Blood samples return to Amazon Indians

Yanomami of Demini prepare timbó poison from a vine, used to stun fish, Demini, Brazil.
Yanomami of Demini prepare timbó poison from a vine, used to stun fish, Demini, Brazil.
© Fiona Watson/Survival

Research centers in the United States are to return thousands of blood samples of Yanomami Indians to the tribe.

Five research centers which have possessed the frozen Yanomami blood for decades have agreed to a proposal by the Brazilian government for the blood to be returned to the Yanomami.

This is a turning point in a fierce international debate between geneticists, anthropologists and Yanomami Indians which has lasted over forty years.

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami shaman and spokesman, said, ‘I am very happy that the white people have now understood the importance of returning the blood’.

The blood was collected in 1967 by North American researchers, from thousands of Indians, for the purpose of biomedical research, without their informed consent.

Yanomami leaders have since been urging that the blood be returned, because for them the preservation of the blood of a deceased person is unthinkable.

When a Yanomami Indian dies, their body is cremated and no physical remains or possessions of the dead are kept. This is the Yanomami’s way of departing the world and separating the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Davi Kopenawa said that the scientists did not specify how the blood would be used when they took the samples: ‘Nobody imagined that the blood would be kept in their freezers… Science is not a god who knows what is best for everybody. It is we Yanomami who know whether or not research is good for our people’.

He added that the Yanomami would put the blood in the river upon its return to the Amazon. He said, ‘We are going to return the blood of our ancestors to the waters… because our Creator, Omame, found his wife, our mother, in the river’.

The exact date of the return of the blood is not yet known.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities continue to investigate the death of Yanomami Indians, thought to be caused by illegal goldminers.

It has been reported that three Yanomami children died, having bled from the mouth and nose after eating food prepared using water from a river. Soon after, two Yanomami women died after childbirth, along with their new-born babies.

A community leader died after receiving an injection from gold-miners, and his son went missing after visiting the gold-miners following his father’s death.

Earlier this month, the Brazilian army arrested eleven people suspected of illegal mining on Yanomami territory, close to the Brazil-Venezuela border where thousands of miners are working illegally.

Survival International has protested to the Venezuelan and Brazilian authorities, urging them to remove all illegal miners from the Yanomami territory.