Yanomami Mami A young anthropologist working in the Amazon jungle has no idea what he's in for — nor the impact it will have on his family for generations.

Yanomami Mami

Yanomami Mami

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A young anthropologist working in the Amazon jungle has no idea what he's in for — nor the impact it will have on his family for generations.


Welcome back to the SNAP. This is "The Return" episode. Today we're exploring the urge to go back - to go back in time, to go back in place and to go back to the people that matter. We're going to travel to Venezuela, where an intrepid young anthropologist went in search of isolation and adventure, and he found something else entirely.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: When David Good was a little boy, his mom wasn't around. So he had no mom at soccer practice or to help with homework.

DAVID GOOD: Eventually people got curious. They wanted to find out, you know, where's your mom? I told people that my mom died in a car crash.

SUSSMAN: The truth was she had left her family, her husband and her three kids when David was 5 years old. And as he got older, he couldn't handle his anger.

D. GOOD: It got to a point where I realized that I can't keep going on like this, you know, hating myself on and on. You know, you think, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? I'm going to hide from myself? That's pretty much how it culminated into that decision to go find my mom, to reunite with her.

SUSSMAN: David, what was your biggest fear in going to find your mom?

D. GOOD: My biggest fear - getting shot with a bow and arrow (laughter). I was afraid I was going to get caught in a raid or something, and you hear all these stories - getting shocked by electric eels or getting attacked by a jaguar. I had a lot of fears to think about.

SUSSMAN: David's mom is a member of the Yanomami tribe. See, David's dad, Ken Good, is an anthropologist, and in 1975 he traveled by canoe through the rapids of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, deep into the Amazon jungle, trying to find the Yanomami people.

KEN GOOD: The Yanomami are very, very basic in the way they live. They have no clothes. They only count to two. They have no musical instruments. They're just living in a state of nature in the Amazon forest.

SUSSMAN: Ken's teacher Napoleon Chagnon had written about the Yanomami, describing them as fierce and prone to war and violence. After days of traveling by canoe and on foot, Ken finally met the Yanomami on the banks of the river. He didn't speak any Yanomami.

K. GOOD: I pulled up in my outboard canoe, and of course they hear outboard motor from a mile away and they came running down. And they were all there and excited, and they were just there looking and chatting and just talking to me in Yanomami. They had no idea there were other languages. They called me acaborebu, which means ghost tongue. They would stand outside my hut to look through the palm slats and laugh, and everything about me was funny. I take my socks off, and they laughed because my toes were squeezed together from wearing shoes since I was 2 and theirs were more splayed from never wearing shoes.

SUSSMAN: He was supposed to stay with the Yanomami for 15 months, but he started to learn the language. He moved into their communal home. He ended up staying for 12 years.

K. GOOD: It was just so nice to be there. And I felt so good and happy. There was nothing to ask for.

SUSSMAN: After a few years, some local men had something to ask of him. They wanted him to kind of join their family.

K. GOOD: One day, the headman of the village, he came to me and he says, you can't stay here all the time without having a wife. I just laughed, you know. He kept insisting that I take his younger sister, and I don't know how old she was. I'm guessing she was about 12 or 13. Now, betrothed is simply what happens, when - simply say she's going to be your wife someday. It's sort of like a promise. I said you know, no, no, I can't do that. So the headman who was insisting, her older brother - and he was quite a strong-willed guy, so I said OK, she's my wife.

SUSSMAN: Ken figured it was purely a ceremonial engagement, a formality until he went back home.

K. GOOD: I figured, I'll go home whenever I do, and that'll be the end of that.

SUSSMAN: So the girl's name was Yarima (ph), and he would go with her family on trips into the jungle.

K. GOOD: We had fun. We used to go hunting and gathering out on the trail. I was so caring about her in every little regard - if she got a cut on her toe or something - and everything. And I realized I was thinking about her all the time.

