[Life among the Yanomami. the Story of Change among the Xilixana on the Mucajai River in Brazil]

By Peters, John F.; Gates, Marilyn | Anthropologica, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

[Life among the Yanomami. the Story of Change among the Xilixana on the Mucajai River in Brazil]


Peters, John F., Gates, Marilyn, Anthropologica


The best ethnographers are often sensible, yet sensitive people, with a well-developed appreciation of the absurd. These are particularly valuable traits for a field worker engaged in long-term research in an isolated area, far from the everyday amenities of Western life, among people who are very much "the other." When the focus of study is the Yanomami of Brazil's Amazonia, originally characterized by Napoleon Chagnon as "the fierce people," common sense, humour and a high level of empathy become, more than assets, central to survival. In "Life among The Yanomami," John Peters shows us how, in a society where violence and deceit are endemic and warfare plays a central role such that at least 40% of the men are "murderers" and 90% "potential murderers," (p. 35) "despite vast differences in culture, you develop strong, lasting friendships" (p. 58). Amid the controversy provoked by Patrick Tierney's recent allegations of abuse of the Yanomami by anthropologists, Peters' very human, balanced and, paradoxically, gentle portrayal of the Mucajai River Xilixana is an especially welcome exemplar of ethical ethnographic norms.(1)

"Life among The Yanomami" is a comprehensive, complex and finely textured study. There is rich ethnographic detail of a traditional way of life organized in the conventional categories--village life and social culture; making a living off the land; family and social organization; socialization and life stages; myths, spirits and magic. And, of course, there is a section on warfare, raids and revenge, which have captured the anthropological imagination, perhaps because they seem so very different from Western battles for land or political control. Rather, protein deficiencies, competition over women, reproduction needs, the quest for steel goods, revenge for past raids and sorcery have been posited as explanations for intervillage killings embedded in a matrix of cultural norms wherein "violence seems always just a breath away" (p. 207).

The portrayal of culture is always dynamic, however, with an emphasis on the impact of social change over the four decades since contact with frontier Brazilians was initiated by the Xilixana in 1957. We see how the Xilixana coped with initial exposure to missionaries, more recent interactions with miners, and the intervention of government and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).

The constant presence of missionaries in the region since the contact era is a central thread running through the narrative. Peters first went to Brazil in 1958 as a young missionary charged with setting up a new mission station. He spent most of the next eight years living among the Xilixana, with his wife and family (four of their five children were born during that time) before returning to North America for graduate studies. He has since visited the community frequently to conduct field research. Consequently, he is in an excellent position to assess both how the missionaries have changed the Yanomami and how the Yanomami have changed the mission project. The Yanomami have come to rely on the trade goods, medical aid, brokerage and social life available at the missions, but "the Jesus way" itself seems incompatible with the community-structured context of violence and justice. "The Xilixana considered the missionary's Jesus to be something of a wimp" (p. 201). The missionaries now downplay the evangelical priority of the early years and are more inclined to see their very presence in the area as witness to the Christian message of hope and caring.

Relations between the Xilixana and miners have been far less cordial. The miners have, at best, asked for food in exchange for Western goods, or hired Yanomami men as labourers. At worst, they used Yanomami women as prostitutes, brought diseases and contaminated the Mucajai River with mercury. At times, these interactions led to bloodshed, as the Yanomami seemed to live up to their fierce reputations via revenge killings, although Peters maintains that Chagnon's description of a "fierce people" is appropriate only for the 1900-80 period (p.

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