Book Review: Gentle Savage Still Seeking the End of the Spear: The Autobiography of a Killer and the Oral History of the Waorani

Gentle SavageMenkaye was one of several Waorani (then known as Auca) men responsible for spearing to death Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully, five missionaries who had come to try to reach them with the gospel, in what was known as Operation Auca. Gentle Savage Still Seeking the End of the Spear: The Autobiography of a Killer and the Oral History of the Waorani by Menkaye Aenkaedi with Kemo and Dyowe is Menkaye’s effort to tell his story in his own words – at least, as close to his own words as possible. He cannot write, so he shared his story verbally with someone who spoke his language as well as Spanish, and then it was translated from Spanish to English.

Menkaye begins with what could be called “the Moipa years.” Moipa was a highly skilled Waorani hunter who, out of fear of reprisals for the people he had killed, began killing almost everyone who crossed him or who might someday: men, women, children (who might grow up to take revenge), grandparents, anyone. The people lived in constant fear of him, and many attempts on his life did not succeed. When he finally did die, killing at the slightest provocation, for any real, perceived, or potential threat or wrong had become a way of life. That included any outsiders. Their encounters with non-Waorani had not gone well, and what could they want anyway except to encroach on their territory or to steal from them or hurt them? Better to kill them off before they struck first, they reasoned.

The missionaries had known that the Waorani, or Aucas, as they knew them, were violent, but they had learned some Waorani words from Dayuma, a woman who had escaped the tribe some years before, had flown Nate Saint’s plane over them a number of times, shouting out Auca/Waorani phrases, had dropped gifts to them and received some in return, so they thought the people were receptive to meeting them. They set up camp in their territory, and a man and two women  from the tribe came to visit them, the man even going up for a ride. Everything seemed to be going well. But then a group of Waorani came at them and speared them and tore the fabric off the plane.

Years later, when Elisabeth Elliot had come to know them and asked them why they had speared the men, they replied, “For no purpose.” In Olive Fleming Liefeld’s book, Unfolding Destinies, when she went back to visit and asked the same question, they told her they had not understood the photos the men had shown them. They thought the photos of Dayuma meant that she had died, supposedly at the men’s hands. Later still, Steve Saint related in End of the Spear that when he went back to live and work with the Waorani for a time, he was told there was a disagreement between them about one’s man’s wanting to marry one of the women. Some who were involved got angry, and to divert their turning on each other, someone turned their attention to the missionaries, starting a raid. Menkaye relates that all of these are true. One of the men involved in the argument they were having about marriage began to say that the photos meant that the men were cannibals, and they should spear them before the men killed and ate them.

This event that shook the world is given relatively few pages in Menkaye’s book. With all the people they had killed, these men were just a blip on their radar, another threat averted. But some time later, Dayuma came back to the tribe and told them they had made God angry and they needed to stop killing. Amazingly, they were willing to lay down their spears and hear more. Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) and Elisabeth and Valerie Elliot (Jim’s wife and young daughter) were invited to come and teach them. Though I had read in Through Gates of Splendor and other books that over time several of the Waorani had come to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, it was touching and beautiful to hear this experience described in more detail by Menkaye and to hear him, Kemo, and Dyowe tell of the joy and freedom in their hearts. Dyowe told Rachel:

I want you to know…that I was one of the men…who killed your brother Nathanael when he was on the beach with the others. I know that God wants to forgive me. But I want to tell you too to forgive me for the things that I have done. I didn’t understand anything back then, and I didn’t know who they were. But I will say that I truly know God has forgiven me today. I want to give myself to Him. It was not only your brother who died. Many, many people died besides him at the point of my spear. But today is the last of my own spear for me. I have found a new spear to pierce the hearts of many people (p. 231).

Almost immediately they became concerned for other branches of the tribe that had broken off to live in new areas, and they tried to reach them with the gospel. Some were martyred in the attempt, and most of these other branches are still not believers, thus the second part of Menkaye’s rather bulky title about still seeking the end of the spear. In fact, one of the end notes relates that while the book was in progress, another raid had taken place against oil company employees.

