Friday, November 7, 2008

on ethics and preserving the yanomami

Sometimes I wish I didn’t care so much.

At times I wish that I had the ability to turn off compassion, to be able to sleep at night even knowing that others are suffering. That's probably not true, in reality. But I am sleepless, yet again, and for a group of indigenous people I have never met.

In my anthropology class we are involved in a project designed to bring attention to one of the field’s biggest controversies – the Yanomami people of Brazil and Venezuela, and their plea to the international community for help. In the 1980’s, anthropologist Chagnon and genealogist Neel took blood samples from these indigenous people, offering to trade them goods and weapons in exchange for their blood. They promised them that it was for medical research; to find out more about the Yanomami people and their diseases and more importantly, to help them find a cure that would improve the quality of life among their people.

In short (very short), because I spent twelve hours reading up on this today and have no good way to sum it up, here is what I learned:

The Yanomami have had no results back, and have received little to no assistance with the epidemics they are facing because of the exposure to the team back in the 1980’s. Neel has been accused of intentionally giving them inappropriate doses of a vaccine to see how it affected them, while Chagnon has been accused of dishonesty while gathering the samples, not getting adequate permission to use them as he intended, and for misrepresenting this group as an overly-violent people.

What’s even more disturbing, in Yanomami culture, all remains of their deceased are to be destroyed. If this is not carried out, they believe that the dead will wander, unable to leave earth, and will furthermore cause problems among the living out of anger for their part in keeping them from eternity. This is as foundational a belief to them as Heaven and Hell is to most of us in our culture. Today, the blood samples taken decades ago are still being stored throughout several locations and universities in the United States, and some Yanomami are outraged. No one told them that the samples would continue to exist, even some beyond their donors’ deaths, and some claim that they were deceived into thinking differently by the scientists.

Again, in short, I am sleepless tonight thinking of all the sleepless nights these people must have endured, knowing that their loved ones are not at rest, that they were deceived because of their previous lack of exposure to the Western world. I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep knowing that mothers have mourned their children, without knowing if samples of their blood were still in existence someplace else, preventing them from their designed course into afterlife. It is as hauntingly and terribly moving as thinking of our loved ones in hell. And it could be prevented.

I am not claiming I believe or find personal merit in any of their religious beliefs, but in a practice like anthropology where ethics and honesty should be key, there is something deeply disturbing to me about this whole situation. It is unethical. It is dishonest. It is destroying the culture of a people most have never heard of. Most of all, it’s just wrong.

Here is the letter I wrote as my assignment… it is a joint letter to Dr. Joseph Fraumeni (of the National Cancer Institute which is facilitating the return of the blood samples on the American side) and to Carlos Eduardo Oliveira (the key official on the Brazilian government’s side) to try and urge them to sign the waiver to begin negotiations to find a way to resolve this issue. I spent hours on it, so I figured I would post it just in case anyone cares enough to research it a little on their own and see what they can do. Pressure from university students nation-wide is what prompted negotiations in the first place.

Think what we could accomplish if more people were aware, eyes open and listening.

Here is the letter I submitted for my assignment.


Dear Dr. Fraumeni and Mr. Oliveira,

There are many controversies in the field of anthropology demanding attention. There are many issues, on large and smaller scales, all crying out for the day when they will reach resolution. It is understandable that proceedings for any of these items are carried out cautiously and with ample time for the voices of all parties to be heard. One cannot deny the importance, however, of an immediate intervention in the case of the Yanomami people. I am writing today in hopes of turning your attention toward the urgency of their predicament; inspiring you to take action and sign the pending waiver agreement as quickly as possible so that one of today's most pertinent anthropological issues may be one step closer to reaching resolution.

First off, when looking at this issue in its entirety, the "Do No Harm" standard should not only encompass physical or tangible harm but also that of emotional and spiritual well-being. I, personally, believe that part of the beauty in anthropology itself is that it studies not only the physical properties of the human race, but also the importance of their beliefs, ideologies, customs and religions. The American Anthropological Association clearly states in its Code of Ethics that “researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the… dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities” (AAA 1998). How can one deny, then, the significance of honoring the religious beliefs and customs of the Yanomami?

I have recently been provided with ample information and resources on the subject of the Yanomami and the storage of their blood samples in various facilities across the United States, and have been moved by their plight for our international attention and action. In our culture here in America (and in many other countries worldwide) it is customary to bury our dead, to join together with others in reverence for their lives, and to know that they are resting safely in whatever eternity we believe awaits them. If that right were to be taken away, what consequences and what turmoil would that stir up in the hearts of the affected? We would feel violated - we would cry out, we would stand up, and we would make our voices heard.

Unfortunately, the Yanomami do not have access to the same resources or technology that much of the world is now accustomed to. It is much more difficult to make your opinions heard in the international community without these things, and thus they are looking to influential leaders like yourselves to help further their cause and amplify their voices. I am asking you on their behalf because I believe that without ethics and respect for other cultures and beliefs, the foundation of anthropology is no foundation at all. Regardless of the original intentions for use of the blood samples by other individuals, the power to formally return them and to initiate proceedings to resolve this issue lies in your hands.

All in all, I know that I do not have all of the answers - I, personally, have little say or influence in Yanomami affairs. Being aware of your key position in this matter, however, I encourage you to take into consideration the burden this situation has placed on the shoulders of the Yanomami and the way it has challenged and upset their very core beliefs about life, death and spirituality. The responsibility to act has been entrusted to you, and I believe that a resolution in the not-so-distant future is very much within reach.

Sincerely and with hope,

Dayna Buri


Anonymous said...

great letter!! i am entering a debate tomorrow on the ethical practices of Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel in Brasil and Venezuela and I appreciate that others are aware of the situation; I have been assigned the pro side and although I started out very "anti-chagnon" I have seen that in the area of blood collection, James Neel is the more responsible party, exploiting the indigenous nature of the Yanamamo [their limited understanding of biology and disease] and chagnon's position on the team [and grasp of the language at the time] to be able to obtain longterm sampling without the yanamamo realizing what would happen. Your letter to advocate for their rights has lifted my spirits! if you haven't read Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can learn From it, i suggest you do its an awesome book.

Dayna said...

I have been researching it more and more, and have just started reading 'the fierce controvery'.. I hope your debate went well, let me know!
Take care!

Anonymous said...

Awesome letter! It is well structured and great persuasive language!

Through my anthro class I completed the same project and I too was stunned by the serious ethical misconduct that took place so many years ago.

It is interesting to see the amount international public awareness this situation is finally receiving.

I guess all we can do now is hope for a rapid resolution to this long pending case.