Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
The Political Uses of Ethnographic Description
Chagnon's publication of "Blood Revenge" created a furor in the Brazilian anthropological community and elsewhere. Some of the criticism was the standard scientific sort dealing with methods, analysis, and interpretation (Albert, 1989; Ferguson, 1989). But the most sensational criticism was an accusation of ethical malfeasance. The Association of Brazilian Anthropologists claimed that Chagnon's portrayal of Yanomamö violence served as a critical rationale for Brazilian government officials to develop a plan to partition the Yanomamö area into 21 separate parcels as an initial stage to permit gold miners and other economic interests to infiltrate the interstices and ultimately to invade Yanomamö land. That is, Chagnon's descriptions of the Yanomamö as warlike are employed to justify the taking of Yanomamö lands. I believe it useful to examine this issue in some detail because it goes to the heart of what ethnographers should do: provide accurate and empirically grounded accounts of the behavior, values, and beliefs of others. Traditionally those others are indigenous populations who have an precarious relation with the states who forcefully attempt to incorporate them into their governmental sphere. Whatever power anthropologists have is founded on the explicit belief that we provide accurate information. If we stray from this obligation we will be dismissed as ordinary political actors who distort reality to promote their political aims. I believe too that we have an obligation to ensure that what we produce is not used by others to harm the people we study and, if necessary, to engage in political action to defend injustices meted to those we study. As I will later note, this ethical precept is difficult to accomplish because superficial differences between "us" and "them" are manifold and can always be employed to bolster ethnocentric rationales designed justify immoral courses of action.
A major theme of Darkness in El Dorado is that Chagnon's actions in the field and research publications on the Yanomamö has either directly harmed them or provided a necessary propagandistic rationale for government officials and economic and military interests to destroy the Yanomamö. On page (p. 176) Tierney quotes a public memo sent by president of the Association of Brazilian Anthropology Maria Manuela Carneiro da Cunha (1988) addressed to the Committee on Ethics of the American Anthropological Association and to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science magazine).
Thus, less than a year after the Time Magazine piece came out, top level officials of the Brazilian Indian Service (FUNAI) referred to the Yanomami "violence" as sufficient justification for a plan to cut up their lands into 21 micro-reserves that were to be surrounded by corridors for the installation of regional economic projects, a plan that was intended to put an end to the aggressive practices of the Indians".
This is extraordinarily weak evidence to underwrite a claim that Chagnon's Science publication led to the FUNAI action. The Time Magazine piece does report on Chagnon's Science article but from the information given above there is no evidence that the unnamed FUNAI official was swayed by Chagnon's account. Given the numerous accounts of Yanomamö violence prior and after the action how are we to know which allegedly inspired the statement? Are we expected to believe that prior to Chagnon's publication in Science officials at FUNAI were ignorant of traditional Yanomamö warfare even though it has been systematically documented by modern ethnographers other than Chagnon in Brazil (Albert, 1985; Peters, 1999;) and in Venezuela (Barker, 1961; Lizot, 1976, 1977) as well as the earliest explorers to the area (Humboldt, 1967 :294-295; Koch Gruenberg, 1990? For example, on numerous pages Koch-Grunberg (1990: 167, 182, 188, 205, 212, 214, and 289) describes how neighboring groups such as the Ye'kwana lived in fear of the Yanomamö because of their propensity to raid. In one instance upon meeting a Yanomamö in Moromoto he characterized him as "un tipo feroz" (a fierce type of person) (1990:212).
This is not to say that the unnamed FUNAI official did not or could not have employed Chagnon's Science article to rationalize bureacratic desires to divide and control Yanomamö land. Nevertheless, everything we know about state actions against indigenous populations in the New World tells us that whenever it is in the interests (or more properly, in the interests of those who use the state to advance their interests) and power of the state to expropriate indigenous land or subjugate its people they will do so independent of the cultural traditions of those people. Throughout most of their history the Yanomamö have had little direct contact with outsiders. Consequently, they are little acculturated and are numerous in comparison to other native peoples in the region who have suffered the devastating consequences of contact. In the case of Brazilian Yanomamö, this relative isolation has been breached as roads are constructed on the southern periphery and gold miners construct illegal airfields in the heart of Yanomamö territory. I believe that most agree that the fundamental causes of the invasion are the consequences of the Brazilian government's desire to exploit the recently discovered riches of the area mapped by remote surveys and then actuated by the construction of the Trans Amazon road system, the Calha Norte Project, and other development schemes all aided and abetted by FUNAI, a chronically corrupt (At the higher levels. Many rank-and-file workers genuinley care for indigenous peoples.) federal bureaucracy formed to protect Brazilian native peoples. That still leaves open the question of whether elements of the image created by Chagnon's portrayals has worked against the Yanomamö.
