Neil Whitehead, professor and chair of the Anthropology Department, died Thursday, March 22 after an illness. He was 56 years old. This story is a product of the last interviews he had with the Daily Cardinal, Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, 2012.
While Anthropology students knew Neil Whitehead as the “quirky English professor” whose expertise ranged from sexuality to terrorism, scholars around the world recognized him mostly for his groundbreaking work on how groups use violence to make sense of the world around them. Though the setting of his research was among the Patamuna people of Guyana, he emphasized how their violence is telling of our own.
On his first trip to the Guyana highlands in 1992, he did not to expect to encounter the violent Shamans that call themselves Kanaima. But after he learned they were more than myth, and after falling victim to a Kanaima attack himself, they became the center of his research.
Patamuna, with training, can obtain three shamanistic qualifications, of which Kanaima is one. While the other two qualifications involve charming and healing, the Kanaimas are known for violently killing and mutilating their victims. They then drink the juices the decomposing body releases, after which they retrieve parts of the body to kill their next victims.
The term Kanaima represents the practice itself and the people who use it. They do not choose their victims at random, but stalk victims who they view as threatening for years at a time.
Whitehead explained that Kanaima and other kinds of shamanism are spiritual and political systems, like Christianity, through which people deal with their world.
“It’s not simply a brutal killing. This act of violence at the heart of it is really sacrifice of a very striking kind,” he said.
Whitehead said it is not very different from violence with which Americans are familiar. He explained that westerners justify violence that protects property and liberty, but see violence that is difficult to understand as evil.
After years of interviewing family members of victims and Kanaima and living amongst them, he found the lines between their violence and Western violence became more blurred.
Kanaima, he said, carry out violence they see as necessary for their society, whereas in the United States, law enforcement and the military are given the same responsibility.
Over time, the Patamuna people became more distrusting of Whitehead’s work and thought he was trying to steal Kanaima, or that he was a Kanaima himself. They interpreted him as a Western outsider and thought he could inflict as much violence on them as they do on others.
“To some extent you risk robbing from the cultural force of something by explaining it away but I take great pain in the book as a whole to say this is real,” he said. “There’s something about it that still eludes and escapes any safe easy explanation. That’s a way of respecting that cultural power.”
In the midst of his research, his father and his friend from the museum that was funding him both fell ill and died from colorectal cancer, after which Whitehead said he felt like less of an outsider to the Patamuna community. He was not paranoid about whether the incidents were connected to Kanaima, but reflected once he knew more about Kanaima, he did not doubt they could play a hand in his own life.
“[There’s] no reason Kanaima couldn’t entangle people other than Patamuna. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in it or not, it’s real. There’s nothing not to believe,” Whitehead said. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in it, it doesn’t stop what’s happening from happening. It’s real when you’re there. It becomes the easiest explanation to adopt. What I’m reporting on is the difficulty of holding those things apart in the light of going there and then those things happening.”
In his 2002 book “Dark Shamans,” which chronicles his ethnography of Kanaima, Whitehead notes other anthropologists in the field were baffled by the lengths he was willing to take to understand Kanaima and violence as best he could.
“Sticking at something is part folly part courage. You kind of do what you think you need to do. Nothing ventured nothing gained,” Whitehead said.
After the publication of “Dark Shamans,” he said his work on Kanaima found its natural end.
“I think I know as much as I ever want to know. Some things I’d rather not have known,” Whitehead reflected.
He incorporated his research into one of the most specialized classes he taught, the Anthropology of Shamanism and Occult Experience, which he pointed out was numbered Anthropology 666.
Whitehead saw his move to Madison in 1993 from his native England to join the Anthropology department as ethnography in itself. While he said it was difficult to leave his home after 38 years, he eventually found his place in the states. “You have to learn to do things like Thanksgiving and July Fourth, because you come to have your own memories after long enough,” he said.
Whitehead joked he was advantaged because Americans tend to like English immigrants.
Most recently, he was part of a research team that found clues in Guyana suggesting human settlements in the region were around much earlier than previously thought. More details on the project will be released publicly in May.
Whitehead said he decided to conduct his research in Guyana and its neighboring regions partly because Guyana historically limited foreign ethnographers from coming. But he emphasized the conclusions he found there could be made anywhere.
“All life is in any place you choose to go,” he said.