Secrets of the Tribe

I am an anthropologist.

Sometimes this is a hard thing to say aloud. It certainly was the case this past January when I attended the Sundance premier of Brazilian Director Jose Padilha’s documentary “Secrets of the Tribe.” As one of the anthropologists appearing (very briefly) in this film, I attended the premier and answered audience questions.

As described by the Sundance Film Festival promo, in this documentary “The field of anthropology goes under the magnifying glass in this fiery investigation of the seminal research on Yanomami Indians. In the 1960s and ’70s, a steady stream of anthropologists filed into the Amazon Basin to observe this “virgin” society untouched by modern life. Thirty years later, the events surrounding this infiltration have become a scandalous tale of academic ethics and infighting. The origins of violence and war and the accuracy of data gathering are hotly debated among the scholarly clan. Soon these disputes take on Heart of Darkness overtones as they descend into shadowy allegations of sexual and medical violation. Director José Padilha brilliantly employs two provocative strategies to raise unsettling questions about the boundaries of cultural encounters. He allows professors accused of heinous activities to defend themselves, and the Yanomami to represent their side of the story. As this riveting excavation deconstructs anthropology’s colonial legacy, it challenges our society’s myths of objectivity and the very notion of “the other.”

Truth be told, I dreaded the trip to Sundance to see this film, but I was also compelled to go. Like a number of anthropologists interviewed by Padilha for this film, I really wanted to know how he would edit his hundreds of hours of interviews down to weave together a coherent narrative. What story would this narrative tell? Whose interviews would make the cut, and, more importantly, whose perspectives would ring true? What notions of right and wrong would be depicted? How will a critical examination of events and actions so many decades ago resonate with today’s viewers? What will this movie say about anthropology and the work that anthropologist do? And, at a personal level I worried that my interview, which focused on the question of why the Atomic Energy Commission funded some of the Yanomami research expeditions, would survive the editing process. Was I prepared to see myself on screen? Would there be sufficient context to explain my comments?

None of those interviewed for this film had a sense of what was actually in the final cut (the final edits being completed in Brazil by Padilha only the day before the premier). But all of us knew firsthand that José Padilha is a masterful interviewer. It was obvious from his conversation and questions that he had thoroughly researched this story, the issues, and its cast of characters. And he had a way of presenting questions that made you believe “he understands my point of view” “he is on our side”…. So we relaxed, became uninhibited, and inevitably said things aloud that we might never articulate in print.

In those interviews José Padilha put anthropologists in an unfamiliar position – we were the subjects of his study. I remember thinking, as I closed the door after my 90-minute interview, that maybe I had relaxed too much. I remember watching my colleagues emerge from that interview room. I remember thinking that all of those interviewed for this film would, at one point or another, be captured on camera with a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease.

I was right.

Much of the film focuses on the academic debate over Napoleon Chagnon and his research, the validity of his data, his representations of the Yanomami, and whether his field work praxis constituted gross ethical breaches. In juxtaposing the academic debates with Yanomami experience, this film allows the viewer to consider and question the underlying issues in this depiction of science/subject relationships. It raises important questions of why research was conducted, how was it funded, the ethical dimensions of fieldwork praxis, how the research was used (or intended to be used), who profited, and who paid the price?

Dennis Harvey’s review in the Hollywood magazine Variety describes the film as an inside look at the seamier side of anthropology:

The anthropological field resembles a vipers’ nest of ethical breaches and academic backstabbing in “Bus 174” helmer Jose Padilha’s “Secrets of the Tribe.” This eye-opening docu views several decades of questionable research and behavior that ultimately rendered Amazonian Brazil’s Yanomami — once considered the last, “purest” primitive society untouched by outside influence — bitterly cynical toward First World interlopers …

The major adversaries here are two well-known U.S. authorities on the subject. Napoleon Chagnon began studying the Yanomami in the 1960s, penning the popular tome “Yanomamo: The Fierce People,” which described bloody intertribal wars. But his data, conclusions and tactics (plus involvement in a reckless spread of Western diseases) have been seriously questioned. Ardent foe Kenneth Good’s books sparked a flood of New Age-y media portraying Yanomami as peaceful innocents, but Good was criticized for marrying a 13-year-old tribeswoman. Levi-Strauss protege Jacques Lizot (who refused to be interviewed) allegedly traded Western goods (even guns) for pederastic sexual services. Colleagues both supportive and appalled are featured in this fascinating assembly of heated debate and archival footage.

This is a pretty good summation. In “Secrets of the Tribe” Padilha exposes the secrets of my tribe, of anthropologists. It is true we are an intellectual enterprise that is based on a researcher-subject relationship that has been, in far too many instances, horribly exploitative. Such experiences prompted Native American scholar/activist Vine De Loria to pen his famous critique of the discipline, in his 1969 book Custer Died for Your Sins.

It is true that when complaints are voiced by the subjects of research, acknowledgement and accountability has been rarely achieved and institutional or disciplinary indifference has been a historic norm — as was the case with the involvement of anthropologists in Japanese internment camps, as pointed out by David Price in his 2008 book Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War.

