, Dimanawa committed a horrible atrocity: shooting a pregnant in the belly so that she died and the baby fell out and "wriggled on the ground". This was not confirmed by any of the witnesses to the fight, who said Dimanawa was not even present when the woman was shot. Chagnon closed his account of this incident in the TLS with the assurance, "The above information is based on scientific research". Actually, as Tierney relates, it was based on second-hand hearsay,consisting of a couple of interviews with a single informant, the leader of the pro-Chagnon side of the battle and bitter enemy of Dimanawa, by Brewer in Caracas. Neither Chagnon nor Brewer had even visited Lechoza after the battle or talked with other participants. (Tierney 2000: 238-9)

II. Field methods disruptive of Yanomami society

Drawing heavily on the writings of Brian Ferguson and his own field interviews, Tierney documents charges that Chagnon’s practice of giving massive amounts of steel goods as presents destabilized Yanomami communities and inter-communal relations. These hoards of otherwise rare and highly valued items became foci of conflict between rival factions and villages, which on a number of documented occasions led to raids and wars in which people were killed. He also documents that Chagnon took a limited part in some raids by transporting raiding parties in his motor launch. Tierney also repeats the complaint that Chagnon’s methods for obtaining the names of dead relatives by exploiting enmities between factions and hostile communities were disruptive of Yanomami social relations. The point here is not so much that such methods are seriously disruptive in themselves at the level of a single interaction with an informant, but that the cumulative effect of Chagnon’s repetitive use of such methods, backed up by threats and bullying including brandishing and shooting off firearms and performing shamanic rituals of child-killing) coupled with the sheer quantitative scale and repetition of his pedigree collecting, made his methods far more disruptive than they would otherwise have been. Instead of modifying his methods over the years to avoid their destabilizing effects, Chagnon appears to have replicated them to build himself up as a power figure. He made himself a player in the system of conflicts and the struggles for dominance that were set off in part by the wealth he brought with him. There began to be wars between "his" village, containing Yanomami dependent on him for steel goods, and the villages associated with other sources of goods, such as the anthropologist Lizot, and the independent Yanomami cooperative SUYAO. All of this, Tierney, Ferguson, Albert, and others have argued, represented a massive disruptions of Yanomami social peace consequent upon Chagnon’s field methods. If so, Chagnon’s methods may be considered to have violated the provision of the AAA Code of Ethics that "Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work..." (III.A.2)

III. Failure to get informed consent (and obtaining consent with misinformation) (37, 43-45)

Tierney has relatively little to say about this, but he does record that Chagnon claimed that the sampling was for the medical benefit of the Yanomami. This claim was plainly intended to secure their assent to the taking of blood and other biological samples. It was also plainly untrue. (Tierney 37,44) Tierney records the consternation of missionaries who had known Chagnon upon learning that the sampling was done for research purposes, whereas Chagnon had "always sounded so interested in helping the Yanomami." (45) In contrast, as Tierney says, the Department of Energy "did not pretend that [the sampling] benefitted the Yanomami in any way." (43) I have discussed the broader issues of informed consent in the context of my treatment of the Neel papers in the previous section.

IV. Brewer-Chagnon project for research reserve in the Siapa valley, with FUNDAFACI support. This project was designed to exclude "acculturated" and "mission" Yanomami, leaving 5/6 the Yanomami population contained in the previously projected biosphere reserve unprotected (Ch. XI, 181-194)

The ethical nadir of Chagnon’s efforts to regain research access to the Yanomami area despite steadily mounting opposition from the Yanomami themselves and the repeated refusal of the Venezuelan authorities to grant him permission to return to Yanomami territory was the abortive scheme to establish a Yanomami preserve in the Siapa Valley under the exclusive control of him and Charles Brewer-Carias and the patronage of Cecilia Matos, Director of the National Foundation for Social Assistance To Indigenous and Peasant Families, FUNDAFACI, and mistress of the then President of Venezuela, Carlos Andres Perez. As part of this scheme, Matos authorized and illegally funded (out of FUNDAFACI) numerous medically irresponsible forays by Chagnon and Brewer Carias into the most remote and little-contacted area of Yanomami territory, the Siapa valley, in air force helicopters. These flights, which constituted an illegal use of military equipment and personnel according to Venezuelan law, sometimes resulted in the destruction of Yanomami communal shelters, as the helicopters hovered over them to allow passengers to take close-up photographs, or even landed in the central space of the shelter, blowing thatch and roof poles down on top of the inhabitants, and sometimes causing serious injuries. The villagers were meanwhile put at risk of contagion from the medically unscreened passengers. The latter mostly comprised foreign journalists and influential Venezuelans whose support Chagnon and Brewer were seeking for the creation of a new "biosphere reserve" containing a large tract of Yanomami territory that would be under their control. They were induced to come on the flights partly by false claims by Chagnon that the villages to which they would be taken were previously uncontacted. Large as it appeared (about the size of Connecticut), the projected new biosphere area would according to Tierney have excluded 5/6 of the area and population of the already demarcated Yanomami reserve, and "afforded neither them nor their lands any protection." (Tierney 2000: 188). The plan thus would have been, in a word, a catastrophe for most Yanomami. As Tierney reports, most Venezuelan anthropologists and Catholic missionaries saw the drastically reduced biosphere "as a coup against Yanomami territory." (Tierney 188) The Yanomami who would have been excluded comprised most of the missionized, acculturated, and increasingly politically conscious Yanomami. These qualities made them less anthropologically interesting to Chagnon then the less contacted and more amenable Siapans. It is perhaps relevant that Salomone reports that Chagnon "has stated that the Yanomami who speak Spanish are not really authentic Yanomami. That is a charge to which the Yanomami object rather vehemently." (Salomone 1997:22) The biosphere project was fortunately forestalled by political events, impelled in part by a wave of opposition to Brewer and, to a lesser extent, Chagnon.

