Distinguished Researcher: Allyn MacLean Stearman
Article appearing in the UCF Emphasis Fall 1989: 8-10.
If there's any glamour in being an anthropologist, it's not while you're traipsing through the rain forests of Bolivia to study obscure Indian tribes, said Allyn MacLean Stearman, anthropologist and professor at the University of Central Florida. The glamour comes, she claimed, when you're back safely at home and can relate your tales and accomplishments.
Stearman describes her forays to South America, which sometimes last more than a year, as rugged.
While beveling alone in a foreign land, she has been dumped dripping wet and hungry on the doorstep of a convent at night, left stranded by her hired canoeist in a remote jungle, and has reluctantly ridden behind a madcap motorcyclist on a perilously rough, gravel road. Her derring-do adventures conjure up the makings of a great book: so much so that Stearman wrote four. One of the recent ones, No Longer Nomads: The Siriono Revisited tells of her struggles to study the Siriono, who were thought to be extinct.
"Since the 19405 when the distinguished anthropologist Allan Holmberg studied the Siriono, nothing had been written about them." she said.
Another book, Yuqui, Forest Nomads in a Changing World, is based on the same hip and tells of her life among the unusual people called the Yuqui, another fading tribe. Her earliest book describes her experiences with the Bolivian peasants; the second one, written for her peers, describes her studies on the migration patterns in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Stearman has traveled and lived in South America on and off since 19M. Her visits include a three-year term with the Peace Corp, one year farming and living off the land, and then a number of visits scattered over the years as an anthropologist studying peasants and settlers. Only in the last five years has she begun studying hunters and gatherers.
She joined the Peace Corp upon graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a bachelor's in Spanish. After her first experience in Bolivia, she was hooked. Her love of the people, their cultures, and the land convinced her that she would continue to visit this exotic country.
When she returned to the States with her husband, she took a job at the University of Florida's library while her husband completed his undergraduate studies. She used the opportunity to study anthropology, eventually winning a fellowship so she could attend school full time and earn her postgraduate degrees.
Her numerous visits steeled her for the hardships of living in Bolivia. Still, her first trip to pursue the elusive Indians proved more harrowing than she had anticipated. It also proved to be more rewarding.
"It's very difficult to travel around Bolivia. I go with the expectation that problems are going to happen" Stearman explained. Nevertheless, she readily found people who helped her uncover information about the Siriono despite all the hardships and the odds against her doing so. "It felt as if it had all been preordained," she said.
For her, the lowlands of Bolivia are akin to our own Western frontier back in the 1899s: the large, harsh geographical area is sparsely populated and very much like a rugged frontier land. “Many families stay in the same area for years. People know what other people are doing; they keep track of each other because that’s all there is to talk about,” she said.
The cultural network allowed her to trail her quarry sheerly through word of mouth. Her hardships paid off when an old peasant woman said that she knew Holmberg’s guide, Luis Silva. Silva worked for the well-known anthropologist when Holmberg was studying the Siriono 40 years earlier.
"I had just assumed that Luis Silva was dead by now. Finding him gave me information about the Siriono that I would have never known if I hadn’t talked to him.: Silva, in himself, could easily be another book. In recounting his travails to Stearman, he told her: "My life is like a novel."Stearman said that this is true of many people she’s met in Bolivia. "When you live in such a country, that’s just the way life is. It’s hard, full of adventure," she said.
On her last two trips, she divided her time between the Siriono and the Yuqui. Both tribes live now in missionary villages, practically forced to abandon their nomad existence. The missionaries have yet to teach the Yuqui to grow any of their food. The Siriono farm, but are not very enthusiastic at the back breaking work, finding it boring. The people of both tribes are still enthralled with the hunt.
Stearman's work with both groups includes trying to help them. An applied anthropologist, Stearman isn’t just an aloof observer intent on recording what she sees without trying to cause any changes. Instead, she participates in their village life—the Siriono wouldn’t have tolerated her presence otherwise. Stearman said she was pulled into their lives more than she likes. Sometimes, it was merely gossip, but on other occasions she would be embroiled in one of their frequent arguments.
