Cultural Anthropology

Blood Owners Yanomami or Anthropologists



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For decades the Yanonami, a group native to the rainforests between Brazil and Venezuela, have welcomed anthropologists onto their lands and, in return, have received broken promises from researchers. Around forty years ago, American researchers acquired consent from the Yanonami to collect blood samples from members of the indigenous group with a pledge that the research would help relieve the Yanonami from local common illnesses. Though consent was acquired in the late 1960s, the current indigenous group is demanding the return of the blood samples that belong to their deceased ancestors. Because the original agreement between the researchers and the Yanonami is unclear, it is difficult to conclude whom should keep the blood.

If researchers revealed the true purpose of the blood collection to the Yanonami of the 1960s, then they should not be held accountable for violating anthropological research ethic. Since it was not until recently that the Yanonami began to demand for the return of the ancestral blood, it is possible that the Yanonami blood donors of the 1960s knew that their blood samples would be kept , even after their death, for research. Regardless of whether anthropologists kept their promise to help the Yanonami battle local illnesses, the Yanonami blood donors gave their consent to aid anthropologists in their research. It is also important to question if it is up to the living Yanonami to make decisions for the ancestors that chose to donate blood for research.

Logically, if anthropologists failed to inform the Yanonami that the blood samples would be used to track ancient migration patterns and not be destroyed, then the Yanonami have the right to claim their ancestor's property, their blood. Following this argument, Pennsylvania State University and the National Cancer Institute continue to delay the return of the blood samples with the excuse that they are awaiting a legal and written clearance from the Brazilian Attorney General. The university and the institute do not want to return the blood samples in fear that it might affect the Yanonami with deadly illnesses; but the Federal University of State of Para, after returning their portion of the blood samples to the Yanonami, reported no harm. Thus, the process in returning the blood samples to the Yanonami seems never-ending.

The ongoing debate on who should keep the blood seems as eternal as the return process itself due to the vague contract created between the Yanonami and the anthropologists of the 1960s. Even though anthropologists followed the doing no harm ethic when collecting the blood samples, participant observation should have been indicative that the Yanonami would want the blood destroyed as part of their rituals. It is my guess, that the Pennsylvania State University and the National Cancer Association are returning the blood samples out of respect, a sign of mutual understanding and want to retain the lengthy connection between the Yanonami indigenous group and anthropologist researchers.

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