Friday, April 15, 2005

Indigenous Rights in the Caribbean

The Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit provides a wealth of materials online consisting of overviews of its projects and online publications stemming from various international meetings held to discuss indigenous rights in the Commonwealth and specifically in the Caribbean. Of particular interest to some readers of this "blog" will be the following document:

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Yanomami Controversy

Background Information on the Yanomami Controversy
(From Borofsky et al 2005:3-19)
Reproduced from

At first glance, the Yanomami controversy might be perceived as being focused on a narrow subject. It centers on the accusations made by the investigative journalist Patrick Tierney against James Neel, a world-famous geneticist, and Napoleon Chagnon, a prominent anthropologist, regarding their fieldwork among the Yanomami, a group of Amazonian Indians. But it would be a mistake to see the Yanomami controversy as limited to these three individuals and this one tribe. More

Who Are the Yanomami and Why Are They Important in Anthropology?
Through the work of Chagnon and others, the Yanomami have become one of the best-known, if not the best-known, Amazonian Indian group in the world. People in diverse locales on diverse continents know of them. They have become a symbol in the West of what life is like beyond the pale of "civilization." They are portrayed in books and films, not necessarily correctly, as one of the world's last remaining prototypically primitive groups. More

Who Are the Controversy's Main Characters?
The three individuals who have played the most important roles in the controversy and whose names are repeatedly referred to in discussions of it are James Neel, Napoleon Chagnon, and Patrick Tierney.

The late James Neel has been called by many the father of modern human genetics. He served on the University of Michigan's faculty for more than forty years, becoming one of its most distinguished members. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences as well as to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded the National Medal of Science and the Smithsonian Institution Medal. More

Napoleon Chagnon, a retired professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of the best-known members of the discipline. His writings, particularly his introductory ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People and the films associated with it have made his name familiar to millions upon millions of college students since the 1960s. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that Chagnon helped make the Yanomami famous as a tribe around the world and the Yanomami, in turn, have been the basis for Chagnon's own fame. More

Patrick Tierney is a freelance investigative journalist based in Pittsburgh. He obtained an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies from the University of California at Los Angeles. Those who interact with him on a personal level describe him as gentle and soft-spoken. More

What Exactly Is the Yanomami Controversy?
Answering this question draws us into examining not only the accusations Tierney made against Neel and Chagnon in Darkness in El Dorado but a number of other issues as well. Let me start with Tierney's accusations and then move on to the additional issues.

The Accusations
Tierney made a number of accusations against a number of people in his book Darkness in El Dorado. But the central ones—and the ones latched onto by the media—involved Neel and Chagnon.

Tierney makes two basic accusations against Neel: (1) that Neel helped make the measles epidemic worse, rather than better, through the actions he took to fight the epidemic and (2) that Neel could have done more than he did to help the Yanomami at this time. Because the first of these accusations in effect charged a distinguished scientist with facilitating the deaths of Yanomami, it received the most media attention. This accusation has been dismissed by most people; the second is very much with us.

Tierney makes seven basic accusations against Chagnon: (1) He indicates that Chagnon misrepresented key dynamics of Yanomami society, particularly their level of violence. The Yanomami were not "the fierce people" depicted by Chagnon. They were significantly less bellicose, in fact, than many Amazonian groups. (2) What warfare Chagnon noticed during his research, Tierney asserts, Chagnon himself helped cause through his enormous distribution of goods, which stimulated warfare among the Yanomami as perhaps never before. (3) Tierney accuses Chagnon of staging the films he helped produce, films that won many cinematic awards and helped make Yanomamö: The Fierce People a best seller. The films were not what they appeared to be—live behavior skillfully caught by the camera—but rather staged productions in which Yanomami followed preestablished scripts. More

American Anthropology's Response
One might think these issues quite sufficient to create debate in anthropology departments around the world. But there is more. There are also important questions regarding the way American anthropology has responded to the controversy. More

The Larger Questions
At a still higher level, beyond the accusations and counteraccusations and beyond American anthropology's responses to them, there is yet another set of issues anthropologists and anthropologists-in-the-making need to confront regarding the controversy. These are the generally unspoken questions that lie at the heart of the discipline and that help to explain why American anthropology has been hesitant to confront the controversy head-on. These are the big questions we need to ask but often are afraid to because they put into doubt what we have come to accept as foundational and firm in anthropology.

