Life Among the Yanomami


292 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55111-193-4
DDC 306'.089'98





Reviewed by Thomas S. Abler

Thomas S. Abler is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo and the author of A Canadian Indian Bibliography, 1960-1970.


In 1957, a group of Ninam-speaking Yanomami, their four steel tools
nearly worn out, ventured from their isolated homeland down the Mucajai
River to make contact with Brazilians. Known as the Xilixana
(Shirishana), they established three villages on the Mucajai River (soon
reduced to two settlements after the death of a headman) in the hope of
gaining access to a supply of steel tools. In 1958, a Protestant mission
was founded among them. John Peters, one of the missionaries, worked at
the mission until 1967; he then returned to North America to academic
life, earning a Ph.D. in sociology. He has since made several field
trips back to the region. This book reflects the dual focus of his time
spent in Brazil, laboring in a mission enterprise and conducting
research as an academic.

Peters numbers the Yanomami population at 22,000, with 10,000 living in
Brazil and the rest in Venezuela. They speak four or five dialects, with
those speaking Yanomamo in Venezuela being well-known to the
anthropological world through the writings of Napoleon Chagnon. When
Chagnon began his fieldwork in 1963, Peters had already been working
among the Xilixana for nearly five years.

Peters divides Xilixana history into four periods: precontact
(1930–57), contact (1957–60), linking (1961–81), and awareness
(1982–present). This last period was one of particular stress as the
Yanomami found their territory overrun by miners seeking gold and their
people killed by the diseases that those miners brought with them.

The first half of this useful book is a conventional ethnography of the
Xilixana in the contact period. The chapter “Socialization and Life
Stages” is particularly strong; the description of the Xilixana
kinship system is less satisfying. Another section deals with historical
events during the period of Peters’s contact with the Xilixana. The
final chapters present Peters’s views on issues of culture change,
with a particular focus on the roles played by both missionaries and the
government with respect to the health of the Xilixana population. Peters
presents a strong defence of the missionary presence while conceding the
failure of the Mucajai River mission to convert the Natives into
practising Christians.


Peters, John F., “Life Among the Yanomami,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,