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Five-man legacy

Fifty years after the famous missionary martyrdom in Ecuador, the blood still cries out

Five-man legacy

(Photo by Ron Storer)

Toñampadi, Ecuador - It is a January morning in this remote Waodani village in the equatorial rainforest. Word on the sweltering dirt streets is that the man called Kimo and his wife, Dawa, have arrived by canoe for the big weekend conferencia remembering the 50th anniversary of the killing here of Jim Elliot and four other American missionaries. Paa, a short and animated ball of energy with wide duck feet, is motioning wildly because his old friend Kimo is coming and has killed a tapir en route to the village.

Paa hopes they can share this fresh treat with their visitors tonight. Once abundant, these animals-the largest in the Ecuadorian rainforest-are numbering fewer as sedentary lifestyles, forced on Kimo and Paa's people by their newfound need to be within shouting distance of an airstrip, mean they hunt in a smaller area and quickly exhaust surrounding game supplies. The piquianani, or old ones, know their way of life is changing.

Paa waves excitedly to the cowodi, or foreigners, intending his gestures to communicate what his words cannot: Follow me to Kimo. He trudges off toward the Curaray River, leading an entourage of jungle missionaries, village children, and two elderly men for whom this moment has incalculably special meaning. Paa crosses the grassy airstrip that his people both bless and curse.

Before there was an airstrip, belching volcanic peaks that tower like fortress sentinels cut off the Waodani (also called Waorani) from the rest of the world. The airstrip was the entryway for medicine, the savior of their bodies, and for missionaries who introduced them to Waengongi-God, the savior of their souls. Now it also conveys cowodi influences that promote alcoholism, promiscuity, and materialism.

Paa heads down a narrow path near a house made of chainsaw-cut palm boards. He breaks into an ear-to-ear smile as Kimo comes to hug him. Among the crowd, the two octogenarians wait anxiously, also smiling. They are Bert Elliot and Ken Fleming, brothers of Jim Elliot and Pete Fleming, two of the five "Palm Beach missionaries" whom Kimo and Paa's people speared to death to start the first chapter in the famous tale of evangelical martyrdom half a century ago. Kimo, who has been searching the crowd for their faces, sees them and maneuvers his aging body over for a warm embrace.

Fifty years earlier and less than a mile away, bold Jim Elliot and deep-thinking Pete Fleming, along with pilot Nate Saint, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian, also were warmly greeted by Waodani tribesmen on "Friendly Friday." But two days later, Kimo and five other spearmen hurled lances at the missionaries, leaving the slain bodies to rot in the shallow Curaray River.

A Los Angeles Times headline from 1956 tersely reported the news: "Savages kill five missionaries." Reporters, emphasizing the five men's bravery and the determination of their wives and sisters, adopted "Auca," a Quichua word for "savage," to describe Paa and Kimo's people.

Even though Jim Elliot had described himself and the four others as "a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody," they were lionized after their deaths, and many Americans peered at Life's double-page photo spreads of the missionaries' widows and orphans juxtaposed against shots of nameless, near-naked "savages," as the captions read. But when Paa looks at those pictures today, he smiles and lists them by name-this one is Nenkiwi, that one is Dayumae.

The Waodani always had names, but they didn't have some other things, such as a concept of time. Before contact, older Waodani estimated age based on natural occurrences and momentous events like volcanic eruptions or major raids. Kimo is probably nearing 70, and despite his khakis, ball cap, and T-shirt, he-like many of the older ones-has retained his rough looks. Big gums flash a mostly toothless smile, but the rest of his physiognomy betrays his ancestors' rigidity: a heavy-set brow and tired, serious eyes. Kimo has "hard life" written all over him.

The Waodani especially did not have peace. "I've killed many," Kimo says. The actual number is probably in the dozens, but the Waodani simply lump all numbers larger than three together as "many." His visage is tough, but he says God has tamed his soul: "We were seen back then as savages. The devil blinded us. We were always killing. . . . I can't explain how different I feel now." On Sunday, Kimo would help baptize 10 young Waodani Christians in the same waters where he once killed.

Thomas Hobbes' description of life in nature as "nasty, brutish and short" was not, of course, a description of the Waodani, but they were the most violent people on record, once boasting a homicide rate of more than 60 percent and viewing a 25-year-old as remarkably long-lived.

Jim Yost, a Christian anthropologist who lived with the Waodani for more than a decade, sees their hairpin conversion as incredible, but it happened: Moved by the forgiveness offered by Elisabeth Elliot (wife of Jim Elliot) and Rachel Saint (sister of Nate Saint), who moved into the village of their loved ones' murderers, some of the Waodani listened to the story of God's Son speared for their sake, and were changed.

