Tag Archives: review

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?


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 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.


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

Anatomy of a Massacre: A Review

Anatomy of a Massacre Poster

By Kert

I had the chance to attend the Anatomy of a Massacre talk, which is in accordance to the International Day to End Impunity. The speakers were Ed Lingao from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and Cristina Palabay from End Impunity Alliance. I was very much interested to go to this talk (sometimes talks are more interesting than university courses) and hear what they have to say on the Maguindanao Massacre. I am a child of Mindanao, and every inch of my being is deeply connected to it. And in many ways, the Maguindanao Massacre has affected me so much.

For a backgrounder on the Maguindanao Massacre, click here.

Ed Lingao started with a video that showed how powerful the Ampatuans are even after the Maguindanao Massacre was publicized. Many of the Ampatuans related to the massacre are now in jail waiting to be convicted. But while they are resting their butts inside the prison, 10 of them still managed to run during the last elections in 2010 and 8 of them actually won. 42 Ampatuans were elected around the Philippines — most of which ran for positions in Shariff Agwak, the fort of the Ampatuans.

The Ampatuan is a politically and economically powerful family with properties all over the country, money stashed everywhere (they’re not very fond of banks, so go look for moolah in their vaults) and a firm grip on Maguindanao. Their lawyer, Fortun, says otherwise. He said he didn’t ASK the exact monetary value of the Ampatuans under his care so he’s not so sure how rich they are, but I just think he was too afraid to ask.

They have a firm hold of the entire Maguindanao province — one of the most impoverished provinces in the country, with most residents not having enough to eat or enough means to support themselves. But take note that this is one of the areas which is heavily funded by our government. Last 2010, 3.42 Billion from the Filipinos’ hard-earned taxes were allotted to Maguindanao. And yet, there is no slight development in the situation of the people. They are still hungry, children can’t afford to go to school, not enough social services. Hey! Some of their employees don’t even get paid for a time! Imagine working almost for free.

And as the people go hungry, the Ampatuans are able to expand their properties, acquire high-tech guns and ammunition, and fund a private army composed of vigilantes hired by the government. Hey!  They are even rich enough to hire Fortun (and maybe Fortun should consider that). And they even have a mosque inside one of their houses! Regular people, eh Fortun?

So what drives these horrific people to still be in power?

First and foremost, our own government. They are kept in power because they keep the higher-ups in power. 1.3 Million voters — that  is really something to think about when you’re running for president.

As Sir Ed Lingao said, the Filipino citizens are also responsible for people such as the Ampatuans to stay in power. They are there because we voted for them to be there. They are there because we forget that their purpose is to serve our communities — and this service is not a charity-work or privilege for them to give. They are there because we turn a blind eye to the horrendous things they do — or we accept their actions as if to say, “It’s okay that he killed my neighbor. He gave me money so he should be a good guy and I’ll vote for him” or “Ms. so and so is so great because she gave us a TV and so I’ll forget that she got my brother stabbed”. We don’t hold them accountable for their actions. So my fellow countrymen, the next time you vote please consider this: your vote, your politician, your responsibility. And since s/he is your responsibility, you must hold her accountable for every crap s/he does.

Ms. Cristina Palabay commented that many of the massacres around the Philippines are state-perpetuated. Many of them are supported or even initiated by the government officials. In the Jabidah Massacre, 200 soldiers from Sulu were killed as instructed by Marcos for abandoning their mission to capture Sabah. 7 farmers were killed and 27 had gun shots in the Hacienda Luisita Massacre in 2004 because they were fighting (with stones and sticks against the heavy armaments of the police and the military) for their right to own the lands that they have tilled across the years — which is, by the way, is rightfully theirs because Hacienda Luisita was bought by the Cojuangcos (related to the Aquinos) using government money with the promise to give these lands to the farmers after several years. As the Cojuangcos stay in the economic echelons of the country, and the Aquinos stay in their political seats, they keep an iron hand on these lands. So hard is their grip that they’d cast the first shot at the bare farmers.

To know more about the crap of the Aquino-Cojuangcos, click here.

When the most revered mother-hen Aquino — Cory Aquino — was in power, 13 unarmed farmers were shot in Mendiola during a rally. In the regime of Cory’s son — Noynoy Aquino — there are already 65 victims of extrajudicial killings. So that’s what he was been busy with for the past year. Instead of doing true and good reforms, he gets people killed. Oh, but he also awarded the tree in front of his house! What an action man he is (*sarcasm*).

The political situation in the Philippines sounds like a shogunate (not exactly, but I’m trying to do an allegory here) with warlords, private armies and enslaved people. A lot of innocent people have been killed since the American colonization because they were fighting for their rights — rights that clash with the greediness of rich people. Conflict of interest, as Marx said (oh shit! I’m gonna be marked as a communist *sarcasm*). In Arroyo’s term alone, around 1,200 were victims of extrajudicial killings — and she even hunted down, with her pet Jovito Palparan, students, farmers, ordinary people.

The military gets top one in the National Budget and still they get the people killed . Lest they forget, their salaries and benefits come from the people who work and pay taxes which go to the National Budget. And these hounds don’t really protect the people (which should be their job), but put them in danger instead. And by the way, with the tons of massacres in the country, none of those responsible have been convicted. Makes you feel safe, doesn’t it? (*sarcasm*)

For my last call: End Impunity! Do not let these people kill more people.

And a few quotes from Sir Ed Lingao:

“Journalism is about change”.

“Filipinos have fallen in love with revolutions. But real change comes from one’s self”.