It is true that the academic enterprise is often funded and used for horrific purposes. As Gretchen Schafft clearly demonstrates in her 2004 book From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich anthropological theory helped shape some of Hitler’s most infamous policies, and anthropologists were employed by the Third Reich to identify racial traits and determine who was sent to the concentration camps – who lived and who died.

And it is true that this episode in our history – Cold War era human population research with indigenous groups in the Amazon, the varied social impacts of such research, and the broader ethical questions raised about praxis, scientific responsibility, and accountability — is, to this day, the subject of heated debate.

The “tribe” in the film’s title, however, is not simply an “anthropology” tribe, but the more diverse group of scientists who study human populations. Thus, the film also pays considerable attention to the 1968 Amazonian research expedition led by James V. Neel, a geneticist whose earlier accomplishments included establishing the genetic basis for sickle cell anemia and the research design for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, including it’s study of pregnancy outcomes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.

Neel’s 1968 trip up the Amazon had as its’ goal the collection of population-wide data on the human biology and social relationships of Yanomami to contribute towards his study of genetic evolution (gene frequency changes in human populations). To achieve his research goal of assessing “the rate of mutation of new alleles, selection of genes in various environments, as well chance genetic events and founder effects in small populations” he needed definitive interpretations of “data on inbreeding, effective population size, differential fertility, age pyramids, and survival curves as well as an accurate assessment of health and disease in the population under study” (as noted in the American Society of Human Genetics 2002 “Response to Allegations Against James V. Neel in Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney). To conduct such work, Neel’s 1968 expedition team included geneticists, cultural and physical anthropologists, physicians, linguists, and statisticians.

The role of anthropologist, in this case a new PhD named Napoleon Chagnon, was that of the culture broker and research facilitator — to gather the information on who is related to whom (and thus properly code the genetic relationship between biosamples), and to develop rapport and soothe tensions in ways that allowed the scientists to get their data.

Neel’s 1968 expedition into Yanomami territory is presented in the film as an episode of human subject experimentation with disastrous consequences. Research was conducted with an isolated community, sought out explicitly because of their relatively minimal contact with the broader world. This isolation produced a well-known vulnerability to disease, including and especially the measles that was reported to be in the lower reaches of the Amazon.

With modern interview footage of the Yanomami, and historical and archived footage of the scientists on their 1968 expedition, Padilha takes the viewer up the river and into the village, where we listen to scientists and subjects, and watch the story of the measles epidemic and its consequences unfold. In the words of the scientists – Yanomami exposure to measles was inevitable. A vaccination effort was attempted with problematic results. The audience watches medical exams and biosampling, and realizes that these intimate acts were conducted by people who themselves were ill. Neel had upper respiratory illness that he thought was influenza. Another team member had dysentery. Another had malaria. The audience also sees imagery of ill Yanomami and hears scientists discuss the outbreak of high fevers. The epidemic, and the growing fear amongst the scientific team that their presence and activities were helping to spread measles to an unexposed population, are depicted in painful detail. Interviews with Yanomami survivors make it clear that the impact of this measles epidemic was profound, involving many deaths, with lasting social repercussions.

This film is not, however, simply a depiction of how Atomic Energy Commission-funded scientists collected and interpreted human population data. Nor, is it singularly focused on anthropologists and their arguments over theory, data, ethics. This is also a film, as the camera lens reminds the viewer again and again, about the Yanomami. A truly difficult story of what it is like to play host to scientific aliens in a Yanomami world is, with the inclusion of Yanomami voice, laid out in graphic terms. Their experience, so clearly depicted and recounted, cuts through the mud and muck of academic debate.

I was very grateful for the way in which Padilha tells this story, not simply from one vantage point or another, but, holistically — in our own words.

I was also frustrated, as I suppose many involved in this enterprise will be, as there was such minimal attention to what I saw to be the central question: why was the Atomic Energy Commission funding this sort of research in the Amazon?

The answers to this question lie in the very large and very alarming record of human radiation experimentation conducted by the United States. Declassified after the Clinton-era Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experimentation, this record was available on the web between 1997-2001 when the Bush Administration began to remove key documents and, in 2003, shut down the website on the grounds that such information constituted a threat to security. (Hard copies of this record are still available at George Washington University’s National Security Archive). The Atomic Energy Commission and other US agencies and departments funded numerous Cold War-era human population research projects with indigenous communities serving as human subjects in experiments involving the administration of radioisotopes with research goals that included, among other things, how the human body functioned at different altitudes, adjusted to intense cold, and what role was played by thyroid in this process (the thyroid being especially vulnerable to injury from the uptake of radioiodine present in the nuclear weapons fallout that was then blanketing the globe). These and other research questions — such as how radioisotopes move through the environment, food chain, and human body, and to what effect — led to US-funded research using biologically-discrete populations who largely live off the land: Indigenous groups living in the Amazon, Andes, Arctic, Pacific and the American Southwest.

Ah, but this is the stuff of a bigger story that perhaps may be told in some future film. Clearly, Padilha had more than enough on his plate with the consequences and controversies surrounding the 1968 Yanomami expedition.

