The more I study the adventures of anthropologists in Yanomami-land, the more surreally cinematic they seem. From the pistol-packing Napoleon Chagnon in a loincloth to Jacques Lizot’s homosexual harem, the need for a Francis Ford Coppola or a Werner Herzog cries out.
I began reading Kenneth Good’s memoir “Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomamo” mostly in search of information that ran counter to Chagnon’s “fierce people” thesis. (There are at least three acceptable ways of spelling their tribal name: Yanomami, the most common, as well as Yanomamo and Yanomama.) But the more I read, the more convinced I became that Kenneth Good is one of the most remarkable denizens of this world imaginable. Indeed, so compelling was his story that Hollywood took out an option to turn his memoir into a movie but it was never made. Now that would have been something I would have paid top dollar to see.
Kenneth Good first came to Yanomami territory in 1974 as a 34-year-old graduate student. Despite traveling there under the auspices of Napoleon Chagnon, he was much closer to Marvin Harris philosophically. As I discussed in a previous post, Harris challenged Chagnon’s “fierceness” theory on the basis of cultural materialism, making the point that it was a struggle for food rather than females that explained clashes among the Stone Age peoples.
As Good grew closer to the people he was studying, he was offered one of their daughters as a bride. As it turned out she was 9 years old at the time. More about this subsequently.
When Good arrived in the Venezuela rainforest, Chagnon and Lizot had not yet had their falling out. They welcomed the new arrival in a kind of hazing stunt that thoroughly antagonized him. His first night in their camp, the two anthropologists burst into his darkened tent screaming “Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!”, hoping to scare the living daylights out of him. Since the Yanomami had the reputation of being “fierce” and since they had welcomed Good earlier that day from the riverbank brandishing bows and arrows menacingly, Chagnon and Lizot anticipated that their MTV type “Jackass” stunt would have the desired effect. Not only was Good frightened out of his wits, the physical altercation resulted in his mosquito net being torn—not a good thing in malaria country.
To give you an idea how polarized the Chagnon /Tierney dispute would become, the hazing incident became subject to multiple interpretations. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, a publication that has consistently taken the side of intrusive scientists against indigenous peoples, wrote one that favored Chagnon as a harmless prankster. Against Tierney’s description of the hazing as a violent and aggressive act, Shermer wrote in the March 24, 2001 The Globe and Mail (Canada) that:
It was a prank. Mr. Tierney turned good-natured horseplay into a horror story. Sure, Mr. Good was not amused by the caper. Regardless of how it was received, a practical joke before the long grind of fieldwork was to begin was not the same thing as a “raid.”
During the snowstorm of email communications set off by the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado”, Good set the record straight:
Shermer is playing here with semantics and intended meaning of words and informs his readers that it was just a “prank”. Neither I nor, I believe, Tierney ever meant that this was an angry, belligerent raid but rather an aggressive incursion designed to frighten and to “initiate” students who Chagnon over a long period of time had inculcated the dangers of living among the Yanomami. Call it what you will, I think the bursting into students hut in the night, drunk, destroying students essential equipment (mosquitoes nets are crucial in a malaria infested zone) and not even remembering much of it the next morning says enough in itself.
Kenneth Good, who was a big strapping lad at the time, could handle Chagnon or bigger threats to his health and safety. But he did not come looking for a fight. He was mainly interested in tracking the food intake of the Yanomami in the Hasupuweteri village, who would turn out to be anything but fierce.
Good’s first dwelling in the village was a hut that the Indians helped him build. Like many other jobs they did for him, they were paid in trade goods such as fishing hooks, machetes and metal pots. Jared Diamond might be a horse’s ass but he certainly was correct when it came to identifying the importance of steel in such primitive societies.
Yanomami shapono from above
Eventually he decided that living outside of the village was an obstacle to data gathering, which revolved mainly around observing and recording their food intake. So he moved into their shapono, a circular group home for Yanomamis that is made of thatched grass and contains nothing inside except for hammocks and hearth fires. If you are interested in privacy, the shapono is not for you. Good writes:
They slept on even when someone yelled out in anger or fright during a nightmare, or when a father awakened from a mournful dream of a child who had died and cried out his anguish, though the death might have happened years ago (which was what I had heard that first night). Meanwhile someone would get up to tend a fire whose warmth was needed by the family sleeping naked in their hammocks; someone else might walk outside to urinate, though not too far outside, because one didn’t venture far from the shapono at night.
