Reflecting on the Yanomami: Ethnographic Images and the Pursuit of the Exotic

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Essay Excerpt

For two decades the Yanomami,at least in the United States, have been Napoleon Chagnon's Fierce People. They have caught the academic and popular imagination ever since Chagnon put them on the map with the publication of his monographin 1968. For 30 years the Yanomami have been visited by film crews, linguists, anthropologists, geographers, not to mention missionaries, from a good many places: Germany, the United States, Britain, France, Brazil, Venezuela, Italy, Switzerland, Japan. Chagnon was neither the first nor the last among them, but his book has had more impact than all the others added together.

Being recognized as the largest indigenous group in the Americas still little touched by drastic changes from the outside world has been a mixed blessing for the Yanomami. They have been the object of fantasies both in film and book form, of journalistic sensationalism as well as of vast political campaigns in defense of their human rights. I want to discuss the phenomenon of image creating by taking the Yanomami as the focus of attention of three ethnographers who have done extensive fieldwork among them throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. 


My intentionis not to do a biography of these ethnographers, a project for which I have neither the competence nor a special interest. What I am proposing to do is a personal reading of their works that would allow me to see them through the images they built of the Yanomami: their choice of genre and style, of themes, of emphases, of theoretical models, of conclusions, hoping to understand why it is that with each new book or thesis a new face of the Yanomami is drawn. It is, in short, a tricky exercise in seeing the ethnographer through the eyes of his own creation. Being a Yanomami ethnographer myself, my position is not that of an impartial onlooker, but what one might call a "privileged observer."  (Ramos, 284-286)

About the Author 

Alcida Rita Ramos, Brazilian anthropologist, received her Ph.D. in 1972, did fieldwork among the Sanumá sub-group of the Yanoama in 1968-1970, 1973 and 1974, focussing her research primairily on social oranization, and on the inter-tribal relation between the Sanumá and the Maiongong, their Carib-speaking neighbors. From February to Jly 1975 she lived with the Yanomam Indian of the Catrimani river valley, carring our research for the anoama Project. In 1972 she taught at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, and from 1972 to 1977 at la Universidad De Brasília.  She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Glasgow. 

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