Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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From: AAA email [mailto:members@aaanet.org]

Sent: Friday, May 25, 2001 3:01 PM


The El Dorado Task Force had its first meeting at AAA Headquarters April 20-21, 2001. This interim report is intended to inform members of the AAA about our work, and to solicit suggestions from the membership. Suggestions and questions should be addressed to the Chair of the Task Force, Jane H. Hill, either at jhill@u.arizona.edu, by fax to 520-621-2088, or by mail to Hill at Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721. It would be most useful if communications reached her at the earliest possible date, certainly before September 1, 2001. Individual members of the Task Force have been assigned specific tasks according to their expertise. Jane Hill will see that comments, recommendations, and inquiries are forwarded to the appropriate member. We look forward to your comments.

Present at the first meeting were Janet Chernela, Fernando Coronil, Kim Guthrie (AAA staff), Jane Hill (Chair), and Trudy Turner. Joe Watkins joined us for about an hour by speakerphone April 21.

A. Introduction: The AAA El Dorado Task Force was established by the Executive Board to inquire into the allegations made about the work of anthropologists and others among the Yamomami of Venezuela and Brazil, raised by Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado. This communication to the profession is composed in response to article (4) of the Executive Board Motion below.

Motion on setting up an Inquiry

At the February 3 & 4 2001 Meeting of the American Anthropological Association Executive Board the following motion was passed.

1) The AAA Executive Board will establish a task force of five members of the American Anthropological Association, four to be appointed by the AAA President, to conduct an inquiry on the allegations contained in Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney. The El Dorado Task Force will be chaired by AAA past President Jane Hill and will make its report to the Executive Board at its November 2001 meeting. The Task Force inquiry is intended to contribute to the Committee on Ethics' efforts to extend guidelines and create materials concerning field research conducted wherever anthropologists work.

2) Using the report of the Task Force chaired by Jim Peacock as background, the El Dorado Task Force will consider the allegations concerning (1) fieldwork practices of anthropologists, (2) representations and portrayals of the Yanomami that may have had a negative impact, (3) efforts to create organizations to represent the interests of Yanomami or efforts to contribute to Yanomami welfare that may have actually undermined their well-being, (4) activities that may have resulted in personal gain to scientists, anthropologists and journalists while contributing harm to the Yanomami, and (5) activities by anthropologists, scientists and journalists that may have contributed to malnutrition, disease and disorganization.

3) The El Dorado Task Force may wish to consider allegations relating to medical research and medical emergencies among the Yanomami (e.g. the measles epidemic of 1968, research using radioactive iodine in the 1960's) The Task Force should note earlier findings in their report where they feel that there is already sufficient evidence to refute such allegations, unless new information or questions emerge.

4) The El Dorado Task Force should be mindful of the evolution of various codes of ethics and ethical guidelines existing during the time a particular set of actions occurred. It is expected that the Task Force will seek information from AAA members, the author, and key anthropologists mentioned in the book. The Task Force should also contact anthropologists and others in Brazil and Venezuela in order to share information and become apprised of parallel investigations. The Task Force may also utilize the expertise of outside experts (medical researchers, epidemiologists) where necessary.

In interpreting the motion we were guided also by a confidential report compiled by the preliminary task force chaired by James Peacock, charged with determining whether the AAA should undertake further inquiry. We emphasize that, in our view, the reason that this report is confidential is not because it contains anything defamatory to any anthropologist or other person alive or dead.

It does not --beyond summaries of allegations made by Tierney prepared for the use of that group and the Executive Board. However, the report was compiled under severe time pressure for the use of the AAA Executive Board, and not with public distribution in mind. The burden of the report is simply that it finds many of the allegations made in the Tierney book to have such serious implications for anthropologists and for the Yanomami that they are deserving of further attention from the AAA.

We summarize below the results of our meeting, which constitute a series of plans for inquiry and consideration, in order that we may compile a final report that will be discussed with the Ethics Committee and referred to the membership at the Annual Meeting in the Fall of this year.

B. Task Force Membership: Members of the Task Force were appointed by the AAA President. The Chair, Jane H. Hill (Arizona) is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in American Indian languages, and former President of AAA. Fernando Coronil (Michigan) is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the Venezuelan state. Janet Chernela (Florida International University) is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Amazonian indigenous societies.

Trudy Turner (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) is a biological anthropologist specializing in genetics of non-human primates and in ethics.