Alcida Ramos (1998:46) , in her useful and comprehensive monograph on the politics of indigenous rights in Brazil, says the following:Although anthropology may be the major source about the primitive, it should by no means be held responsible for the political use and abuse as the notion of Indians as primitive, as something of the past that should be eradicated.
This statement strikes me as curious because Ramos, along with Bruce Albert, both of whom are Yanomamö ethnographers, were instrumental in drafting the ABA denunciation of Chagnon. I can devise no clear way to resolve this contradiction. Perhaps it is the case that Chagnon has not attempted to combat the evil uses to which his portrayals have been put? An examination of recent editions of his ethnography suggests that this is not the case and presents the reader with compelling evidence that the opposite is true. In the fourth edition of Yanomamö (1992) he dropped the subtitle The Fierce People in part because "government officials in, for example, Brazil, might try to justify oppressive policies against them on the argument that they are 'fierce' and, therefore, 'animal-like'." (xii). In that same edition, Chagnon expunged considerable information on infanticide because of concerns about how such data could be used against the Yanomamö. In footnote 9 on page 93 he notes he has ceased to publish information on Yanomamö infanticide because he was asked by a government official to file a notarized affidavit in the Venezuelan congressional record on infanticide. He did so and claimed that he had never seen an infanticide among the Yanomamö. In the third edition of Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1983) he added a section in the final chapter entitled "Balancing the Image of Fierceness" in which he states that his focus on warfare was a consequence it the topic being poorly described ethnographically and he had the opportunity to document it among a still sovereign people. Finally, the final chapter in editions four and five have grown significantly is size through his documentation of the threats to Venezuelan and Brazilian Yanomamö. I believe these changes and other publications demonstrate that Chagnon is acutely aware of the misuse of his ethnographic descriptions and his attempts to combat this problem.
No matter what precautions ethnographers take to qualify or even sanitize their ethnographic accounts of indigenous populations such accounts can always be used against them. At the same time, I would emphasize that such accounts are insignificant explanations of why governments and other powerful interests seek to destroy indigenous peoples. Those who believe such accounts do play a significant role reason in the following way. Enemies of Yanomamö self-determination claim that the Yanomamö are so warlike that outsiders must step in and take control, or that because some Yanomamö engage in chronic warfare they do not deserve rights to their land because they do not behave in a civilized fashion and are undeserving of self-determination. As mentioned previously, I do not doubt that some governmental official or general some where made the statement in order to rationalize the expropriation or greater control of Yanomamö land by non-Yanomamö.
Belief that government officials are swayed by ethnographic reports rests on a number of assumption that I believe are faulty. It first assumes that generals and others not only read scientific reports on indigenous peoples but such reports affect their decision making processes. By implication it means that if the Yanomamö were described as peaceful then military and economic interests would be inhibited from taking indigenous land because they could not rationalize control, partitioning, or seizure of Yanomamö land. I believe this to be wrong on two counts. First, internal colonialists will seize on any thing that differentiates them from the other. This is the simple use of ethnocentrism for political and economic ends. Historically in the New World not being Christian was used by the conquistadors to rationalize the reduction, enslavement, decimation, or expropriation of native peoples or their land (for the Brazilian case see Hemming 1978 and Chapter 2 in Ramos, 1998). Anthropologists as objective describers of the people they study are bound to create a large list of potential cultural differentiators that contrast indigenous peoples with their potential conquerors. Differentiating practices such as shamanism, socially approved use of powerful hallucinogens, polygyny, and mortuary endo-cannibalism powerfully clash with values held by state peoples (but perhaps not followed) such that any of them could serve as a rationalization for divesting native peoples of self-determination. If the research model proposed by those who truly believe that knowledge of native peoples will be used against them is followed, then the only thing one could describe would be values and patterns of behavior which are identical to conquerors.
