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Historic conference lets Yanomami voice be heard

ITHACA, N.Y. ? Yanomami elders and tribal leaders brought their struggle from the Amazon to Cornell University as part of the 'Tragedy in the Amazon: Yanomami Voices, Academic Controversy and the Ethics of Research' conference April 5 to 7.

The conference marked the historic first meeting of Yanomami elders from Brazil and Venezuela. Tato Yanomami, headman of the Yanomami community of Tootobi, Brazil, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, leader of the Yanomami community of Demini, Brazil and Jos? Seripino Ianomami of the Association of Yanomami Cooperatives of the Upper Orinoco, Venezuela were the keynote speakers of the forum. Their talks focused on Yanomami efforts to repatriate blood samples they said were unethically obtained from them by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the late geneticist James Neel in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Through an often complex translation process that involved Yanomami, Portuguese, Spanish and eventually English, the Yanomami stated their case for the repatriation of the blood samples. They charge Chagnon and Neel surreptitiously obtained them on the pretense that the samples were part of a treatment program for a measles epidemic in the Amazon during 1968. The tribesmen received no accounting for the samples until 2001, when it came to light that the Yanomami blood had been used in testing of radioactive isotopes and, according to one report in Native Americas magazine, in the Human Genome Project.

'We have come here over concern of the issue of the blood and to ask you to help us, to support us, in this concern,' said Tato. 'The people who came to our village [Chagnon and Neel] took our blood and did not explain anything to us. We know that the blood is here [in the United States] and we thought that the whites had already destroyed it ? then we found that it's still here and need your help to take it back.'

He added that the people from whom the samples were taken have since died and it is important for religious and cultural reasons that the blood returns to the Yanomami.

It is taboo for the Yanomami to say the names of the dead family members to whom the samples belonged and special care was taken to respect this practice in all commentary.

'This blood represents the blood of 'Omam', our creator. These people have died, but the Yanomami never forget. We want to take this blood back with us on this trip,' said Tato. 'I don't want to go home empty-handed.'

'I am very concerned over this problem of the blood,' said Davi. 'This blood I think was taken from us without the permission of the Brazilian government and without Yanomami permission because our blood is so healthy and they brought it here to study it. We lead a very healthy life and that is why they wanted Yanomami blood.'

Davi, also a highly respected shaman and spokesperson for the Yanomami, shared Tato's cultural and religious view of the blood samples. Davi said that his blood was taken, as was that of his late mother, without an understanding of what was going to be done with it. He added that it is not a Yanomami practice to store blood and the concept was repugnant and alien to them.

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'White people can take their blood and play with it, but they can't play with Yanomami blood ? and it's living blood. The blood they brought here represents Yanomami life and they can't store it in a freezer for a long time,' said Davi. 'That blood belongs to the Yanomami, you can't buy it or sell it, then lie about it.'

He said the blood samples had become a matter of spiritual concern for the Yanomami that was detracting from their struggle for survival against gold miners, ranchers, failing health, inadequate educational opportunities and the destruction of the rainforest. Davi said he needed the conference attendees to deal with American authorities to secure the samples.

'We are all part of the earth. What we want to do is return the blood to the rivers. We want to return the blood to where it came from,' said Davi of his people's values, which are considered to be very similar to the belief systems of North American Indians. 'Our shamans protect the earth, they protect the sky and our spirits are telling them we are in danger.'

Jos? Seripino said the highest priority for his Venezuelan communities was to improve their health and treatment programs. He said the national health institutions were recently invited to a national conference of the Yanomami of Venezuela and asked them how the tribe could improve the health of its members. Seripino also placed considerable prominence on improving Yanomami educational opportunities in Venezuela.

'You people, you go to school. You get degrees ... anthropologists, doctors. We want the same for us,' said Seripino. 'We want a better education ... we need better opportunities.'

Concerning the return of the blood samples, Seripino said the Yanomami of Venezuela had not reached a decision on how best to address the situation. He said that it would be necessary in Amazonas, the Venezuela state where the Yanomami live, to hold an assembly of leaders and elders to decide what to do about the blood. Seripino suggested that one possible solution might be to bring the Venezuelan Yanomami elders to the United States, have the blood destroyed here and seek some sort of compensation to benefit health and educational initiatives.

'I get the impression that Yanomami voice has not been heard here before and now it has and that is important and I thank you very much,' he said.

Terence Turner, professor of anthropology at Cornell University, ardent supporter of the Yanomami and one of the conference's key organizers, intervened to prevent anything from being made of an apparent 'disagreement' amongst Yanomami about the disposition of the blood samples.

He stressed first that Jos? Seripino was not in a position to represent the Yanomami people of Venezuela because its elders had not yet met to determine whether or not the samples should be destroyed or to consider the matter of compensation. Turner said the blood might well be used as leverage for health-care funds, but that once again this was dependent on reaching a consensus amongst the Yanomami of Venezuela.