The Huaorani (Waorani)

The Huaorani (Waorani) are hunters and gatherers who have lived in the Amazon Rainforest since before written history. Their traditional territory includes the area now known as Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve, in the Republic of Ecuador. Yasuni is world-renowned for carbon rich forests and extraordinary biological diversity, and is one of the last refuges for fresh water dolphins, jaguars, harpy eagles, tapirs, scarlet macaws, blue macaws, black caiman, howler monkeys, and other threatened and endangered rainforest species.

The Huaorani are legendary, even among other Indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s Amazon region, for their extensive knowledge about the rainforest and its diverse plant and animal life. They are also famous for their hunting skills, and long spears and blowguns.

For centuries, Huaorani warriors—renowned and feared for their strength and ferocity—defended their ancestral territory from intrusions by outsiders who sought to exploit the Amazon Rainforest and conquer its inhabitants.  Before “contact” (with the outside world) and the arrival of “the civilization” and first oil company, Texaco (now part of Chevron), the Yasuni Huaorani defended their territory with hardwood spears.  Now, the “contacted” Huaorani communities in the Yasuni area must find new ways to protect Ome, the forest that is their home.

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The first peaceful, sustained contacts between Huaorani and outsiders were in 1958, when evangelical missionaries from the U.S.-based Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) convinced Dayuma, a Huaorani woman who was living as a slave on a hacienda near Huaorani territory, to return to the forest where she had lived as a child, and help the missionaries relocate her relatives into a permanent settlement and convert them to Christianity.

In 1967, the U.S.-based oil company Texaco (now Chevron) discovered oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, near Huaorani territory.  As Texaco expanded its operations and advanced into Huaorani territory, Huaorani warriors tried to drive off the oil invaders.  In response, Texaco and Ecuador’s government asked the missionaries to speed up and extend their campaign to relocate and pacify the Huaorani.

Using aircraft supplied by Texaco, missionaries searched for Huaorani homes, and pressured and tricked Huaorani clans into leaving areas where the oil company wanted to work.  More than 200 Huaorani were contacted and physically removed from the path of the oil crews, and taken to live in a distant Christian settlement. Other Huaorani fled deeper into the forests of Yasuni, away from Texaco and the missionaries. It was during this period, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that most Huaorani were first contacted by outsiders.

The Huaorani who went to live with the missionaries (in the western edge of ancestral Huaorani lands) were told that Huaorani culture is sinful and savage, and were pressured to change and abandon their traditions and way of life. Among other hardships, they suffered from severe culture shock and stress, as well as epidemics of new diseases that sickened, and even killed, many family members. Important rainforest products were quickly depleted in that area, there were food shortages, and the Huaorani, whose culture places a high value on independence and sharing, had to rely on imported foods and medicines obtained by the missionaries.

Large areas of the rainforest that had been their home were invaded and degraded by outsiders. In addition to oil infrastructure (wells, pipelines, and production stations), Texaco built a road into Huaorani territory, and settlers used the road to colonize Huaorani ancestral lands. Today, those areas are so degraded by oil field pollution and deforestation that the Huaorani can no longer live there.  Chevron (Texaco) no longer operates in Ecuador, but its tragic legacy remains, and other oil companies continue to incrementally expand oil exploration and production operations into new areas.

Today, some “contacted” Huaorani have chosen to settle in towns such as Puyo, or near roads built by oil companies. But many Huaorani still live in the forest, in harmony with the “giving” rainforest that is their mother and source of life. At least one group, the Tagaeri-Taromenani, has continued to resist all contact with outsiders. The most traditional of the contacted Huaorani live in the remote communities of Bameno, Boanamo and Wema.  Both groups live in “The Intangible Zone,” a spectacular refuge of intact, biologically rich rainforest that spans nearly 3,000 square miles of ancestral Huaorani territory in the area now known as Yasuni. The Intangible Zone has been designated as a conservation area by the government of Ecuador, but is nonetheless threatened by encroaching oil companies, settlers and illegal loggers.