Once when a Yuqui woman thought that Stearman was mocking her, Stearman had to fight off a physical attack by the woman. In another incident, Stearman performed a minor surgical procedure on a man with a large gash across his forehead because there was no doctor available. Stearman learned how to stitch up wounds with a lot of on the job training.
“There are no doctors back in the rain forest. You have to be very careful of every little bite or scratch. In that climate, anything can easily become serious,” she explained. Stearman travels with basic supplies to treat herself, but frequently finds herself playing doctor to the Indians out of necessity.
Her work though has led to more substantial effort on her part to help these people. Stearman’s research shows that the protein intake of the Yuqui dropped dangerously over the last five years. The decrease occurred due to the loss of land to settlers and people who grow plants for the drug trade. Stearman said that the Yuqui live entirely in the rain forest, which is suitable for growing the coca plants [for cocaine]. “Hunters need quite a lot of land to hunt if they’re going to bring in enough food,” Stearman said. Currently, the Yuqui are dependent on the missionaries for much of their substance because they’re unable to find enough game.
A major highway, which is now being built, will pass about 10 miles from their village and will present another threat to their existence. A portion of the building funds for the highway was set aside to protect the environment because of pressure from environmental and protection groups, such as Cultural Survival. About $250,000 is designated to protect the lands of the Yuqui. Stearman is working with various agencies and interest groups in an attempt to see that those monies are used appropriately
"I would like to ensure that they can hunt and gather for another two generations, at least" she said. More than the loss of a unique culture and people is at stake. Stearman said that the Indians, much like our own indigenous tribes, often suffer greatly when assimilated into the larger cultures. Individual lives often deteriorate. "It's not unusual for the women to end up as prostitutes in one of the cities," she added.
On the other hand, the Siriono face no immediate danger, but could if any of their circumstances change. The rain forest and grasslands surround their village with the grasslands used mostly for cattle ranches. The cattle, which roam the open range, haven't altered the environment, and the ranchers don't mind if the Siriono hunt on it. In fact, the ranchers often hire the Indians because of their excellent hunting skills to kill off the predators that prey on their cattle.
In studying and protecting these tribes, Stearman called on more than the usual dose of courage, brains, and tenacity needed for her occupation. She expanded her knowledge in new areas of study to make her own research more valuable. Stearman collaborated with several biologists, who exchanged information with her on their studies of Indian hunting. She also delved into ecological anthropology.
To help the tribes, Stearman expanded her usual technique of observing and recording. She tallied what they hunted and measured the amount. She found that they hunt some animals we consider edible, but many that we don't, such as large rodents, several pig-like animals, tapirs, and kinkajous. Stearman casually tossed out the observation that the meat of such animals, such as a porcupine, is quite tasty. A kind of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" attitude woos an acceptance from the Indians that is imperative if Stearman is to conduct her research in a thorough manner. For instance, when Stearman first tried to weigh their kills, the Indians resisted they feared she would steal their food for herself.
When asked how long she'll continue to study in Bolivia, Stearman became vague; her voice drifted off. She talked about the bugs, the humidity, the bland food, the lack of any amenities we all take for granted, and the loneliness of being surrounded by people from other cultures.
She explained that her profession doesn't force her to return to the field: many of her colleagues give up the field and stick to teaching once they've accomplished several successful research hips. She hinted that maybe in the future she won't be up to many more trips.
She seemed still tired, a little vulnerable, having recently returned from her latest adventures. She admitted that she has trouble adjusting to her life back in the States. "Life and death am so immediate in the rain forests," she said. "You're not protected from the harshness. When I first return, many of the every day problems here seem so trivial in comparison."
Tired or no, it's not believable that she won't continue returning to her adopted home, studying and helping. She doesn't seem to have gotten her fill of the bristling challenges that exist in the wilds of Bolivia.