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Yanomami challenge anthropology, demand blood samples back

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Three Yanomami leaders were in Indian country in early April, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for a parley with highly placed academics and human-rights researchers. Two Yanomami from Brazil and one from Venezuela actually met together for the first time after several generations of enforced separation by an international border.

The cream of pro-Indian activist anthropology, including elder professor Dr. David Maybury-Lewis of Cultural Survival and other important players of the movement, such as Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, heard the admonitions and premonitions of the three Yanomami leaders. Author Patrick Tierney, whose revealing investigatory book, Darkness at El Dorado, blew the lid on horrendous treatment of the Yanomami by anthropologists, also attended. They all addressed the reason for the meeting, the objectionable behavior of controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who ushered into the Amazonian territory a major blood-sampling campaign that extracted thousands of vials of Yanomami blood, and other tissues, later deposited in universities and other institutional collections in the United States.

The Yanomami want their blood back. In their tradition, the blood of dead relatives "should be properly destroyed." The ones from Brazil are ready with a ceremony for such a return; the Venezuelan villages have yet to meet, but will, on the issue of what to do with the blood and other biological samples taken over the past 30 years. At least one collection, held at Penn State, is available for return. The curators at Penn State understand major violations took place in the gathering of the material. The Yanomami were seen in the 1960s and right up to the 1990s, as exploitable subjects. It was as if those types of researchers felt that a deep forest people could never emerge into their own countries or even out of their countries to challenge their treatment.

The three leaders spoke of Chagnon and other blood-takers as very bad memories. They were given machetes and pots for their blood, and told it would be analyzed for "little animals that are hurting your health." It was a lie. No application that had any health impact came out of any of it. The worse of it was the vilification of their culture and people, they said. Chagnon "writes about us as the fierce people," said Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a shaman and leader from Brazil. Kopenawa and his companion, Toto Yanomami, spoke lengthily in their own Yanomami language and later translated to Portuguese and English.

"But we are not fierce people," the Yanomami emphasized. The Yanomami leaders delivered a message of guardianship and harmony with the forest and the earth. "How are you going to eat, if you destroy the Earth?" Toto asked, "If you cut down the forest, where will you get your medicines?" Said Davi Kopenawa: "Mostly we like to laugh and to feel good and feel happy. Chagnon only saw one thing, what he wanted. Chagnon is the fierce one, he is."

Chagnon is the poster boy for poor research ethics, the one whose tactics all good anthropologists should want to question and censure. Tierney documents the bulk of it in his controversial book, which has American anthropology upside down. It was Chagnon who bargained, under bad pretenses, for blood, and forbidden information around dead peoples' names; the one who seemed to introduce diseases wherever he traveled; who manufactured a movie that led to hostilities between villages. Not a few Yanomami chiefs and warriors have promised to apprehend Chagnon if he ever enters their territory again.

The image of fierceness created by Chagnon's widely used work, Yanomam?: the Fierce People, has cost the Yanomami dearly. Meeting Chagnon was in many ways like meeting a new man, a 20th Century Columbus. Later, as Yanomami leaders began to act on their own behalf in political affairs, Chagnon attacked them as puppets of the anthropologists and of Indian support groups. He accused the support groups of being "communists, " basically insisting that there was no helping the Yanomami. Thankfully, the Yanomami have gathered some good allies, in Brazil, Venezuela, Europe and the United States. They have won some victories; lost a few.

Their world has changed a great deal already. They are still facing epidemics that can be greatly helped, with more serious assistance. (A ten-year fund for Yanomami health, from a group of resource-wealthy American Indian nations, would be great to see.) They have begun to educate a few dozen of their young people. They are now traveling and representing themselves. They are looking for help in designing a good way to interact with "the white people." Contemptuous researchers and scholars such as Chagnon really do disservice to their professions. It is good to see the Yanomami, deep forest Indians, be able to throw on a coat and hat and fly to the United States to represent themselves.

These are obviously serious people. They were honest about their priorities. The "blood issue" was uncomfortable for them. It reminds them of a bad time, when many of their people died. As Davi said, "The blood we should take care of so we can go on to other things that concern our villages." All three leaders spoke concern for the whole of their peoples. Their main issues are the day to day health problems of the present Yanomami population. They are a strong population who want to get well again, Davi said.

Once, Chagnon and his type of academic researcher may have thought that their Indian subjects would never be able to travel and enter their world and be able to recount and reveal the record of their behavior in distant lands. This is no longer true. Proper treatment, relations and covenants with communities are necessary prerequisites for cultural and social exchange to take place.