In the middle of the night a shaman might decide he wanted to chant. He’d take his drugs, his conduit to the world of the hekura, the spirits. At that hour no one was up to blow them into his nose, so he’d inhale the epene powder like snuff from his hand, then stand up and chant for an hour or two, exactly as he would during the daytime.
At the beginning I was constantly cranky. The Yanomama have the ability to wake up and go back to sleep in a minute. I did not. When something got me up, I was up. I’d lie in the hammock for in hour trying to get back to sleep among all the nighttime noises in the shapono. Eventually I got used to this, too. Like the Yanomama, I’d spend eleven hours in my hammock at night to get seven or eight hours of actual sleep.
The more time he spent as a fellow villager, the more he began to see the kinds of aggression that Chagnon doted on. However, most of it was ritualized to the point that death or serious injury was excluded. In fact the fighting generally functioned as a way to let off steam that could have led to more serious conflicts in such a confined space. He writes:
The other thing is that in Yanomama land you’re dealing with a society that doesn’t have any laws and doesn’t have any method of enforcement, even if they did have laws. Looking at the occasional domestic violence in the shapono, I would try to get a perspective on it. How many men in the West, I thought, would beat their wives if there were no social sanctions and laws about it? How many do anyway? Not that that’s an excuse of any sort. But it certainly happens, and even in some so-called civilized societies it happens with disturbing frequency.
The more I thought about Chagnon’s emphasis on Yanomama violence, the more I realized how contrived and distorted it was. Raiding, killing, and wife beating all happened; I was seeing it, and no doubt I’d see a lot more of it. But by misrepresenting violence as the central theme of Yanomama life, his Fierce People book had blown the subject out of any sane proportion. What he had done was tantamount to saying that New Yorkers are muggers and murderers. If you go out on the streets of New York, they will mug you and knife you and take your money. Of course these things do take place. But that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate or reasonable generalization to make about New Yorkers. It doesn’t mean that someone would be justified in writing a book entitled New Yorkers: The Mugging and Murdering People.
Besides the different values and ideals of Yanomama and Western societies, I began to feel that one essential contrast between us and them was not in the frequency of wife abuse and other forms of violence, but in the fact that in their world such behavior is visible. An American anthropologist can easily observe, record, and even film Yanomama violence—all of which makes for dramatic presentations in textbooks, lecture halls, and classrooms. A Yanomama anthropologist, by contrast, would have a hard time getting into American kitchens and bedrooms to watch angry or drunken husbands battering their wives and children.
Eventually Chagnon figured out that Kenneth Good was not ideologically reliable and would likely take Marvin Harris’s side in the ongoing debate. While there is no way to prove the link between Chagnon’s likely animosity and his treatment of Kenneth Good, the evidence is rather strong that Chagnon was highly vindictive. Chagnon refused Good the use of his aluminum canoe and to send him anti-malarial Camoprim tablets. The two defaults conspired to nearly end Good’s life when he was navigating the Orinoco rapids on a flimsy dugout during a nasty bout of malaria, when he, the boat, and all his anthropological records were thrown into the water. He managed to swim to the shore where he fought off a high fever for three days until anti-malaria workers rescued him. It was the beginning of the end of his ties to Chagnon, who until this point had been his dissertation adviser.
After the boating accident took place in 1974, Good returned to confront Napoleon Chagnon at Penn State with “blood in his eye”. When Chagnon learned that he was going to transfer to Columbia University and study with Marvin Harris, taking all his fieldwork notes with him, he read the riot act to Good. Chagnon said, “Okay, this is obviously not going to work out. So let’s just drop it. Let’s forget it. But, Ken, tell me, what are you going to do with yourself, go to work in your brother’s dental lab? Because you are not going to get into any other anthropology department. I’ll see to that.”
When Good returned to the Hasupuweteri village, making himself at home again in the shapono, he was approached one day by the headman who broached a most delicate subject with him: “I’ve been thinking that you should have a wife. It is not good for you to live alone.”
