Secrets of the Tribe: A Film Review

By Kert

Don’t mess with people or they might associate with tiny figures that have engorged penises (Image via Cleveland International Film Festival)

Secrets of the Tribe is a documentary dealing with the anthropological conquests among the Yanomamo of various researchers. It takes on different perspectives on the ethics of the studies conducted among the Yanomamo. Of course, the center of it all is Napoleon Chagnon. Indeed Chagnon’s career as an anthropologist was fueled by his studies among the Yanomamo of the Amazon. His book Yanomamo: The Fierce People can be considered one of the most famous anthropological books of all time and is widely used as a textbook in different universities worldwide. It is also one of the most celebrated texts in sociobiology.

The documentary revolves around the question: Were Chagnon’s (and his colleagues’) research and treatment of the Yanomamo ethical? How, as members of the academe, should we react on what occurred in the Yanomamo territory with the entrance of researchers?

Background

There has been a long debate between the party of Napoleon Chagnon and the party of Kenneth Good regarding Chagnon’s study — the correctness of the interpretations of his data — and the ethical standards of the two as they entered Yanomamo community. See, Chagnon is accused of paying the “natives” for information and also for introducing James Neel (who purportedly conducted a research at the expense of the lives of the Yanomamo) and Jacques Lizot (who was said to have had sexually exploited the Yanomamo). Kenneth Good, on the other hand, has also a fair share of controversy for marrying an underage Yanomamo woman.

The issues also pulls several other anthropologists such as one of the “Anthropology Gods”, Claude Levi-Strauss who sent Lizot to Venezuela. Also, anthropologist Terence Turner and journalist Patrick Tierney and many others (which I can’t remember as of the moment)

The Rashomon Effect

The only way in knowing what and how a Yanomamo lives is by actually living in them. Researches saying they are peace-loving and on the other hand, greedy and fierce people might be considered contradictory. But then again, human lives in general are contradictory. We might be seeing something in the Social Sciences which is called the Rashomon effect (Heider:1988)  — meaning different ethnographers may have different perspectives about one community. One may see the peace-loving part while another may see the fierce part. But then again, humans around the world can be both peace-loving and really fierce at the same time.

Ethics

Ethics is an issue which is a constant struggle in the academe, especially in the social sciences where we are faced with different situations all the time. Ethics can sometimes be context-based, meaning it all depends on the researcher to act according to his moralities. But of course there are baselines, especially in anthropology, for these ethical responses. First is cultural relativism (which is also a contested issue). The next, in my opinion, is to never exploit thy subjects. We are also taught in the university never to give money to any of our informants. There are more, but the latter two are relevant to the film.

Indeed Lizot’s and Neel’s actions were unacceptable. And it baffles me how they could do such horrid things. Good’s case, I find ethically ambiguous — here cultural relativism shall be put into test. However, I find the last issue I outlined above interesting. Indeed, it doesn’t seem appropriate to pay informants. However, can anthropologist not help the people s/he consider as friends? I admittedly done this bludgeon once as I offered money to an IP (indigeous people) woman who was crying as she told me her story of suffering and defeat.

Indeed the line that we should draw between ourselves and our informants is very difficult to discern. Can we truly be friends with them? Can we not fall in love with them? Are we supposed to just be robots in the name of knowledge and science?

The ethical questions in the incident with the Yanomamo is not exclusive and confined to those events. Questions like these and more should and are pondered by researchers as new set of contexts and incidents are encountered. We always have to continually ask ourselves whether what we are doing is right and just (though these things are very relative and highly ambiguous).

Yanomamo: The People

What I like most about the film are the interviews with the Yanomamo as they expressed their thoughts and feelings towards the researchers. How much of it was edited by the director, I wouldn’t know. But at least there were snippets and their voices heard.

Whatever really happened, the Yanomamo was still on the losing side and people in the academe should always reflect on the incident in Venezuela. We may not be able to change the past, but we can change the future.

Links:

More substantive comments and blog posts about the film, Secrets of the Tribe

Secrets of the Tribe by Barbara Rose Johnston

Secrets of the Tribe by Louis Proyect

Anthropologist Bites Dog by Savage Minds

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