Spring 2022 - Colloquium Series

The Department of Anthropology will be offering the following event(s) this semester. For inquiries (including Zoom information), contact Anthropology at anthprog@hawaii.edu.

Yanomami in the Amazon: Toward a More Ethical Anthropology Beyond Othering

  • Leslie E. Sponsel - Emeritus Professor, Anthropology, UH Mānoa
  • Thursday, April 28, 3 pm, via Zoom

Yanomami realities are identified, including existential threats to them. Derogatory stereotypes are refuted. The extensive history of Yanomami studies is documented. The “Yanomami industry” exploiting them for profit is revealed. 

Ten problems are exposed in Napoleon Chagnon’s “canonical” ethnography. No less than 18 anthropologists who lived and studied with the Yanomami reject his characterization of their culture as grossly distorting and dangerous. It is argued that portraying the Yanomami as the Other, including as a savage tribe with endemic warfare, dehumanizes them and facilitates the violation of professional ethics and human rights, as alleged by Patrick Tierney in his controversial book Darkness in El Dorado published in 2000.

Ten years after Tierney’s book, the profession of anthropology was embarrassed again by the film Secrets of the Tribe. Therein the tribe is a small subset of anthropologists, Chagnon’s defenders versus his critics.

More than two decades later, many of Tierney’s allegations remain unresolved because of failures of the leaders of the American Anthropological Association. They even purged the Final Report of the Task Force’s selective investigation of a few of the more serious allegations. Historical revisionism, obfuscation, and sophistry by Chagnon in his 2013 memoir and by his defenders appear to prevail.

Despite many negative aspects of the controversy, there are also some positives. Most importantly, there is a significantly elevated awareness and amount of information concerning ethics, and presumably greater responsibility.

Finally, it is argued that there is no necessary incompatibility between science and advocacy anthropology. Advocacy depends on basic research. Advocacy is committed to the morality of social relevance, and recognizes unicity, the Other is Us. 

Leslie E. Sponsel earned a B.A. in geology from Indiana University, and M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University specializing in biological anthropology. In 1981 he was hired in UHM Anthropology to develop and direct an Ecological Anthropology Program. Also, he originated seven courses: 340 Primate Behavioral Ecology (now 360), 345 Aggression, War and Peace, 410 Ethics in Anthropology, 443 Anthropology of Buddhism, 444 Spiritual Ecology, 445 Sacred Places, and 482 Environmental Anthropology. He retired early in 2010 to devote full-time to research and publications, except usually teaching one course each semester.

Sponsel’s research focuses on the interfaces of ecology, religion, and peace. He helped develop the new frontiers of spiritual ecology, nonkilling anthropology, and ethnoprimatology. From 1974-1981, through several field trips to the Venezuelan Amazon, he studied the behavioral ecology of animal predation by Yanomami and other Indigenes. Then he turned to Thailand focusing on Buddhist ecology and environmentalism, particularly sacred caves.