March 30, 2013

An Ax to Grind: Napoleon Chagnon, the Yanomami and the anthropology tribe

I felt like I had walked right into one of the Napoleon Chagnon/Timothy Asch Yanomami films. At one end of the circular village enclosure, a shouting match had erupted between two Yanomami women. As the argument continued, a crowd began to gather divided among two opposing groups, one around each woman: a sketch-picture, like one of Chagnon's genealogy diagrams, of the social tensions and kinship alliances in the village. Towards the other end of the village enclosure (known as shabono in Yanomami) more people watched from a distance, whether waiting to take sides or just spectating, I couldn't tell. There was an electric crackle of tension in the air, so different from the calm rhythm of village life that had reigned up to that moment.


I am admittedly no Yanomami expert; on the contrary, this was my first, and so far only visit to the group. But having read Chagnon's once-popular textbook ethnography, The Yanomamö (originally subtitled, "The Fierce People") and having seen and taught his film, "The Ax Fight," several times, I was struck with a remarkable sense of déja-vu: that film also involves a verbal duel between women that escalates into full-fledged physical combat between two men. As I watched the unfolding drama in the shabono, the shouting continued and a few men towards the back of the opposing groups peeled away from the crowd and returned to stand at attention, gripping long, sturdy tree saplings: the same style of dueling clubs seen in the film made 30 years prior.

It was April of 2004 and I was taking part in a large Brazilian scientific expedition to the Yanomami village at Marari, inside the vast binational Yanomami indigenous reserve just across the Venezuelan border from the region where Napoleon Chagnon had worked decades earlier. In fact, Venezuelan Yanomami from the group "Shaki" (Chagnon's Yanomami name) once studied had recently visited Marari. The controversy surrounding Patrick Tierney's book, Darkness in El Doradopublished in 2000, accusing Chagnon and other scientists of misconduct and even genocide, was still roiling the anthropological and indigenous rights communities in the U.S. and South America, although the Yanomami at Marari had no idea about the international scandal that was unfolding in their name.

Ricardo, a Brazilian Protestant missionary who was assisting the scientific team and who has worked with the Yanomami for over 25 years -- apparently becoming in the process more Yanomami than the Yanomami have become Christian -- told me to run and get my camera.

"There's going to be a fight," he said. Then he turned to leave.

"Aren't you going to stay?" I asked.

"Nah, happens all the time. You stay, you're an anthropologist, should be interesting. Call me if anyone gets hurt."

But no one got hurt. Instead, the shouting subsided, the momentary tension dissipated together with the crowd, the men discreetly put away their clubs and the village returned to normal: the public spectacle of a Yanomami duel is as much about containing violence as engaging in it.

Weapon and art: Decorating an arrow point, Marari, 2004

What no one remembers about "The Ax Fight" is that there is no ax fight in "The Ax Fight." The sharp edge of the ax, though raised in the climax of the film, is quickly turned around to the blunt side and never deployed, defusing what could have been a lethal turn to the explosive but highly ritualized stick-duel that Timothy Asch captured on film. I guess "The Stick Fight" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Another thing to remember about "The Ax Fight" is that exactly one month after it was filmed on the last day of February in 1971, Second Lieutenant William Calley of the U.S. Army was found guilty for his participation in the massacre of some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai three years prior. U.S. casualties in Vietnam up to 1971 surpassed 45,000 (one and a half times the current Yanomami population) and total Vietnamese casualties of that war will never be known, though the number is likely over 5 million.

So much for "The Fierce People."

In the aftermath of the dramatic scene at the shabono, I asked Lourenço, my Yanomami guide and translator, what the argument had been about. He said that the younger woman's husband was an apprentice shaman, and she was accusing the older woman's husband of bewitching her own spouse during an all-night shamanic session the evening before. In another Chagnon/Asch déja-vu, I observed groups of Yanomami men almost daily consuming copious amounts of hallucinogenic Virola snuff in the center of the village, engaging in spectacular chants, dances and curing ceremonies that had changed remarkably little in the three decades since the 1973 film "Magical Death" was made.

