- Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn From It
The Yanomami Controversy continues unabated in anthropological circles. In 2005 the American Anthropological Association voted to rescind its own earlier [End Page 660] report finding Napoleon Chagnon's actions during his fieldwork harmful to the Yanomami. This crisis came to a head after the publication of Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado (2000), a book addressing a controversy Chagnon stirred up when he accused the Salesian missionaries of hiring a Yanamamo "hit man" to kill him after he accused them of keeping him out of the Amazon after Brazilian miners slaughtered a number of Yanomami.
If all this sounds confusing, it is but the tip of the iceberg. The issues involved in the controversy strike at the very roots of anthropology itself and its obligation to those peoples whom it studies. The 1993 murder of sixteen Yanomami by Brazilian miners who were illegally in Yanomami territory in Venezuela helped bring many festering issues to the fore. Chagnon attempted to conduct his own investigation into the slaughter even though the Venezuelan government had banned him from the Amazon. The official investigating commission included the Bishop of Amazonas, now the Cardinal Archbishop of Caracas. This bishop stopped Chagnon from continuing his research. As he told me, he believes that Chagnon was tied up with a shady politician who wanted to join up with Chagnon in controlling the Yanomamo territory and its mineral resources. Moreover, he deems Chagnon's writings helped reinforce the image of the Yanomami as fierce, savage subhumans. In a letter to the New York Times, Chagnonleveled a number of charges against the Salesian missionaries, who responded in kind. Venezuelan anthropologists, Yanomami and others joined in the fray. A number of American anthropologists were not far behind. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that the Salesians asked me to investigate the charges. I did so and organized a session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and published the transcript of that session. That session revealed the deep chasm within the profession regarding Chagnon's research as well as feelings regarding his responsibility for the depiction of the Yanomamo as "savage" and "fierce." The explosive nature of the occasion is captured in the transcript, and the shaky peace between the Salesians and Chagnon resulting from the meetings did not last very long.
In Darkness in El Dorado, Tierney stirred up further ire against Chagnon, raising serious charges about, for example, why an anthropologist would work for the Atomic Energy Commission and the ethics of his research. Unfortunately, Tierney made a serious error in charging Chagnon with complicity in the cause of the measles epidemic that took so many lives among the Yanomami. This erroneous accusation gave Chagnon's supporters an opportunity to brand all his charges as tainted. They are not and Borofsky's book does a good deal to clarify the major issues, scrupulously presenting a clear and reasoned examination of the material, the commissions, the AAA report, debates, letters, and so forth. If an author happens to quote or interview me, I tend to judge her or his accuracy by how faithful the quote or interview is to what I have said. Tierney accurately quoted my work. So does Borofsky. I was a bit surprised when he quoted me accurately regarding Yanomami's positive response to military presence and then chided me for not warning them of the dangers of such presence. He is confusing ethnography with [End Page 661] advocacy here. I, too, share his concern for military presence. However, would he have the under-armed Yanomami wage war on the miners who invade their area? I simply reported, not advocated.
That aside, I find Borofsky generally fair, certainly clear in his presentation, and easy to follow. Students will find this work a clear record of events, events that are still unfolding. To play advocate, I believe the AAA must live up to the...