The next part of Menkaye’s book tells of changes that have taken place in the Waoranis, and the last few chapters, some of the most valuable for anyone seeking to work with tribal people, are his vision for his people. He and other Waorani are not opposed to progress and to changes. They see them as inevitable. Menkaye’s own son attended aviation school in Michigan in the US. They don’t want their young people to lose their Waorani skills and heritage completely, though, and they want any future work within the tribe to be handled differently than it has been. In the past, people were sent in who pretty much took over instead of coming under the tribal leadership – even Rachel and Dayuma. Rachel wanted to set Dayuma in charge, but either Dayuma wasn’t quite cut out for it or the authority went to her head or she backslid or something – Menkaye details a number of problems with her leadership. To be generous, this was something Rachel and Dayuma had not been trained for, and mistakes were made. Menkaye and the others are not bitter and they appreciated everything done for them, especially helping them to understand the gospel, but they did want to point out some of the issues and correct them.

The ones who should be choosing the leaders are the Waorani themselves, based upon what we ourselves see in those candidates, young or old, who have demonstrated maturity from a Biblical perspective, and have carefully studied the Bible in order to know the principles in depth that will be taught and lived out. Never should it be a random choice based on a superficial view of any person., especially someone from the Outside (p. 323).

Reading this makes me appreciate even more the emphasis among missionaries our churches have supported in leading rather than driving the people and in training up leaders from within the people group they are ministering to rather than continuing to bring in leadership from the outside.

I’m sure another difficulty in working with tribal people is how to navigate changes. One doesn’t want to unduly influence their culture, but one doesn’t want to hold them back, either. That is all I can figure was going on when the people began to ask Rachel for clothes and boots, and she said they had done fine without them before and didn’t need them now, according to Menkaye. But they had always lived and worked in the jungle before, where it was shady, and Rachel had them out in the open under the hot sun clearing space for an airstrip and didn’t seem to understand they wanted protection from the sun beating on their backs. I think either she was trying not to change them in that way, or she was trying to squelch their looking for handouts, but evidently this is one area where she and Elisabeth disagreed: Elisabeth thought they should have clothes and arranged for them. (They kept wearing clothes but had mixed emotions about shoes. They found that boots protected them from “thorns, ants, and vipers,” but the weight of them felt odd to them, and “when we were climbing the steep mountain ridges, they made us slip in the mud and slide downward” [p. 227].)

I’ve mentioned before in other missionary book reviews (particularly here) that some people think of these primitive tribal communities as simple people frolicking in the sun who shouldn’t be disturbed by missionaries and businesses. Dr. Jim Yost says in the forward, “The tendency to idealize or romanticize ‘primitive’ culture falls to crushing blows here as the reality of life in the upper Amazon rainforest plays out in gruesome details often too explicit or vivid for the cushioned Western mind.” (p. v). How many of us would have wanted our culture to remain as it was hundreds of years ago just to preserve it? Progress has its problems but also its opportunities.

Menkaye and other Waorani are willing to embrace these opportunities while still maintaining the Waorani culture and autonomy. He has great ideas for them to integrate with the “World of the City,” to help his people explore endeavors in which they can make their own money, and to help their young people have the best opportunities for a changing future.

I do not intend to offend the churches of The Outside World who perceive their role as one of coming in to show us how to do things, but in reality, we can learn equally from each other. Is that not true? Do we not have many things to teach each other and to learn from each other? (p. 329).

If you bring us a new idea, we will welcome that, too. But we will always weigh and balance the influences and outcomes of every new component, and determine together what projects are useful and valuable, and which ones may be harmful in some way (p. 338).

The Waorani are storytellers, but their way of sharing stories is different from ours. There is much more detail than I would personally care to know about some issues, much less than I wanted to know about others, and the stories are laid out differently than we would be used to. There is an appendix of Waorani myths and legends at the end: some seem odd, some are gruesome. But then, they would probably think the same way about our fairly tales and Mother Goose rhymes.