An apprentice shaman in epena trance, Marari, 2004
As portrayed in "Magical Death," sorcery remains an important preoccupation in Yanomami concepts about illness and an ongoing cause of social tensions. Lourenço explained that the novice shaman had fainted while helping the crew of scientists carry supplies to our camp in the foothills of the granite mountain of Xerawa. He pointed out the young man and I recognized him from the long slog up the hill earlier that day. I immediately suspected an alternative explanation for his fainting spell: the unfortunate apprentice, after a hallucinogen-fueled shamanic all-nighter, had carried a 50-pound drum full of alkaline batteries up the long rugged slope. I had carried the same drum of batteries around a waterfall and nearly fainted myself.

And this brings us to another feature of indigenous warfare that is often overlooked: whatever traditional patterns of rivalry, conflict and violence existed in the distant past, contact with European societies, economies and diseases has tended to make things worse. Chagnon describes his own material negotiations with Yanomami chiefs involving row upon row of steel tools and other trade goods laid out as a kind of fieldwork dowry. One wonders whether the famous ax of the eponymous film might not have been supplied by "Shaki" himself.

With the release of Chagnon's chest-pounding new autobiography, Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes--The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, scholars, the press and indigenous groups themselves are once again assessing Chagnon's legacy and revisiting the scandalous (but mostly debunked) accusations raised in Patrick Tierney's book.

Whatever rightful criticisms we have of Chagnon's macho style and at times simplistic, neo-Darwinist explanations of Yanomami social life, the existing evidence makes it clear that he and James Neel -- a U.S. physician associated with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and holding admittedly disturbing eugenist ideas -- did their best under difficult circumstances to vaccinate the Yanomami against a measles epidemic that swept through the region in 1968. In an imaginative narrative turn that owes more to The Andromeda Strain than to the facts at hand, Tierney at first accused (in the pre-publication galleys of Darkness in El Dorado) but ultimately only insinuated (in the lawyer-redacted published version) that Chagnon and Neel used a "live" vaccine to intentionally cause a measles epidemic in order to test some bizarre social Darwinist theory. These allegations have been shown to be not only factually false, but medically impossible.

Anthropologists and activists who are critical of Chagnon's work claim that his characterizations of the Yanomami as a fierce and warlike people contributed to campaigns of violence against the group by gold miners and other invaders. While this may be true, miners, rubber tappers, loggers, ranchers, road crews and Brazilian soldiers needed no such scientific excuses to attack, displace and even bombard other Brazilian Indians during this period of aggressive frontier expansion, for example the Waimiri-Atroari, who were forcibly contacted and decimated to make way for the Manaus-Boa Vista highway.

Chagnon's critics tend to downplay the role of warfare in Yanomami culture, emphasizing other aspects of their rich social life while pointing out the far greater violence that has been wrought against them by outside invaders. All of this is true. And yet rather than shy away from the role of warfare in their culture, the Yanomami themselves -- as part of a comic book collection about Brazilian Indians designed by a graphic artist in consultation with the indigenous association Hutukara -- address the subject head on:  "The Yanomami wage war only to defend themselves or to avenge their dead."

"The Yanomami warrior is waitheri!! ('brave, courageous)"

The next frame states, "The Yanomami warrior is waitheri!!", and a footnote explains that the term means "A brave, courageous man." Waitheri (or waiteri) is the same word Chagnon glossed as "fierce" in the original, highly contested and later excised subtitle to his book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People. While we might quibble about the nuances of the translation (anthropologist Bruce Albert, for example, says the term refers to "the virtues of humor, generosity and bravery") it seems clear that the Yanomami place a high value on the warrior ethos. 