SUSSMAN: Their relationship developed over the course of many years. This is what Yarima said about that time, as transcribed by Ken. At dawn and dusk I thought about Kenny. I remembered how he would carry me on his back. She said, I brought food to his hammock, and he would always smile. She talked about missing him terribly when he would go away.

K. GOOD: You know, how can a Ph.D. candidate from a Western culture marry an Amazonian native woman who has never been out of the jungle and thought the whole world was an Amazon jungle? I couldn't conceptualize it. That's the way it went. But things changed; it was totally unexpected. Sometimes emotions are difficult to describe. I just fell in love with her.

SUSSMAN: I asked Ken what the age difference was between them when they made their marriage official.

K. GOOD: I don't like to talk about it. You're the first interview I've done almost 20 years. Why should I have to talk about when I consummated my marriage?

SUSSMAN: He says he believes she was about 15 or 16 when they first consummated their marriage. He's taken a lot of criticism for this over the years.

Ken, what's the criticism that bothered you the most?

K. GOOD: That she was a little girl. That I had married a little girl, and it was an abuse. These people only live to be about 45 or so. A 15-year-old girl in their culture is not the same as a 15-year-old - a 15-year-old here is totally immature. She's a little kid still. She'd probably chewing gum at the mall, and in Yanomami culture, she's a woman. She's a full-fledged woman. She's doing all of women's chores, and she's probably pregnant or has a baby. Now, you say, well, that's them, you know? What do you know? They're Indians. Well, I'm sorry - this all occurred within the confines of their communal structure.

SUSSMAN: Ken had lived in their world for many years, but he was supposed to be there as a professional anthropologist, and his choice was a problem for other anthropologists.

K. GOOD: You study these people, but you don't get involved with them and marry them. I said, why not? I said, they're human beings like any other people on Earth.

SUSSMAN: Still, there's a lot that's complicated about their marriage, not just for anthropologists. Even in the village, Ken and Yarima had a lot of problems. When Ken had to leave to deal with his visa or paperwork, the others would think he'd left forever, and Yarima became fair game. She was mistreated. But for the most part, it worked. They lived together, they hunted together and at night they slept together in Ken's hammock. And before long, they became pregnant with their first son, David.

D. GOOD: You know, I do remember playing in the creeks, you know, walking around in the plantain gardens with the kids, practicing archery, shooting lizards, you know, with the boys and trying to fine-tune our hunting skills.

SUSSMAN: David doesn't remember too much else because he was actually raised in New Jersey. Ken got too worried about Yarima's safety in the village.

D. GOOD: My father had asked my mom, you know, why don't you come to my people? Come to my village of New Jersey where we can always be together, and you know, I don't have to be afraid for you for being alone in the jungle. And she agreed.

SUSSMAN: So that's what they did. They moved from Hasipuaterry (ph),Venezuela to New Jersey.

D. GOOD: So you can imagine a woman that lived in the jungle her whole life and now she's went through a time machine fast forward, like, 2,000 years in a different cosmos, different world.

K. GOOD: We just had a little fun. I flipped a switch off and on, and that just was amazing. It's dark and it's light; it's dark and it's light.

D. GOOD: She had seen a full-length mirror for the first time, and she freaked out and she hid behind a bed. My dad had to cover up the mirror, you know?

K. GOOD: Somebody started up a Jeep, and she went crazy. I didn't see her, but I had to go find her in the bushes because she thought it was an animal.

D. GOOD: And my father once caught my mom just strolling outside without any clothes on, and he comes and covers her up, tries to tell her, you know, in my world you've got to wear clothes all the time.

SUSSMAN: But there were bigger problems, too. For the first time, Yarima was spending a lot of the day alone. Ken was out working, teaching at a nearby college.

D. GOOD: The man that my father was down in the jungle, you know, it's not the same man that he was up here in New Jersey. He's working hard try to pay the bills and keep their food on the table. Of course, my mom has no concept that. She doesn't know why he's gone all the time.

K. GOOD: The thing about living here is nothing made sense. Not only that - in Yanomami culture the most important things to them are their family, and not just their kids or their parents, but their extended family. And so she was cut off from that. You've got to understand what it was like for her. And I didn't like it. I didn't bring her back here to make her a little American housewife, for God's sake.

SUSSMAN: They had three kids in New Jersey, and all of them would go back together to the village in Venezuela for long visits. David and his brother and sister learned to hunt and how to speak the language. And once, Ken and Yarima went back alone, and Yarima said she wanted to stay. She and Ken went back and forth about it, but when the plane came to the airstrip to take them to New Jersey, Yarima actually fled into the jungle. Ken was worried about the kids, so he boarded the plane figuring he'd come back for Yarima later.

But he never did.

D. GOOD: Then there was sort of like - this realization that set in that - wow, you know, mom's gone and she's not coming back.

K. GOOD: Suddenly we became a family of four, three kids and me, and I was a single father.

D. GOOD: As I, you know, got older I sort of went through this phase where I just didn't want to be known as a Yanomami, and I don't ever want to hear that word. And I never want to hear about mom again. I don't want to be associated with that culture and that tribe. I just wanted to be this typical American kid growing up, you know? I played baseball. I was a paperboy. It's embarrassing. All of my friends' moms are picking them up at, you know, soccer practice or driving them to baseball practice, but my mom is, you know, naked in the jungle eating tarantulas.

SUSSMAN: Of course, all of his dad's pictures were in museums and in textbooks because Ken was a leading anthropologist on the Yanomami.

D. GOOD: In elementary school, we had this periodical that would come out called Scholastic Journal for Kids. You know, there was one on my desk, and I flipped through the page and - bam - there's a huge picture of me and my uncle in a village in the Amazon, and the caption underneath says, you know, Yanomami boy learning how to shoot a bow and arrow with a relative. And I just started sweating bullets because I'm like, oh, my gosh, everyone in my class is going to find out.

For the next 15 to 20 years, it just kept festering inside me and it kept getting worse and worse, and I did, you know, turn to alcohol to cope with, you know, a lot of my problems and actually dropped out of high school. So I knew that if I had to, you know, survive for the rest of my life, I'm going to have to cope with this. You know, I read my dad's book, and I got to understand some of the struggles that my mom had when she was up here. And I had this innate yearning to want to go find her.

SUSSMAN: So David bought a one-way ticket to Venezuela.

D. GOOD: It was pretty neat to think that I'm taking the same trip that my father took decades ago. I remember starting, you know, feeling a little tense, a little anxious that we're getting closer and closer. And when the motor's revving, villagers can hear from a mile away, and there's this excitement because they don't get visitors too often. And they scream, motor, motor, and then they all start running to the riverbank to see who's coming.

We pulled up, introduced ourselves, and I said, I'm David the son of Yarima, and I'm here to find her. And so the villagers of Hasipul (ph), Pogoteri (ph), they said come out of the boat, we want to see you and we want to touch you. So I was completely mobbed with Yanomami. I had hands all over my body. They were pulling my ears, touching my nose, touching my hair and that's when my mom finally arrived.

I saw her walk in, and she was carrying a basket. And the whole village was immediately quiet, and it was hushed. And people were whispering, and I could hear them whispering Yarima's name. And I stood up, and I approached her. And I realized, how do I greet her? What's the Yanomami way of greeting when you don't see somebody for 20 years? I know that they don't hug or anything - and just sort of this awkward moment at first where everything in me just wanted to hug her and hold her, but I didn't want to make the moment awkward for her, either. As we got closer, she just started trembling and crying. And I can remember her hands shaking, and she was touching me, almost as if to see if I was even real. I told her, you know, I made it, it's been so long, but I made it. I looked into her eyes, and she started crying and then out of nowhere I just started getting flooded with all of these memories of being with her when I was 5. My mother's alive, and I found her. And we're together, and now I want to develop this relationship and friendship with her.