I think this book is incredibly valuable to anyone interested in the heritage of the ministries of the Saints, Elliots, and others who initiated “Operation Auca,” and to anyone with an interest in missions, particularly in ministry to tribal peoples. I hope Menkaye lives a long time to carry out his vision and that others take it up as well.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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Through Gates of Splendor

Five missionaries working in different outposts in Ecuador in the early to mid-1950s became burdened for a tribe of killers known then as the Aucas. Early encounters with the white man had not gone well when the rubber hunters came to harvest while also “plundering and burning the Indian homes, raping, torturing, and enslaving the people” (p. 14). But the Aucas killed not only white men, but any outsiders and even their own people. “Could Christian love wipe out the memories of past treachery and brutality?” (p. 14). The missionaries hoped so and longed to be a part of reaching this tribe with the love and gospel of Christ. Upheld by the truth that “Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9b), they began to plan and strategize as to how best to reach these hostile people.

Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot is the story of how these five men came to the Lord, came to be called to the mission field, their marriages, and how each was led to become part of “Operation Auca.” It’s no spoiler to say the operation ended in the death of the five, because that fact was known long before the book came to be and was probably a great impetus in it’s writing. But then it is not right, either, to say that is how Operation Auca ended, because God used it in the lives of the Aucas themselves as well as of people all over the world in the decades since. But knowing how the story “ends” lends a poignancy to the men’s lives and words.

The five men were:

Nate Saint, a brilliant pilot whose dreams of flying the big planes was cut short by an illness, but who went on to become a pilot for Missionary Aviation Fellowship, bringing much-needed supplies, human contact, and medical help to missionaries in outpost stations. He had an ingenious engineer’s mind which he used to great effect solving problems and improving life, and a healthy balance between doing everything in his power to ensure success and safety yet trusting God for the outcome.

Jim Elliot, from Portland, OR, intense and passionate, had a burning desire to share Christ with those who had never heard of Him, yet also had a humorous side and felt with George MacDonald that “It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence” (p. 17).

Pete Fleming, from Seattle, WA, quiet, studious, would probably have been a college professor if he had not felt called to the mission field.

Roger Youderian, of Louistown, MT, severely affected by polio as a child, was called to the missionary field while serving in the military.

Ed McCully, from Milwaukee, WI,  was planning to go to law school when a Bible study led him to abandon all to follow Christ wherever he might lead.

Even before Operation Auca was even remotely thought about, most of the men were willing to give themselves even unto death. Jim wrote in his journal:

“‘He makes His ministers a flame of fire.’ Am I ignitible? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this my soul – short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. ‘Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.'” (p. 17).

Nate Saint, likewise, considered himself “expendable,” saying, “Every time I take off, I am ready to deliver up the life I owe to God” (p. 58), and Pete later wrote:

“I am longing now to reach the Aucas if God gives me the honor of proclaiming the Name among them…I would gladly give my life for that tribe if only to see an assembly of those proud, clever, smart people gathering around the table to honor the Son – gladly, gladly, gladly! What more could be given to a life?” (p. 26).

All of the wives, as well, were willing to live in “primitive” conditions and to be used in God’s service in whatever way He saw fit.

But they were not careless. Every step of Operation Auca was steeped in thought, discussion, sometimes disagreement, and prayer for the best outcome for all involved. And every step looked like it was going well.

What then led the Aucas then to kill the five men? When God opened the tribe to visits later, at first they said it was because they thought the men might be cannibals. In a later book I believe someone was told that the photographs the missionaries had scared them: they thought somehow it involved the soul of the person in the photograph. In Steve Saint’s more recent book, End of the Spear, he was told that an argument had broken out among the Auca men involving a woman, and one man wanted to prevent the bloodshed amongst the tribe and turned their anger towards the white men. It is possible that all of these factors played a part, or that as the Aucas (now known by their own name of Waodani [going by Steve’s spelling of it since he has worked with them for years, but I have also seen it as Huaorani or Waorani]) got to know white people and their language better, they may have felt more of a freedom of expression in later years that they did at first.

