7.27.19 KEN TAYLOR In memoriam: 1943-2019 (an appreciation by J. Chernela)


KennethI. Taylor (Ken), 1934-2019 – An Appreciation

Janet Chernela

When Kenneth Iain Taylor died on April 2, 2019, it called attention to an often overlooked, but important, chapter in the history of indigenous affairs in Brazil.  Ken was one of a handful of conscientious anthropologists who had been hired, then fired, in 1976, by the new agency of Indigenous Affairs, FUNAI.  For Ken, the firing ended nine years of ethnographic work and advocacy among the Yanomami of Brazil.

I was surprised to learn that Ken’s interest in anthropology was first awakened not in Amazonia, but in the Arctic.  Born in 1934, he was a life-long kayaker and, while studying architecture at the University of Glasgow, he undertook a one-man sea-kayaking expedition to West Greenland to study and participate in Inuit seal hunting and kayak-making.  The sealers found his Scottish touring kayak remarkably fast but so noisy that they insisted he hold back from the hunt.1 Before his death in 2019, Ken wrote that this 1959 trip was the highpoint of his life.  Kayaks derived from Ken’s Greenland drawings are in use to this dayall over the world.

In 1964 interest in Inuit culture led Ken to move to North America to pursue graduate studies in Arctic anthropology with William Laughlin at the University of Wisconsin. The fieldwork he conducted in Alaska in the mid-1960s resulted in a number of publications on demography and historical ecology (see, for example, Taylor 1966).

In Wisconsin Ken met Alcida Rita Ramos, a Luzo-Brazilian student who had worked with Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. Their relationship, lasting more than two decades, was a remarkable partnership that was as productive of ethnographic excellence as it was ofadvocacy and action. After a falling-out with Laughlin (Ramos in Castro 2017), Ken abandoned his intention to work in the Arctic, and shifted his dissertation focus to Amazonia.  His fieldwork began in 1968, when he and Alcida went to work among the Sanumá Yanomami (Yanoama) along Brazil’s northern border with Venezuela.

That same year a government investigative commission documented a devastating record of ongoing abuses against Indians by the BrazilianIndian Protection Service (SPI).  A UN Conference on Human Rights held that year denounced the Brazilian government and accused it of permitting the massacre of its indigenous people.  The scandal produced widespread outrage.  Within one year the world’s first indigenous advocacy organizations2 were created: the London-based SI (Survival International) and the Copenhagen-based IWGIA (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs); these were soon followed by the North American NGO, Cultural Survival.  In response to condemnation at home and abroad, the government created a new agency, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), to oversee Indian affairs. One of its first actions was to declare a Yanomami Territory in the vicinity of the Catrimani River, in the federal territory of Roraima.

Building on this reformist momentum, and inspired by the Xingu National Park, Ken and Alcida used this opportunity to present two alternative suggestions for a Yanomami Indian Park (Ramos and Taylor 1968).  The proposal, submitted to FUNAI, was the first in a seriesof appeals to the Brazilian government for the protection of Yanomami lands, and it marked the beginning of what John Hemming called the “longest and most passionate campaign for indigenous land rights in Brazilian history” (2003:494).  The proposals were denied, but Ken and Alcida disclosed their proposals and reports to those who shared their concerns. Among them were the founders of Survival International, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, John Hemming, and Francis Huxley, who supported Ken’s proposals in 1971 and 1972.  The newly established indigenous rights NGOs used the reports as a basis for a series of campaigns on behalf of Yanomami land rights.  Working together––anthropologists, NGOs, and the media––created a formidable network of activists that drew international attention to the genocide of Amazonian Indians.  Taylor’s carefully collected ethnographic documentation was crucial to the legitimacy of the organizations’ actions.

In 1972 Ken completed his Ph.D. dissertation on Sanumá food prohibitions, ethno-zoology, and shamanism, and he and Alcida returned to Brazil to teach at the Museu Nacional. They were soon invited to join a new nucleus of indigenous ethnology and interethnic contact being created by Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira at UnB (Universidade Nacional de Brasília).  The faculty would include Júlio Cezar Melatti, Roque Laraia, Peter Silverwood-Cope, and David Price (the latter two of whom would later be fired from FUNAI along with Ken).