The Huaorani communities of Bameno, Boanamo and Wema have organized themselves to defend The Intangible Zone and their culture and way of life — and make real the promise of conservation and human rights for Indigenous peoples in Yasuni, including the right of their “uncontacted” neighbors to live in voluntary isolation in the forest.  They call themselves Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani (We Defend Our Huaorani Territory), Ome Yasuni.”  Huaorani Community Tours is part of this unprecedented grassroots conservation initiative.

Many people claim to speak for the Huaorani and Yasuni.  With Ome Yasuni, the contacted Huaorani in the heart of Yasuni are speaking for themselves.  We invite you to support the work by Ome Yasuni to protect what remains of their rainforest homeland and defend the right of grassroots Huaorani families to continue to live in freedom, as Huaorani, in their ancestral territory.

Please sign Ome Yasuni’s petition to the President of Ecuador at www.change.org/omeyasuni

Note about the spelling of Huaorani (Waorani):

Huaorani (also spelled “Waorani” and “Waodani”) means humanos (humans or people) in the language spoken by the Huaorani, and either spelling can be used to represent the same word. Huaorani culture is oral, so spelling is not important to most Huaorani. Their language was first transcribed by U.S.-based missionary-linguists, who initially used “Waorani” and now sometimes use “Waodani.”

In 1991, a group of young men who had attended secondary school together—and learned some Spanish—organized ONHAE (Organization of the Huaorani Nationality of the Ecuadorian Amazon), in an effort to engage with the outside world on new terms and speak for themselves. At the time, it seemed that oil companies, missionaries, and conservationists were increasingly vying for control of the Huaorani and their lands. The new organization worked to protect Huaorani territory by (1) demarcating strategic territorial boundaries to prevent further intrusions by settlers; and (2) opposing plans by the Conoco-Maxus oil consortium to build a road and develop new fields in Yasuni. The founders of ONHAE chose the Spanish-language spelling “Huaorani” to assert their independence from the missionaries.

In 1994, the president of ONHAE signed a “friendship agreement” with the oil company Maxus (now part of Repsol), beginning a new era in the history of the Huaorani organization. ONHAE opened an office in a town that is located outside of Huaorani ancestral lands, and officers of the organization began to leave their communities to work there. Both the officers and the organization became dependent on funding from the oil company, and disconnected from the Huaorani communities. By 2007, the leadership of ONHAE had such a bad reputation—in the communities and with outsiders—that the officials decided to change the name of the organization to NAWE (Waorani Nationality of Ecuador), and their spelling of “Huaorani” to “Waorani.”

6 Responses to The Huaorani (Waorani)

  1. Brad says:

    Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), the missionary society that first contacted the Waorani by plane (see:www.maf.org) tell the story of Nate Saint and the Waorani quite differently in the book “Beyond The Gates of Splendour”! I am now shocked and a very saddened that it turns out that these missionaries were in collusion with the government and oil companies to remove the Waorani from their land – years later resulting in a devastated people! What is being done to compensate this wrong doing? How is justice being restored for the Waorani?

  2. David B Sears says:

    Shame on the missionaries, I always thought they believed in the gospels and not evil?

    • Brad says:

      I believe that true missionaries do believe and practice the Gospel in it’s full context. The story of first contact with Waorani by missionaries is set in a time and a culture where the advancement of the gospel and the advancement of western industrialized society were treated as one of the same thing. Today, the truth is known that the missionary’s ‘gospel’ objective was indeed compromised by pressure from the government and big business, so there is no justifiable reason to continue to perpetuate the myth (aka ‘lie’) that these ‘poor, innocent, caucasian’, christian missionaries were killed by the ‘ruthless jungle savage’ Waorani for no reason at all. This wrong doing needs to be acknowledged as such or else mission organisations will continue to make the same mistake of seemingly making lives worse instead of better through their missionary endeavours.

  3. Marcia Hall says:

    It is well known that over the centuries, many missionaries had mixed motives, knowingly or unknowlingly, which tainted their forays into closed societies. It is also, on the opposite end of the spectrum, well known that some anthropologists are as equally mixed in their own motives, and are much more interested in preserving stone age societies at all costs than being the unbiased scientists they claim to be. A less emotional assessment is probably more productive than either extreme.

