Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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To the AAA Leadership and To Whom It May Concern

October 25, 2001

Please consider the following summary statement regarding the numerous, diverse, and serious allegations in Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado. I will be as concise as possible because I am sure that you have already had more than enough to read and digest in this matter and are probably as sick of it as I and most others. However, upon request I am willing to fully document and explain the following points as well as many others in any appropriate context.

In 1974-75 I conducted fieldwork among northern Yanomami in Venezuela as part of my doctoral dissertation for Cornell University. My grant proposal to the National Science Foundation and subsequent dissertation both included a statement on professional responsibility which in retrospect is prescient. Since then I have continued to follow the Yanomami situation and literature as closely as possible, and even though moving on to research elsewhere, I have published several refereed journal articles and book chapters on aspects of the plight of the Yanomami and Yanomami studies, the latest in an issue of the journal Aggressive Behavior in 1998. (A link to that article is available under my name in the bibliography on the Douglas Hume website: http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume).

Accordingly, on many aspects of Tierney's allegations I have substantial knowledge which in turn compels me to speak out as a matter of professional and ethical responsibility as well as personal morality. My relationship to Tierney has been entirely on a scholarly, professional, and ethical level, as it has been with others who have written about the Yanomami or on other anthropological matters. I am in no way part of any conspiracy and I have never been paid anything by Tierney, his editor or publisher. Furthermore, anyone familiar with my background, publications, and/or resume can never honestly accuse me of being anti-science or anti-biology. However, certainly I am most critical of the extremes of scientism, biologism, careerism, and egoism which are revealed in the Pandora's box Tierney has opened.

As should be obvious by now, this is by far the ugliest affair in the entire history of anthropology. Furthermore, that fact as well as the rest of my statement quoted on the back cover of Tierney's book have been repeatedly validated in many different ways and contexts for over a year. The entire matter pivots on this elemental point--- the whole enterprise of cultural anthropology is predicated on information gleaned from interviews with and observations on individuals in communities that allow field research. Consequently, researchers must repeatedly, critically, and effectively consider the ethical aspects of these two questions--- By what means is information obtained? For what and whose ends is it used? In essence, this is all about professional ethical responsibility and social relevance. Anything else in this controversy, such as philosophical, ideological, political, theoretical, or personal differences, is at best of tertiary importance if even pertinent at all.

In my opinion, the vast majority of the reactions and commentaries in this controversy have missed the whole point--- this is about allegations of how certain individuals committed very serious violations of professional ethics in fieldwork and in the process abused the human rights of the Yanomami over a period of some three decades. This is not limited to the 1960s, nor is it a matter of unfairly assessing past behavior by current norms or codes. Some of the behaviors exhibited by certain individuals are simply unprofessional, unethical, and immoral by any common standards of the 20th century. Terry Turner has provided a convenient inventory of the numerous and diverse allegations by Tierney concerning violations of professional ethics at the end of his third statement in the Robert Borofsky round table (see http://www.publicanthropology.org).

The possibility of human rights violations must have been recognized when the AAA leadership in constituting the Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado included members of the Committee for Human Rights as well as the Committee on Ethics. If any of the relevant allegations in Tierney's book hold, then it appears that the human rights of the Yanomami have been violated for some three decades. To begin with, consider the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations, although there are earlier statements of relevance as well. These three agreements all begin by acknowledging the inherent dignity of every human being and subsequently discuss specific points in that regard. No human being should be subjected to degrading treatment; interference in their privacy, family and home; attacks on their honor and reputation; or scientific or medical experimentation without free consent. Every human should enjoy security, self©determination, and freedom from fear. Every human should be provided with the prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic diseases. Every human should enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. I am not a human rights lawyer, but there are some in the AAA including on the Committee for Human Rights. As a founding member and former chair of the Committee for Human Rights, in my opinion the current Committee is obligated to clearly and forcefully pronounce their professional judgement on such matters in this case and bring them to the attention of the appropriate legal and governmental authorities.

Now the very legitimacy of the AAA is at stake, including that of its Committee on Ethics and Committee for Human Rights. Surely the AAA has no alternative but to publicly condemn the repeated and persistent abuses of anthropological professional ethics and violations of human rights of the Yanomami for over three decades, if any of the relevant allegations in Tierney hold. As a letter by Anne Whiteside and Laura Nader in the September 2001 issue of the Anthropology News makes embarrassingly and painfully clear, the AAA and profession in general have utterly failed to respond during three decades of criticisms by numerous and diverse individuals and organizations. It took an independent investigative journalist to finally provide an effective wake-up call.

