Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Canadian Business and Current Affairs, Anthropologica, v.43(2), 2001, pg 286-288
Alternate Source URL: none

Life among the Yanomami. The story of change among the Xilixana on the Mucajai River in Brazil (Record in progress)

Peters, John F; Gates, Marilyn, REV

The best ethnographers are often sensible, yet sensitive people, with a well-developed appreciation of the absurd. These are particularly valuable traits for a field worker engaged in long-term research in an isolated area, far from the everyday amenities of Western life, among people who are very much ''the other.'' When the focus of study is the Yanomami of Brazil's Amazonia, originally characterized by Napoleon Chagnon as ''the fierce people,'' common sense, humour and a high level of empathy become, more than assets, central to survival. In ''Life among The Yanomami,'' John Peters shows us how, in a society where violence and deceit are endemic and warfare plays a central role such that at least 40% of the men are ''murderers'' and 90% ''potential murderers,'' (p. 35) ''despite vast differences in culture, you develop strong, lasting friendships'' (p. 58). Amid the controversy provoked by Patrick Tierney's recent allegations of abuse of the Yanomami by anthropologists, Peters' very human, balanced and, paradoxically, gentle portrayal of the Mucajai River Xilixana is an especially welcome exemplar of ethical ethnographic norms.(f.#1) ''Life among The Yanomami'' is a comprehensive, complex and finely textured study. There is rich ethnographic detail of a traditional way of life organized in the conventional categories--village life and social culture; making a living off the land; family and social organization; socialization and life stages; myths, spirits and magic. And, of course, there is a section on warfare, raids and revenge, which have captured the anthropological imagination, perhaps because they seem so very different from Western battles for land or political control. Rather, protein deficiencies, competition over women, reproduction needs, the quest for steel goods, revenge for past raids and sorcery have been posited as explanations for intervillage killings embedded in a matrix of cultural norms wherein ''violence seems always just a breath away'' (p. 207).

The portrayal of culture is always dynamic, however, with an emphasis on the impact of social change over the four decades since contact with frontier Brazilians was initiated by the Xilixana in 1957. We see how the Xilixana coped with initial exposure to missionaries, more recent interactions with miners, and the intervention of government and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).

The constant presence of missionaries in the region since the contact era is a central thread running through the narrative. Peters first went to Brazil in 1958 as a young missionary charged with setting up a new mission station. He spent most of the next eight years living among the Xilixana, with his wife and family (four of their five children were born during that time) before returning to North America for graduate studies. He has since visited the community frequently to conduct field research. Consequently, he is in an excellent position to assess both how the missionaries have changed the Yanomami and how the Yanomami have changed the mission project. The Yanomami have come to rely on the trade goods, medical aid, brokerage and social life available at the missions, but ''the Jesus way'' itself seems incompatible with the community-structured context of violence and justice. ''The Xilixana considered the missionary's Jesus to be something of a wimp'' (p. 201). The missionaries now downplay the evangelical priority of the early years and are more inclined to see their very presence in the area as witness to the Christian message of hope and caring.

Relations between the Xilixana and miners have been far less cordial. The miners have, at best, asked for food in exchange for Western goods, or hired Yanomami men as labourers. At worst, they used Yanomami women as prostitutes, brought diseases and contaminated the Mucajai River with mercury. At times, these interactions led to bloodshed, as the Yanomami seemed to live up to their fierce reputations via revenge killings, although Peters maintains that Chagnon's description of a ''fierce people'' is appropriate only for the 1900-80 period (p. 277).

The Brazilian state has increased its presence in the area over the past two decades, but it has been hampered in its efforts to address the needs of the Yanomami by insufficient resources, inconsistent policies which fluctuate between assimilation and retention of tradition, and the necessity of balancing the interests of a variety of pressure groups-local, regional and national.

As a result of the interplay of these various outside influences, the Yanomami of today have adopted a number of ''modern'' goods and practices. They are likely to rely on matches, fishhooks, and guns, wear some Western clothing, regard salt as an essential condiment, use Brazilian hammocks, and enjoy the pictures in National Geographic. An increasing number of men leave sporadically to work for wages, placing stress on traditional patterns of social organization. Increased interactions with other Yanomami have also influenced the Xilixana, not always positively, as can be seen, for example, in the increase in alcoholism resulting from the adoption of the Palimi thele practice of making large batches of home brew instead of small pots specifically for ceremonial consumption. On the positive side, despite their history of divisiveness, the Yanomami have come to see themselves as an emerging political collective, with the need to confront the state in pursuit of their best interests.

Peters writes about these social changes in a non-judgmental way, although he does not duck key moral issues, such as the anthropologist's stance with respect to female infanticide, the low regard for human life, and extreme patriarchy. Overall, his methodology could be characterized as engaged, reflexive ethnography, which is constantly aware of the positionality of the researcher as agent of change. It is a fundamentally critical perspective, coming to grips with control, subjugation and injustice, perpetrated both by outsiders and by the Yanomami themselves. Anthropological ethics are also a central concern, particularly with respect to the conduct of non-exploitative research. Royalties from this book are to go to providing health care for the Yanomami and other indigenous people.

''Life among The Yanomami'' is a very readable book. Particularly engaging, by adding immediacy and a personal touch, is the device of interspersing extracts from field notes, and reminiscences from the author's wife on her first encounter with the Mucajai Yanomami, or a close call with a deadly snake. Black-and-white photographs show Yanomami daily life, then and now, and reflect ease with the author. Furthermore, the presence of the author's family in the field during his missionary years makes for more intimate interactions than most ethnographers can achieve. Keen observation and self-deprecating humour underscore the ''humanness'' of cross-cultural encounters. (The reader can just imagine the Yanomami howling uncontrollably in laughter as the author, on one visit, walked through the village wearing a loin cloth, now replaced by shorts!)

In sum, this book is a valuable resource for Latin Americanists (from undergraduate students to specialists) and anthropologists in search of exemplary ethnographic models. Also, it will be of interest to the general public, whose curiosity about anthropology in general and the Yanomami in particular was piqued by the Tierney controversy. ''Life among The Yanomami'' was published before Tierney's accusations of anthropological misconduct in the Amazon appeared in the October 9, 2000 issue of The New Yorker and contemporaneously in his book ''Darkness in El Dorado'' (New York: Norton, 2000). It would be interesting to read Peters' reactions to these revelations. One suspects that he would simply reiterate his prescriptions for ethical research--show respect for your informants and for all humankind.


(f.#1) Peters notes, ''Throughout the book I use the name Xilixana to refer to all the Yanomami who initially lived in three villages on the mid-Mucajai River at the time of their contact with Brazilians in 1957.'' (p. 23)