The white Cessna 185 seems a mere speck of lint drifting over an endless green carpet. It's flying southeast from Tama Tama toward a high savanna in the Serra Parima mountains bordering Brazil. This southern reach of Venezuela is equidistant from Colombia and Brazil. Marxist rebels and drug smugglers from Colombia pose a constant physical threat from the west; Brazilian miners in search of El Dorado come from the east. But a band of northern invaders pose another sort of problem.
Too many American anthropologists and environmentalists come to this region for a "glimpse of a world where a Stone-Age tribe miraculously exists intact," in the words of Mark Greenberg, associate director of Amazonia Foundation. Mr. Greenberg and photojournalist Hudson Talbott recently chronicled their journey here among the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon Diary. Despite abundant evidence of the tribe's brutality, warfare, and witchcraft that has locally earned tribe members the nickname "fierce ones," Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Talbott hailed "the beauty and harmony of the Yanomami [sic] people, living in a simple natural environment."
Pilot Larry Dye, with New Tribes Mission's Tribal Air Communications, is on his way to a small mission among the scattered villages of Yanomamos. He radios his flight plan in Spanish, then swivels the helmet mic away from his face.
"Awful, isn't it?" he shouts in English, sweeping his hand across the cockpit to indicate the vast landscape below. "All the smoke, I mean. Burning up thousands of acres every minute!"
It's a clear day. The thick green of the jungle extends unbroken from horizon to horizon. There is no smoke.
Among those stationed here for New Tribes Mission, Mr. Dye is not alone in his cynicism toward the distortions propagated by visiting Americans like these. Their destructive effect on Christian missions arguably rivals even the effects of the Satanic spirits that have long gripped the primitive tribes in a web of fear, filth, witchcraft, and death.
In their zeal to preserve that web, the "anthros," as the missionaries refer to them, feed the American public with the assurance that the civilized is evil and the primitive is holy. In this part of South America, where ragtag Marxist rebels from Colombia and drug lords are known to roam, the anthros' worldview is as much a threat to the spread of the gospel as any physical danger.
"Last Days of Eden," reads the title of a National Geographic feature on Rondonia's Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians. With reverence the article describes the murder, witchcraft, and ignorance of the Urueu-Wau-Waus' jungle culture--then bemoans "the end of innocence" threatened by the imperialism of civilized man. It's that kind of "innocence" the prevailing network of environmentalists and anthropologists also seeks to preserve here in the jungles of Venezuela.
Visiting anthros are fully accepting of the missionaries' landing strips, language skills, and cultural savvy--all of which they rely on regularly. At the same time, they crusade against their gospel message and their very presence, urging the Indians to preserve their own primitive cultures in toto.
"The other foreigners tell us to reject the missionaries and go back to our old ways," a Yanomamo Christian in Parima tells WORLD. In his strange language of whines, pops, and grunts, he says, "But they do not have Christ in their hearts. Our old ways were evil. We will never go back."
He is dressed only in a loin cloth and has fat red sticks protruding from his earlobes. But he is not like others in his tribe still consumed by witchcraft and warfare. They live in near total degradation, even burning their dead and consuming the bones in vengeful death feasts.
One Maquiritare chieftain told a visiting anthropologist, "If you think tromping through the jungle all day trying to catch something to eat while getting eaten alive by vampire gnats is so wonderful, go right ahead."
The pure and happy image of these primitive cultures exists primarily in the minds of the anthropologists with an unquestioning audience back home. Bret Nazworth, a missionary to the Yanomamos, confronted one such anthropologist who helped produce a Discovery Channel "documentary" on the Yanomamos. The program claimed that the Yanomamo culture doesn't even have a word for "mine."
"'Mine' is the first word these people learn," Mr. Nazworth told him. The visiting anthro refused to believe it, so Mr. Nazworth got his dirt bike and took him to one of the Parima villages. When the truth had been demonstrated, the man responded with silence, not only for Mr. Nazworth but for the American public.
Postscript: On the return flight to Miami, my luggage is searched behind closed doors by U.S. Customs. When it is returned to me (too late to be checked for a connecting flight), three yellow feathers, dropped by Yanomamo children on the grassy landing strip in Parima and picked up as a souvenir, are missing from my bag. They were from a local bird hunted daily and eaten by the tribe. By federal regulation, Eden has been narrowly preserved for another day.