Cover Story

Five-man legacy

"Five-man legacy" Continued...

Issue: "Five-man legacy," Jan. 28, 2006

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."


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