The first is the inequality of power between anthropologists and those whom they study. More

What Is Positive about Controversies Such as This?
On the negative side, anthropological controversies such as the Yanomami controversy may generate negative publicity for the discipline, making the broader public less willing to support it. They may also foster disciplinary divides as anthropologists passionately argue past one another without resolution.

But there is a deeply positive side to these controversies. They are important, indeed essential, for the discipline's cumulative development. More

Indigenous peoples oppose National Geographic & IBM research project

TITLE: Indigenous Peoples Oppose National Geographic & IBM Genetic Research Project that Seeks Indigenous Peoples DNA AUTHOR: Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism

Press Release
DATE: 13 April 2005

The IPCB, an Indigenous organization that addresses issues of biopiracy began its work in 1993 to oppose the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a project so fraught with ethical and scientific problems it failed to get endorsement from the National Science Foundation, or UNESCO. Debra Harry, who is Northern Paiute and serves as IPCB's Executive Director, noting this new project's similarities with the HGDP, said, "This is a recurrent nightmare. It's essentially the same project we defeated years ago. Some of the actors are different, but also some are the same. With the founder of the HGDP serving on this new project's advisory committee, I can't help but think this is simply a new reiteration of the HGDP."

The HGDP faced international opposition by Indigenous peoples who considered the project an unconscionable attempt by genetic researchers to pirate their DNA for their own means. That experience has led to strong advocacy by Indigenous peoples to insure human rights standards are entrenched in research. Cherryl Smith, a Maori bioethicist from Aotearoa (New Zealand) said, "Indigenous groups around the world are much more aware of biopiracy, and our own human and collective rights in research. In the past ten years, we have developed extensive networks of Indigenous peoples who are knowledgeable and active in defense of their rights."

Le'a Kanehe, a Native Hawaiian who serves as the IPCB's Legal Analyst, gives the example of the Havasupai Tribe, who filed a lawsuit in 2004 against Arizona State University for the taking and misuse of their genetic samples. "Indigenous peoples are holding scientists accountable for use of their genetic material without prior informed consent, which is the accepted legal standard." The tribe authorized diabetes research, but later discovered their samples were used for schizophrenia, inbreeding and migration theories.

The Genographic Project press release claims that an international advisory board will oversee the selection of Indigenous populations for testing as well as adhering to strict sampling and research protocols. The HGDP was unable to secure federal or UN support for failure to meet ethical concerns and standards. The Genographic Project has striking similarities to the HGDP. Dr. Jonathan Marks, genetic anthropologist and board member of the IPCB, said, "The HGDP was terminated because of intractable bioethical issues. Has IBM and National Geographic been able to remedy those issues? I don't think so." Harry is similarly concerned that the Genographic Project is an attempt to escape public and legal scrutiny by going private.

Kanehe says that "It's interesting how in the past racist scientists, such as those in the eugenics movement, did studies asserting that we are biologically inferior to them; and now, they are saying their research will show that we're all related to each other and share common origins. Both ventures are based on racist science and produce invalid, yet damaging conclusions about Indigenous cultures."

IPCB Chairperson Judy Gobert (Blackfoot), said, "These kinds of projects have to stretch to claim any tangible benefits to Indigenous peoples. Somehow, the Genographic Project has led its Indigenous participants to believe its work will insure their people's cultural preservation. There is a huge disconnect between genetic research and cultural preservation." Smith says, "If they really want to help promote Indigenous peoples cultures there are more productive ways and methods for doing so."

Noting the project's goal to map the migratory history of humankind through DNA, Marla Big Boy, a Lakota attorney on IPCB's board, says, "Our creation stories and languages carry information about our genealogy and ancestors. We don't need genetic testing to tell us where we come from." Big Boy notes with concern that the project proposes to do studies on ancient DNA. "We will not stand by while our ancestors are desecrated in the name of scientific discovery."

The IPCB is calling on all Indigenous peoples, and our friends and colleagues to join in an international boycott of IBM, Gateway Computers (the source of the Waitt family fortune), and National Geographic until it's demand that this project be abandoned are met. Harry said, "We are prepared to stop projects that treat us as scientific curiosities. We must act to protect our most vulnerable communities from this unwanted intrusion. We resisted the HGDP, and we will defeat this proposal as well."