Napoleon Chagnon has the right to defend himself against Tierney's numerous false allegations and below-the-belt efforts at character assassination (at one point in Darkness in El Dorado, Tierney suggests that Chagnon's work as a youth in the family mortuary draining corpses prepared him for the supposedly Nazi-like human experimentation he was to conduct among the Yanomami). Yet his signature alpha-male style and in-your-face political incorrectness makes Chagnon's autobiography feel rather like a nostalgic tour by a 1970s rock guitarist making one final round of performances with his loin cloth and flaming arrows.

But if Napoleon Chagnon is the Ted Nugent of anthropology, then Patrick Tierney is the Milli Vanilli of investigative journalism: most of what is original in his book isn't true, and most of what is true isn't original.

I tend to agree with Marshall Sahlins's original assessment of Tierney's accusations against Chagnon: "Guilty, not as charged." And even though Sahlins has just resigned from the National Academy of Sciences over Chagnon's recent induction, I resist the narrative that Chagnon supporters have spread of him as a lone-wolf defender of Science in the face of a  Cabal of woolly-headed, nihilistic postmodern anthropologists. True, every generation of anthropology must confront some version of the Cartesian divide between mind and body, Nurture vs. Nature, the tensions between the ideological and material bases of human existence. But anthropology has changed as much in the ensuing forty years as the Yanomami themselves: anthropology moving beyond a fixation on remote, "uncontacted" societies as the philosopher's stone of inquiry into pristine human nature, the Yanomami turning their warrior ethos as well as their political and poetic sensibilities toward combating the fierce new foes that threaten their territory and way of life from outside. The dogmatic sociobiology paradigm Chagnon championed in the 1970s is outmoded even among modern sociobiologists, both within anthropology and in the broader field of evolutionary biology, which today asserts a powerful role for "Nurture" in complex human and animal behaviors and even down to the molecular level of cell development.

As we assess Chagnon's career and try to separate fact from fiction in his own and especially's Tierney's account of it, we have every reason to question Chagnon's motives and criticize many of his scientific conclusions. And yet indigenous people like the Yanomami are people, like all of us, and they must deal with real human conflicts caused by envy, jealousy, vengeance, competition and fear. Do the Yanomami fight and sometimes kill? Yes, so do we (and how). Do they covet one another's possessions, status, spouses? Ditto. Do they produce art and rituals to help dissipate these conflicts before they become fatal? Shouldn't we all. Do they mourn their dead?  So much so, they can't bring themselves to pronounce the names of dead kin, and then consume the ashes from burnt bones to keep the dead forever within. Some call it cannibalism, I call it love. Grok?

A Yanomami man paints his face in preparation for an inter-village feast, Marari, 2004

I invited Davi Kopenawa, the famed Yanomami leader, to speak at an anthropology conference I organized in Brazil two years ago. I told him of my experiences at Marari and he seemed proud to hear they kept up the traditions that are being lost among youth in some villages. In an extensive interview with Janet Chernela, Davi presents a fascinating insider view of Yanomami culture and history and expresses his critique of an academic anthropology that is sometimes more interested in its own theories and disputes then in the people they study. But within the combative world of anthropology, Davi saw something of his own people, going so far as to introduce himself at the 2011 conference as a "Yanomami leader, shaman, and anthropologist."


As Davi recently told a New York Times reporter, speaking about the conflicts still raging in anthropology over Tierney's book and Chagnon's legacy, "They fight, and this makes them happy."

The new Yanomami warrior-shaman, now armed with a hovering laptop: "Rather than using arrows or clubs, we need to use words"

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2 comments:

  1. Gostei do seu site. Sou Enfermeira da área indígena Yanomami/ Yekuana.. Muito feliz por trabalhar com esse povo.. luana_arruda@hotmail.com

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  2. Obrigado Luana, fico feliz que uma pessoa que conhece tão bem a região apreciou minhas observações. Seu trabalho é muito importante, parabéns. Continue lendo o blog, algum dia pretendo fazer traduções ao Portugues. E compartilhe com os amigos! Grato pelo contato, Glenn

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