York students dominate North American public anthropology contest

The Yanomami people want the blood of their relatives back and a persuasive group of anthropology students from York University is working to voice their concern in the North American media.

Ten students in York Professor Karl Schmid’s Public Anthropology class recently won awards in a Public Anthropology Competition – a North America-wide contest involving more than 4,000 students from 28 schools – for their op-ed letters drawing attention to the Yanomami’s predicament. The struggle highlights many issues, ones that apply not simply to the discipline of anthropology but to all forms of empirical research.

The award winners are: Rachel Prideaux, Celine Gharapetian, Vanessa Knight, Dilani Sriranjan, Julia-Anna Berechet, Jason Baryluk, Tomislav Plazonic, Haseena Manek, Mike McCormack and Niloufar Amin.


Above: Five of the 10 student winners of the Public Anthropology Competition. From left, Julia-Anna Berechet, Celine Gharapetian, Professor Karl Schmid, Vanessa Knight, Niloufar Amin and Tomislav Plazonic. Missing are Dilani Sriranjan, Jason Baryluk, Haseena Manek, Mike McCormack and Rachel Prideaux.

Few people know the plight of the Yanomami people, inhabitants of the rainforests and mountains that straddle the border regions of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. The impasse facing the Yanomami centres on a controversy involving the extraction of blood from members of their population by United States researchers, Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel, in the 1960s and 1970s – ostensibly for the study of the hereditary diseases that were ravaging their population.

An American journalist, Patrick Tierney, has suggested that because Neel’s research was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, the real reason for the blood samples was to examine mutation effects caused by radiation exposure and the Yanomami provided an ideal control group who remained virtually unexposed to the radiation experienced by Western society. Others have suggested it was to determine prehistoric migration patterns. The blood has remained in research laboratories ever since.

Right: A Yanomami elder. Photo courtesy of Professor Robert Borofsky, Hawaii Pacific University.

The Yanomami say they weren’t informed that the blood would be held indefinitely and that it’s against their religious tradition for blood of the deceased to be maintained after a person’s death; it must be returned or destroyed. Their defenders claim the blood was primarily used for research purposes other than those professed. The institutions currently holding the blood – Pennsylvania State University and the US National Cancer Institute – have promised to return it, but have yet to follow through on that pledge.

At the controversy’s foundation lie questions involving the appropriate nature of the relationship between researchers and the subjects of their research – questions of power, respect, reciprocity and informed consent. By extension, what is the responsibility of the public – and in this instance, the students – to speak up on behalf of those who have been wronged by public institutions?

The creator of the competition, Robert Borofsky, an anthropology professor at Hawaii Pacific University, co-developed the concept of public anthropology in an effort to make anthropology accessible to broader audiences, go beyond disciplinary boundaries, address contemporary issues and have real-world results.

Schmid teaches a course on public anthropology. It addresses the role of anthropology in the contemporary world and poses the question: How can anthropology apply its methods and insights to local and global problems of inequality, injustice and human suffering?

"If we’re going to have informed and engaged citizens in our society – and I think we hope for engagement rather than apathy – students somehow need to be practising informed engagement," says Schmid.

In the course, students participate in an online assignment in conjunction with Borofsky’s Public Anthropology Community Action Web site. It requires students to write op-ed articles intended for publication in North American newspapers on a designated, current, ethical issue involving anthropology and the contemporary world. The focus of the assignment is to improve students’ critical thinking and writing skills. This year’s issue addressed the predicament faced by the Yanomami people.

Schmid asked his students to research the issues, decide how they’d tackle the case and then compose an op-ed article that speaks to the general public. The assignment posed several choices of approach to the students, including building the advocate’s case, constructing a counter-argument, taking an intermediate approach that combined the two arguments, or navigating to a different route altogether.

Competition award winners were judged by their student contemporaries across North America. Students were also graded separately for the course on the following critieria: a clear expression of the point of the article, persuasiveness, thoughtful organization, clarity and ease of comprehension by non-academic readers and, finally, a polite and respectful tone – as opposed to righteous indignation.

Plazonic says that writing the op-ed piece helped him to understand more clearly the issues of the case. “I thought it was an interesting assignment. In all my years in school, I have never done anything of the kind,” says Plazonic. “I enjoyed it a lot because I really have an interest in journalism and it allowed me to take my first dive into that field.”

Schmid and his students are submitting the op-ed articles to newspapers and online publications such as social media and blogs in an effort to draw attention to the issues. Some of them are available online.

Submitted by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies