An Amazing Amazon Story

The Huaorani put away their spears and showed university students the power of the Gospel

by Jeff Hooten

Forty years ago my father, Nate Saint, and four other young missionaries (most famously, Jim Elliot) were speared to death while trying to reach the "Auca" Indians in the Amazon jungles of South America. Today, I have a home among these people–properly called Huaorani (pronounced wow-RAH-nee). The very men who speared my father have become substitute grandfathers to my children.

Today there is more to the story than the death of five young missionaries and the evangelization of the tribe by my father’s sister, Rachel, and Jim Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth.

A number of the Huaorani Christians have a strong desire not only to follow Christ, but to share the gospel with others. I witnessed it firsthand when a tour group of 34 students and faculty from the University of Washington and Western Washington University flew to Ecuador in 1997 to visit a Huaorani camp.

To reach the encampment, the students first rode a jungle bus to the end of a graveled path laid down by the oil companies. From there, three Huaorani men led them through the eastern flanks of the Andes mountains and down into the virgin Amazon basin. Their trek included 14 hours by foot on a jungle trail and paddling down river in large dugout canoes.

As the students unloaded their bags at the campsite, I could see the rapport between them and their guides–they were enjoying the camaraderie. So much so, in fact, that as we settled around a campfire that evening, a student asked me who the "savage Huaorani" were that they had read about before leaving the United States.

Sitting on logs under a star-studded sky and with a jungle of insects singing in the background, I explained that the very people they had been traveling, eating, sleeping, and hunting with were, in fact, these savages.

The students’ faces were telling–they were dumbfounded. I suggested they ask older members of the tribe where their fathers were. One student, taking up the challenge, nodded toward a Huaorani woman, and I translated.

"Boto maempo doobae wendapa," she replied–"He is already dead a long time ago."

"Did he get sick and die?" I probed, helping the process along.

"Having been speared, he died," she replied in a tone that suggested any other cause would have been unusual.

"Try someone else," I prompted.

The response was the same–as were the responses from the next two questioned.

"Wow, we’re four for four," one student commented with a nervous chuckle. As each Huaorani answered, they showed on their own bodies where each victim had been impaled.

Camping with killers
"Ask Ompodae," one student urged another. Several of the young ladies had taken a liking to Ompodae, a warm and fun-loving woman who was a wife and a mother of ten. The group appeared tense as they waited to hear if she, too, lost her father to the violence the others were describing.

"My father, too," she said, the pain of the memory showing in her expression.

Then she pointed at old Dabo, who was listening to our conversation a couple of feet away. "He killed my father and almost all of the rest of my family. Living angry, he speared them all."

"My God, I was just sitting next to him," exclaimed one of the young men from the tour group. Another added, "I’ve heard enough about killing."

But one more Huaorani woman, Dawa, who normally left the conversation to others, spoke up. Pointing to her aging and gentle husband, Kimo, she said, "Hating us, he speared my father, my brothers, my mother, and my baby sister whom my mother was nursing in her hammock. The spear went through my mother and my baby sister and into the ground Then he took me and made me his wife."

Our visitors looked stunned. "How could she live with the man who murdered her family?" one of the young women asked. The students began whispering among themselves. I knew what was going through their minds.

They were in the jungle with no way of getting back to their comfortable world of electricity, telephones, stores, cars, and television without a guide. They couldn’t find food on their own. They didn’t know how to build a shelter or start a fire without matches. They couldn’t distinguish the eerie mating call of a tiny tree frog from the whistle of a marauding jaguar.

Their survival depended on a group of primitive people who had just admitted to being habitual killers. Some of the students seemed agitated by what they had just heard; others openly frightened.

Six for six
The students didn’t know my relationship to the Huaorani, so it was time for me to jump in. As Dawa finished telling how Kimo had ruthlessly and violently killed her entire family, I put my arm around Kimo’s shoulders and said, "He killed my father, too. Now we’re six for six."

I hadn’t intended for my revelation to be dramatic, but the shocked silence spoke volumes. Finally, one of the students asked, "Are we safe here?"

"Let’s ask Dawa," I suggested.

When I translated the question, Dawa and the others broke into wild rolls of laughter. "Tell them that sleeping they would not wake up tomorrow if we still lived like the ancient ones did. But living well and walking God’s trail, everyone will sleep peacefully tonight!"

The friendly laughter eased the tense atmosphere somewhat, but there was another long pause when Dawa finished her answer. At last, the question on everyone’s mind found a voice: "What changed these people, who once killed for almost no reason at all?"

I interpreted the question, and Dawa, Kimo, and other members of the tribe began to describe a life where everyone did as they willed. They explained how they threw babies away when they weren’t convenient to care for. They told how dying men and women begged to be buried alive so their spirits couldn’t wander.

One gentle and happy woman told the group how she had strangled her daughter, because her dying husband wanted his children buried with him to keep him company. The one son she had refused to kill was the students’ lead guide.

The Huaorani explained their fear of evil spirits and witch doctors’ curses that could kill as effectively and with more terror than warriors’ spears. In the old days, they also feared the spirit of the jaguar, which they believed could possess them and kill them spiritually and physically.

They spoke of living in constant fear of being ambushed, even while working in their gardens. They detailed the hateful frenzy they had to work themselves into to kill others–impaling their enemies on the enemies’ own spears.

But, they explained, we learned from the missionaries that the Man Maker sent his Son to die for people full of hate, fear, and revenge.

God’s trail markings
"Badly, badly we lived back then," Dawa said. "Now, walking God’s trail which he has marked for us on paper, we live well."

The missionaries had taught the Huaorani that just as they marked their trails on the tree trunks, God’s intricate markings had been carved on paper, Dawa continued.

"All people still die," Dawa concluded, "but if living you follow God’s trail, then dying will lead you to heaven. But only one trail leads there. All other trails lead to where God will never be after death."

Dawa’s clear explanation of the gospel left her audience speechless. But now she had a question for the students.

"Have you heard me well? Which one of you wants to follow God’s trail, living well?"

There was silence. Then a lone hand raised into the night air. Dawa joyously clapped her hands and said, "Leaving, we will still see each other in God’s place some day."

Then she looked around at the others. "Dying, I will never see you again if you don’t follow God’s trail. Think well on what I have spoken, so that dying, we will live happily together in heaven."

As I flew out of the jungle a few days later with the tour leader, I asked him what the students indicated they liked best about the tour.

"Living with the Huaorani and helping them do stone-age tasks," he replied. The students had gathered and prepared food from the rainforest, fished, shot blowguns, made shelters, experienced a typical day with their hosts.

Then he added: "I also take from their comments that what made the biggest impression on them was the realization that Christianity has the ability to change people’s lives. I’m not a Christian myself, but I would say this was a radical realization for most of these young people. Until this trip, they saw Christianity as just another code of conduct."

I had been privy to a unique event–seeing the contemporary world face-to-face with the stone-age world-and the contemporary coming up short. In a fleeting but eternal moment, I had seen God’s Great Commission coming full circle. Dawa’s Spirit-led witness to the gospel was living proof that my father’s blood and Aunt Rachel’s lifetime of service had not been given in vain.

I-TEC, Indiginus Peoples Technology and Education Center,