Secrets of the Tribe

Complex and incisive, Secrets of the Tribe considers members of at least two tribes, the Yanomami and the anthropologists who purport to study them.

Secrets of the Tribe

Director: José Padilha
Cast: Kenneth Good, Napoleon Chagnon, Robert Borofsky, Patrick Tierney, Marie-Claude Muller
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-03-02 (HBO2)

"We no longer want anthropologists. You shouldn’t want to study over here. It's all over now. Do not come. We want you to always stay where you are. We do not want to work in your land." Alfredo wears a plaid shirt for his interview. A member of the Yanomamö tribe, Alfredo came to know Western anthropologists during their expeditions to the Amazon rainforest beginning in the 1960s, in particular his home, Mahekoto-teri. How he and other Yanomami came to feel so wary of the visitors is one focus for Secrets of the Tribe.

Airing this month on the HBO channels, this remarkable documentary gets at another focus as well, the interactions of another tribe, the anthropologists. They first appear in José Padilha's documentary at an anthropologists' convention, celebrating the work of Napoleon Chagnon, who, says one speaker, "has the distinction of being the only anthropologist who's ever been accused of genocide." The researchers and academics share a good laugh at this joke, and then the film goes on to consider the reasons for the accusation, having to do with longstanding antipathies and obligations, loyalties and competitions among these professionals.

This consideration is aptly complex, featuring interviews with participants and observers in several studies of the tribes (Yanomami and anthropologists). First published in 1968, Chagnon's seminal study, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, helped to bring international attention to the tribe and the area where they lived, in Brazil and Venezuela. Soon translated into multiple languages and used in classrooms worldwide, Chagnon's book, and 1988 article, “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” argue that the Yanomami are a savage people, their society organized around men's possession of women and the violent means to that end.

As influential as these studies were, they also came under scrutiny, and raised basic questions concerning the work of anthropologists who spend years alone in remote places and proclaim their findings correct by virtue of their own expertise, based on their particular experiences. Robert Borofsky of Hawaii Pacific University makes the obvious point, when he says, "Let us have data that others can check, that others can go back and look at, not just say, 'I've checked it, I've done it,' and look in the mirror and say, 'Am I honest? Yes, I'm honest.'"

As it features researchers like Borofsky, the film reveals that such circular logic and remarkably self-involved work are not the only way to do anthropology. At the same time, interviews with Yanomami reveal that much of the work involving their tribe has indeed been troubling, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, Chagnon's idea that the tribe was warlike was used to support multiple aggressions in pursuit of their land (the film does not focus on the Amazonian "gold rush" of the 1970s and '80s, which led to violence, including the murders of Yanomami, as well as increases in disease, weapons, and prostitution in the tribe's daily lives). For another thing, Patrick Tierney, who lived among the Yanomami in 1989, argues in a 2000 New Yorker piece and then in his book, Darkness in El Dorado, that Chagnon and his associate James Neel's data and conclusions were flawed, primarily because they did not take into account their own influences on their subjects. That is, they traded "goods," like machetes, in order to gain access, and so increased the capacity for violence among the Yanomami. Moreover, Tierney asserts that their team brought in diseases (measles, malaria, dysentery) and did not treat these adequately.

The story unfolds slowly, with several other instances of intrusion and adverse effects. Among these, the decision of anthropologist Kenneth Good to marry one of his study subjects, 14-year-old Yarima, and then write about it in Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomamö. As the film sets up interview clips featuring Good and Chagnon, they snipe at one another's published work and reputations, as well as their personal circumstances. This lively "exchange" is constructed to seem a series of revelations, as each introduces some infraction committed by the other in order to make himself seem relatively benign.

The arrangement is surely damning of the two individuals, whose self-defenses are undermined not only by each other but also by colleagues' comments: Cornell University's Terence Turner notes of the marriage, for instance, "I think by Yanomami standards, it was not an unethical thing. The fact remains that Ken Good is not Yanomami, and by our standards, by standards of his own society, he was marrying a girl who was not of age to make a decision for herself and that sort of thing." And Ernesto Migliazza, linguist for Chagnon's 1968 expedition with Neel, says the tribesmen were told, "It was to study if they had diseases or not, that the results would be useful to cure them, which was a half-truth. Instead, after we left, measles broke out among them some of them got sick."

If each of these incidents is disturbing on its own, their accumulation is no less than stunning. Like Padilha and Felipe Lacerda's Bus 174 (Ônibus 174), Secrets of the Tribe breaks open the many stories that experts and witness tell themselves in order to justify what they do and understand themselves. This film allows that anthropologists mean well, in theory, but also makes the case that they can't help but interfere with the people they seek to study. A black-and-white TV clip has Claude Lévi-Strauss explaining to a group of white fellows in suits, nodding as he explains that researchers inevitably "disturb" the milieus they enter. "It's an excusable way of disturbing in comparison to the upheaval and the destruction of the colonization," he goes on, "the industrialization, the building of roads, planes flying over. The ethnologist shouldn't feel so guilty for contributing so little to these developments, which he would certainly lessen if he possibly could."

The documentary uses this myopic and self-congratulatory declaration to frame its presentation of work by Lévi-Strauss protégé Jacques Lizot, who lived among the Yanomami for 20 years, following his introduction to the tribe by Chagnon as "a good guy." The trust he absorbed by virtue of this sanction led to what Time magazine terms a "controversy," namely, sexual abuse of his subjects, including young boys. "I'm afraid to say it, I'm ashamed to say it," says Alberto of Mahekoto-teri, before illustrating with his hands what Lizot had boys doing to his penis. This went on for years, with tacit consent by tribal adults in pursuit of traded goods as well as fellow researchers and the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments, who had their own deals with the expeditions. Jesús Cardozo observes, "Lizot found the perfect place, a no man's land there was no government presence, very little supervision of the villages. In a sense, he created his own territory."

This seems a fitting description of the work of other researchers too. It's not that Chagnon and Good are unaware that their work has consequences. Chagnon pronounces that he has "interfered," and furthermore, "If I'm guilty, the entirety of anthropology and social studies is also guilty and every anthropologist on the world is guilty of the same crime and misdemeanor I committed." But the film contends this is not all consequences are equal, and that those who enter into the business of anthropology must be responsible to their subjects, their colleagues, and themselves.


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