Furthermore, the ethnographer faces a constantly moving target about which cultural traits may be viewed as unsavory by his or her readership. Ethnocentric standards change through time. For example, in the first edition of The Isthmus Zapotecs Beverly Chinas did not present information on Zapotec sex/gender variants "because it did not seem to me that I could present such materials to the then homophobic United States so that they could understand and accept it as part of every day Isthmus Zapotec culture." (Chinas, 1992:3, 2nd edition). Now she feels that her readership is not so homophobic and the information is presented. One could argue (but I would not) that delaying the publication of information Zapotec sex/gender variants and how it harmoniously meshes with their culture was counterproductive: in the struggle for sexual civil rights we need examples of cultures of tolerance. But once we publish something how do we know that at some time in the future that practice will not be condemned and then be used against the people we have studied?
Second, I would argue that even positive or benign portrayal of native peoples do not prevent their annihilation at the hands of conquerors. The foraging San or !Kung of Botswana have been characterized by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as the "harmless people" (1958), a people who lack indigenous patterns of warfare (Lee, 1979). In many ways the San are stereotypically diametrical opposites of the "fierce people". Anyone remotely familiar with the San knows they have had a long history of violent confrontation with outsiders who enslaved and conscripted them and have steadily reduced their lands and most recently, in the name of conservation and economic development, have denied them the right to hunt in their traditional areas (Hitchcock, 1996). Today, San who hunt in their traditional areas with or without a game license are fined, beaten, and killed by game scouts. Rousseauian characterizations have not helped the San. For me the reason is obvious: powerful interests pay no attention to our characterizations of indigenous peoples unless it is in their interests to do so. And even when they do use of such characterizations are a post hoc rationalization of what they already had planned to do.
Negative portrayals of indigenous peoples are of concern to non-governmental organizations because they believe it has negative consequences for their ability to raise money in order to defend the interests of the Yanomamö and other indigenous peoples. Recently David Maybury-Lewis, president of Cultural Survival, one of the most important NGO's defending indigenous rights, states this position clearly.
The ways in which anthropologists portray the societies they study have consequences, sometimes serious consequences in the real world. Indigenous societies have all too often been maligned in the past, denigrated as savages and marginalized at the edges of the modern world and the modern societies in it. (http://www.cs.org/yanomami.htm).
In order to attract contributors to the cause of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, ethnic groups must be somehow portrayed as deserving of protection by documenting wrongs done to them and/or demonstrating them as noble people. Both of these tactics depend on eliciting cultural values held by non-indigenous donors about what constitutes virtuous cultural traits (conservation, democracy, local-level directed development, political justice, and sexual equality, just to name a few). Obviously, donors are going to be reluctant to help a people characterized as warlike, sexist, and despoilers of the environment even if they are the objects of predation by governmental or economic interests. An even more extreme statement of this view comes from Darrel Posey, an Amazonian researcher who has actively defended Brazilian Kayapo land rights. He states "...any evidence of unsound ecological activities by indigenous and traditional peoples undermines their basic rights to land, resources, and cultural practice" (cited in Ridley, 1996:217). The fundamental message here is that indigenous peoples deserve our help only to the degree that they are like us or, more to the point, are like what we would want to become. Before I deal with this issue I would like to make it clear that I believe that NGO's do vital work that should be supported because they make an important positive difference in the lives of exploited indigenous peoples. Indeed, John Saffiro and I sought out Cultural Survival as a place to publish our account of the terrible consequence of road building on the Yanomamö (Saffirio and Hames, 1983).
At the same time, I believe it fundamentally wrong to paint false pictures of native peoples even if the goal is noble. The problem is that in the long run you will be eventually found out and you will loose credibility. Consequently, your ability to intervene and help will be compromised. As I have argued elsewhere on Amazonian conservation (Hames, 1991:193), indigenous peoples have a prior fundamental and inalienable right to self-determination and their ancestral land. Although they may have values and practices that differ sharply from our own, their human rights are independent of this. NGO's should encourage donors to respect the cultural practices of others and, at the same time, go about their important task of convincing donors and governments about threats to self-determination. When that battle is won, or while it is being fought, one can attempt to convince all people of the benefits of fundamental human rights that have yet to be adequately achieved in any society.
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