Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
John F. Peters
The roundtable discussions have created glowing heat, and at the same time show considerable agreement. In Hill’s words, later affirmed by Albert, this common ground is, unequivocally, that, "the health and welfare of the study population must always take precedence over our academic goals".
The dialogue has been rich, stimulating, helpful, and a bit creative. While more than three decades have passed since the first published Yanomami research, we come closer to 20/20 vision, but have not yet achieved it. The roundtable discussions have not only addressed ethical matters, but penetrated some areas of challenge to the discipline and to social science. This challenge captures my attention the most. If we wish to incorporate the ideas and proposals, it will require a bit of redirection. This will alter our orientation toward field work, impacting researcher as well as academic and sponsoring institutions.
This dialogue of three rounds shows that each make different interpretations and choose spheres of discussion we consider significant. Other areas are unimportant to one, but prime for another colleague. Our struggle to hear and be heard, with tolerance for the others’ perspective, without being political or defensive, is a stringent exercise. Imagine this forum if the participants in the dialogue had a wider representation of cultural diversity, including Yanomami!
On a research level, it appears that in the field we have an intense exposure to a vastly different culture, then transfer back to our domain of western academia which is swamped in a culture of privilege, comfort, elitism, consumerism, power manipulation, technology, nationhood, and individualism. (The people and culture in our field of study have some of these characteristics as well.) We seek to survive in our home milieu, and often readily forget the more earthy and common sense aspects in the social life where we did our field work. (I have friends in the academic community who avoid visiting people in the south because they fear the impact this exposure would have upon them.) Martin (roundtable 2) reminds us again of the stratospheric gap between our academic culture and the Yanomami. It would be appropriate now to initiate similar discussions of researcher and practice in the anthropologist’s field of study where the perceived distance is not that vast, such as in Bosnia, China and Columbia. The gap is still significant and worthy of careful consideration.
Serendipitously, the dialogue has stretched some of our previously held Yanomami ethnographic and historical understandings. We now realize the centrality of gift giving, peoples’ names, relationships with the deceased, and something more of their sphere of the spirit world. (I still contend that while research on the Yanomami spirit world has been documented, we do not fully comprehend its pervasiveness and depth.)
The ethics of Neel’s medical work, teamed with Chagnon, is thoroughly discussed by Hill, Turner and Albert. I feel uncomfortable in this exhaustive discussion because much of the initial activity relating to medical research of 1968 goes beyond the pale of anthropology. We might learn from investigating the code of ethics and problematics encountered by international medical research bodies. Hill and Albert have indicated some appropriate sources. AAA might take its recommendations, meet with medical counterparts and apply the principles deemed appropriate from such an exchange.
Should AAA have responded more aggressively twenty years ago in addressing Chagnon’s research? Grey areas were evident. Some issues were discussed at AAA annual meetings. The concerns of colleagues could have stimulated much more debate on ethics and been in print. I am in agreement with Martin, that Chagnon could have made efforts to squelch media reports which unfairly affect the Yanomami. Colleagues have access to the media, to challenge their foibles, as Hill has indicated. I do not feel AAA’s mission is to serve as a police agency, nor to scrutinize an anthropologist’s research on a "pass-fail" basis.
But what of the AAA in a judgmental role toward nations? What are the boundaries of when to raise a voice and when to remain silent? Why single out study A or nation X and avoid situation B and nation Y? Furthermore, it is somewhat presumptuous to expect a foreign country, such as Cambodia, Benin, Iran or ... to heed a reprimand from an American academic body. A well respected international academic body, with membership from within the country under scrutiny, would carry much more legitimacy.
I stand with Hill in muting Albert’s zeal to have the Yanomami gain from the blood slides currently held in America. Our practice of litigation for every aspect of wrong-doing is an unacceptable model, and in particular for less privileged peoples. In this statement I am not compromising indigenous peoples’ land claims.
Turner and Albert focus concern toward health needs for the people in the field of study. Hill tempers this position, placing direct responsibility upon governments, in this case, Brazil and Venezuela. Researchers might do all they medically can, given their resources, even at their inconvenience. At the same time the nation has responsibility. We need to bear in mind, that as in our own nation, medical resources are unequally distributed, and would similarly be limited in the hinterland of any nation in the south.
There is another matter of cross-cultural behaviour in health care, a matter with far reaching implications. Our discussions prod me to comment on western treatment of the sick and dying in another culture. In the absence of western practices of medicine, traditional beliefs of health have been operational for centuries among the Yanomami . Some of these may not be good health practices. I identify such areas as conception, reproduction, sanitation, and methods of healing, which include shamanic practices. Western ideology and practice is vastly different from that of indigenous societies. In general, in matters of life over death, the westerner usurps his cultural values, and uses his method. This method of treatment has developed out of rational thought and careful and costly research which has proven successful for many maladies. It is easy to see that the use of injections (the needle) and blood and stool sampling is intrusive, as Albert has shown. Yanomami know the first two items to be very serious and the latter extremely humorous.