SUSSMAN: He wanted to stay for a long time. He didn't know exactly how long, but he hung up his hammock and settled in.

D. GOOD: As the months went by, she started remembering some English, and one time I was sitting in my hammock and she comes up to me and says, hey, do you want some snake? Just pure, perfect English, and I'm looking at her like, where did that come from? You know? She was very patient with me, and she knew that I lived in the world of the nava (ph), of the outsider and that I, you know, have much to learn.

SUSSMAN: David, this isn't the soccer mom relationship that you wanted as a kid.

D. GOOD: No, no, definitely not. But, you know, not too many mothers can go out there and kill a boa constrictor for you and come back (laughter).

SUSSMAN: Pretty soon after his arrival, David was offered the same opportunity as his dad.

D. GOOD: I was introduced to two girls in the village, so I asked, who are these girls? My mom replied, oh, these are my wives.

SUSSMAN: David's wives.

D. GOOD: Yeah, my wives. They're two girls. So I thought a wife was just going to be like a sister or a brother, but I was wrong. They really, really wanted to be my wife, and they really wanted me to be their husband. And it became evident after I spent some time in the village that they really, really wanted to have kids. And in their mind, you know, they're probably thinking his father is a nava, a complete outsider and he took a Yanomami wife. Surely, his son who is half-Yanomami would have no problem taking a Yanomami wife.

It's just that I grew up in America, and there's this huge cultural barrier where I couldn't be their husband. I couldn't be that Yanomami husband. And it actually turned into some conflicts where a couple times at night, I had to kick my wife out of the hammock. And then there's times where they ganged up on me saying, you know, you're my Yanomami husband, and we're going to have children together and don't be afraid. That's what my mom would say a lot, you know? Don't be afraid, it's OK, they're your wives because every time they'd get close to me, I'd start getting nervous and I'm like, OK.

SUSSMAN: It made him wonder, how did his dad manage to do it, to cross this divide that felt so wide? So he arranged for a boat downstream to a nearby mission where they had a generator, where they had a satellite Internet connection.

D. GOOD: So I sat my mom down in front of the computer. I Skyped my dad.

K. GOOD: You know, I'm sitting there, all of a sudden I'm on Skype, and I'm talking to him. And he moves over, and there's his mother. I said, oh, my - I couldn't believe it. He didn't tell me. A little secretive, this guy. There I am for the first time in 20 years looking at my wife.

D. GOOD: And they just started Skyping each other in Yanomami.

K. GOOD: I was amazed. She still looked so great. She had the sticks in her mouth that young girls - and I start talking Yanomami first time in 20 years, and I realized I didn't forget it. That was amazing. She looked at me, and she said, are you married? I said no. I looked at her, and I said, are you married? She said no. And then we just kind of sat there and looked at each other for about 15 seconds and - boom - (laughter) because people think, you still love her, you should go down there and get her; she's waiting for you.

D. GOOD: As I was watching them interact and talk to each other, it just really hit me that they just seemed to get along so well, the way they just interacted, and I knew right then and there why they fell in love, you know? Because they just felt so natural together.

K. GOOD: What was his motivation? Why did he want me to see and talk to his mother? Was he hoping we'd get back together? I don't know. I don't know, but that's the only reason - what do you think? I still love her and should go get her down there?

SUSSMAN: I think you still love her, but I don't think you should go down there and get her. I think you tried that.

K. GOOD: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: We've got huge appreciation for Kenneth Good and his son David, for sharing their story with SNAP. David Good is now doing remarkable work with the Yanomami. Check out Project Good on our website, snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman with assistance from Beth Morgan and sound design by Renzo Gorio.

That was tight, right? Well, when SNAP JUDGMENT comes back we're chasing a whoopin'. Yep. When "The Return" episode returns. Stay tuned.

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