Terence "Terry" Sheldon Turner (1935-2015) was best known for his ethnographic work with the Mebêngôkre (Kayapó) people of the Amazon rainforest and his work as an activist for the Mebêngôkre and other communities. He was born in Philadelphia and raised outside of Washington, DC. He earned his A.B. from Harvard University (1957) and M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley (1959), in Modern European History. His interest in how society functions brought him to the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University for his Ph.D. (1965), where his studies turned to Social Anthropology. His interests were still in Europe, but his advisor, David Maybury-Lewis, persuaded him to study the Mebêngôkre in Brazil (Moberg). Despite his initial intentions, Turner developed a lasting relationship with the Mebêngôkre, who gave him the name Wakampu. He worked with the community for more than 50 years, visiting them over 20 times.
Turner and his then wife, Joan Bamberger, lived with the Mebêngôkre (Kayapó) from 1962 to 1964 while conducting research for their dissertations. His initial studies were on socio-cultural change, social organization, political systems, dual organization, a comparison to other Gê tribes, and mythology. Joan studied Mebêngôkre material culture, as it related to both function and significance. Turner's interest in mythology and the ties between the structure and motifs of myths to social structure led him to spend a year (1966-1967) at the University of Paris where Claude Lévi-Strauss was working on a project involving comparisons of mythology and social structure of different Central Brazilian indigenous groups.
Turner taught at Cornell University from 1966 to 1968, at the University of Chicago from 1968 to 1999, and then returned to Cornell from 1999 to 2015 where his wife, Jane Fajans, was also a professor. While teaching at the University of Chicago, Turner developed an interest in Karl Marx and the applications of his theories to anthropology (Moberg). He stated in a Guggenheim grant application that "Another main line of theoretical effort has been my attempt to generalize Marx's concept of value to account for the forms of social value generated in such forms of 'social production', in particular those of the Kayapo and other primitive, classless societies" (Terence Turner papers). In an interview for an article in the
, he said that "The Kayapo didn't have an economic sphere. They didn't have commodity production. Production for them in an immediate sense is production of their lives, and of course then you realize–wow!–this is a society for which the complete human being through all stages of life, right up to death, is the supreme product. It's the most complex and demanding product, and the social order is the whole process of producing that product" (Moberg). His interest in Marx led him to study Piaget, Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and Zinchenko, who "provided analytically principled ways of connecting material activity with forms of consciousness" (Terence Turner papers).
Turner was interested in visual anthropology. He assisted in the production of three British documentaries on the Mebêngôkre people: the BBC's
in 1976 and Granada Television's
series episodes "The Kayapo" and "The Kayapo: Out of the Forest" in 1987 and 1989. He also assisted the Mebêngôkre in documenting their own culture. The Mebêngôkre had obtained video cameras in 1985 and Turner encouraged them to obtain more cameras from the Granada crew in return for access to the community in 1987 (Harms). In 1990, he created the Kayapo Video Project, which funded the purchase of cameras, education for the Mebêngôkre filmmakers in filming and editing, and preserving the original footage at the Kayapo Video Archive/Arquivo de Video Kaiapo at the Centro de Trabalho Indigenista. Turner stated in a 1996 request for funding that the purpose of the project was "to generate an extensive archive of videos about all aspects of Kayapo culture and ecological knowledge, and simultaneously build up a cadre of well-trained video camerapersons and video-editors capable of continuing video-making and using activities into the future. The videos will be produced (both shot and edited) by the Kayapo themselves. They will form the backbone of a larger project of Kayapo cultural preservation, provide visual tests for use in a projected Kayapo educational program, and also generate a unique audio-visual record of the ecological knowledge and technology of a major Amazonian culture" (Terence Turner papers).
Turner was also very involved in human rights work and activism for indigenous communities. He felt it was the responsibility of anthropologists to defend the rights of the people whom they studied. He was involved in "anthropological activism," assisting the Mebêngôkre and others in their fight to protect their rights and environment. This interest began when Turner investigated the movement of miners, loggers, and poachers onto Mebêngôkre lands for FUNAI (the Fundação Nacional do Índio) (Harms). There were widespread protests against these incursions by the Mebêngôkre beginning in the early 1970s, which resulted in the Mebêngôkre gaining land rights. Despite this success, conflicts between the Mebêngôkre and Brazilian nationals, as well as within the Mebêngôkre community, continued. Turner both observed and participated in many of these protests and documented the ways in which these actions affected Mebêngôkre society and culture. Two of the most important protests concerned the planned construction of a series of hydroelectric dams on the Xingú River. The first protest, at Altamira in 1989, successfully derailed the project. The success of this protest brought international attention to the Mebêngôkre, who sent representatives to Canada in 1992 to support the Cree, who were protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam there. The Brazilian government redesigned their original plans for the series of dams on the Xingú River; when these plans were leaked in 2008, another protest ensued. Turner and his daughter, Vanessa, documented this protest.
Turner's commitment to human rights led to him becoming a founding member of the American Anthropological Association's Ethics Committee (1969-1972) and Committee for Human Rights (1992-1997), serving as president of Survival International, U.S.A., heading the Special Commission of the American Anthropological Association to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami (1990-1991), and receiving the Solon T. Kimball Award from the American Anthropological Association in 1998.
American Anthropological Association. "AAA Mourns the Loss of Dr. Terence Turner." Accessed June 22, 2022. https://www.americananthro.org/StayInformed/NewsDetail.aspx?ItemNumber=13188
Glaser, Linda B. "Anthropologist Terence Turner dies at 79." Cornell Chronicle, November 11, 2015.
Harms, William. "Terence Turner, anthropologist and human rights advocate for indigenous people, 1935-2015." UChicago News, November 17, 2015.
Moberg, David. "When Worlds Collide: Encounters with Anthropologist Terence Turner and other agents of modernity left the Kayapo of Brazil with something they'd never had before: power."
, October 2, 1997.
Survival International. "Terry Turner." Accessed June 22, 2022. https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10992
Terence Turner papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
1935 December 30
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A.B. from Harvard College in Modern European History, graduating cum Laude
M.A. from the University of California, Berkley, in Modern European History
Married Joan Bamberger on August 25
Began work with Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)
Ph.D. from Harvard University's Department of Social Relations in Social Anthropology
Research associate at the Museo Nacional do Brasil
Visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Cornell University
Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago
Member of the American Anthropological Association's Ethics Committee
Advisor for the filming of
with the BBC
Married Jane Fajans on July 25
Daughter Vanessa Fajans-Turner born on September 26
Professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago.
Daughter Allison Fajans-Turner born on June 15
Advisor for the filming of
Disappearing World: The Kayapo
with Granada Films
Advisor for the filming of
Disappearing World: The Kayapo: Out of the Forest
with Granada Films
Chair of the American Anthropological Association's Special Commission to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami
Member of the American Anthropological Association's Committee for Human Rights
Received Solon T. Kimball Award from the American Anthropological Association
Adjunct professor of anthropology at Cornell University.
Visiting professor of anthropology at Cornell University.
2015 November 7
Died in Ithaca, New York.