I first read this book in college, and the lives of these men and their wives and their dedication and love for the Lord touched me greatly. I have read it many times since, and it never fails to speak to me. The version I read this time is the same one I read in college, a brown around the edges 1977 fifth printing: the first printing was in 1956. It was interesting to see what I had underlined in previous readings and what stood out to me this time. It also touched off a lifetime of reading missionary biographies, reading just about everything Elisabeth Elliot has written and reading several other books about Operation Auca and the lives of those involved.

If you’d like to read more about any of these, I recommend the following:

  • The Dayuma Story by Rachel Saint, sister of pilot Nate Saint. Dayuma was the Auca girl who had escaped the tribe years earlier, taught the men Auca phrases, and later went back to share the gospel with her tribe.

I’m sure there are other books and biographies out there (I have one of Nate Saint on my bookshelf that I’ve not read yet). but these are the ones I have read. In addition, Elisabeth Elliot touches on the experiences of her time in the Ecuadorian jungle in several of her other books. One of my favorites is in The Savage My Kinsman when she quotes William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “To a Waterfowl,” and applies it to herself, especially the last line: “He, who, from zone to zone, Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, In the long way that I must tread alone, Will lead my steps aright.”

There are also several films and film clips of interest:

  • Through Gates of Splendor (it seems to be also on YouTube here), narrated by Elisabeth Elliot, using footage that she, Nate Saint, and Life Magazine had taken.
  • A “This Is Your Life” feature of Rachel Saint, part 1 and 2.
  • End of the Spear” (linked to my thoughts), a feature film.
  • Beyond the Gates of Splendor, a documentary made 50 years after the events. This is one I would recommend above all the others if you only have time for one. It is in four parts on Vimeo (Part 1, 2, 3, and 4), but I found the audio a bit hard to hear.

There are also several videos of Steve Saint speaking with Mincaye, one of the killers who eventually became a surrogate grandfather to Steve’s children. Talk about grace!

I wanted to say just a word, too, to those who criticize missionary efforts and who believe that primitive tribes should be left as they are. By the Waodani’s own admission, the tribe probably would have become extinct now if someone had not come to tell them of a better way of life. Why would anyone want to deny them that? In Spirit of the Rainforest (different people and field, but also a primitive tribe) this rather lengthy quote explains some of their feelings (I started just to link to it, but I feel it is so important that I copied it here):

“The naba wants to know why you want to change the way you live out here in the jungle,” Keleewa said to Hairy after Doesn’t-Miss talked.

Hairy was surprised at the question. “Because we’re miserable out here. We are miserable all the time. The people from Honey [predominantly Christian village] came here and made peace with us many seasons ago and their village keeps getting better. We want that for us. If it means throwing spirits away and getting new ones, we will do it. [This is not something said lightly. Many were under the impression that they would be killed if they tried to get rid of their spirits.] But we need someone to teach us these new ways.”

Hairy didn’t have spirits because he was not a shaman. But he followed everything the spirits told his shaman. I knew my spirits would be very irritated if Hairy quit following the spirits. No one who has killed as often and as long s Hairy could ever stop it…

Doesn’t Miss talked with Keleewa for a while. Keleewa paused and thought how to say what the naba said. Then he told Hairy, “He says there are many people in his land that don’t think that he, or any of us, should be here helping you at all. They say that you’re happy here and that we should leave you alone. He wants to know what an experienced killer like you would say to them.”

Hairy grew even more serious. “I say to you, please don’t listen to the people who say that. We need help so bad. We are so miserable here and out misery never stops. Night and day it goes on. Do those people think we don’t suffer when bugs bite us? If they think this is such a happy place out here in the jungle, why aren’t they moving here to enjoy this beautiful life with us?”

