Divorced parents are a common enough occurrence in the United States that when a child says, “My parents are divorced,” it hardly raises an eyebrow. But for David Good, it was a painful reality he sought to avoid mentioning, mostly because he would have to explain where his mother was, which meant telling people that she lived in a tribe in Venezuela that was stuck in the Stone Age. Good’s mother, Yarima, is a member of the Yanomami tribe, a tribe that still maintains the vast majority of its ancient traditions, including rituals, feasts, games and living in the “shabano,” a large, circular communal house. After marrying Kenneth Good, an anthropologist studying the tribe, she lived with him in the U.S., but found the isolation from her family too hard to bear. She returned to the Amazon Rainforest in Venezuela, leaving David and his siblings with their father in America. After years of separation, David Good finally went to Venezuela to find his mother, and to face up to a fact he had avoided for so many years: “My mom’s a naked jungle woman.”
At its heart, this story is one about love and family, which can sometimes be a truly multicultural experience. David Good is a true-blue American son. As a child, he played Little League baseball and had a paper route. For a boy raised in Pennsylvania, his story is one that many men his age would recognize from their own childhoods, but to a certain degree, David was also an anthropological celebrity. He recalled one time when a prominent anthropologist asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he told her he wanted a Nintendo 64 and Super Mario Bros – one of the most popular games for kids his age at the time. Her response was extraordinary: “Oh, my God. You’re just a typical American kid. I thought you’d be different.” According to David, that response “cut” him, as it would any young child made to feel different.
But there were more problems for David growing up. A field trip to the museum could be a harrowing experience for him, as pictures of his mother would be hanging on the walls of certain exhibits. His mother was famous in anthropological circles, not just for her relationship with David’s father, but for the research that many exhibits were based on. On one occasion at the American Museum of National History, David saw a huge blown-up picture of his mother on the wall, which so startled him that he hid in a dark corner for ten minutes in order to recover. The picture had been taken by his father during one of his anthropological ventures to visit the Yanomami. While it may have been horrifying to see a picture of his mother in a museum, for David there was the added issue of his own emotional attitude, which was not favorable. David felt deserted by his mother and hated her for leaving him behind.
That feeling is understandable to anyone who has experienced or considered the emotional effects of divorce on children. Feelings of abandonment are common among children in divorced families. Nevertheless, understanding his mother’s situation better led David to seek her out. For Yarima, living in the U.S. was so completely isolating that she could not continue living there. The Yanomami live communally in shabanos and every day is started with many friends and family members around, unlike in America where people live typically with only their immediate family in single-family dwellings and do not interact with other people other than at work or when shopping. This kind of anti-social existence and the distance between her and her family were insurmountable for Yarima. During a vacation in Venezuela, which was also a documentary moment for her husband, she told him that she was not returning to America and told him to take the children back with him since they would not fare well in the jungle where many children died.
That led to David Good’s fascinating statement about finding his mother: the startling sentence, “My mom’s a naked jungle woman.” But it also led to the odyssey he had to undergo in order to find her again once he was an adult. After a flight and an intense boat ride up the Orinoco river (complete with dramatic rapids), he was reunited with his mother. She was once again a true member of the Yanomami tribe, bedecked with wooden shoots on her face and minimal clothing. Despite that, it was a happy, emotional moment for both of them. Yarima had run through the forest to where David was with his uncle, out of breath from her rush to see him. For David’s part, all he could say was, “Mama, I made it.”
This is a truly heartwarming story and much good has come out of it, not just for David, but for the Yanomami as well. David started The Good Project in the years after his first visit to Venezuela and he hopes to do what he can to help people like the Yanomami. For the Yanomami, the experience of having David return to his mother was a unique one. Unlike anthropologists who want to study them, missionaries who want to convert them, or others who in many cases simply want to use them for their own ends, David Good is one of their own people. He was immediately welcomed by the tribe as a trusted member, a position that his father, Kenneth, was 12 years in acquiring during his study of the people. For them, David and The Good Project are trusted and personal, a unique position for any aid organization to be in.
Nevertheless, the story raises concerns for anthropologists, including the discussion of ethics when it comes to studying indigenous peoples and ancient tribes like the Yanomami. To what extent should anthropologists be outside observers and not participants in such cultures? What effect should their presence have on such people? Sexual contact is a hot button issue, especially since anthropology, unlike other sciences, does not have a consensus on sexual relationships with the subjects of their works. No doubt there are abuses that exist in which anthropologists take advantage of such people. Kenneth Good, David’s father, was betrothed to Yarima when she was about 12 years old. Nevertheless, in accordance with consent laws and the customs of the Yanomami, the marriage was not consummated until she was of the age of consent, about 15 or 16 years of age, according to him. Such things are difficult to determine in many cases, and in Good’s case especially, since the Yanomami do not count beyond the number two. The question of a universal ethic for the discipline remains open, however, and will no doubt continue to be a topic of debate for learned anthropologists for many years to come.
To reduce David and Yarima’s story down to an ethical conundrum, though, is to minimize the true universality of human experience. David Good’s family, for instance, is multicultural in a sense that many people do not understand. After all, his mother lives in the jungle and eats tarantulas for a meal. There are few American families who will truly understand what that means from David’s point of view. This heartwarming story, however, highlights the fact that families are not simple units of measure that can be easily explained. One never knows when someone will say to them, “my mom’s a naked jungle woman,” and it may be difficult to understand, but the joy David Good had on finding his mother once again is more relatable than one might expect as well as a happy ending that anyone would want to see.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury