I feel a bit international today. I came across this post and I haven't belly laughed as much for a long time. Well certainly since yesterday when the comment from LukeH after Mr trotters poem really deserves to be in the top 10 classic comments of the year. I hope someone compiles a list that we, in the blogosphere, can all vote on.
Anyway back to the very funny post. And what was so funny about it? The superiority of the coloniser against the colonised is always assumed. But many indigenous people actually have a sense of humour and play the coloniser against their own prejudices and preconcieved ideas of superiority.
"1. Chagnon meets the Yanomamo:
My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Mr. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away and wondered how many of them had died during his absence. I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my notebook was still there and felt personally more secure when I touched it.
The entrance to the village was covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. We pushed them aside to expose the low opening to the village. The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamo was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage into the village clearing.
I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose. The mucus is always saturated with the green powder and they usually let it run freely from their nostrils. My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth hit me and I almost got sick. I was horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you? They put their weapons down when they recognized Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances…
As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with these people before I had even seen what they were like. I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be left alone with the Yanomamo; I did not speak a word of their language, and they were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from physics and engineering in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the bareto were biting me, and I was covered with red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many very pushy Yanomamo men. These examinations capped an otherwise grim day. The men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Barker how to say, ‘Your hands are dirty’; my comments were met by the Yanomamo in the following way: They would ‘clean’ their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, grin, and then proceed with the examination.
2. The Yanomamo make a fool of Chagnon:
At first I tried to use kinship terms alone to collect genealogies, but Yanomamo kinship terms, like the kinship terms in all systems, are ambiguous at some point because they include so many possible relatives (as the term ‘uncle’ does in our own kinship system). Again, their system of kin classification merges many relatives that we ’separate’ by using different terms: They call both their actual father and their father’s brother by a single term, whereas we call one ‘father’ and the other ‘uncle.’ I was forced, therefore, to resort to personal names to collect unambiguous genealogies or ‘pedigrees’. They quickly grasped what I was up to and that I was determined to learn everyone’s ‘true name’, which amounted to an invasion of their system of prestige and etiquette, if not a flagrant violation of it. They reacted to this in a brilliant but devastating manner: They invented false names for everybody in the village and systematically learned them, freely revealing to me the ‘true’ identities of everyone. I smugly thought I had cracked the system and enthusiastically constructed elaborate genealogies over a period of some five months. They enjoyed watching me learn their names and kinship relationships. I naively assumed that I would get the ‘truth’ to each question and the best information by working in public. This set the stage for converting my serious project into an amusing hoax of the grandest proportions. Each ‘informant’ would try to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more preposterous or ridiculous than what I had been given by someone earlier, the explanations for discrepancies being “Well, he has two names and this is the other one.’ They even fabricated devilishly improbable genealogical relationships, such as someone being married to his grandmother, or worse yet, to his mother-in-law, a grotesque and horrifying prospect to the Yanomamo. I would collect the desired names and relationships by having my informant whisper the name of the person softly into my ear, noting that he or she was the parent of such and such or the child of such and such, and so on. Everyone who was observing my work would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterical laughter as I clumsily pronounced the name, sometimes laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The ‘named’ person would usually react with annoyance and hiss some untranslatable epithet at me, which served to reassure me that I had the ‘true’ name. I conscientiously checked and rechecked the names and relationships with multiple informants, pleased to see the inconsistencies disappear as my genealogy sheets filled with those desirable little triangles and circles, thousands of them.
My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”
And so on. Blood welled up to my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort, and I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get. I understood at that point why the Bisaasi-teri laughed so hard when they made me repeat the names of their covillagers, and why the ‘named’ person would react with anger and annoyance as I pronounced his ‘name’ aloud."