Survival Alert is a fortnightly update on the state of indigenous peoples around the world from Survival International. Founded in 1969, Survival International is the globe’s foremost organization working for tribal peoples rights.
Savages, cannibals, primitives—such terms were readily used during 19th century colonialism to describe indigenous populations and to justify the theft of their lands. Many tribal peoples were wiped out completely by massacres and diseases brought in by the colonists, and many others were pushed off their homelands into arid, inhospitable territories—from the Americas to Africa, from Australia to Asia.
One might be forgiven for assuming that we have moved beyond such “savage” characterizations of tribal peoples. However, the most recent publication by American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon shows that we have not.
Chagnon’s new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, has re-ignited the 19th-century myth of the “brutal savage” and once again triggered a debate about how “violent” and “warlike” tribal peoples are compared to Western, industrialized societies.
“They killed thousands of children; they killed thousands of girls and boys. These big men killed almost everything. These are the true fierce people. They throw bombs, fire machine guns and finish off with the Earth. We don’t do this…”
In his 1968 work Yanomamö: The Fierce People, Chagnon argued that the Yanomami are “sly, aggressive and intimidating,” “fierce,” “continuously making war on each other,” and living in a “state of chronic warfare.”
Chagnon’s characterization has been widely discredited, but The Fierce People remains a standard textbook in undergraduate anthropology and is often the only account students will read about a relatively isolated tribe. By constructing a perception that tribal societies such as the Yanomami’s are inherently more violent than industrialized societies, Chagnon follows in the footsteps of the19th-century myth of the “brutal savage.”
Anthropologists with extensive experience working with the Yanomami have described them as a ‘generally peaceable people,’ while Napoleon Chagnon has described them as ‘sly, aggressive and intimidating.’ (Photo: © Fiona Watson/ Survival)
Yanomami shaman and spokesman Davi Kopenawa, President of the Yanomami association Hutukara, told Survival International: “[Chagnon] said about us, ‘The Yanomami are savages!’ He teaches false things to young students. ‘Look, the Yanomami kill each other because of women.’ He keeps on saying this. But what do his leaders do? I believe that some years ago his leader waged a huge war—they killed thousands of children, they killed thousands of girls and boys. These big men killed almost everything. These are the fierce people, the true fierce people. They throw bombs, fire machine guns and finish off with the Earth. We don’t do this…”
Chagnon’s findings have also been severely criticized by anthropologists, doctors and missionaries who have worked with the Yanomami over many decades. They simply do not recognize Chagnon’s characterizations of the tribe and profoundly disagree with his depiction of them. Worse still, Chagnon’s work has been extremely damaging to the rights of the Yanomami.
In an open letter, a large group of anthropologists with extensive experience of working with the Yanomami wrote:
We have closely witnessed them [the Yanomami] to be a generally peaceable people, who, as many traditional people do, occasionally engage in inter-village conflicts [ritualized raids and duels]. Yet the casualties of these culturally controlled conflicts are extremely low if compared with those of the violence and contamination inflicted on the Yanomami by the gold miners and cattle ranchers who invade their lands.
We absolutely disagree with Napoleon Chagnon’s public characterization of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people. We also deplore how Chagnon’s work has been used throughout the years—and could still be used—by governments to deny the Yanomami their land and cultural rights.
In the 1970s, Brazil’s military dictatorship refused to demarcate the Yanomami territory and was clearly influenced by the characterization that the Yanomami are hostile toward each other. And in the 1990s, the British government refused funding for an education project with the Yanomami, saying that any project with the tribe should work on “reducing violence.”
Most recently, Chagnon’s work was cited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond in his highly controversial book The World Until Yesterday to back up his claim that most tribal peoples, including the Yanomami, are “trapped in cycles of violence and warfare” and in which he calls for the imposition of state control in order to bring them peace. Does that sound familiar?
Tribal peoples do not need state governments to bring them peace. What they need is for their lands to be protected from invaders and to be given the choice of how to live their lives. During the 1980s, nearly one fifth of the Yanomami in Brazil died from diseases and attacks after illegal gold miners invaded their territory. Only after their territory was demarcated and protected has their population recovered. But the threats from illegal gold miners continue, and the Brazilian congress will soon decide whether or not to pass a law permitting large-scale mining in indigenous territories.
It’s a shame that in all the debate about Napoleon Chagnon’s work, the situation of the real Yanomami has largely been written out of it. If you read a review of Napoleon Chagnon’s work, please leave a comment directing people to this article.
Can you think of any other people who have been marginalized due to blanket negative characterizations? Cast some light in COMMENTS.
These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.
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Fiona Watson is co-ordinator of the research and campaigns department at Survival International, an international NGO that works with tribal peoples to defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures. Fiona has been with Survival for 22 years and has worked on campaigns for the Yanomami, Guarani, and Awá Guajá of Brazil and the Gana and Gwi ‘Bushmen’ of the Central Kalahari in Botswana. Email Survival International | More About the Yanomami