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Comments on the Working Paper 2.4 of the AAA E Dorado Task Force: 
Involvement in Yanomami Political Affairs

 

R. Brian Ferguson
Department of Anthropology

Rutgers University

 

 

I do not envy anyone serving on this AAA El Dorado Task Force. It is guaranteed that a good number of people will be quite unhappy with whatever is the result. Since this does appear destined to be the report of record, however, I would like to add some observations.

It is surprising that a former student of Napoleon Chagnon, Raymond Hames, was chosen to write some of the reports. Dr. Hames is a strong supporter of Dr. Chagnon. For instance, in last year's Current Anthropology forum on Darkness in El Dorado, Hames (2001:271) wrote in reference to my book Yanomami Warfare , "Key to understanding Tierney's interpretive method is the work of Ferguson... Ferguson's technique is to document Chagnon's presence in an area and then note Chagnon's report of the outbreak of violence after his visit (sometimes weeks, months, or years later). Where Chagnon does not visit he makes no reports of warfare." This greatly misrepresents my analysis, and is simply untrue in suggesting I only report war where Chagnon has been, as anyone who looks at my book can see. Chagnon actually arrives on the scene on page 284, and plenty of warfare is discussed before that. Additionally, I rely on the decades of historical reconstructions made by Chagnon, his students including Hames, and many other sources to pinpoint outbreaks of war. What I do that is different is associate the changing Western presence with those outbreaks. Hames representation of my approach is, however, quite similar to that of Chagnon (1996:672) himself, when he reviewed my book in American Anthropologist . This personal connection must be considered in evaluating Hames's reports.

Under the heading of "Involvement in Yanomami Political Affairs," Hames discusses two incidents. One involves Chagnon's transporting a Monou-teri raiding party in his canoe to higher ground, so they could bypass the swamps that would have blocked passage from their village to their enemies. Hames's discussion here is mostly fair, although one could argue about details. Hames concludes--I think few would disagree--"that ethnographers should not, with premeditation, directly or indirectly involve themselves in hostile acts."

I covered this incident in Yanomami Warfare without ethical evaluation. My research has been aimed at explaining war, with the hope that such knowledge might help in its prevention. Even before sociobiology, Yanomami warfare was the case most debated, most in need of explanation. Then sociobiology came along, and with Chagnon's writings, made Yanomami warfare even more theoretically important. (In the "Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas: Roundtable Forum" on Darkness in El Dorado, Round Three, pg. 5, Hames disputes the idea that sociobiology gives special weight to the Yanomami, saying they are no more significant than other indigenous populations for that theory. That is not the case for warfare. Pre-eminent psychological Darwinists have repeatedly, emphatically, often exclusively, and often erroneously, referred to the Yanomami to exemplify their theories. See Ferguson 2001). To raise the issue of ethics, and then to drop it in an already overlong book, would have distracted from the issue of explaining war. Moreover, I did and do acknowledge my debt to Chagnon and his students for collecting much information that I have used.

But my main reason for not raising the issue of ethics was stated in my book: "In the following discussions, I will interpret the political and military patterns he describes as being manifestations of an ongoing process of Western contact. Chagnon himself was one agent of that contact, and his presence and actions had a major impact on the course of events. This point is made not to criticize the fieldworker but to explain the warfare. Indeed, I do not know that Chagnon did anything different from any other fieldworkers, except to tell us about it (Ferguson 1995:284-285)."

Then, in a review of my book, I got substantiation of this doubt. Dieter Heinen and Bruno Illius (1996:553) refer to German writings which I did not have: "A closer analysis of the contribution to Yanomami warfare by Meinhard Schuster, the junior partner in the Frobenious-Expedition lead by Otto Zerries, would have been most useful for Ferguson because it considerably buttresses his argument... It has to be said in favor of Chagnon, however, that he was not the only anthropologist to become embroiled in Yanomami warfare activities. Before him, Zerries and Schuster ferried Yanomami warriors over the Orinoco River (Schuster 1974:226) as did the boat belonging to the new Tribes Mission (Zerries and Schuster 1974, photograph 134 with the caption: A [Yanomami] warriors crossing the Orinoco river in Mission boat poised for revenge attack against Liakoatedi [translation supplied]." It is a signal benefit of Tierney's publication that the anthropological profession has now been forced to focus directly on such interactions.

That quote raises an issue often discussed in the El Dorado controversy, but oddly not raised here--the role of the missions. A typical statement is that of Hill ("Public Anthropology..." Round 1, pp. 4-5): "I agree that all anthropologists should be aware of potential problems caused by their gifts, but I do not believe there is much empirical support for the notion that Chagnon's gift giving caused any more conflict among the Yanomamo than that of the missionaries..." Yes and no, depending on where and when. But I heartily agree that the role of the missionaries in generating conflict must not be ignored. This is an area where I disagree with Tierney's presentation, which I think lets the missionaries off too easily--though I hasten to add, blanket generalizations are wrong, and many missionaries have done good, selfless, and greatly beneficial work for Yanomami. I have a whole chapter called "The Yanomamo and the Missionaries," and detailed discussions of mission impact in many other areas. As for the time and place that became immortalized in The Fierce People , I conclude (1995:306): "I have focused on the role of Napoleon Chagnon, but only because he writes about himself. There is virtually no information--only the few crucial bits that I have noted here--about the activities of the missionaries or malaria workers. But I should emphasize here that the presence of the empty mission [actively trying to get Yanomamo to move there] was itself probably as or more significant than Chagnon's presence in affecting the course of events." Chagnon (1977:151), on the other hand, writes about that mission: "It was easy to ignore them at that time for they had no impact on the Yanomamo." I find it odd that those who raise the issue of the missions do not back up their point by referring to my book. Perhaps that is because in his review Chagnon (1996:671) claimed that Ferguson "is completely unaware of or chooses to ignore what the personnel of the Salesian Missions of Ocamo and Platanal (Mahekodo-teri) were doing while I was allegedly turning Mavaca into some sort of fantastic powerhouse..." In fact, those two other missions are also discussed in detail. At any rate, if one wishes to learn about the often disruptive impact of the missions among the Yanomami, the only concise source available remains Yanomami Warfare .

