Review: Secrets of the Tribe

Anthropology Beyond the Pale : Reviewing Secrets of the Tribe


Watching the Jose Padilha directed film Secrets of the Tribe (2010) is deeply troubling. Secrets of the Tribe is about professional anthropological misconduct and its consequences for the Yanomami (also called Ya̧nomamö or Yanomama). Although extent professional association and university investigations have so far passed no final judgment on wrongdoing on the part of the anthropologists, Secrets of the Tribe suggests the Yanomami engagement with anthropology has not been in the best interests of the Yanomami. The way the film makes its point is to show how the Yanomami talk about the anthropologists, how the anthropologists talk about the Yanomami, and how anthropologists talk about anthropologists. (Sadly, the film does not show how the Yanomami talk with Yanomami about anthropologists.) Viewing the film suggests to me that the anthropology discipline’s own culture of language use contributed to the abuses the film seeks to expose and that abuse will be piled upon abuse unless anthropologists learn how to talk with each other.

It is common knowledge that the Yanomami are dispersed in small settlements along the Orinoco and Amazon river basins in southern Venezuela and the extreme north of Brazil and have a population of somewhere between 15,000 to 30,000 people. Classification of the language remains uncertain. Traditional livelihood is through hunting, fishing, and horticulture. The small Yanomami settlements are located in rough terrain remote from major urban areas and intensive contact between the Yanomami and outsiders came relatively late and long remained sporadic. In the last half of the Twentieth Century, intensifying outside contact took four main forms: gold prospectors, missionaries, anthropologists, and non-governmental agencies. Although not entirely absent, the government presence has often been weak and policies concerning assimilation versus preservation have fluctuated.

The last half-century of contact between the Yanomami and the outside world has not gone peacefully. First, as documented in Jan Rocha’s Murder in the Rain Forest: the Yamomami, the Gold Miners and the Rain Forest (1999), a gold rush that began in the late 1970s eventually resulted in serious environmental destruction, armed conflict between gold miners and the Yanomami, and the introduction of disease. Second, as described in Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (2000), the renowned anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the geneticist James V. Neel became central figures in a high profile case of alleged professional ethical misconduct. Chagnon was author of the undergraduate classic ethnography Yanomano: The Fierce People (1968), and collaborated with the deceased Timothy Ash for the equally influential ethnographic film The Axe Fight (1975). James V. Neel, also now deceased, was geneticist who played a leading role in the establishment of that field in the United States in the 1950s and collaborated with Chagnon in collection of blood samples and inoculation of some Yanomami against a measles outbreak where it was unclear at the time whether they unwittingly helped to spread the disease and are thus culpable in the deaths of Yanomami participants in their research.

All of this and much more were first recounted in-depth in Patrick Tierney’s monograph Darkness in El Dorado. Response to the volume began even before its publication. After reading the galley proofs, Amazonia specialists Terence Turner (Cornell University) and Leslie Sponsel (University of Hawaii) wrote a famous “confidential” email to representatives at the American Anthropological Association. That email warned officials of the American Anthropological Association of the impending publication of Patrick Tierney’s book and its possible ramifications to anthropology. Surprising only to its authors, the email immediately circled the globe.

A task force appointed by the American Anthropological Association investigated allegations made against anthropologists discussed in Tierney’s monograph and the Executive Board initially accepted the judgments against certain anthropologists and their field research practices (AAA 2002). Eventually, however, the executive board rescinded acceptance of the El Dorado Task Force Report after a vote to do was passed by the membership of the American Anthropological Association (2005). Inquiries into possible unethical conduct were conducted elsewhere, such as of James V. Neel at the University of Michigan (Cantor 2000).

In sum, it is important to note that all allegations by all professional organizations and universities have reported no professional misconduct by any of the allegations of impropriety in the book Darkness in El Dorado. Furthermore, Darkness in El Dorado author Patrick Tierney was cited in many of these reports with a degree of shoddy and biased research methods that likewise calls his own ethnical standards into question. The film Secrets of the Tribe both covers much of the same ground as the book Darkness in El Diablo, yet passes lightly over the questions raised about the allegations raised about the book itself. Nonetheless, the film still substantiates and extends certain allegations of anthropological wrongdoing originally raised in the Patrick Tierney book.

Public discussion of Secrets of the Tribe and its subject has already been extensive, both in and out of the discipline of anthropology. After watching this film, even sympathetic views of what anthropologists did in the name of anthropology will be hard put to defend all of what happened. Probably the most damning account in the film is that of the French linguist Jacques Lizot. First hand accounts are given in the film charging that Jacques Lizot exchanged gifts for sex with young boys. He is now sought on “an unrelated molestation charge” by the French police and is believed to be hiding out in Morocco (Shari Kizirian 2011). There is no point in quibbling over whether at least some anthropologists violated professional ethics in Yanomami research.

