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COMMENTARY: In Defense of a Once-Violent Tribe Depicted in Film

c. 2006 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Israel has thousands of articulate defenders, hence the many critical essays about Steven Spielberg’s characterization of Israeli agents in his new film, “Munich.” But the Waodani, the once-murderous South American tribe portrayed in “End of the Spear,” lack such international support. So let me offer a partial defense on […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Israel has thousands of articulate defenders, hence the many critical essays about Steven Spielberg’s characterization of Israeli agents in his new film, “Munich.”

But the Waodani, the once-murderous South American tribe portrayed in “End of the Spear,” lack such international support. So let me offer a partial defense on their behalf.

“End of the Spear” tells the story of five young missionaries who were killed by the Waodani in 1956 and the relationship that developed between the two cultures in the years since.

In 1974, I traveled in South America in search of adventure and self-realization. I was alone, lonely and hungry for authentic human connection _ even if I was unsure what that really meant. My fantasy was to reach the rain forest of eastern Ecuador, home of the Waodani, whom I had read about as a boy in Life magazine. “End of the Spear” has a brief scene in which the son of one of the slain missionaries is shown reading that article.

Traditional Waodani culture was extremely violent, as the film makes clear. The Waodani viewed all outsiders as a threat (most actually were; in recent decades the threat has come from oil companies coveting Waodani territory), and internal feuds raged for decades. Their neighbors called them Auca, a Quechua Indian word that means “savage.”

However, the Waodani did not engage in mass slaughters as depicted in the film’s opening sequence. A raid usually resulted in one or two deaths at most. Women and children were generally not killed, being far more valuable to the men alive.

To get to Waodani lands I hooked up with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the evangelical Protestant organization that seeks to translate the New Testament into every spoken language. It’s the same group that the slain missionaries were associated with. After some badgering on my part, SIL allowed me to travel on one of their rickety DC-3s to Limoncocha, their jungle base camp in Ecuador.

From there, I went by single-engine plane to Tiwaeno, the Waodani village and advanced missionary base also depicted in the film.

Only because Rachel Saint, the sister of slain missionary Nate Saint, was away was I allowed to spend several days in Tiwaeno. Rachel had become so protective of the Waodani that she allowed few visitors.

By the time I turned up in Tiwaeno, the few Waodani who still routinely attacked all strangers had moved deeper into the jungle, away from the rest of their nominally pacified fellow tribesmen. So it was relatively safe to accompany SIL missionary Jim Yost into the nearby rain forest to visit Waodani settlements.

On one occasion we came upon a group of perhaps a half-dozen men living with their wives and children. The women and children scurried to the rear of the thatched-roof communal shelter as the men, wearing an odd assortment of old bathing suits and leaf-and-bark genital coverings, offered bowls of masato, a foul-smelling drink made from boiled and fermented manioc.

The men giggled nervously and patted my body, as the Waodani are shown doing in “Spear.” One opened my hip pouch. Another fingered the stitching on my clothes, seemingly trying to figure out how they were made. As Yost had advised, I allowed their curiosity free expression.

Then the headman _ a short, squat fellow named Cawaenae _ asked me the sort of friend-or-foe questions he put to all strangers. Yost translated: Who were my relatives? Where did I live?

I said I lived by myself beyond the mountains. I left out all details about a son who was living with an ex-wife and a family that was as perplexed as Cawaenae was about my activities. As Yost translated my words, the smile disappeared from Cawaenae’s face. The headman, his eyes locked on mine, spoke again.

Cawaenae, Yost said, was saddened to learn I lived alone. He wondered who hunted for me when I was sick or injured, who fought alongside me when I was attacked, what children would take care of me when I became old?

His compassion touched me deeply. Here was the authentic human connection I craved. Encountering it unleashed my vulnerability, and I started to cry. Cawaenae just watched.

Truly, the Waodani were once a paranoid, murderous society. But they also understood the importance of community and kinship ties to an extent that many of us moderns have forgotten. In that, their savagery was transcendent.

(Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval” (SkyLight Paths).)

KRE/PH END RIFKIN