Besides the incident of ferrying the war party, only one other activity of Chagnon is discussed by Hames. In this, Chagnon acted as a broker when the headman of Bisaasi-teri, Kaobawa, wanted to negotiate a peace with the people of Mishimishimabowei-teri. It is not obvious why this incident was chosen for focus. Tierney (2000:112) does not criticize Chagnon for helping to broker the peace. He does criticize other things not mentioned by Hames, particularly the content of the film Magical Death, made by Chagnon alone during the peace making, and that the two new allies soon attacked another village. My guess is that Hames chose the event to balance the other--Chagnon helping to wage war, Chagnon helping to make peace. Fair enough. Chagnon's role earlier in helping Patanowa-teri visitors avoid a possible ambush could also be cited in this regard (related in Chagnon's dissertation, 1966:186-187 and 1977:93-94, described in Ferguson 1995:302). I do however, wonder on what basis Hames concludes that in this case Chagnon was acting "at great personal risk to himself." Chagnon (1997:217) himself, who quite frequently tells of his mortal peril, makes no mention of any personal risk in this case (although he does refer to earlier dangers). His secure position with Mishimishimabowei-teri is why Kaobawa wanted to go with him. Chagnon says he was afraid for his Bisaasi-teri friends, but they themselves were quite certain they would be safe.

The strange thing about this report, however, is that it is limited to those two events. If one were just to follow the last story two years into the future, one would come to another more problematic event (Chagnon 1974:180-197). Chagnon in Mishimishimabowei-teri, determined to collect blood samples but temporarily short of machetes, found himself in the middle of "one of the most volatile situations I have ever been in" (pg. 189)--this in the village which a year before had been the scene of The Ax Fight. When a belligerent headman, Moawa, demanded all the machetes be given to his supporters, Chagnon initially complied, but when Moawa walked away handed them out to his known opponents. Discovering this, Moawa threatened to kill Chagnon on the spot. Chagnon left, and back in Bisaasi-teri, publicly announced that he would never return to Moawa's village, and threatened dire consequences for Moawa should he ever venture to Bisaasi-teri. This clash was complicated by a history of personal conflicts, and readers should consult Chagnon’s account for his own misgivings about it. But if helping to develop peace between Bisaasi-teri and Mishimishimabowei-teri is examined, how can this be left out?

And that is a single incident. What are we to make of the incredibly complex sequence of events, violent and otherwise, that transpired up the Mavaca and around the Siapa Rivers in 1987 to 1992, (thus beginning before Chagnon began returning to the field)? These involve the extension of mission activities, Chagnon's alliance with Charles Brewer and Cecilia Matos, the quite unclear threat of Brazilian gold miners and plans for a biosphere, the very public fight between Chagnon and missionaries (which prior to Tierney was the huge controversy over anthropology and the Yanomami), fluctuating fissions, alliances and raids by a number of Yanomami groups, and what to me is one of largest unexamined issues raised by Darkness in El Dorado , whether proper medical precautions were taken in the large-scale expeditions led by Chagnon into the Siapa.

I doubt any commission, any few scholars brought in to fact-find on a deadline, could completely untangle all these events. But they are not even mentioned. The effort devoted by this Task Force to considering anthropologists' involvement in Yanomami political affairs is far less than that centered on Neel's activities involving biomedical issues. It barely scratches the surface, and for the record, it must be made clear just how limited this investigation has been. One could read this report by Hames without getting any idea that the role of distributed Western goods in political conflict and war is even an issue. That is pretty amazing.


References cited

Chagnon, Napoleon

1966. Yanomamo Warfare, Social Organization and Marriage Alliances. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan.

1974. Studying the Yanomamo. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

1977. Yanomamo: The Fierce People, 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

1996. "Review of Yanomami Warfare." American Anthropologist 98:670-672.

1997. Yanomamo, 5th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Ferguson, R. Brian

1995. Yanomami Warfare: A Political History. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

2001. "Materialist, Cultural, and Biological Theories on Why Yanomami Make War." Anthropological Theory 1:99-116.

Hames, Raymond

2001. "Comment" in "CA Forum on Anthropology in Public: Perspectives on Tierney= Darkness in El Dorado." Current Anthropology 42:271-274.

Heinen, H. Dieter, and Bruno Illius

1996. "The Last Days of El Dorado: A Review Essay on Yanomami Warfare." Anthropos 91:552-559.

Schuster, Meinhard

1974. "Die Gesellschaft." In Mahekodotedi: Monographie eines Dorfes der Waika-Indianer (Yanoama) am oberen Orincoco (Venezuela), Otto Zerries and Meinhard Schuster, pp. 165-253. Munchen: Klaus Renner Verlag.

Tierney, Patrick

2000. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W.W. Norton.

Zerries, Otto, and Meinhard Schuster

1974. Mahekodotedi: Monographie eines Dorfes der Waika-Indianer (Yanoama) am oberen Orincoco (Venezuela). Munchen: Klaus Renner Verlag.