Yanomami — the fierce people?

Portrayals of Indians as violent savages remain common.
Perhaps the worst recent example is the image created of the Yanomami
by the US anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose studies are standard
references in anthropology. In his book The Fierce People, Chagnon
constructed a sensationalist image of the Yanomami, calling them ‘sly,
aggressive, and intimidating’ and claiming that they ‘live in a state
of chronic warfare’.

Chagnon's work has been severely criticised by others
with extensive experience of the Yanomami and has undoubtedly been detrimental
for the Indians. It was referred to by the Brazilian government when
it planned to fragment Yanomami land in 1988, in a proposal which would
have been catastrophic for the Indians and which was only prevented
by a vigorous campaign. The UK government rejected a funding proposal
for an education programme with the Yanomami in the 1990s, saying that
any project with them should work on 'reducing violence'. The doyen
of British anthropology, Sir Edmund Leach, relied on Chagnon when he
opposed Survival helping the Yanomami in the 1970s, claiming they would
then 'exterminate one another'. Survival rejected this advice and along
with the Brazilian Pro-Yanomami Commission, CCPY, became instrumental
in securing Yanomami land rights in 1992.

Unfortunately, Chagnon's portrayal of the Yanomami is
still often presented as factual in newspapers, books and university
courses. Below is an extract from a letter from various experts to a
British magazine in 2001, protesting at an article which repeated Chagnon's

Chagnon claims that the Yanomami are savage and murderous
– and supports this observation with data which many anthropologists
consider to be deeply suspect. This is his opinion, but it has unfortunately
been presented as scientific fact for over 30 years, and has been used
to reinforce a prejudice exploited by those who oppress the Yanomami.
We have, between us, spent over 80 years working with
the Yanomami. Most of us speak one or more Yanomami dialect. Not one
of us recognises the society portrayed in Chagnon's books, and we deplore
his sensationalism and name-calling. The biggest threat the Yanomami
face is not internal warfare but the colonisation of their lands. Concerned
members of the British public – including readers of this newspaper
– have been of major importance in defending the Yanomami and other
tribal peoples against such threats since the 1960s. Long may they continue
to be so.

Yours faithfully,

Dr Bruce Albert, Centre for Scientific Research, France
Dr Alcida Ramos, University of Brasilia, Brazil
Dr Kenneth I. Taylor
Fiona Watson, Survival International