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Noble Savages (My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists)

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Noble Savages title page

By Napoleon Chagnon  
Simon & Schuster, 2013

This is a remarkable book, which has to be compulsory reading for anyone dealing with indigenous peoples’ rights. It would be easy to just say: this is a book that debunks the myth of the noble savage. It certainly does that, but it does far, far more for our understanding of how tribes that have not had contact with the so-called civilised world, behave, and probably how all our ancestors behaved to a greater or lesser degree.

Chagnon lived among and studied the Yanomamö tribes of the Amazon for many ears, and his studies and publications cause major controversies in the anthropological world. And his criticisms of the other tribes (anthropologists, conservationists, missionaries and the like) are certainly borne out by my own limited experiences. Many anthropologists are unscientific, and also highly politicised. Chagnon points out that the noble savage “is a construct based on faith: in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.”

If we are to accept that indigenous communities have rights, do we have to accept that all their traditions are also acceptable? This is a serious question, since some of these traditional behaviours are not only unacceptable by modern standards, but often illegal.

Chagnon points out that:“Not much attention has been given to the role that brutality and battering of women probably played in human behavioural evolution…” He also describes feasts where another tribe is tricked into attending, all males above 8-10 years old are killed, and the women taken. This all sounds very familiar to me, having watched a filmed account of Paraguayan Indians recounting similar events. And of course nearly all these tribes practice infanticide as a form of population control. But read the book. It is a page turner. My main criticism is that the missionaries are let off fairly lightly. Undoubtedly this is because some of them were fairly cooperative with Chagnon, at least part of the time.

There are valuable lessons to be learned, but no clear answers. Both anthropologists and conservationists are at risk of becoming no different to the Christian evangelical missionaries. Both tribes follow agendas, and just like missionaries, both often believe that what they are advocating is in the best interests of the indigenous people. And the problems start straight away. Who are indigenous and why should indigenous people have greater ‘rights’ than other local communities? A good question, but very difficult to answer in the case of most pre-contact tribes in South America, because they are often nomadic, often have territories overlapping with other tribes, and in some cases moved into the territories they now occupy comparatively recently.

Chagnon does not discuss the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is a great pity, as I am sure he would have some interesting perspectives.

Under Article 7 (2) of the declaration, “Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as a distinct people and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing of children of the group to another group.” Violence and forcibly removing children, is however, according to Chagnon’s research a part of the Yanomamö “cultural traditions and customs” which are protected under Article 11 (1).

Unfortunately campaigners on behalf of indigenous groups usually become mired in the legal complexities of all these so called rights. But even these ‘rights’ are an artificial construct of the dominant culture. Rights, per se, of course do not exist. ‘Human rights’ are a 20th century construct based on the morality and values of a relatively well educated minority. Reading Chagnon’s book it becomes very clear, that if these declarations of rights had been written by the Yanomamo (or any other of the relatively uncontacted indigenous peoples) they would look very different indeed to those emanating from the UN.

The impact of all this on World Land Trust is one of confirmation. It confirms my personal view that treating indigenous groups in any way significantly different to others is dangerous. They are stakeholders with an interest. The legal owner of the land title is another stakeholder, although according to the indigenous rights campaigners that person does not have rights, as those rights are always over-ridden by the indigenous peoples’ claims. And then there are the campesino farmers and others who move into an area and farm, plus conservationists who want to protect the natural resources, or petroleros prospecting for oil (and mineral rights are usually state owned – but again campaigners try to insist these are also ‘owned’ by the indigenous peoples). I could go on.

Clearly these conflicting claims can create deadlock – particularly in South America, where legal issues and land titles are often very complex. So there is really only one answer, and that is to get all the parties with a vested interest around the table. And I mean the actual parties, not lawyers representing them, nor campaigners claiming to represent indigenous groups. And right from the outset, all parties have to recognise that compromise is going to be essential. Without it, no progress can be made. But as Chagnon makes very clear in his book, anthropologists claiming to represent the interests of indigenous groups often have their own agendas, which while they appear entirely praiseworthy, are often non-negotiable. And over the past few decades we have seen huge areas claimed by indigenous groups eroded by campaigners claiming to protect them.

The Chaco is one such area. A major scientific expedition to the Gran Chaco was aborted because of campaigning by anthropologists claiming to defend the indigenous groups. The campaign against the expedition was based on numerous falsehoods, and the end result is that a research programme that could have had huge benefits to the indigenous groups was cancelled, and will probably now never take place. Meanwhile the area is being steadily encroached by ‘development’.

Napoleon Chagnon has his critics, but my reading of this account is that he is largely criticised for speaking an unpalatable truth. We can all learn from reading his book.

Book review by: John A Burton

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