For more information contact:
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonism

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Trinidad Express: Caribs Speak about Disney

"We Do Not Eat People"

Click on the link to read a report in the Trinidad Express on local Carib reactions to Disney's plans to cast their ancestors as cannibals.

Carib Community of Trinidad Joins Indigenous Condemnations of Disney - Arrr, Matey! The Curse of the Racist Sequel?

Arrr, Matey! The Curse of the Racist Sequel?

Published by Inter Press Service, 2/28/05

PORT OF SPAIN - The 2003 blockbuster movie grossed 653 million dollars in theatres around the world, and the producers of the "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" are eagerly gearing up to film the sequels.

Filming of the scenes for the first of two installments is scheduled for April, and like the original, they will be shot in the Caribbean.

However, unlike the original movie, which was filmed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the first sequel will also involve the Caribs of Dominica, whose ancestors were among the early inhabitants of the Caribbean.

But the project, due to be released on Jul. 7, 2006, is already proving to be a problem, as the descendants of the Caribs, historians and others are objecting to scenes depicting these indigenous people as involved in cannibalism.

Brinsley Samaroo, head of the history department of the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), dismisses the claim of cannibalism as a "European myth".

He told IPS that it was nothing but "manufactured history" by the Europeans who came across the Caniba, a tribe found in North and South America.

"The Caniba tribe was very hostile, as would be any group whose territory was being invaded. They were resisting the Europeans very stoutly and in order to warn other Europeans about this, the early explorers spread the myth that the Caniba tribe eat people," he said.

"They called them cannibals, derived from the name of the tribe," he explained.

Samaroo is lending his support to those who have publicly called on Walt Disney Productions to remove that aspect from the "Pirates of the Caribbean 2".

Disney has so far made no public statement on the issue, and did not respond to an IPS request for an interview.

The governments of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica, whose impoverished economies would receive a boost from the activities associated with the filming of the sequel, have also been silent on the controversy.

Several of the estimated population of 3,000 Carib descendants in Dominica have applied to be extras in the film, which again stars Johnny Depp, but that has not stopped the Carib chief, Charles Williams, from taking a stand against the project.

Williams contends that Disney executives were insistent on including scenes where Caribs would be portrayed as cannibals, and to appear naked or semi-naked in the movie.

The Carib chief said that Caribs have been "stigmatised up to this day" as cannibals and Disney wants to popularise that stigma through the movie.

He said that this portrayal "cannot be perpetuated in movies," and his condemnation is gaining support from other Carib descendants and organisations across the Caribbean.

The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Historical and Archaeological Society has called on movie-goers to boycott the sequel unless the "grossly offensive" scenes depicting the Caribs as cannibals are removed from the script.

According to the society's secretary, Paul Lewis, perpetuating the image of Caribs as cannibals is totally unacceptable to all Caribbean peoples.

"Caribbean scholars and schoolteachers have been waging a ferocious battle for a long time to give the indigenous peoples of the region a fairer and more honest share of its history," he said in a letter to the local media.

Ricardo Bharath, who heads the Carib community in Arima, the Amerindian word for water and the third largest town in Trinidad, has also condemned the sequel.

"I think it is not right. I want to support the chief (in Dominica)," he told IPS. "In all my involvement in the community I have had no experience of our people being described as cannibals. I have listened to stories from the elders, a lot of anthropologists and archeologists and they all stated they found no evidence of cannibalism of our people in the Caribbean region."

"Do you want to know who the real cannibals are? They are the ones in modern-day society who are eating down our mountains, raping the environment, polluting the water courses," he said.

Adonis Christo, the shamaan or medicine man of the Arima Carib community, insists that "the Caribs were hunters, fishermen and farmers. They were nomadic."

"They defended their people, families, and friends. They defended their homes. They defended their lands," he added.

The Caribs here have been researching their history, preserving and practising traditions of their ancestors, including the annual "Smoke Ceremony" each Aug. 1, where they pay tribute to their forefathers with various offerings including tobacco and farine, which is made from cassava and water.

On Oct. 14, the Caribs observe "Recognition Day", joined by their counterparts in Dominica, Suriname and the Arawaks from Guyana.

