Courtesy Survival International
Davi Kopenawa, an internationally respected Yanomami leader

Yanomami of Brazil Honor Return of Stolen Blood

Rick Kearns

Yanomami activists fought to get their blood returned from United States anthropologists who took the samples from Yanomami people in Brazil and Venezuela in the ‘60s and then sent the samples to the U.S. for experiments without their leaders’ consent; the blood was returned recently and then honored in a ceremony in Brazil.

Yanomami leaders returned the blood of their family members to the earth in a ceremony honoring the ancestors on Friday, April 3, a week after finally receiving the thousands of blood samples from U.S. universities that held the blood for the last several decades.

The ceremony was held in a Yanomami community house in the village of Toototobi that sits on the edge of Amazonas state bordering Venezuela.

RELATED: ‘We Don’t Want to Die Again’: Yanomami Leader Kopenawa

Over 100 Yanomami people attended the ceremony along with representatives of the Federal Public Ministry, the National Indian Foundation (known as FUNAI in Brazil), the Special Secretary of Indigenous Health, the Socio-Environmental Institute and others.

During and after the actual returning of the blood into the ground, Yanomami people performed traditional dances and songs to celebrate the event.

Before the blood samples were returned to sacred ground, Davi Kopenawa, an internationally respected Yanomami leader, spoke about the people involved and Yanomami traditions.

“Many of the family members who had blood stolen died in the measles epidemic,” Kopenawa explained in a press statement before the ceremony. “Also there are survivors of the epidemic in Toototobi. We are going to remember those kin that died and we will make a great lament [a group crying together in a private space]. Then we will inter those remains as blood in a hole that will be capped. That place will become sacred to the Yanomami people.”

The village of Toototobi was also one of the places where controversial anthropologists Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel took blood samples from children like Kopenawa and others, as part of their studies of the Yanomami. The sampling took place sometime in the late 1960s according to various sources.

“Those Americans stole our blood at the time when I was little, less than 10 or 11 years old. They took my blood too,” Kopenawa recounted. “They didn’t tell us anything in our language about the tests they were going to make. No one knew that they were going to do research with our blood.”

It wasn’t until the publication in 2000 of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by author Patrick Tierney, that people all over the world learned about various accusations against Neel and Chagnon, along with some details about their studies that included the removal of blood samples from close to 3,000 Yanomami people.

Tierney's book became famous quickly and among those paying attention were Yanomami leaders and officials in both Brazil and Venezuela. Government officials and activists in both countries started investigations into assertions made in the book, including charges –that have been disputed-- that Neel and Chagnon made the measles epidemic worse by administering the wrong vaccines.

By 2001 Yanomami leaders and allies including anthropologists started to demand that the blood samples be returned to the community. Due to problems with how the blood was stored, and the possibility that some of the blood samples could have been infected and therefore hazardous, the return process was seen to be very difficult according to scientists in the U.S. who had been given some of the samples.

In 2009 the Prosecutor of the State of Roraima in Brazil formally requested the return of the blood samples and by 2010 several U.S. institutions began the process of returning them.

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