A conversation with Professor Julie Klinger (Part 2)

Prof. Klinger responds to questions about collaboration between Yanomami Indigenous Community and Boston University during annual assembly in July 2017 / Bridget Baker

This is the second half of a two-part interview series with Professor Julie Klinger, Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies. The first part was published on our website in November.

Philip Horowitz, M.A. candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy, sat down with Professor Klinger to discuss her research with Yanomami communities and the importance of indigenous voices in the Amazon.

Horowitz: There are some claims that date back to the 1960’s by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon that have given popular discourse many misconceptions of the Yanomami and their culture. How do you think these misconceptions should be addressed in a positive way?

Klinger: So the interesting thing about the Chagnon controversy is how well known it is among the Yanomami people. Napoleon Chagnon’s book sold millions of copies and was reprinted dozens of times. By painting the Yanomami as a fierce people who are cannibals, whose entire economy was based on war and mistreating women – it then fed into the Brazilian military dictatorship’s perception that indigenous people needed to be exterminated or assimilated. That may not have been Chagnon’s intention, but that was the outcome. Rather than work to rectify the damage done by his work or to engage in a productive dialogue with the community, he has instead chosen to do nothing and none of the proceeds from his book went back to any of the communities; they went into building things like vacation homes.

The Yanomami are aware of this, and they’re angry about it. But they have a particular relationship to the state and European-descended society such that this was just one of many instances of abuse that they’ve experienced. The important thing in dispelling negative stereotypes that were unleashed, propagated, or reinforced by Napoleon Chagnon’s work is not to romanticize the Yanomami or any indigenous society. Already, based on my limited experience working with them, it has become clear to me that their society has a lot of the problems and a lot of the power struggles that our society has – particularly when it comes to questions of equality, gendered violence, and many other things.

These issues in some Yanomami communities are familiar for those of us who live in urban America. So the way to address this is the same way we’d go about addressing social injustice just about anywhere. We can start here at home, by addressing injustices among ourselves as well as dispelling the misconceptions held about other people – and that is just as good as working collaboratively with a community on the other side of the world.

Horowitz: In Brazil and Latin America there are thousands of indigenous peoples up to Mexico and through the United States. Your prior and continued research revolves around the extraction of rare earth metals and the geopolitics behind this. In those contexts, what crises are the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples around the world experiencing?

Klinger: There’s a really wonderful scholar of Native American politics named Tom Biolsi who, after years of research and engagement with Native American peoples in the United States, concluded that recognition without some sort of redistribution is meaningless. And what does that mean? That means that in many parts of the world and throughout the Americas, indigenous people have been granted some sort of recognition or special status. And with that has come – often, but not always – some sort of geographical component as well. They might be granted a reservation or constitutionally demarcated lands. So, of course, land recognition is a fundamental need, but without an accompanying redistribution of political and economic rights many indigenous people still remain fundamentally disempowered, unrepresented, and mistreated by the national and state governments in which they live.

The responses to this have been inspiring and incredible over the years. Nonprofits, research groups, and special task forces throughout the Americas have been involved in addressing the chronic problems that emerged from 500 years of brutal oppression. The fight continues for greater political and economic franchise and against legacies of racist and sexist discrimination against indigenous peoples. The Yanomami are distinct in that they have a very high international profile and they’ve been the subject of intense interest within Brazil and overseas, but the issues that they face are quite similar to the issues that are confronted by indigenous peoples in the United States as well: misrepresentation in popular culture, underprovision of services, periodic state or state-sanctioned campaigns to undermine their communities, and so on.

Yanomami leader addresses delegation of government and civil society organizations during annual community assembly, July 2017 / Bridget Baker

Horowitz: You mentioned the neglect of services to a lot of these indigenous peoples. An article that was published in El Pais in 2016 cites the inaccessibility to get vital health services for HIV treatment, Malaria, Zika, and other health-related issues. Are there any solutions to help solve these problems without compromising the integrity and autonomy of the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples?

Klinger: Yes absolutely. I think there is a very clear solution, which is enabling indigenous people interested in practicing medicine to receive the training to do so. That way they can become the doctors and nurses within their own community. This is what they want. I witnessed a Yanomami community assembly in which representatives from various government ministries actually came to the community to talk about various concerns and give updates on varying government programs. What the Yanomami leaders expressed during the assembly was that they want their own people to be trained as teachers so that they are not dependent on missionaries or the goodwill of outsiders to educate them in math and science.

And they also want the members of the community to be trained as doctors and nurses. There has not yet been a Yanomami doctor. When that time comes there will be an obligation on the part of the state to make sure that those doctors are appropriately trained and supported.

I think this is a really clear solution that emerges out of the community’s expressed needs and desires. The solution is not to impose – to build roads, to build clinics in parking lots in the middle of indigenous territories because that brings many problems to the community without empowering it. The solution is to train those who want to be trained and then collaboratively and collectively determine, according to the community’s own consensus structure, how to actually build the infrastructure and provide the services to people who need them.

Horowitz: How do you think using Western medicine will interact with the traditional tribal structure of the Yanomami people where they are heavily reliant on Shaman and Chief status to administer health services to their people?

Klinger: So one of the things tends to happen in health-oriented development work is that we are coming from a mindset that relies on the history of Western-driven medical development. When taking our medical system elsewhere, we can still reproduce a lot of the brutalities and expropriations that went into building our own contemporary medical system. What I mean by this is that at the broader level, Western medicine and indigenous medicine have a rocky history, in which Western medical sciences and practices have historically expropriated, disempowered, and undermined indigenous knowledge. By prohibiting traditional practitioners from collaboratively learning and engaging as equals in treatment plans for local and individual medical problems, it is also removing autonomy from people who want to have a say in their own treatment methods.

Oftentimes when clinics are built by well-intentioned people in these areas, the personnel coming in will position themselves against traditional sources of knowledge like Shamans – and sometimes with valid reasons. Sometimes there are harmful things being imposed upon people with no other options for treatment. But the Yanomami people and the Yanomami women, in particular, understand that the forest serves both as a source of food as well as a pharmacy. In a situation where you and I might take an Ibuprofen, they might use a dozen or so plants brewed into a tea or soup that will give the same effect as a NSAID.  But there are certain diseases that come with exposure to Western civilization that are best treated by Western medicine. Whatever the sickness and whatever the treatment, the Yanomami want to be able to administer care to themselves.

Providing training to the Yanomami people who want to be trained in Western medicine will also help us understand when indigenous medicines will work with Western medicine. We’ve already seen this done in combining Chinese medicine with Western medicine, so we know that it can work in certain cases. We also know that it’s a negotiation. There is a lot of potential for collaboration between traditional and Western medicine – so much so that biopiracy is a real concern. An example is pharmaceutical companies that approach local communities to find out which ingredients are used to create certain effects. Then agents of the companies take samples back to the lab and replicate the effects, reaping huge profits that are not shared with the community that cared for the ecosystem in which the plant was found, or developed the knowledge of its medicinal properties over several centuries. So the challenge is to find ways to solve all of these issues in an ethical and socially responsible way.

Philip Horowitz is a second year graduate student studying International Relations and Environmental Policy at the Pardee School. His research focuses on energy development, climate change, and Latin America.