"We don't eat people. We only eat wild meat," says Valentina Medina, the titular Queen of the Carib Group in Trinidad. (END)

Monday, April 11, 2005

National Garifuna Council of Belize Protests Disney's Cannibalism

Walt Disney Company "Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3" portrayal of Garinagu as cannibals angers the GARIFUNA NATION worldwide

From: Michael Polonio - President, National Garifuna Council of Belize

To: Chief Executive Officer, The Walt Disney Company

500 S. Buena Vista Street Burbank,

CA 91521

Subject: Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3

The National Garifuna Council (NGC) is the legally constituted and recognized representative organization of the Garifuna people of Belize, who, along with other Garinagu in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, are direct descendants of the "Black Caribs" of St Vincent and the lesser Antilles as we are referred to in the English language. We are also, therefore, descendants of the Calinago, the people you call Caribs. It has been brought to our attention that the Walt Disney Company intends to film a movie called "The Pirates of the Caribbean" in which the Caribs or Calinago, the ancestors of the Garinagu (as we refer to ourselves in our language) are portrayed as cannibals. We understand that preparations are underway to commence filming in Dominica in April of this year.

We note on your website that Walt Disney has portrayed itself as a company which upholds the highest Business Standards and Ethics in the conduct of its affairs and, therefore, are at odds to understand why you are involved in the perpetuation of this brutal and unjust myth and wrongdoing against the Calinago (the Caribs) and their descendants. There is no credible scientific evidence or reliable report that the people in question were cannibals.

Our Calinago ancestors were a warrior race who migrated to the lesser islands of the Caribbean from the Amazon region of South America and, as with any warrior race, they engaged in ritualistic practices to encourage fearlessness among warriors. They fought to the death to defend their islands against invaders in the colonial era which followed the arrival of Columbus to our shores, an unfortunate event that changed for the worst the natural evolution and development of indigenous societies of the world in the period that followed.

The myth about cannibalism was started because the Calinago were not intimidated by the European invaders and waged war in the defense of their territory and way of life. For 30 years they held back the British Army, the most modern fighting forces of the world at the time. After the eventual defeat the British suppressed and attempted to wipe the Calinago/Garifuna and their culture off the face of the earth following the conquest of the island of St. Vincent in 1796. Fortunately for mankind, our people and our culture have survived, against all odds, among the descendants of the Garinagu (the Black Caribs) who were forcibly exiled and abandoned on the mainland of Central America in 1797.

If the Walt Disney Corporation is indeed about integrity and truth, then we ask that you desist from filming this movie as currently scripted and that you hold honest, truthful, respectful and constructive consultations with the living descendants of the Calinago (Caribs) in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, St Vincent (known as Yurumien in our language) and Dominica. Ours is a story of epic proportions that needs to be told and we would not mind collaborating with your company in honestly and truthfully relating the Calinago/Garifuna/Carib story.

In May, 2001, the importance of the Garifuna culture (the culture of the Garinagu) to mankind was recognized in the United Nations Proclamation of the Garifuna Language, Dance and Music as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Walt Disney would be making a mockery of that United Nations recognition with the filming and release of your movie portraying our ancestors as cannibals, the worst categorization and dehumanizing assertion that can be made against a proud people whose culture is a testament to good citizenship and independence of spirit.

The National Garifuna Council associates itself with the sentiments of Carib Chief Charles Williams of the Garifuna Territory of Dominica, who asserted that "our ancestors stood up against early European conquerors and because they stood up. We were labeled savages and cannibals up to today. This cannot be perpetuated in movies." We urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to reconsider your position.

The National Garifuna Council of Belize

Tel: 501-502-0639


cc: Honourable Said Musa, Prime Minister of Belize

Honourable Francis Fonseca, Minister of Attorney General and Minister
Education and Culture - Government of Belize

Honourable Assad Shoman, Minister of Foreign Affairs - Government of Belize

His Excellency Russel Freeman, Ambassador, Embassy of the United
States of America, Belize

Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister, Commonwealth of Dominica

Honourable Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Chief Charles Williams, Carib Territory, Commonwealth of Dominica

Lic. Celeo Alvarez Casildo, Presidente ODECO, Honduras

Hon. René M. Baptiste -Minister of Tourism and Culture , St. Vincent
& the Grenadines

Hon. Sylvia Flores - Minister of Human Development, Belize

Her Excellency Ms. Lisa Shoman, Belize Ambassador to U.S., Washington

His Excellency , Mr. Andy V. Palacio, Ambassador for Culture, Belize