To humor the headman, Good told him “Sure, okay, I’ll take a wife”. “Good”, the headman said. “Take Yarima. You like her. She’s your wife.” The only problem, leaving everything else aside, was that Yarima was 9 years old.
It was understood that she would only become his real wife when she reached puberty, a transition that while making some sense still did not qualify as “normal” in the outside world and was in fact against the law in most parts of the U.S. Always the anthropologist, Good has a way of making such an arrangement sound sensible, at least in Yanomami terms:
From an anthropological point of view, the Yanomama custom of child betrothal made a lot of sense. First of all, it created or strengthened ties between families in the community and between different lineages (marriages within i lineage are prohibited as incest). Second, since girls are already spoken for when they reach adolescence, there is no competition for them. A lot of potentially destructive rivalry is precluded this way, as are the problems of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In Yanomama land every woman is considered sexually available once she has begun to menstruate. And since there are no moral inhibitions against premarital or extramarital sex, having unattached adolescent girls around would create all sorts of difficult and disruptive conflicts.
That was from an anthropological point of view. From a personal point of view, this was not particularly serious. These were an inventive people in some respects, and one of the things they were inventive at was in devising ways to keep a nabuh [outsider] around, with his immense and distributable wealth. The origin of Longbeard’s approach may well have been simply to provide me with an additional attachment to the Hasupuweteri. He was the headman, and it was his responsibility to think of the group’s well-being. Or it might have been a gesture of friendship, a surge of brotherly feeling—an indication that he and his lineage felt I was really a part of the community. Certainly no one at the beginning ever thought of it as an actual marriage. Who ever heard of marrying a nabuh? You might as well marry an alien from outer space. And as for me, in my wildest dreams it had never occurred to me to marry an Indian woman in the Amazon jungle. I was from suburban Philadelphia. I had no intention of going native.
When Kenneth Good was 39, he consummated his marriage with Yarima who was now 15. Despite their age differences and despite having completely different cultural backgrounds, they appear to have been happy with each other. Part of the mystery of Good’s memoir is his steadfast refusal to describe the exact nature of their relationship, other than the fact that it was sexual. Most of the time, he comes across more as her big brother than her husband, a perception reinforced by this photo from his memoir:
No matter how much Kenneth Good admired Yanomami values, he was never completely part of their world. “Going native” was only possible if he cut his ties to the academic world, which kept beckoning him out of the rainforest for professional obligations and that left Yarima at the mercy of predatory men in her village. If Chagnon’s “fierce people” thesis is revealed as bogus in the course of this memoir, there certainly are aspects of Yanomami society that refute any “noble savage” stereotypes. Mostly they revolve around the rampant sexism in Yanomami villages where every woman is considered fair game for sexual abuse, including rape. So poor is the status of women in the tribes, who are described by some Indians as “vaginas” and nothing else that incidents of rape are generally met with a shrug of the shoulder.
When Kenneth Good is off on anthropology business in 1985, Yarima is raped by a number of men and has part of an ear sliced nearly in half during the altercation. Not only were Yanomami men determined to take advantage of Yarima, Venezuelan government officials were putting all sorts of obstacles in his path as he sought to continue his fieldwork with the Yanomami. In the eyes of officialdom, he was considered to be as much of an exploiter of Yarima as the men who raped her. In their eyes, anthropologists had no business getting into relationships with Indian women, especially ones young enough to be considered jailbait in the USA, as Jerry Lee Lewis once learned.
The last section of the book is devoted to Kenneth Good’s struggle to protect his marriage against the authorities and against threats within Yanomami society. Eventually he reaches the decision that the only answer was to return to the USA and take a teaching job. Yarima, who would go on to have three children, moved to New Jersey with him and struggled in vain to adjust to suburban living. She found the omnipresent diet of television and shopping malls so oppressive that she fled New Jersey and returned to the rainforest in 1991, leaving her children behind her.
Now 66, Kenneth Good is likely retired from the academy. Googling his name reveals virtually no new contributions to the field or to the Chagnon debate since the early 1990s. As someone who lived life to the hilt, one can certainly understand why this most unusual scientist would want to retire to the side of the road. As for Yarima, who would be 41 or so, we’d like to think that she is happy living the live she was accustomed to, although pressures on this proud and independent people from rapacious mining and logging interests make this problematic at best.