Diseases foreign to the culture, such as measles, tuberculosis, and new strains of malaria enter, and immediately even more radical intrusion is exercised. There is no time to negotiate and ponder cultural norms and misunderstandings. Add to the blood sampling and injections, rigour in exact time-sequenced pill consumption, some of which are big and bitter, air flights to Boa Vista or a larger city more distant, and lengthy absences from Yanomami people and the forest environment. AIDS is only a hair breath away from the Yanomami. The Casa dos Indios in Boa Vista is a centre where patients and relatives hang out for weeks and months. These contacts have helped build wider Yanomami solidarity. Romances between individuals in disparate villages have been initiated here, resulting in later migration and new alliances. Are such radical means of health care negotiable? Such practices have saved human life. But they have also been intrusive to the culture. Do we really know what we are doing? Anthropologists do not administer such medical assistance, but we operate in societies where the above description was true for the Yanomami from the fifties to the seventies. This is not a statement of condemnation, but an area where cultural disruption takes place, which we deem as acceptable. Such activity is rarely critiqued. Cultural practices have been altered and new forms have been adopted by the Yanomami.
I never did say, nor do I believe that Albert or Ramos or Taylor take the position that Yanomami should go back to their life ways pre 1957: loin cloths and the absence of salt from their diet. However, I gave an illustration of a statement from a headman who has participated in NGO activity. I presented this headman’s perception which I recognize not to be in sync with the NGO’s intentions. Perceptions often lead to action.
I do hope we have been sensitized to the degree of power anthropologists have, along with NGOs, entrepreneurs, government agents, health care services and missionaries. Each would do well to scrutinize their own behaviour and ideology, and seek some dialogue and understanding of the other, and work toward cooperation. Though with good intention, no one organization addresses all the multi complex needs of the Yanomami in this millennium.
Obtaining informed consent is complex. Even Hames’ helpful illustration of using terminology in comprehendible terms for indigenous peoples allows considerable latitude for the researcher’s manipulation and interpretation. We adjust our words, depending upon the audience. One segment of the population may agree to the study, while another may not. In the name of democracy, what group gets "our ear"? In many cases the researcher is not aware of the full implications the research project will have during and after the researcher’s presence. There is risk.
Researchers in the field encounter the self interests of groups, whether they be subordinate or superordinate. Hill’s examples with the Ache is enlightening. Some seeming expedient temporary deviations from truth made by the foreign researcher may have serious short and long term consequences in the future ambitions of the researcher. I’ll stick to truth. In another culture I may not know the full consequences of such action.
Albert and Hill are critical of the actions of missionaries. Hill recognizes the "us" and "them" distinction practised by missionaries, which I agree to. I endorse a critical evaluation by missionaries of their enterprise, and their work done in recent decades. This critique, as Hill states, could also include the institutions now administered by local people. Competition with other agencies and territorial positioning could also be critiqued. It would be beneficial if anthropologists would give evidence of constructive and culturally sensitive work done by missionaries. It would be helpful to report some satisfying dialogue which has occurred between missionary and anthropologist. (Christian institutions of higher education, of which there are many in the United States, often have an AAA member teach classes to students who anticipate going abroad. If one does not see a direct positive relation between these students and their practise in the south, we are in deep trouble!)
While I have high respect and friendships with the Yanomami, my research will not exclude the destructive aspects of the culture. Hill and Hames make the point that as anthropologists we err in presenting only a perfect or near perfect culture. Among the Yanomami specific areas omitted in research and publications have been identified. The status of women continues to be suppressed by the patriarchal structure. I include aspects of shamanism as a further area of critique, because I know that black magic is used to maim or "kill" a disliked person in another village. Traditional beliefs and practices of power and revenge are not constructive among the Yanomami. The two murders in February of this year are a blatant example. To my knowledge these are the first adult cases of homicide between Yanomami at Mucajai in the past 45 years.
Good research is a challenging enterprise. Status differentiation is shifting among the Yanomami. The aged have less prestige and a few younger males who know the ways and language of the Brazil or Venezuelan now have status, (and possibly the only motor driven canoe in the village). There are gate keepers, authoritative peoples and/or groupings, and powerful persons who manipulate and control, and may not speak for the wider community. This creates an additional dilemma for the western anthropologist in a foreign culture.
This dialogue shows consensus for a greater sensitivity on the part of the researcher, both during the research period as well as after. This covers two areas: a. actions while on the field, and, b. some forms of moral and possibly material assistance in the months and years after we have done our research. Indigenous people have helped us in our academic careers, and we can reciprocate. Such behaviour would impact a future generation of students, as well as global relationships in a meaningful, constructive and more equitable manner.
The goal of achieving a fair society, as chosen by the Yanomami within a Brazilian or Venezuelan context is not simple. While roundtable members show agreement on their right to land and resources, as well as to medical care, the process and inclusion of other matters will vary.
This dialogue, stimulated by cross-cultural activity of human research by westerners among one South America tribe over a 35 year period, has forced us to not only look at ethics, but also other horizons such as science, methodology, justice and cross-cultural relations. Let the dialogue and action continue.
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