Audience questions asked of the producer Mike Chamberlain following the screening included: Do anthropologists still work in such fashion? Is the conflict between scientific anthropology and humanist anthropology still ongoing? And, what has been the response to this history from the anthropological establishment? Good questions.

In response to the circa 2000 media attention to these stories of professional misconduct and human rights abuse, some universities and organizations issued a defense of the scientists and their research. The American Anthropological Association adopted a strategy of broad inquiry, reconciliation, and remedy, producing a report on the controversy that found, among many other things, that the 1968 expedition played a role in intensifying a measles epidemic; that biomedical research with Yanomami subjects was conducted without attention to the principles of informed consent then in effect, including the lack of informed consent in collecting blood and other tissue samples, and lack of informed consent in giving radioiodine injections. Draft versions of the report were posted on the web for members to comment and provide additional information. The final report and its recommendations — including guidance for ethical praxis — was presented to the membership and adopted by a formal vote.

This action produced a reaction. Arguing that the role of scientists in introducing or spreading the measles outbreak amongst the Yanomami had been discredited by reputable scientists and scientific organizations, and with concern that the problem-focused participatory and collaborative research recommendations adopted by the AAA would weaken the science of anthropology, some AAA members drafted proposals to rescind the recommendations. In the spring of 2005 a ballot was sent to the AAA membership (arriving as many members were packing to leave, or had left, for summer fieldwork).

The vote, 846 to 338, approved the referendum and remedial mechanisms, including the ethical praxis recommendations were repealed. Eligible voting membership at that time was 11, 340. Some 89.6% of the membership failed to cast their ballot.

So here we sit, in the year 2010. A new film raises up again the old arguments and recirculates the controversies involving scientific research in the Amazon. In telling the secrets of my tribe, Padilha leaves the viewer keenly aware of the social responsibility associated with working with human subjects – especially the unique vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples – and the ease in which such responsibilities can be and have been ignored, discarded, abused. And, viewers wonder, is this history? Or, is this a view of current anthropological praxis?

At some levels, this is history. Human population research with any group, including the Yanomami, is conducted today under very different terms. Meaningful informed consent is the core element of those terms, and often such work is designed and developed in ways that reflect the human needs of the research subject. And, despite the vote to rescind “Darkness in El Dorado” recommendations over the past decade there has been explosive interest in professional ethics, as indicated not only by papers at annual meetings, but more importantly, by the number of course taught each year on the subject and on this controversy.

Yet, then again, while teachers teach and students learn, Yanomami grievances, for many reasons, have yet to be meaningfully addressed. Resurgent gold mining, dam construction, and other development all threaten the ability of the Yanomami to survive and thrive. Life remains precarious.

And, taking a broader look at the social impact of anthropology in today’s world, the questions raised by this film are echoed in critiques of current praxis. The core elements of anthropology’s ethical code are the obligation to secure free and prior informed consent and the commitment to do no harm. Today’s ethical norms strive towards research that not only occurs with informed consent, it is problem-focused — shaped in collaborative ways to address problems and needs of mutual concern. Such an approach is impossible when research is defined, funded, and used by more powerful actors in non-transparent ways.

Consider the role of anthropologists in assisting the US military and their efforts to secure valuable data from vulnerable communities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The role of the anthropologist, like that in the 60s era Atomic Energy Commission-funded research expeditions, is that of the culture broker and research facilitator. The anthropologist develops rapport and soothes tensions in ways that allow their military companions to get their data. Given that the research objectives, the setting, and the conduct of “researchers” and subjects is defined or dictated by an external authority – in this case, the military – compromises and ethical quandaries become the norm.

This point is illustrated in David Price’s interview with John Allison, a recently resigned trainee in the Human Terrain Systems program, who describes “Ethnographic Field Methods” training as including the minimalist guidance that: “Consent is implied by the continued participation” of the ‘informant’, and also, by those who join in the discussion without an invitation.” Price notes, “Not only is this a predatory standard of consent, but it runs counter to the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report, and US federal research consent

There is considerable irony here. “Secrets of the Tribe” depicts a scandal involving the human consequences of scientific research amongst the Yanomami that had the potential to push anthropology — and the other sciences and governments in which such research was funded and conducted — to develop an honest accounting of past abuses, their ramifications, and to construct meaningful remedial measures. These remedial actions included ethical guidance on how to structure research with vulnerable peoples in rights-protective ways. Instead, while the need is so apparent, guidance is ineffective, and accountability appears elusive.

About the film

“Secrets of the Tribe” premiered at the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah on January 22, 2010. Directed by José Padilha and distributed by HBO and BBC, this documentary will air later this year.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an environmental anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. Full disclosure: I have not conducted research with the Yanomami or other indigenous groups in the Amazon. I was interviewed for this film because of my knowledge of the declassified record of human radiation experimentation. The question of why the Atomic Energy Commission funded the Amazonian research of James Neel and others is addressed in greater detail in my chapter “more like us than mice … Radiation experiments with indigenous peoples” in Half-lives and Half-truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War edited by BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON (SAR Press 2007). Email:






Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.