That vertical learning curve, however, makes integration and identity a work in progress. Although popular accounts make Waodani territory sound like the Bible Belt of the Amazon, missionaries estimate that only 25 percent of the tribe is Christian.

Over the past half-century some Waodani have seamlessly mixed outside cultures with their traditions, but Kimo's mixed appearance is as scrambled as an Analytic Cubist painting. Gone are the kumi, or traditional G-string, and the annatto-seed face dye. If some earlobes have holes stretched the size of golf balls, they are the only tangible proof of long-abandoned earplugs.

In this unraveling culture, the younger generation shows the most dramatic physical change. In Toñampadi, teenagers sport chili-bowl haircuts or wear Nike and Tommy Hilfiger-two hot sellers in the mannequined shop windows of Puyo, the cosmopolitan provincial capital that, for many Waodani, is the only contact with the outside world.

Old tribal songs, composed of three musical notes and lyrically repetitious, now embarrass young Waodani, who get doses of Western music from Green Day and Christina Aguilera.

Many older Waodani saw God as the liberator from fear and killing. Many among the new generation, hardly knowing either, see the secular outside world as the liberator from denigration and unimportance-to them, from being Waodani.

The Waodani once killed out of fear or, to use the words of Dyuwi, one of the original killers, "because that is what the Waodani did," he said. "We lived in the ways of our grandparents." Dyuwi remembers how his father taught him the way to spear by taking him to the Napo River and impaling someone in front of him.

Today, these stories are almost mythology to the younger generation. Little children play spearing games like American boys play cowboys and Indians. Nonetheless, violence still exists in the culture-only its genesis is now less a product of tribal custom than the result of lowered inhibitions.

Just ask Kimo. He couldn't retell the Palm Beach story as well as he had hoped. As Dyuwi recalled it with expert Waodani stoicism, Kimo could not get his mind off his sister. In August, two drunken men dragged her to this same river, the Curaray, hacked her body to pieces with machetes, and spread around the parts like the old ones used to do after a raid.

What befell Omaenae, a Tzapino pastor, is even more tragic. Among the Waodani one group, the Tagaeidi, still lives in pagan isolation, its members holed up deep in the jungle following a raid in 1968. Living in the old ways, Tagaeidi frequently kill wayward oil-company employees combing the area for reserves. When Omaenae was a child, the Tagaeidi raided his village and orphaned him-by Waodani custom, that act would require him to take vengeance when he came of age. He did not take it, however, converting to Christianity and preaching instead.

A year and a half ago, Omaenae attended a village fiesta with traditional banana drink. In a nod to the universality of male machismo, Waodani men at parties prove themselves by chugging this thick, mashed glop in gourd-sized cups, often consuming several quarts within hours. Unknown to Omaenae, a local troublemaker named Babae added some of the outsiders' hard liquor. Innocent but copious chugging left Omaenae, who had never tasted alcohol, very drunk. The men began to recall the terrible slayings the Tagaeidi had carried out.

Inebriated and fuming with ire, Omaenae and several men grabbed spears-precision-sharpened chonta palm measuring 8 feet, notched at the tip's end. After canoeing downriver, the enraged group attacked in a drunken stupor, indiscriminately killing 17 of the Tagaeidi, mostly women and children. Omaenae's actions were more than just a horrible sin committed by the village pastor. He had put his family and friends in imminent danger. The Tagaeidi had 17 murders to repay, and the spearing would not be selective. The villagers ostracized Omaenae.

During the conference's Saturday night session, Omaenae appeared on the stage after a trilingual version of "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus." Village pastors and ne anani, or elders, assembled behind him. Omaenae, formerly an admired spiritual leader, spoke somberly as he did something no Waodani had ever done: ask publicly for forgiveness and reconciliation in a culture with no word for "forgive" and no way to say "I am sorry."

As Omaenae somehow found the right words, the Waodani seemed to understand them. The others laid hands on him and prayed. They surrounded him like the arc of a curved shield. They pledged protection and promised clemency-an act the slain missionaries' families later said speaks more about the work of God in this tribe than a library's worth of books and articles has in 50 years.

Though the precariousness of teetering in a cultural no-man's land has persuaded the Waodani to begin learning the outsiders' way of life, basic concepts like church and a system of elders or deacons remain foreign to them. Mr. Yost says this is because the family is the only natural social institution among the Waodani. "The church is an artificial setting," he says. "At first the services were to keep them from spearing or being speared."

The Waodani are also having difficulty with representative democracy. Those elected to represent the tribe leave the villages for four-year terms in Puyo, where ineptness and habitual corruption in Ecuadorian politics often necessitate their removal after a year or two. With a yearly budget of only $100,000, the Waodani government has managed to accumulate $40,000 in debt.

