David Maybury-Lewis and Cultural Survival: Providing a Model for Public Anthropology, Advocacy, and Collaboration

Article excerpt

In 1972, David Maybury-Lewis and his wife Pia founded Cultural Survival, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.1 At a time when most academic anthropologists were committed to objective social science research, publication, and teaching, David and Pia's efforts were very much outside the mainstream. Their actions were a response to the deteriorating situation of the Brazilian Indians they had studied in the 1960s. Yet the early years of Cultural Survival are a model for what has become public or engaged anthropology-an approach currently recognized as more central and legitimate within our discipline. Documentation, advocacy, and collaboration-three characteristics of Cultural Survival's work-have become regular activities both for a broad range of anthropologists and for the American Anthropological Association, the largest professional association of anthropologists.

The Context

In an early newsletter, David explained how he and Pia came to found Cultural Survival:

"Over twenty years [1958] ago my wife and I took our baby son and went to live with the Shavante Indians of Central Brazil. They had a reputation at that time for being fiercely hostile to outsiders, so that local backwoodsmen gave them a wide berth as they roamed beyond the frontier of Brazilian society. The Shavante accepted our little family, however, and let us live with them, to learn about them and to learn from them...Today [1980] they are still struggling to defend their way of life. The frontier has now caught up with the Shavante and threatens to destroy them. Their lands have been invaded and reduced..... They need help as do hundreds of other small societies throughout the world" (Cultural Survival Newsletter 4:3:12).

The condition of the Xavante and David and Pia's decision to found Cultural Survival seems light years away from the anthropology of the late l950s, when they first visited the Xavante, and 1962, when I arrived at Harvard as a graduate student. Social anthropology (which at the time was part of the Social Relations Department) was a discipline that saw itself as a social science dedicated to the objective and careful study of small-scale societies using field research and participant observation. David had arrived at Harvard, in 1961, fresh from Oxford-one of the British universities where the "real" social anthropology, as developed by Radcliffe- Brown, Evans- Pritchard, and Needham, was practiced. I remember taking copious notes in David's class on "Kinship and Marriage" as he lectured on Lévi-Strauss, Needham, and Leach and their models of cross-cousin marriage. His lectures were clear and elegant. They led me to understand the many ways in which kinship ordered almost all social relationships in indigenous societies. David was one of my dissertation advisors (Evon Vogt served as the other). While most other students were involved in Harvard faculty research projects that took them to Central Brazil, Chiapas, and India, a handful of us conducted research with Native North Americans, groups that had long been studied by US anthropologists and were somewhat "passé" compared to populations in more exotic parts of the world. I conducted my research on residence patterns and cooperation on the Navajo Reservation in 1965-66, and, characteristically, David suggested that I write the chapter on kinship and social organization first, since that would presumably be the heart of the dissertation.

Between 1965 and 1972, the US and the world changed dramatically. The US was increasingly involved in the Vietnam War, spawning a vigorous anti-war movement. We began to see US policy as no longer benevolent and US support for the World Bank and other international institutions as having very negative consequences for the indigenous peoples we studied. On the Navajo reservation, new coal strip mines, power plants, and light manufacturing plants raised environmental and labor issues, while in Brazil, the plans for building a highway in the Northwest frontier area threatened many small indigenous groups who had no land rights and who died from infectious diseases brought by invading settlers. …