    The Huaorani themselves speak rather unemotionally, or casually, about the high cost that their fierce autonomy had brought, with around six out of every ten deaths being murders, long before the missionaries appeared.. Many of the Huaorani themselves estimated that they were killing themselves toward extinction before the missionaries helped them see benefit in stopping the killing. Their own tale of the missionary murders, by the actual participants, does not match the rabid anthropological ‘defense of territory’ rants. It was actually based on a lie told to them by a young tribal troublemaker, who justified his pursuit of a forbidden girl by stating that he and she had sought refuge from attacking foreigners.

    The missionaries who were speared were, in fact, armed, and had stated in advance that they would absolutely never use their weapons against a human, even to defend themselves if attacked by the Huaorani.. They were true to this and did not harm the Huaorani when killed. They also knew that other missionaries, coincidentally another five men, were killed in the same fashion in 1948 in the same manner by the same tribal group. Their eyes were wide open to the possibility of dying before they entered the area, and they entered willingly.

    In spite of possible mixed motives, the Saint family spent years living among the Huaorani, and handed them back their autonomy by training them to provide medical care and dental care for themselves. They also trained Huaorani (ironically including the son of the original troublemaker who got the five missionaries killed) to fly specialized aircraft which permit them to run their intertribal government, and to assist in getting injured villagers to their own Huaorani run clinic. Over the years,Nate Saint’s own grandsons bonded with his killers, and referred to one of them as their grandfather.

    The international interest in exploiting oil from Huaorani tribal lands does not take away the fact that, thanks to these missionaries, the Huaorani entered the 21st century with some ability to deal with the outside world and confront their exploiters, who were already on the way, and already hand plans to exterminate them if necessary.

    You cannot paint all God-believers or missionaries with a single brush, anymore than you can do that with all anthropologists. Any ‘white hat’ vs ‘black hat theory is too over-simplified to be accurate, and should be especially suspect to anyone who is interested in the complicated, messy answers that real truth usually includes.

    If the Huaorani were still spearing and chopping each other in stone age villages, ‘unpolluted’ by any of the improvements humans have developed in the past few thousand years, would they be more or less equipped to deal with the relentless ‘progress’ of Shell Oil? It sure wouldn’t have stopped Shell, and I’m sure they’d have preferred to leave the discussion to an Ecuadoran backwater rather than the world discussion prompted by the remarkable story of Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed Youderian, and Roger McCully.

    • Joel James says:

      Fact Check-
      1. Yes the five missionaries were armed and said they intended not to harm anyone, however it is common knowledge (in Ecuador) that the missionaries shot at least two Huaorani, probably causing the death of of one of them. We Evangelical Christians have covered this fact up for decades, but we need to have the integrity to tell the truth about it.
      2. The Huaorani did NOT kill five other missionaries in 1948. I believe you are referring to the five New Tribes missionaries that were killed in Bolivia in 1943. The “Operation Auca” missionaries were well aware of this incident when they were planning their mission.

    • Brad says:

      This sounds like ‘mission creep’ (literally) to me. Missionaries and mission organisations ought not to set out on evangelical missions stating one objective, e.g. “sharing the Gospel” or “leading others to a relationship with Jesus Christ”, and then, once their other (hidden) agendas are discovered and it goes horribly wrong for both them and the people whom they are evangelizing as it did between the Huaorani and five missionaries, suddenly or retrospectively make another statement claiming that the objective was to prepare the peoples for contact with the progressive outside world.

      The perpetuation of these ‘non-truths’ by christian mission organisations does not honour God nor His church on earth. Whilst what was done cannot be reversed, there are established ‘eternal’ principles in the power of saying sorry and asking for forgiveness and I believe that the forgiveness of the Huaorani people should be formally sought by mission organisations and the Church worldwide.

      I believe that this could start by making the actual truths of the events known to the Church worldwide. This would enable missionaries and mission organisations to learn from these events and to move forward in spreading the Gospel which is the truth – based on the truth.

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