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On the Yanomami Crisis in Anthropology

jeanne's imaginary on the AAA Yanomami discussion

jeanne's imaginary of Hunt's Scapegoat at the AAA

Research Among the Yanomami - AAA
Thursday, November 16, 2000

I wrote these notes at about 6:30 Friday morning, November 17, 2000. jeanne
Copyright, December 2000: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Mildly festive atmosphere. Kind of like a first night which it was, of sorts. I got there early. I wanted more to see Patrick Tierney and the extent to which a professional academic society would manage to avoid adversarialism and then to see the exchange of insults which seemed sure to occur. I wanted to see if, the first tiem that post-colonial issues have been raised, the academy could raise the affect level to technical (Hall), address arguments beyond rhetoric and dominant discourse. (Hirschman, Fellman, Henry and Milovanovic)

The evening started out in an atmosphere of disrespect. Audience and hotel maintenance crews to set up the Continental Ballroom arrived at about the same time from all appearances: 6:00 p.m. for a 6:15 scheduled performance. (Reference is to performance art.) Arnold had dropped me off early, so I could get a seat, and I got to watch the pandemonium. I wondered if Arnold would be able to find me, and was glad I had worn a bright red sweater. A young anthropologist from the NSF sat next to me and seemed to understand my excitement over wondering if the two sides would show good faith in listening. I had TR Young's advice to young academics in mind.

Just then, I saw Arnold wandering up and down the aisle. I jumped up and waved, grateful for the "first night" chaos. Arnold shared my Anthropology conference program, and pointed out that Yolanda Moses, a past VP at CSUDH, was probably there. Then suddenly, with little circumstance and no pomp, the announcer was introducing the President of AAA and a panel of what looked to be 9 or 10 people!

No flyers were printed to supplement the program catalog, so I'll wait to get their names from the news accounts. I worried a little about the shouting of rhetoric back and forth. I shouldn't have. AAA had this well under control. Or as the San Francisco Chronicle put it the next day: "during a crowded and objiously partisan night session at the anthroplogy group's meeting . . ." (p. A2, San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, November 17, 2000.) We never really heard from Tierney or from Tierney supporters at all.

The newspaper account by David Perlman highlights the methods and procedures the AAA has proposed for investigatinf the charges, with special attention to the address made by Noeli Pocaterra, "a native Wayu Indian and leader of Venezuela's permanent commission for the protection of indigenous peoples." Perlman says the audience cheered. Yes. Some of us did. Some of us even stood to applaud her excellent and well-tempered speech in impeccable Spanish. But most did not.

What Perlman didn't say was that the meeting started late, as hotel and convention staff decided how to cope with the overflow crowd. Screens, such as we use in Moot Court performance to permit the whole audience to see the face of the speaker, had been erected on either side of the auditorium, leading me to hope that the panelists would be shown as they spoke. But, alas, no. The screens were there to project overheads, most of which consisted of Neel's hand written notes, or correspondence culled from files. One panelist projected slides that said little of note, and served only as a visual aid distraction.

I thought at first that so many panelists meant that Tierney and Chagnon's sides were each to be heard. Not. Tierney was isolated and visibly distanced at one end of the elongated panel table. The Wayu Indian, Noeli Pocaterra, was placed clear at the other end, where not enough space was available for her translator and liaison person. I wondered why the last minute confusion. We had all know to expect this since the first e-mails went out.

The announcer abruptly and with little ado called the meeting to order. The President recounted the committee's actions in consdering whether to investigate the charges made by Tierney. She read the resolutions of the committees, then immediately the meeting was given, with no leading introduction, to the panelists.

Chagnon had been announcing for weeks that we would not be present, would not submit himself to the "feeding frenzy." Indeed, he was not there. He was represented by Dr. Irons, seated to the left. That led me to expect that the three women sitting to the right of the podium must be taking Tierney's perspective. Wrong. One after another, each panelist rose to excoriate Tierney over mistakes they claimed he had made, over his determination to "prevent" scientific medical research to aid remote indigenous people, and all kinds of other positions I had never heard or read that he had taken. (The book had arrived from the publisher just days before these meetings at the end of the semester, and I had not had a chance to delve into the actual book.) They spoke of the "e-mail" from Anthropologists Turner and Sponsel, and seemed to merge rumor and published text together into an intertextual morass whic amounted more to diatribe than to critique.

Real issues were buried far more than I had expected, though I had hoped they would be aired calmly and with due respect. Irrelevancies prevailed. One forensic scientist announced a tad petulantly "I, too, worked for ten years as a journalist . . ." Soooo . . . ? Did she mean "And I never challenged the dominant discourse of the whole profession this way?" Was Tierney's challenge of dominant, and particularly academic discourse, the issue? Or was the issue the ethical challenge of our dealings with the "Other," including indigenous people?

One young Venezuelan anthropologist accused Patrick Tierney of being anti-scientific in trying to prevent medical research with remote indigenous tribes. By the next day in fact some research permits had been withdrawn, according to announcements at the AAA. This young anthropologist insisted that medical research is essential to be able to prevent the care these people need. She seemed not to have taken account of the results she reported that five years after contact with staffs of medical and anthropological researchers all members of the remote village in those samples were dead. Wow! That seems to raise a number of issues about isolated indigenous peoples and our responsibilities in dealing with the "Other."

One doctor, from Stanford, I believe, gave a cogent review of "informed consent" and acknowledged that informed consent is an ethical dilemma that needs to be addressed. Problem was, she was the only one who even mentioned it. And it still misses the point of what our duties and responsibilities to indigenous people are. Of course, they cannot be informed by a brief recitation. That would seem to me to charge us with greater responsibility to do them no harm. But mostly each panelist, on and on and on, excoriated Tierney without addressing the issues.

Dr. Irons, who spoke last in this long line of panelists, protested that this was the nefarious work of the e-mail, that it was intolerable to bring this investigation, that no investigation had ever been brought when Dr. Chagnon charged that the missionaries were giving rifles to the Yanomami. In conclusion, Dr. Irons strongly recommended that no anthropologist read Darkness at El Dorado.

Finally, last of the whole panel, since Tierney seemed to be there just to be sure he understood how angry and unanimous the academy was, the announcer introduced Noeli Pocaterra. There was much confusion, as space and equipment for her translator were provided, a Professor of Anthropology. I feared she was going to speak in an Indian language, and that I would have to rely on the translation. First pleasant surprise of the evening: she spoke a lovely Spanish. She announced that many Venezuelan commissions would investigate the charges made in Tierney's book, and that if any of them were true, it was the intention of the International Commission on Indigenous Peoples to see that remote indigenous tribes were never so harmed again. That was when some of us stood.

Then finally, after announcing the pressing need to continue after this with the association's business meeting, in this same auditorium, the master of ceremonies finally introduced . . . . more soon. jeanne