Terence Turner, anthropologist and human rights advocate for indigenous people, 1935-2015

Prof. Emeritus Terence Turner, a UChicago anthropologist who did research in the Amazon basin and became a proponent for the rights of indigenous people, died Nov. 7 in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 79.

In 1962 Turner began working among the Kayapo, who live in small villages in central Brazil—returning to the area on an almost annual basis. His research covered topics such as social organization and kinship; myth, ritual and history; political organization and mobilization; values and inter-ethnic relations.

His field work led to an interest in activism for the Kayapo people, who gave Turner the Kayapo name Wakampu during his earliest field visits. His wife, Jane Fajans, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, said Turner’s activism began when the Brazilian Indian Agency asked him to investigate Brazilian nationals’ incursion into Kayapo territory for both gold mining and poaching. That activism was further fueled around opposition to the Karararao (now Belo Monte) dam in the mid 1980s, she added.

“Terry Turner was both a brilliant theoretical thinker about the nature of social systems and an indefatigable ally of the indigenous people among whom he worked as an ethnographer—the Kayapo people of Brazil,” said Michael Silverstein, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at UChicago.

“Increasingly he became a champion of the rights of the Kayapo and other indigenous peoples—not merely to survive, but to negotiate ways of flourishing as participants in the contemporary world,” Silverstein added.

Activism grows out of commitment to anthropology

In his field work, Turner saw the work of missionaries, loggers, miners and ranchers encroaching upon the Kayapo way of life. While a British TV crew was filming a documentary series in 1987 on disappearing cultures, he encouraged the Kayapo to trade access to their villages for the use of camera equipment, which they used to record their way of life.

“Terry’s activism grew organically out of his commitment to anthropology,” said Prof. Adam Smith, chair of anthropology at Cornell University. “It was his long-term relationship with the Kayapo that created the kind of trust that could lead to initiatives like the video project. Terry’s thoughtful approach offers an enduring lesson for scholars and activists alike.”

He helped encourage the Kayapo’s front-line activism in the global movement to protect the Amazon rainforest. In 1990, he founded the Kayapo Video Project to provide the community with film equipment and production training. This ongoing project will be honored in December with a United Nations Equator Prize at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

In addition, Turner was a translator for a delegation of Kayapo who joined Cree people from Canada in 1992 at a conference to talk about the problems indigenous people were having with electrical power developments that threatened their environment.

Silverstein said that Turner’s “devotion was returned in the most touching and heartfelt expressions of respect by his Kayapo and other allies.” In a recent letter to Turner, the Kayapo community’s leadership wrote: “You are a great warrior that taught us so much…and fought so hard for the Kayapo…Thank you for sharing your book of life with us and letting us be part of a beautiful chapter written with trust and friendship. To you, Wakampu, all of our respect and admiration.”

A closer look at the Kayapo

Born Dec. 30, 1935 in Philadelphia, Turner received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1957, a master’s in 1959 from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in 1965 in social anthropology from Harvard.

He joined the UChicago faculty in 1968 after serving as a research associate at the Museo Nacional do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro and as a visiting assistant professor of social anthropology at Cornell University. In 1982, he was named professor at Chicago. He retired in 1999 and became an adjunct and later visiting professor in anthropology at Cornell.

“He was an extraordinarily charismatic colleague, and one of the most intellectually gifted members of the (UChicago) Anthropology department,” said John Comaroff, a former UChicago colleague who is now a professor at Harvard.

“His are among some of the best essays written in late-20th-century anthropology,” said Comaroff. He hailed Turner’s “The Social Skin,” which analyzed the significance of body decoration among the Kayapo, as “an inspirational piece—one of many that combined a conceptual tour de force with a deep respect for thick description.”

A full version of “The Social Skin” was published in 1980 in the book, Not Work Alone. In an article published on the topic in 1979 in the magazine New Scientist, Turner explained how the way people choose to dress communicates meaning.

He pointed out that while adult Kayapo men wear little clothing, they adorn their bodies with paint and lip plugs. “A closer look at Kayapo bodily ornament discloses that the apparently naked savage just described is as fully covered in a fabric of cultural meaning as the most elaborately draped Victorian lady or gentleman,” Turner wrote in the New Scientist.

Turner was the president of Survival International U.S.A., a group that advocates for indigenous people, and a founding member of the American Anthropological Association’s Ethics and Human Rights Committees. In 1998, he received the Association’s Solon T. Kimball Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Application of Anthropology to Human Rights and Development Issues.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Vanessa Fajans-Turner and Allison Fajans-Turner; sister Allison K. Turner; and sister-in-law Anne M. Turner.