Amazonia was rapidly changing.  When Ken and Alcida began their fieldwork among the Yanomami in 1968, indigenous people constituted 75% of the population of the Federal Territory of Roraima.  As the military regime advanced its goals to integrate the north into the industrial south, these demographics would shift dramatically.  The first roads to open the Amazon basin to commerce and colonization –– east-west TransamazônicaHighway (BR 230) and thenorth-south Belém-Brasília (BR 153) –– were underway.  Then, in 1973, the government unveiled the National Integration Plan (PIN – Plano de Integração Nacional)that added a northern perimeter road, BR 210, to run east-west connecting the northern border states of Roraima, Amazonas, Pará, and Amapá.

The roads hada devastating impact.  The western arm of BR210 intruded into the southeastern corner of Yanomami territory.  Indians living near the road were struck by epidemics of influenza, measles, and the common cold; entire villages were wiped out by diseases to which they had no immunity.

Conditions worsened whenaRADAM resource survey identified mineral deposits in the center of the Brazilian Yanomami territory. The Minister for Mines declared the area open to mining and by the end of 1975 clandestine flights had brought in over 500 unauthorized wildcat miners (garimpeiros).  In the years following the arrival of the laborers, almost 2,000 Yanomami caught alien diseases, with a death toll that struck down almost a quarter of the Yanomami population living near the roads or mining activities.

To stanch the consequences of the invasion, FUNAI, under the leadership of Army GeneralIsmarth de Araújo Oliveira,opened two posts in the area and authorized Taylor to develop aprogram to bring medical care and other assistance to the Indians.  Ken took a leave of absence from UnB and created Projeto Yanoama.  At the request of FUNAI, he mapped and reported the many unauthorized airstripsused by the invading miners and their proximity to Yanomami villages.  His data bolstered FUNAI’s legal battle to remove the miners.  A judge found FUNAI to be justified in its arguments, but did not immediately order the eviction of the miners.

In March of 1975 Ken presented a new recommendation to FUNAI for a Yanomami Territory. This proposal called for one large reserve and two smaller ones, encompassing the Yanomami of both Roraima and Amazonas states.  The proposed size of 6,449,200 ha (24,890 m2) was several times the size of his 1968 recommendation and three times the size of the Xingu National Park.  FUNAI, however, rejected Taylor’s plan and instead opted for an archipelago of 21 non-contiguous land fragments totaling 2,228,270 ha (8,601m2) – one-third of that proposed by Taylor. Then, citing national security, they terminated the Yanoama Project and fired Ken and his colleagues.

By now the campaign to protect Yanomami rights had its own momentum.  Its supporters included missionaries, anthropologists, international advocacy organizations, and human rights organizations.  In 1978, photographer Claudia Andujar, anthropologist Bruce Albert (who had participated in Ken’s Yanoama Project), and Roraima missionary Carlo Zacquini, formed CCPY, the Campaign for the Creation of the Yanomami Park. Unlike earlier indigenous rights organizations, CCPY was a Brazilian NGO focused exclusively on the Yanomami.  In a manner sociologists call political leveraging, this grassroots, single-issue NGO, articulated with international human and indigenous rights networks, to expose and denounce the treatment of indigenous people in Brazil.  The international organizations, in their turn, could mobilize their members to carry out letter-writing campaigns, call on influential people to pressure the Brazilian government, and, if necessary, file complaints before international oversight bodies.

When Ken was forced out of the FUNAI in 1976, he resigned from UnB and returned to the Scottish countryside to write and reflect (see, for example, Taylor 1979).  After four years there he was hired by the World Bank to develop safeguards for Bank projects involving minorities. Placed within the organization’s new Washington DC-based Office of Environmental Affairs, according to his friend David Price, he was anxious to show the chief officer, ecologist Robert Goodland,that a social anthropologist might have more expertise than an ecologist (Price 1989).  Once in Washington, Ken also set to work with friends at Survival International to open an office in the U.S. capital.  Ken served as Executive Director of that office for ten years.

