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Yanomami Fatigue

I am stepping from the shadows. I will be silent no longer. Today I stand tall, hold my head high, and speak the truth to the tenured powers-that-be: I’m just not that interested in talking about the Yanomami anymore.

The debate is well-known. Patrick Tierney wrote “Darkness In El Dorado”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0393049221/102-6229466-0987309?v=glance, a book documenting the misconduct of various outsiders who visited the Yanomami in their hyperbolically ‘last unknown’ Amazonian rainforest home. He was particularly critical of James Neel (a geneticist) and Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot (anthropologists). The initial draft of the book circulated widely and drew a lot of criticism. By the time the book appeared in print Chagnon had been down-graded from a pathologically evil criminal to just a bad person who was a mediocre anthropologist guilty of ethical violations. There were great cries of condemnation, resulting in an inquiry undertaken by the AAA. There was the roundtable on the report. There was the draft report. There was “the final report”:http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/index.htm. There were the “many”:http://members.aol.com/archaeodog/darkness_in_el_dorado/index.htm “many”:http://www.tamu.edu/anthropology/Neel.html websites. There was “the book about the controversy”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0520244044/ref=pd_sim_b_5/102-6229466-0987309?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance. Then there was “the website about the book about the controversy”:http://www.publicanthropology.org/yanomami/main.php?module=root&page=login. Then some people didn’t like the report, so they wanted to have a referendum. So then there were the commentaries on the referendum. Then there was the “website on the commentaries to the referendum”:http://www.publicanthropology.org/forum/. And now, as Inside Higher Ed reports, “we finally had the vote on the referendum”:http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/05/23/anthro.

Is the Yanomami incident an important part of anthropology’s history that needs to be understood? Yes. Are there valuable lessons on research methods and ethics to learn from it? Absolutely. Am I looking forward to the commentaries on the referendum on the report from the recommendations from the committee on the allegations in the book? No.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. It’s just that I’ve got Yanomami fatigue.

But it is also more than that. Here are some reasons why I am not (even though I admit I ought to be) interested in talking even more about the Yanomami:

First, I’ve never read Napoleon Chagnon’s book about the Yanomami. I think I’m the only anthropologist who hasn’t. I think all of my teachers had figured out it wasn’t very good even before all the hullabaloo. Frankly, I had no idea he was American until the book came out. I thought he was a minor student of Louis Dumont. My bad.

Second, ‘recently contacted’ people are my stock in trade. I work in highlands Papua New Guinea with a group that was first contacted by the ‘outside world’ (as the Australian Government liked to style itself) in 1938-1939 and where there was no permanent government presence until the mid-1960s. I’ve talked with guys who can remember the first time they saw metal. I have an Amazonianist on my committee, and I’ve always been interesed in comparison between the two areas because of the similarities in their culture and history, but the Yanomami have never stood for ‘the last stone age people’ for me.

But thirdly and most importantly, the Yanomami controversy doesn’t speak to the issues that matter to me the most. At its root, it raises ethical questions about a world in which the people who anthropologists write about are not the people who read their books. On this side of the millennium, anthropologists have to deal with a situation in which they are answerable to their informants. Informed consent and scrupulous, fair research is still important of course. But my issues — and, I suspect, the issues of other graduate students entering the discipline these days — focus on what it means to take one’s research subjects as genuine interlocutors. We are increasingly faced with the demands for answerability that journalists, for instance, have had to grapple with for years. This is more than ‘collaborative research’ in one’s fieldsite — it is a question about relationships at all level. How do I, as a Jewish intellectual from California, teach ethnographies about ‘their own culture’ to my Native Hawaiian students? What are the appropriate “decolonizing methodologies”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1856496244/qid=1116905553/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-6229466-0987309? Why should they be interested in anything that anthropologists have anything to say anyway? What if (gasp!) there are people from your fieldsite who have a Ph.D. in anthropology? How much of anthropology’s authority is based on the fact that for decades and decades we were had a monopoly on writing about certain areas of the world? “Who owns native culture”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674011716/qid=1116906069/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-6229466-0987309?

I’m interested in these questions because I’m very optimistic about what anthropology can do and what it can teach people — I am not interested in ‘destabilizing’ anything (well, ok, sometimes — and then mostly just for kicks). I’m interested in critically examining the bases of my discipline to make sure that we as anthropologists put forward our best possible face when we stand up in public and speak with authority and mean it.

The Yanomami debate is important. It is interesting. It is relevant. But I have trouble mustering much enthusiasm anymore — at some level, I think the Yanomami controversy is one of the most important ethical debates of the last century, not the coming one.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Yanomami Fatigue

  1. Excellent posts here, I don’t have time now, but I will comment on this topic later…
    thanks so much..

  2. Sigh. Yes. But Yanomami fatigue is precisely what those members who feel that, well…you know what they feel, are counting on in their referendum. Democracy is nothing if not a royal pain in the ass most of the time.

  3. *applauds Steve*

    You know, I never read the book either. I did see the movie, but after the whole controversy had broken, and the prof was interested in using it to show the kinds of distortions that editing and interpretation can introduce.

    I agree we should be focusing on more important issues. It angers me that we can spend so much time on this issue, and not on issues like what OUR OWN ASSOCIATION did with the labor unions, and issues of what the actual purpose of the AAA is and how it can make contributions to anthropologists and to society in the present, and not something that happened fifty years ago.

    Chagnon came to speak at our school recently, sponsored by someone in the medical school (anthropology & geography would not have him). It was an appalling lecture, self-righteous, wrong in some of his facts (like he would have slides with data that said exactly what he was arguing against–and by slides I mean actual slides from the seventies). And the one prof (one of only three full profs in our department) who had the temerity to ask about the issues was silenced and brushed off.

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