Tierney certainly opened up a Pandora's box with ramifications and implications for anthropology and other sciences far beyond the specifics in his book and whatever fraction of it might be questionable. Whether this is for better or worse depends on only one thing--- how our profession reacts, negatively and destructively, or positively and constructively. Publicly condemning those who have variously stigmatized, brutalized, exploited, and/or victimized the Yanomami is certainly necessary, but just as certainly not sufficient. Some positive and constructive responses must be developed as well. Already this has happened with some of the initiatives of the AAA in the present Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado, the Task Force on South America, the charge for the Committee on Ethics to reconsider and revise its code, and through some of the ensuing discussion, debate, and publications. Such developments are all progressive and heartening.

Turning to the future, I offer five recommendations for your consideration. First, at conventions of the AAA and its relevant units, like the American Ethnological Society and the Society for Latin American Anthropology, multiple sessions should be invited and volunteered to systematically explore in a professional manner the broader concerns, questions, problems, and issues raised by this unprecedented scandal, but transcending its specifics. The round table discussions independently developed by Borofsky demonstrate one most positive and constructive approach (see http://www.publicanthropology.org).

A second recommendation is that a new task force be launched to critically assess curriculum materials on the Yanomami and develop a practical resource guide for instructors and students. Something needs to be done to ensure that the gross misrepresentations of the last three decades do not continue misleading generations of anthropology instructors and students. Quite independently of Tierney, the books by Kenneth Good, Brian Ferguson, and Alcida Ramos, among others, demonstrate by contrast just how far our profession and the public have been misled in the past by the image of the Yanomami as primeval Hobbesian savages. Such a resource guide would have far broader implications for teaching about other indigenous and ethnic groups as well, and these should be drawn explicitly and systematically.

The third recommendation is that at the next convention when Barbara Johnston retires from the Task Force on South American, she be followed by someone of the stature of David Maybury-Lewis, Alcida Ramos, or Terry Turner who has a proven record as an Amazonianist and human rights advocate.

Most important of all by far, the AAA and our profession owe the Yanomami special humanitarian assistance and even reparations, if any of the more serious relevant allegations by Tierney hold true. For instance, almost all cultural anthropology textbooks discuss the Yanomami, and usually based on only one ethnography, one which nearly every anthropologist who has lived and worked with the Yanomami rejects as grossly distorted and misleading. Consequently, a fourth recommendation is that a special new task force be launched to seriously explore all possibilities for assistance and reparations. The reason is simple, the very dignity of the Yanomami as human beings, and accordingly their human rights, have been repeatedly undermined and violated over a period of three decades, mainly as a result of numerous and diverse violations of professional ethics in fieldwork and various ethnographic misrepresentations, if any of Tierney’s relevant allegations hold true. The documentation by Leda Martins in the Borofsky round table reveals just how seriously these misrepresentations have impacted on the Yanomami in Brazil. Fiona Watson of Survival International, among others, could provide further documentation on this point (http://www.si.org).

My fifth recommendation is that the AAA organize and assist with obtaining grants a small team of several applied anthropologists with no previous experience with the Yanomami to conduct for one whole year a systematic needs assessment of the Yanomami in close collaboration with them in Brazil and Venezuela, and in close consultation with anthropologists who have worked responsibly with the Yanomami. This team should include specialists in medical, nutritional, legal, educational, linguistic, and environmental anthropology. Their report should be filed with appropriate government officials as well as humanitarian and anthropological organizations in Brazil and Venezuela. The AAA should publish this report in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Yanomami to help set priorities for future assistance and research among the Yanomami.

The three questions I posed in the open forum at the last AAA meetings remain most relevant: What have the Yanomami contributed to us? What have we contributed to them, for better and for worse? How are professional ethics and human rights involved? Inevitably these questions will be addressed in the forthcoming report of the Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado. Like so many anthropologists and others including the Yanomami, I look forward to learning the concrete practical results of the investigation at the next annual meeting. Two evenings were devoted to Tierney's book last year, and surely as much if not more opportunity should be allotted for a presentation, discussion, and assessment of the investigative committee's report by the membership at the forthcoming convention. This can be a historic turning point for our organization, profession, the Yanomami, and other indigenous peoples and ethnic groups of the world if the AAA leadership and others continue to take positive and constructive action.

Yours sincerely,

Leslie E. Sponsel, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology
University of Hawai`i

Former Chair,
AAA Commission for Human Rights (1991-95)
and Committee for Human Rights (1996)