V. Failure to reciprocate with or provide help to the Yanomami

As Tierney reports (188-189), Chagnon did start, on paper, two Foundations which as far as can be discovered have never done anything, or passed along any of the money collected in their name to the Yanomami. They were called the Yanomami Survival Fund and the American Friends of the Brazilian Indians (AFVI). Rabben confirms they remained inactive at least until 1997, as Albert notes, and adds that"given his [Chagnon’s] skills in media promotion, we would probably know about it" if they had done anything. (Rabben 1998:138, n.7; Albert, second round paper). This leaves the question of whether Chagnon has complied with the ethical obligation of researchers to "recognize their debt to the societies in which they work and their obligation to reciprocate with the people studied in appropriate ways." (AAA Code III.A.6) As Kim Hill has written, "This is an issue that Chagnon himself should address..and explain what types of assistance he provided." (round one paper). It seems we are in general agreement that it is appropriate for Tierney to have raised this issue.


As I suggested in my first essay in this round table, I believe that we as anthropologists, through our professional association, owe it to the Yanomami, and to ourselves, to speak the truth publicly about what has been done to the Yanomami. In this sense, the role of the Association and its Task Force may be compared to that of Truth Commissions in places like South Africa or Guatemala: not to punish individuals, but to make principled public statements about what has been done, as a matter of collective ethical concern.

In Brazil, the forces of the military and the mining lobby, in alliance with right-wing politicians at both state and national levels, are reopening the campaign to break up the Yanomami reserve, which has been in abeyance for the ten years since President Collor proclaimed the reserve in 1991. Albert cites the statement by the Brazilian Minister of Defense, Geraldo Quint‹o, last March 30, calling for the revocation of the demarcation of the reserve, which he called "an error’ and a "horrible example" for the country. Quint‹o’s statement was followed up in late March of this year by the creation of a Parliamentary Investigating Commission the mission of which is to find was of cutting down the areas of indigenous reserves. It is expected that the Yanomami reserve will be among its first targets. The Yanomami reserve was only saved in 1991 by international pressure, in which the AAA and its Commission on the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami played an important part. It may be time for the AAA to plan for another effort to help defend the integrity of the Yanomami territory (and other indigenous territories) of Brazil against dissolution by the state. In any such effort, the AAA should make a special effort to cooperate with the Brazilian Anthropological Association (ABA), as Albert recommends. A little genuine cooperation with our sister organization would not come amiss after the failure of communication over the problems caused by Chagnon in 1989.

In Venezuela, the medical situation of the Yanomami is disastrous. One potentially positive by-product of the current controversy is that it has focused the attention of the Venezuelan government and its official bodies, such as the congressional committee on indigenous affairs, and of course the special commission that has been set up to investigate Tierney’s charges, on the contemporary needs of the Yanomami. Among these, medical needs are uppermost. Here is an area where the AAA could offer collaboration and support in a variety of ways, in consultation with the Venezuelan government and the Yanomami themselves.

The Yanomami in both Venezuela and Brazil are presently discussing what form of compensation they might demand for the extraction of biological samples, above all, blood, without informed consent (and with misinformed consent). The AAA should try to be of help as a mediator between the Yanomami and the U.S. government in this situation. An explicit statement by the El Dorado Task Force that Yanomami rights were violated by the way these samples were collected, both in 1968 and since, would be an important step. Albert’s suggestion of an independent bioethics commission, however, strikes me as the best way to avoid precipitating the sort of impasse that has developed among the participants of this round table on this subject, at the level of the Association as a whole. I hope that the AAA will support this suggestion.

Finally, the AAA might consider modifying or adding to its Code of Ethics provisions that would to apply more effectively to situations such as those that have been generated by Chagnon’s field work. Nothing in the AAA Code of Ethics anticipates the effects of scale that became such an important factor in the disruptions of Yanomami society that followed upon Chagnon’s distributions of huge amounts of steel goods, which were the payoffs for high-pressure pedigree-taking in large numbers of villages at a time; the domination of whole communities by anthropologists with what by local standards amounted to huge amounts of wealth and access to political power, leading to the outbreak of wars between the communities associated with rival anthropologists and culminating in the attempt to take actual administative control of a whole region, without any consultation with the indigenous inhabitants, as in Chagnon’s and Brewer’s Siapa project. Methods that may be only mildly bothersome at the level of an individual village may become far more disruptive when projected onto a region of 50 communities and prolonged over a period of many years. On that scale, the anthropologist, operating with the massive resources required for projects of such spatial, temporal and social scope, inevitably becomes a power figure in the regional political scene: in effect, a sub-imperialist. In such situations, I suggest, anthropological ethics might call for special measures to ensure meaningful participation by the indigenous people in political and economic decision making. At the very least, the anthropologist operating on such a large scale should be enjoined to make every effort to avoid destructive disturbances of the local society, or attempting to force upon it administrative structures and controls that would be effectively disempowering. I would additionally suggest that since projects on this scale must involve not only accelerated contact with the national and global economies, but also internal social change, this should be a context in which the anthropologist might attempt to involve actors not included in the traditional village level political structures, such as women and young men.


I am indebted to Dr. Barbara Johnston for references to documents from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Marshall Islands Project dating from the 1950s relating to James Neel’s research interest in epidemic diseases as "natural stressers" and the experimental use of vaccines to "challenge" the production of leukocytes.



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