Joe Watkins (BIA) is an archaeologist specializing in relations between Indians and archaeologists and in the involvement of Indian people in archaeology and anthropology. Watkins is Chair of the AAA Ethics Committee.

C. Guiding Considerations: While we concur with the members of the Peacock Task Force that the allegations made in Tierney's book deserve our attention, the Executive Board proposes an inquiry, not an investigation, that will be addressed to the future of anthropology, not to its past. That is, our response to the allegations will not always be to determine whether they are true or false, since in many cases this is simply undeterminable.

In some cases, practices by anthropologists and others that are of great concern to Tierney are well-documented in the published record. We will consider these in the context of the time and circumstances, recognizing that anthropological practice during the last 40 years has been in constant change. Especially, we intend to look forward, directing our reflections on past practice toward establishing new dialogues in the profession about the refinement of anthropological practice and the improved training of students. Our goal is that anthropological practice be more likely, not only to produce valuable new knowledge, but to facilitate the improvement of the lives of those who, like the Yanomami, have graciously shared their knowledge and ways of life with us.

In undertaking our inquiry, we will collaborate with our colleagues in Brazil and Venezuela, including representatives of indigenous organizations, with whom we will share resources and materials.

We will also consult with members of the profession and specifically with those who have worked among the Yanomami.

D. Contexts: Article (4) of the Executive Board's charge directs us to examine the contexts in which research among the Yanomami was undertaken, with specific reference to ethical codes in effect at various times, to the legal requirements then in force in Venezuela and Brazil, and to accepted anthropological practice at the pertinent time and place. We are undertaking research on these matters and welcome suggestions and comments.

E. Specific Allegations. The members of the Task Force evaluated the many allegations advanced in Darkness in El Dorado and developed a set of priorities. We will be focussing especially on the general categories reviewed below, and welcome suggestions and comments.

1. That a program of vaccination of Yanomami undertaken by James Neel in 1968 caused an epidemic of measles. Here, the Task Force intends to recommend that AAA join other professional societies and organizations both in the U.S. and in Brazil and Venezuela in rejecting this allegation. The pertinent documents will be incorporated in the final report.

2. That practices of anthropologists in the field were unethical, ignoring legal constraints and ethics codes and tending, either through oversight or purposefully, to exacerbate violence, spread disease, and violate the dignity of individual Yanomami through, for instance, inappropriate sexual relations. The Task Force intends to take up all of these matters in the forward-looking spirit outlined above. We will try to determine what kinds of codes, laws, and standards were in effect at the various times and places under consideration. We will try to separate out practices which were simply misunderstood by Tierney, practices which had minor effects that were exaggerated by Tierney, practices which had serious effects which could not have been foreseen, and practices which can be corrected and improved in order to benefit both the quality of anthropological knowledge and the lives of Yanomami and similar populations.

3. That damaging representations of the Yanomami were published and repeated even after such representations were criticized as likely to cause them harm. The Task Force intends to take up the question of representation in the context of changing anthropological theory about the status of populations like the Yanomami and the contexts of the markets in which anthropologists diffuse their work. We will develop suggestions about the kinds of reflections that may be required before an anthropologist advances some representation or depiction of groups or individuals under study.

4. That anthropologists, especially Americans, and others generally ignored threats to the Yanomami and gave the highest priority to continuing established programs of research of no immediate benefit to the Yanomami. The Task Force intends to examine the history of the various efforts that have been undertaken and organizations that have been founded at least during the last 20 years to advocate for the Yanomami, and to determine how such efforts might be improved in the future. We will consider the place of advocacy in American anthropology in contrast to its role in the anthropological practice of colleagues in Latin America. We will also consider allegations that anthropologists and others working among the Yanomami gave a lower priority to threats to Yanomami well-being than to their own research schedules.

5. That anthropologists and others working with the Yanomami have not adequately addressed malnutrition, disease, and disorganization among them. The Task Force will consider ways in which standards of anthropological training and practice might be improved in order to address such concerns. In addition, the Task Force intends to include in its report a reaffirmation of support from the profession of anthropology for the right of access for all populations to the highest standards of medical care including vaccination and other best-practice public health measures.

6. That experiments involving the injection of radioactive iodine were carried out among the Yanomami without attention to the principles of informed consent then in effect. Here the Task Force will seek additional information in collaboration with colleagues in Venezuela.