Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Comments accepted for publication in December 2001 issue of Current Anthropology on the "Forum: Perspectives on Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado" in April 2001 Current Anthropology 42(2):265-276.

The editor and most contributors to the forum on Darkness in El Dorado (CA 42:265-76) should be commended for engaging in constructive discussion, something usually lacking in the cyber and media hysteria since September 2000. However, some important points are mistaken or missing. Contrary to Alan Fix, research on Yanomami began not in the 1960s, but as early as 1800. Now there are more than 60 books on aspects of Yanomami, albeit of widely varying quality. Sufficient literature exists to recognize a field of specialization--- Yanomami Studies or Yanomamalogy. It is possible to identify points of agreement and disagreement among the numerous and diverse writers who have published on Yanomami and draw conclusions (Sponsel 1998:99).

Contrary to Peter Pels's allusion to the "supposedly" confidential letter written by Terence Turner and I, we certainly intended it to be confidential and its contents were obviously so. It was specifically addressed only to the president and president-elect of the American Anthropological Association, not "To Whom It May Concern." A copy was sent to four other top officials of the most relevant AAA units. We never intended or anticipated that the letter would be more widely circulated. Whoever leaked it into cyberspace lacked the common sense and professional courtesy to first request permission of the authors, violated copyright, and breached about half of the principles of computer ethics. (See The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics of the Computer Ethics Institute at http://www.brook.edu/its/ cei/cei_hp.htm). We intended the letter for one purpose--- to alert top AAA officials to the inevitable explosion of scandal. We aimed only to summarize Tierney's main allegations, not to make any claims ourselves. We felt a special obligation to write the letter because for several years we had both served on the AAA Committee for Human Rights; Turner had chaired the AAA Yanomami Commission; and I had conducted fieldwork with Yanomami in 1974-75 and since then continued to follow the literature and their situation as closely as possible and to publish about their plight, even though moving on to other areas for research. We would not hesitate to write a letter again as a matter of principle.

My comments quoted on the back cover of Tierney's book were initially made after reading a couple of chapters of a much different version of the book in 1995, one focused on mining and its impact on indigenes and their environment. Last July, after reading for the first time the entire new book in the form of bound galleys, I allowed the quote to remain because it was still relevant and valid, and it has been repeatedly validated in the controversy since September 2000.

In many respects, but obviously not all, this is the most important book ever written about the Yanomami. None of some 60 books previously published on the Yanomami ever drew attention to the violations of professional ethics and abuses of human rights by anthropologists in the ways and to the extent that Tierney does. Not one of those books was subjected to a panel discussion and open forum at any AAA convention, any forum in a journal like CA, investigations in three countries, discussions in international media and cyberspace, etc. As Alcida Ramos mentions, Brazilian anthropological critics of Napoleon Chagnon never began to have such an impact as Tierney. The same must be said about the many critics elsewhere over three decades (Sponsel 1998:114). Tierney served our profession with a sorely needed wake-up call unprecedented in its effectiveness, whatever the negative consequences that inevitably accompany controversies and scandals, and to whatever degree his numerous and diverse allegations prove true.

Tierney exposed the ugliest affair in the entire history of anthropology. It cannot be summarily dismissed by a vocal minority as simply a matter of personal animosities, turf war, postmodernist critique of science or scientism, objectivist versus activist, differing interpretations of Yanomami aggression, sensationalist or tabloid journalism, etc. As Susan Lindee recognizes, and contrary to Raymond Hames, not all of the fundamental claims made by Tierney have been discussed let alone refuted.

There is far more to Tierney's multitude of allegations than merely the epidemic and James Neel, despite the partisan tactics of smoke and mirrors. I agree with Charles Briggs and Clara Mantini-Briggs, it is time for this entire affair, however repulsive, to be thoroughly, accurately, and fairly investigated, discussed, and debated. One of the best sources to start with is the information clearing house developed by Douglas Hume in a web site that not one of the contributors to the forum mentions (http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness), although other blatantly biased web sites filled with misinformation and disinformation were mentioned repeatedly. The Hume website includes an extensive Yanomami bibliography as well and a link to my 1998 article in Aggressive Behavior. Those who have a genuine interest in Yanomami survival, welfare, and rights, may consult Cultural Survival (http://www.cs.org); International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (http://www.iwgia.org); Pro-Yanomami Commission (http://www.proyanomami.org.br); and Survival International (http://www.survival©international.org). Most of these web sites also contain statements on this scandal. Some readers may also be interested in Tierney's replies to Bruce Alberts and John Tooby (http://www.darknessineldorado.com) and the round table developed by Robert Borofsky (http://www.publicanthropology.org).

As Fernando Coronil advocates, the Pandora's box opened by Tierney should be examined and debated within the framework of the ethics and politics of knowledge production in the West, and that includes professional, ethical, and moral responsibility toward the communities who host research. The three basic questions I raised at the open forum on this controversy at the last AAA convention remain: What have the Yanomami contributed to us? What have we contributed to the Yanomami, for better and for worse? How are professional ethics and human rights involved? The "us" and "we" include not only those who to varying degrees gained fame and fortune from Yanomami research, but any anthropologists who have used Yanomami "data" in their research, publications, or teaching. Genuine reciprocation to the Yanomami is long overdue. As Ramos suggests, this includes recognizing their intellectual property rights. Furthermore, some form of reparations seems to be in order, if any of the relevant allegations in Tierney's book prove true. The bottom line of the various AAA statements on ethics is that anthropologists should do no harm to the people they study, but shouldn't they also do some good for them? Or are host communities only a means to serve the ends of anthropologists as fodder for academic fantasies, debates, and careers?

Reference Cited

SPONSEL, LESLIE E. 1998. Yanomami: An Arena of Conflict and Aggression in the Amazon. Aggressive Behavior 24(2):97-122.