It was in Ken’s Washington office that, in 1988, two visiting Kayapo emissaries, Paiakan and Kube’in, first saw the World Bank’s projected plans for a dam complex on the Xingu River.  My recollections of that meeting are still clear. In an impressive display of political acumen, Paiaka and Kubeín used those documents to testify before the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury, and the Senate Appropriations Committee. Using the map they obtained from Ken, they demonstrated that their own villages would be seriously impacted by this project whose existence had never been disclosed to them. They used this same map at press conferences they held, and, with it, they convinced seven Executive Directors of the Bank to vote against the project. As a result, the massive project was put on hold, to the great dismay of Brazilian officials. When it re-emerged in 2002,3 the Bank was not among the funders.

A total of fifteen proposals for a Yanomami territory were presented between 1968 and 1991, until pressure from domestic and international organizations led to demarcation in 1992.  At 9,664,975 ha (37,316 m2) the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is one of the largest protected areas in the world.

By the time that the Yanomami territory was declared, Ken had moved to Twin Oaks, an intentional community in rural Virginia (U.S.).  The community describes itself as an egalitarian ecovillage, and it was here that Ken, who took the moniker Cameron, lived out the final chapters of his life. A photo shows him standing with the young girl he raised as a daughter beside a kayak.

Ken’s advocacy was diligent, tenacious, and pragmatic. His unflagging efforts on behalf of the Brazilian Yanomami laid the foundations for at least three ongoing international advocacy organizations for indigenous rights: Survival International, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, and Cultural Survival.   today still employ the effective strategies and procedures that he and his colleagues developed.

It may be said that Ken’s dissemination of information on abuses against the Yanomami modeled the rigorous data collection that exemplifies the best form of advocacy. His legacy is visible in the major advances by the Yanomami in securing land and rights.  These hard-won gains are tenuous, with at least as many steps backward as forward.  Ken’s accomplishments against powerful adversaries are, therefore, all the more impressive.4 


  1. For more on Ken’s kayak-making, see his blog: https://kayakgreenland1959.wordpress.com/author/kayakgreenland1959/
  2. The Aborigines Protection Society, which existed between 1836 and 1909, was concerned with the rights of native peoples in the territories claimed by Britain, and served principally to influence British policy.
  3. In the new arrangement, Belo Monte would be the first of a series of dams on the Xingu. Its turbines went online in 2016.
  4. As I write this article, over 10,000 well-equipped miners are reported to have invaded Yanomami lands in northern Brazil, bringing disease and polluting rivers. The government of Jair Bolsonaro took no steps to protect the Park (Branford 2019; Survival 2019).

References Cited

Branford, Sue, 2019 (July 12) “Yanomami Amazon reserve invaded by 20,000 miners; Bolsonaro fails to act,” Mongabay  https://news.mongabay.com/2019/07/yanomami-amazon-reserve-invaded-by-20000-miners-bolsonaro-fails-to-act/

Castro, Celso (2017) Entrevista com Alcida Rita Ramos. Projeto “Memória das Ciências Sociais no Brasil.” Fundação Getulio Vargas, Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil.

Hemming, John (2003) Die if you Must: Brazilian Indians in the Twentieth Century.  London: Pan Macmillan.

Ramos, A. R. and Taylor, K. I. (1968) Sugestõespara a Criaçãode um Parque Indígena no Territorio dos Índios no Norte do Brasil.  Relatório.

Survival International (2019) Thousands of Goldminers Invade Yanomami Territory. https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/12158

Taylor, Kenneth I. (1959) Kayak Hunting in Illorsuit, Greenland. https://kayakgreenland1959.wordpress.com/author/kayakgreenland1959/

Taylor, Kenneth I., (1966) A demographic study of Karluk, Kodiak Island, Alaska, 1962-1964.  Arctic Anthropology 3(2)211-239.

Taylor, Kenneth I.  (1972) Sanumá (Yanoama) food prohibitions: The multiple classification of society and fauna.  PhD Dissertation.  Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

Taylor, Kenneth I. (1979) Body and spirit among the Sanumáof north Brazil.  In Spirits, shamans, and stars.  David Browman and Ronald Schwarz eds.  Pp 201-222. Mouton Press.


Photograph: Ken Taylor in Scotland as a young man © J. Campbell Semple (https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3594-kenneth-i-taylor)