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Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

In 1956, when my parents and I were living in Quito, a group of Waorani warriors attacked five American Evangelical missionaries. They speared the men to death, threw their bodies and belongings into the Curaray river, and vanished into the forest. 

The Waorani, a Stone Age tribe living in the Amazon forest, were a far cry from Rousseau’s “noble savage.” They were extraordinarily violent—not only did they kill every outsider that came into their territory, but they slaughtered each other as well. One study found that, over five generations, 42% of Waorani deaths–women and children as well as warriors–were caused by revenge raids carried out by Waorani from neighboring groups.

In other respects, however, the Waorani showed traits that we consider exemplary. They lived in complete harmony with Nature, trusting that the forest would provide for all their needs. With their blowguns and curare-tipped arrows they hunted only the animals they needed for survival. They had little notion of past and future, and drew no difference between the physical and the spiritual realms. 

Our house backed onto the grounds of HCJB, The Voice of the Andes, a radio station manned by American Protestant missionaries who lived in a neat little American-style suburb surrounding the station. My parents became friendly with some of the families, and one of the men, who took music lessons from my father, was instrumental in our eventual move to the U.S. At age twelve, although I envied their manicured lawns and pristine houses, I resented the missionaries’ frequent allusions to Jesus and their endless Bible quotations, and I kept warning my parents that their supposed friendliness was a ploy to convert us to Evangelism. Secure in their Catholicism, my parents would laugh and urge me to be more tolerant. 

The deaths of the five young missionaries, who left behind their wives and half a dozen tow-headed infants and toddlers, devastated the HCJB community. What had begun as an exciting adventure to bring Jesus to a previously uncontacted tribe ended in a tragedy made all the more wrenching by the unexposed film found in the dead men’s pockets, which documented their final hours. 

The men’s first attempts to contact the Waorani consisted of flying over their settlements in a yellow single-engine plane and dropping gifts of pots, buttons, ribbons, and machetes. In return, the Waorani sent up a parrot, with a piece of banana to sustain him during the journey, in a sturdy cage made of woven reeds. 

After several fly-overs and gift-drops, the missionaries landed on a strip of sand by the Curaray river. Soon, three Waorani emerged from the forest: a young man, a girl who looked about fifteen, and an older woman, all wearing only a g-string. With many smiles and welcoming gestures, the Americans bestowed more gifts, including a model airplane. Then they put a shirt on the man, whose name was Nankiwi, and, without further preliminaries, put him on the plane and took him for a ride. 

Reading the Americans’ journal half a century later, I am astounded that they give no hint of any doubts about the wisdom and ethics of their project. Rather, the journals reveal nothing but exuberant confidence, optimism, and the conviction that this is the Lord’s work, which will result in the happiness and salvation of their intended converts. 

Nankiwi shouted with excitement during the entire plane ride, and by the time they returned to the beach, the Americans had decided to call him “George.” The girl they nicknamed “Delilah.” Whether they gave the older woman a name the journal does not say. 

I remember at the time looking at the photos of this naked girl, just a few years older than I, and wondering about her new American name. I knew about the Biblical Delilah, the voluptuous seductress who betrayed Samson. I found it weird and disquieting that they would name the girl after her. Surely the missionaries were aware of the original Delilah. Were they trying to be funny, or what? 

After more gifts and pleasantries, the man and the girl returned to the jungle, and the woman followed sometime later. Euphoric with the success of this first contact, the missionaries prayed and sang hymns, and settled down on the beach to await their next visitors. 

When they finally came, armed with spears and the gift machetes, they massacred the Americans in  minutes. 

I was enthralled by the mystery and violence of this story, and a part of my childish self admired the Waorani. Good for them, I thought, for not wanting to be converted, wear clothes, and sing hymns! Good for them, for defending their exciting life deep in the dark and unknown jungle. The lack of apparent justification for the massacre added to its fascination. Why had the Waorani seemed so friendly at first, and then suddenly changed their minds? 

Two years after the killings, Elisabeth Elliott, the widow of one of the slain missionaries, picked up a Bible, put her toddler on her back Indian style, and walked into Waorani territory. Unlike her husband and his friends, she was accepted. Other missionaries soon joined her, and the Waorani converted to Evangelism. 

Eventually, the new converts explained what had caused the massacre. It seems that Nankiwi and the girl were romantically involved, but her family and especially her brother were against the relationship. When the pair went to meet the missionaries, the older woman accompanied them as chaperone. But when the girl’s brother saw the couple returning unescorted from the beach he became enraged and turned on Nankiwi who, to distract attention from himself, said that the missionaries had attacked them. This prompted the warriors to organize the revenge raid. 

Today the majority of Waorani live in villages, go to school, and enjoy internet access. They have mostly stopped killing each other. They wear clothes, and have forsworn polygamy, their chants and dances, and their ayahuasca rituals. Some still hunt, but many depend on the ecotourism industry for economic survival. Despite the protection afforded by the Ecuadorean government, their lands are under constant threat by the oil companies. 

But a couple of Waorani groups, the fiercest, refusing to be Westernized, have retreated to the few remaining deep jungle pockets, from which they continue to repel invaders with their spears, and possibly a machete or two. 

Delilah, photographed by one of the missionaries

9 Responses

  1. Never know how to react to these forced evangelizations which so often resulted in the local losing just about everything of value. It is bound to happen, and yet destroying what is there and replacing it with bad and lowest-rung versions is wrong. All over the world – and led to enormous amounts of death and sickness, not true conversion and love.In the States, people was deliberately infected with smallpox. Huge swathes of the Amazon rain forest have been razed. It's always something.

  2. I remember the news event and later read a book about it from the perspective on the mission group, but before the follow up visit by the woman and child. Sees like I remember their song, sung to the tune of Finlandia.. We rest on Thee. . . I think I was full of wonder, but not yet able to see the cracks in complex world.

  3. Hard to know what the right course of action is. On the one hand, the Waorani have mostly lost their culture; on the other, they no longer routinely murder each other. And yes, the Amazon is in dire straits, mostly due to our hunger for oil.

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