The Waodani's selection of oil-company liaisons, who hold clout because the companies' paychecks represent a sizeable chunk of the Waodani economy, has also troubled aid workers. Miriam Gebb, a community-health nurse who has helped the Waodani for a decade, has seen the oil-company spots go to unqualified youth seemingly disinterested in tribal well-being: "They put the immature Waodani into these leadership positions because they speak good Spanish and they can communicate with the oil companies." Companies, she notes, offer modern occupational incentives such as health benefits, and screen Rambo to attract a young crowd.

Ms. Gebb worries that the younger generation, naïve and embarrassed by the old ways, is diving into the dumpsters of modern civilization. Once-forbidden divorce is now acceptable, and Ms. Gebb suspects some Waodani have contracted venereal diseases.

Lloyd Rogers, who runs Ecuador for Christ, an organization responsible for 12 Christian schools scattered throughout the 21 Waodani villages, worries about alcoholism and loose lifestyles corrupting younger Waodani who see God's message as something for the older generation and sensory overload as the message for them. "It hurts my heart to go to Puyo and see young Waodani walking drunk down the street," Mr. Rogers said. "It's hard for those of us who've been working closely with them to see them getting caught up in all that."

As the courage of the five missionaries 50 years ago radically changed life here, so may the faith of men like Oma, the Tiwaeno pastor and brother of Toñae, the first Waodani martyr and the town's namesake. Oma says he is willing to go to the Tagaeidi and let them kill him in revenge, if God so leads him. And some children of those converted nearly a half-century ago are faithful: Oma's congenial son Kawitipa is working successfully with some of Toñampadi's youth.

Other signs are also hopeful. As Steve Twinem, a missionary in Peru who traveled in for the conference, walked the tire-worn airstrip not long after arriving in Toñampadi, several young Waodani boys tagged alongside to welcome him. In Spanish, they asked him if he had heard the story of the Waodani.

"I told them that I guess I had heard part of it but I wanted them to tell it to me," he says, adding how he expected to hear some ancient Waodani mythology or some legends from the tribe's hunter-gatherer past. Instead, the children started with the story of five missionaries who died on a beach. For them, this was the beginning of the Waodani story.

Telling their story

"MAF pilot Nate Saint was my earliest and I think only childhood hero. 'Operation Auca' was a secret and we knew nothing while it was taking place. However, I remember vividly as a 9-year-old boy sitting on my parents' bed, listening to radio reports directly from the Amazon region as the search party went into Waodani territory to find out what had happened to the men. I shall never forget hearing those radio reports as one by one the men were found martyred. Two of the actual spears used to kill the men were left at our home in Quito for safekeeping.

"I remember the utter shock among the missionary community, the tears, the grief. . . . Deep within, I felt God was going to honor their effort in some way. In spite of the grief, we expected Him to act."

-Chuck Howard, field director of HCJB Radio in Ecuador

"When Dayumae and Rachel [Saint, sister of Nate Saint] came to Tiwaeno, I accepted Jesus. We were always killing, but I feel so different now."

-Kimo (one of the original Palm Beach killers)

When I came back with Rachel, we brought gifts and made them clothes. . . . But what we really wanted was to share God with them. Many wanted to continue to spear. It was hard. We had to go house to house and tell people about God, but slowly they believed."

-Dayumae, woman who befriended Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot, later becoming the first Waodani Christian

"The death of the five missionaries opened a door, and the work of the women who followed them is what gives you [the Waodani] the Word. . . . This Word is like a sword that can penetrate right through the body to the soul. A spear cannot penetrate where the Word of God penetrates."

-Bert Elliot (Jim Elliot's brother and a missionary in Peru for 56 years)

"I used to live in the jungle in the old ways, and the way God touched my life was through those five missionaries."

-Paa (one of the older Waodani men, lives in Toñampadi)

"I've been praying for you [the Waodani] for more than 50 years because before my brother came to you, he prayed for you and so I prayed for you as well. Can you imagine what it's like for me to see more than 200 people meeting together here around God?"

-Ken Fleming (Pete Fleming's brother who was a missionary to the Zulu people in Africa)

"Fifty years ago, coming up . . . the Curaray, I have to be honest with you, I had a lot of fear. But now sensing the liberty and the peace is such a contrast. . . .

"John was right in his epistle when he said, 'Love drives out fear.'"

-Don Johnson, missionary who was part of rescue team sent in to find the five men

"Go ahead and kill me. I will go immediately to be with Jesus who died on the cross and was speared."

-last words of Toñae, the first Waodani martyr

Clint Rainey

Clint Rainey