Still, as depicted in Secrets of the Tribe, even unsympathetic commentators on anthropological ethics used in Yanomami research can themselves be condemned for their own unethical professional conduct. The makers of the film are acutely aware of this irony. The famous jazz song played in the background at the end of the film—Louis Armstrong’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”—well captures this irony. It is songs about a couple that, through disagreement over the proper pronunciation of the word “tomato,” decide to call off their wedding. The lesson seems to be that maybe anthropologists have similar problems with communication with each other.

The film Secrets of the Tribe provides a venue for those Yanomami who appeared in the film to give voice to Yanomami suffering and bitterness as a result of misconduct by anthropologists. Although it is impossible to judge how representative these Yanomami spokespeople are of the Yanomami experience of anthropology as a whole and, as mentioned, we miss what the Yanomami say among themselves about the anthropologists, the film certainly convinces the viewer of the authenticity of their witnessing. The film likewise also epitomizes the sensibilities of those who suffered at the hands of anthropology elsewhere in the world and perhaps have not had the same opportunity to bear witness. In short, there is more than enough reason in this film as representative of the voices of those wronged by anthropology to convince an anthropologist who is currently employed in the field to question whether he or she has taken a wrong turn in choice of professional career, while there is even more reason for a young scholar to turn away from the field before it is too late.

Worse still, there is no “and yet” silver lining to what happened. The scandal provoked a split in anthropology. Of those involved in the alleged misconduct, some changed fields to align themselves with behavioral scientists or took other steps to distance themselves from professional anthropology. The mission of anthropology is thus being pursued by some with other professional affiliations and thus outside of the professional ethics agreed upon by professional anthropological associations. Secrets of the Tribe does a good job of letting malcontent former anthropologists give voice to their dissatisfaction with the very language in which anthropology is now being conducted. The decision of these former anthropologists was “to call the whole thing off.”

Of those involved in leveling charges of misconduct in anthropological research on the Yanomami, they retain their professional affiliations with the American Anthropological Association, yet there is ample reason to feel unease at their own professional conduct in alerting the association of to the alleged misconduct. The film describes the confidential email where the anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel raise comparisons with the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, and add in parentheses the damning disclaimer “though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele” (quoted in Geertz 2010: 213). Mere mention of Josef Mengele in this email—the “Angel of Death who performed “experiments” of unbelievable cruelty on prisoners in Nazi Germany death camps—is a damning reflection upon the ethical character of the accusers themselves. Disclaiming the resemblance and claiming that the communication was confidential is no excuse for this sort of language.

Those who choose to continue in anthropology should come away chastened by the tragic events, the resulting scandal, and even how the scandal was exposed and condemned. My own personal emphasis is on what can be done by professional anthropologists and students to improve the quality of communication over ethical issues in the conduct of anthropology before things go wrong. That is, a dialogue about anticipating ethical issues seems more promising—from what is learned from events described in Secrets of the Tribe—than exclusively focusing on how to judge when something goes wrong. This is not to say that professional standards should not be set and that established procedures for resolving through institutional adjudication charges of ethical misconduct put aside. It is to say, however, that a more proactive approach will give hope to preventing ethnical misconduct in anthropology. For that to happen, however, one has to also hope that the ordinary course of professional and collegial conduct in everyday disciplinary communication takes a turn for the better.

Put bluntly, if the film Secrets of the Tribe is any indication, anthropologists need to change how they talk. This change needs to take place in class, in faculty meetings, in reviews, and even in annual meetings of anthropology associations. The language in which anthropology as a profession is nowadays conducted leaves little hope about effective communication about ethical conduct during fieldwork. If anthropologists cannot talk among themselves, anthropology will remain beyond the pale of professional ethics. If this is to be, then it would be better to turn out the lights and let other disciplines take over the task of anthropology’s self-designated task of studying humanity in full.

[References Cited]:
American Anthropological Association. 2005. “American Anthropological Association Executive Board Rescinds Acceptance of El Dorado Task Force Report.”
American Anthropological Association. 2002. El Dorado Task Force Papers.
Two volumes., Timothy and Napoleon Chagnon, directors. 1975. The Axe Fight. Watertown MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Cantor, Nancy. 2000. “Statement from University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor on the book, ‘Darkness in El Dorado,’ by Patrick Tierney, published by W.W. Norton and Co.

Chagnon, Napoleon. 1968.Yanomano: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston.

Geertz, Clifford. 2010 [2001]. On the Devastation of the Amazon. In Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays. Fred Inglis, ed. Pp 123-134. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kizirian, Shari. 2011. Anthropologists Behaving Badly: Jose Padilha’s ‘Secrets of the Tribe’ Does Some Digging of Its Own. Documentary.

Rocha, Jan. 1999. Murder in the Rain Forest: the Yamomami, the Gold Miners and the Rain Forest. London: Latin America Bureau.

Tierney, Patrick. 2000. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.