Into The Heart : One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami by Keneth Good and David Chanoff
This book is considered to be a first-hand report of life among the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan Amazon. More than just an ethnography, the author’s original 15-month project extended to more than a decade. An ordinary research of an unknown tribe which was originally the goal of the author turned out to be a great book about a great story of a great man. The author has not expected such a course of events himself but the tribe made a true member out of an observer.
If we look at the cover of the book we might suppose that the book is about a trip into the heart of the Amazon. It is so and we do read the information about what we wanted to know, but the book is even more. The author is the anthropologist who went to the Orinoco River to study an isolated tribe called Yanomama. These people were never encountered by whites before. The author planned to study this tribe, its language, traditions, habits but it turned out vice versa: the Yanomama people spent all their time studying him and his strange foreign ways.
There is an interesting fact about how this research started. The truth is that Ken Good was a graduate student under Napoleon Chagnon who was one of the first to research the life, traditions of the Yanomamo indians. Chagnon wanted Good to do some research (field work) that might help supplement Chagnon’s thesis that that Yanomamo are violent more by nature than culture. No matter the reasons, Dr. Good ends up not only abandoning Chagnon and his research, but went further. In contrast to his professor Dr. Good finds the Yanomamo significantly less violent (by nature or culture) than Chagnon did. So this participant observation study of a primitive group of Indians who live along the Orinoco river in the Amazon neither justified hopes of Changnon, nor left the author an indifferent observer.
We find out a great number of interesting and certainly new facts about this tribe which are presented objectively and represent namely the antrhopological part of the story: unbiased, clear and correct. The Yanomama people live communally and have a different world view than most of us are familiar with. As a result, the Yanomama normative structure is based on their world and culture. It is true that certain patterns may be considered universal, but the content of culture varies. For example, the Yanomama have no concept of privacy which is too strange for our society. Everything they did according to Good was public, except for sex and defecation.
They lived in large circular houses called shapono. There were no walls in these structures, and people arranged themselves by kinship and lineage so that the social organization of the families in the village is reflected in the placement of hearths and hammocks. It is within this structure and the central plaza that nearly all domestic activity takes place: child rearing, food distribution and preparation, trading and feasting, curing and cremation, drug taking of the men, singing and dancing of the women. (p. 33)
Dr. Good referred to the Yanomama as the pain in the neck people instead of the fierce people as Napoleon Chagnon did in his original work of the same title. Dr. Good found the Yanomama’s lack of concern for privacy somewhat difficult to deal with. But he does not criticize. In our culture, privacy and independence are the expected norm and we just can’t imagine our life without these. We even have terms for behaviors that violate such norms such as invasion of privacy and, of course, trespassing. The Yanomama are not viewed as violent or aggressive but rather as highly emotional and acting without (social) constraints. We might call this behavior impulsive.
Another strange thing about this tribe, at least strange from our point of view, is that the Yanomama never use their names in public…they call each other by the appropriate kinship term (father, mother, son, daughter) (p. 52)
We also learn that their numeric system stops at two, and with this quite a short system the Yanomama do not reckon years or ages; but they categorize people simply according to general age groups like infants, children, adolescents, adults, elders. (p. 66)
Their sense of self (women) included lack of concern for the way they appeared to others and judgments about another person were not based on how they looked/appeared. Instead skills in hunting and shamanism were valued. But no matter these judgements still every person was on the very same level as every other one. (p. 80).
Among the Indians, a visit is never just a visit…and trade is always involved. (p. 97) Normally, the Indians don’t like to have their pictures taken since they believe that the image (soul-noreshi) is captured. They were especially irritated when the German scientist Eibel-Eibesfeldt set up a video camera in the middle of the village all day. (p. 137)
In spite of all these strange things, traditions and habits of this small society Dr. Good was to become its member. Good believed that “… the best way to study the Yanomama was to understand the entire cultural context, rather than concentrate solely on the quantitative measurements…wanted to understand them–and I wanted them to understand me…not simply to record what they were doing, but to comprehend what it meant in the context of their lives.” (p. 47) And this is what he managed to do and moreover he made this interesting to read not only for a student or professor of anthropology but for an ordinary reader who does not have a clue about the subject as well.
Dr. Good started with building a special work area and building outside the shapono or tribal communal hut to allow him to work undisturbed, but unfortunately this kept him from getting exactly the kind of information he needed: every-day life.
The author had difficulty learning their language because people spoke really quickly and almost never repeated a word slowly enough for him. The great help here was children and then a new friend whom he called him, “Red.”
Later on, having learnt the language a bit he moved into the shapono to become an integral part of the community. By the middle of the book, the Yanomama had moved into Good’s heart and thi is where the bias part starts. Dr. Good got very personal. This brings us to the next layer of the story. Besides being an anthropological perspective on the Yanomama, it is a fantastic love story. After a few years of living in the Yanomama community, Dr. Good was offered a wife according to the tradition of the tribe. It took him a while to warm to it and her even longer, especially because he had too many strange habits like writing in notebooks and wearing ‘foot coverings. Anyway their love blossomed and the second half of the book is much about a host of difficulties, his trials as he attempted to remain in the Amazon with her and later as he tried to take her with him to his homeland.
For 12 years Good lived among the Yanomama, learned their language, fell in love with one of their women, then found himself in a harrowing life-and-death struggle to keep from losing her. The author did not remain the casual observer, the detached scientist-researcher, but he became a member of that society. A scientist in the field is supposed to observe but not intervene. But Dr. Good put his feelings first.
This book tells about birth and death in Yanomami society, about funeral practices, incest taboos, practising agriculture in the jungle, strange customs such as body painting and other forms of body beautification. Among other things, Dr. Good illustrates notably well and with rare frankness some of the practical, political, and human problems of fieldwork, like maintaining balance between detachment and involvement. For example, he was naturally concerned about companionship and integration into the community where he lived for 12 years. The most important opportunity to satisfy this concern gradually developed with an arranged marriage volunteered by the village headman following the customs of the Yanomami. The betrothal of the Yanomami girl Yarima to Dr. Good began when she was about 12, but the marriage was not consummated until she was several years older. From Yarima’s quotes in the book this relationship clearly evolved into romantic love. Yanomami mature socially at a much earlier age than most Americans and it is not unusual for an older male to marry a much younger female in their society like many others. Thus, this relationship is not worth of criticizing. For that cultural context this relationship was normal.
I find that this book can not be perceived just like an ordinary study of a scientist who had to publish it in order to be even more respected in the society. But it is the book which is worth of attention as an informative edition for both: anthropologists and just readers who just took a look at the cover and their eyes were captured. The both groups will definitely enjoy reading it.
1. Kenneth Good, David Chanoff. Into The Heart : One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami. Pearson Education, 1997.
2. Bobby Matherne. Into the Heart by Kenneth Good. One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomama. Book Review. A reader’s journal, Volume 1. 2002. Retrieved from the Web: September 23, 2004. http://www.doyletics.com/arj1revs.htm#TOC