Doesn’t-Miss was quiet. Then he got out of his hammock and walked down the trail…When he was too far away to hear, Hairy said to Keleewa, “Is he stupid? Doesn’t he have eyes? Can’t he see these lean-tos we call houses? Can’t he see us roam the jungle every day, searching for food that isn’t here, so we can starve slower? Can’t he see that our village is almost gone, that this move we are making now is our last hope to stay alive?”

Keleewa was slow to answer. He knew Hairy wouldn’t understand what he was about to say. “Most nabas think just like him,” Keleewa told Hairy, and shook his head because he knew he couldn’t explain why.

“Nobody’s that stupid,” Hairy snapped. “They must hate us. They think we’re animals” (pp. 180-183).

I said in an earlier post:

Why would even any non-Christian want to see a whole people group extinguished due to infighting or disease? Especially these days when we clamor to save the spotted owl and other endangered species? Shouldn’t endangered people be at least equally as important as endangered animals?

Would anyone in their right minds really want such practices as burying a widow along with her husband or killing twins or deformed babies to continue? So many primitive tribes practice these kinds of things.

Why deny these people the choice of hearing that there are other ways? Why not allow them to hear the gospel and let them make their own choice? So many who bask in the multitudes of freedoms we have here in the US would rather keep people like this in darkness in the name of preserving their culture. Most missionaries I know of these days consciously and conscientiously try not to “Americanize” the native churches but rather try to respect their culture and form churches within that culture while introducing healthier ways of living and civil practices. Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Thank you, Carrie, for allowing me to choose this book for  the Reading to Know Book Club in a year of featuring classics. It truly is a Christian and a missionary classic, and I am glad folks are revisiting it or discovering it for the first time.

Reading to Know - Book Club

I’ll leave you with the song the men sang the night before they launched “Operation Auca,” and from which the title of the book is taken (words and thoughts are here.)

Update: I just saw that several “Heroes of the Faith” books are on sale in e-book version for the Kindle for 99 cents for a limited time, and Jim Elliot is one title. I have not read that one in particular, but it might be worth a try for 99 cents. You don’t have to have a Kindle to download Kindle books: you can download a Kindle app and read them on your computer, phone, or tablet.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

And Carol‘s Books You Loved.

Books you loved 4

Remembering Operation Auca 57 years later

It was the first week of January, 1956, that Operation Auca finally began to come to fruition for five missionary couples in Ecuador: Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Roger and Barbara Youderian, Nate and Marj Saint, Ed and Marilou McCully, and Pete and Olive Fleming. On January 8, one of the men radioed the wives back at their stations, “Pray, girls: today’s the day!” On this date, January 9, the scheduled radio contact did not come and a missionary friend flew over the area where the men had been camped and saw their airplane stripped of fabric but saw no one. It was two days later that the first bodies were found. The men had been speared to death on January 8.

I can only imagine what it was like for those five women to go through those days with hope but no word and then to finally learn that their husband were gone and they were alone thousands of miles from home.

Yet, as many of you know, God used this incident to greatly impact both the Aucas (now know as Waodani or Huaorani) and the rest of the world. Later Rachel Saint (sister to Nate) and Elisabeth Elliot and her daughter Valerie were invited to come and live with the Aucas, and eventually many of them were led to the Lord: one of the killers even became a surrogate grandfather to Steve Saint’s children.

And not til eternity will we know the full impact of these men and their wives. Many lives have been touched, stirred, and inspired. Sometimes we still wrestle with why things happened as they did, but there is no doubt God used them.

A good post on the impact of Jim Elliot in particular is Today Jim Elliot was Killed. If you ever have the chance, see the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor. It is in four parts on Vimeo (Part 1, 2, 3, and 4), but I found the audio a bit hard to hear even turned all the way up.

In June for Carrie’s Reading to Know Book Club I’ll be hosting the reading of Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot’s book on the five families, what led them to Ecuador, and how their families coped in the aftermath of the men’s deaths. But when I realized this was the anniversary of that time, I couldn’t let it go by without acknowledgment.

I’ll leave you with some excerpts someone put together of the wives’ testimonies from Beyond the Gates of Splendor.