Kenneth Good:
Love Among the Yanomama

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 1991

Nothing can halt the destruction of the Yanomama Indian culture in the heart of South American rain forests. But Kenneth Good doesn't have to like it.

Good, a top anthropologist, is an expert on the Yanomama, a Stone Age tribe that makes its home in the Amazon River basin and surrounding areas of Venezuela and Brazil. But the Yanomama, who were untouched by the outside world for centuries, are being forced to confront modern civilization. "They're doomed," Good said, shrugging his shoulders.

Good, whose family lives in Lancaster County, Pa., also has close familial ties to the Yanomama. His wife, Yarima, is the only member of the tribe to leave permanently for the "outside world." That's partly why Good is eager to discuss the survival of the Indian tribe, both in its harsh environment and in the face of encroaching Western civilization.

"The first they survived very well, in a very beautiful, intricate way," he said. "The second, they won't survive. It's inevitable. ... What traditional culture has survived once contact occurs?"

Good contacted the Yanomama first in 1975 while doing field work for his doctorate. He was supposed to stay with them for 15 months. He ended up living with them for more than six years, spread over a 15-year period. He visited about 20 Yanomama villages, 13 of which had never before seen an outsider.

Eventually, the tribe offered Good a wife. Tribal marriages are arranged by elders, he explained, but they are not binding if a couple doesn't get along. He accepted the proposal. "I figured I'd eventually go home and that would be that," he said. "But it didn't happen that way. The relationship developed and we stayed together."

Now with three children from the marriage, Yarima is adapting to U.S. culture. "She thought the whole world was an Amazon jungle. She had never even walked on a flat surface before," he said. "Now she's learned to use appliances."

Like her, Yarima's tribe is assimilating new things. Through trade, even the most remote Yanomama villages have steel machetes and axes, fishhooks and lines, matches and other modern conveniences. Some tribes have shotguns. Already, Good said, traditions have been lost. For instance, the art of making clay pots was forgotten after aluminum pots were introduced.

"Should they be brought into the 20th century?" Good asked. "They still believe all disease and death is caused by evil spirits. How are you going to explain TV? They don't understand."

While some people argue the tribes should be left alone, Good said that, pragmatically, is impossible. "You can't keep these people isolated in a park," he said.

Most outside contact with the Yanomama has been in Brazil, he said, where ranching and mining are big industries. Oil-rich Venezuela has left much of the rainforest alone.

Rainforests are being destroyed by ranchers and natural water sources are being poisoned by gold miners, he said. But if the United States complains, South America points a finger right back. "We're about to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of a holocaust," Good said, referring to the Columbus expedition of 1492 and the North American Indian genocide that followed.

Brazil alone is bigger than the continental United States, he said, and much of it is wild Amazonian rainforest. "They want to conquer their frontier." Rainforests comprise more species of plants and animals than the rest of the world combined, Good said. Many are rapidly becoming extinct. Noting that many rainforest plants are used in medicines, he said the cure for AIDS may be destroyed in today's forest burning.

Even if South American governments moved to protect the rainforests and their inhabitants, individuals can still wreak destruction. "It's the law of the jungle, there's no one there to control anything," he said. "If you want to shoot an Indian out of a tree, you shoot an Indian out of a tree. And that's what they're doing."

Good's experiences with the tribe are outlined in his book, Into the Heart. In it, he stresses the tribe's unfair reputation as "the fierce people" of South America. "They are a very warm, affectionate people," he said. While the Yanomama can be fierce fighters, and raids on neighboring tribes are not uncommon, Good said his wife in America "is astounded on a daily basis by what human beings are capable of doing to each other."

[ by Tom Knapp ]



Buy Into the Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomama from Amazon.com.