David Good, Yanomami American, nurtures his tribal past

The women and children of the village meet David for the first time as he returns to his home after 20 years. They have never seen facial hair before, and were fascinated with touching it.
The women and children of the village meet David for the first time as he returns to his home after 20 years. They have never seen facial hair before, and were fascinated with touching it.
Posted: May 22, 2014

For any child in search of an estranged parent, the quest to reconnect is fraught with fear of rejection and heartache. But when David Good began looking for his mother, those anxieties were coupled with dangers of a more corporeal nature: venomous snakes, malaria, political hurdles, and potentially hostile tribespeople.

Good, 28, an East Stroudsburg University graduate student, is the oldest son of anthropologist Kenneth Good and Yarima, a member of the Yanomami tribe in the remote Venezuelan Amazon. After his parents' controversial romance made international headlines two decades ago - she was a teenager when the two married - Good did everything he could to escape that story.

But in 2011, he decided to stop running from his heritage and embrace it.

He spoke Tuesday as part of the University City Science Center's Lunch for Hungry Minds series, about his search for his mother and about his new nonprofit endeavor, the Good Project, which he hopes can become a bridge between indigenous people and the developed world.

Since reuniting with Yarima, one thing Good has discovered is that he and Yanomami of his generation have a lot in common.

"The Yanomami are kind of caught between two worlds," he said. "The youth are caught between the traditional culture of their mothers and grandmothers, where they hunt and fish, and the outside culture. I have this unique position where I can serve as a bridge. I'm a Yanomami, but I'm a Western Yanomami."

The first chapter of this story began in 1975, when Kenneth Good, a Penn State graduate student who grew up in Havertown, traveled up the Orinoco River to study the Yanomami. He stayed for 12 years, becoming so integrated that the tribe offered him a wife.

Later, while he was away on a trip, Yarima was raped and beaten by tribe members; eventually, as Good's funding ran low, the couple left the tribe and returned to Good's hometown.

Good wrote a memoir, Into the Heart, that generated media attention and Hollywood interest, including eager phone calls from Richard Gere and Alan Alda. It also generated controversy, particularly over Yarima's young age.

"I was coming back from Yanomami culture, where these ages are perfectly natural . . . to a culture that was totally enslaved by numbers," Good said. In the Yanomami language, there are no ages.

The Inquirer's headline of 1991 was fairly typical of the sensational coverage: "Jungle Love: When he met his child bride, she ran naked and ate grub worms. Today, she's into junk food, malls and MTV."

The couple had three children. But after six years in the United States having never learned much English, on a visit back to her village, Yarima declared she would not return.

David, who was 5 then, grew to resent that abandonment.

"I grew up completely shunning my mom. If people asked, I said she died in a car crash," he said.

Later, he struggled with depression and alcoholism. It was in coping with those issues that he decided to embark on his dangerous and uncertain quest for closure.

The journey would require special permits and equipment that Good didn't have, his father said.

"I told him the jungle doesn't forgive if you're not prepared. He had no boat and motor, no snake antivenin, no way to get below the rapids."

Good went anyway. On the journey upriver, a flood of memories rushed back from his last visit as a child. "It's like, 'I remember these trees and these smells, and these biting mosquitoes.' I felt at home."

His mother was shirtless and wore sticks through her nasal septum and lips. But their greeting was tearful. Despite the language barrier, she welcomed him into the tribe's communal home, introducing uncles, aunts, a half-brother, using gestures and two translators (one from English to Spanish, another from Spanish to Yanomami).

"I found not only my mom, but my family, my lineage and society, a culture that I fell in love with," he said. "They live a life that's free of all the societal strife we deal with in the Western world. There's no loneliness or depression or hypertension."

But he also met other Yanomami elsewhere living more modern lifestyles, and a new breed of "urban Yanomami" who are facing both culture shock and the same ills afflicting many of Venezuela's poor: food shortages, extreme poverty, addiction, and prostitution.

Last year, he launched the Good Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit he hopes will increase people's understanding of the needs of indigenous groups, and help mediate their interactions with the encroaching developed world.

Good has begun working with Cabecar tribespeople in Costa Rica. He cited issues such as their recently adopted practice of wearing rubber boots - and ensuing rampant fungal infections. Bringing medicine is a start, but he wants to take a more holistic approach to resolving such issues, such as by educating the people about hygiene.

The program launched out of East Stroudsburg's Business Accelerator, its first not-for-profit enterprise. "It's uncharted territory," said Carter McClure, the accelerator's manager. "But he's Yanomami himself, so this is not just a business for him, it's a way of life."

This month, Good will take a group of East Stroudsburg students to work with the Cabecar and a local nonprofit.

Helping the Yanomami will be more challenging, since even getting permission from the Venezuelan government to enter their territory is a complicated endeavor. But Good hopes to create a fair-trade bartering system that will provide them with crucial supplies while encouraging the preservation of dying crafts. In the process, he hopes to liberate them from reliance on donations and subsidies, restoring a sense of pride and self-sufficiency.

Good is still trying to figure out how to make his nonprofit work sustainable. One idea is to offer Yanomami wares at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Indian Market. In the meantime, they serve as rewards for the Good Project's crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

For the campaign to take off, though, Good knows it means sharing his story - the same story he spent years trying to put behind him.

His father, who now lives in Easton, said he was surprised his son wanted to dredge all that up again, but grateful that he did. It became an unexpected opportunity for closure, and a chance to chat with Yarima via Skype and satellite phone.

On Good's second visit in 2013, his mother revealed one more surprise: She remembered some English.

" 'New Jersey is good,' she said suddenly. 'Pennsatery' - that's Pennsylvania - 'is really good. I want pizza. I want french fries. I want peaches.' She said, 'You take me there.' And that was a shocker to me because here's my mother, who rejected this Western world 20 years ago, asking me to take her back," Good said. "It's going to take time, but I'm going to make it happen."


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|