Auca on the Cononaco

by Peter Broennimann
Published in 1981 by Birkhäuser Publishers,
Basel, Boston, Stuttgart

Excerpts by Cheryl Harleston

Introduction  ||  An Island in the Jungle
Waaponi!  ||  The Auca Reservation on the Curaray

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Ethnocide, the destruction of the cultural values of a people, whether consciously and systematically or accidentally and unintentionally, does not just start with forcible expulsion from traditional tribal lands or with the construction of roads and runways that bring civilization dangerously close. It also begins when simple, primitive peoples are confronted with a system of beliefs they cannot grasp; when ancient traditions and ways of living are condemned as barbaric customs and a doctrinaire form of Christianity wants to become the sole guideline for thought and action. It starts when a newly discovered sense of shame makes people cover their nakedness with tattered shirts, when the forest Indian trades his simple tools for the machete and steel axe and the rifle replaces the blowgun. But it also starts when —out of pride or shame— governments become aware of their exotic minorities and want to integrate them into the national culture, whatever that means. The alienation of their values begins when their language is devaluated to a dialect, when the national language is learned, and when the national flag is flown over a palm-thatched roof. Even assimilation that was originally well-meant leads forest Indians inexorably and irrevocably to the abandonment of their freedom, of a life in intimate contact with nature, and in its worse form to the robbery of their land, to the exploitation of their labor and to the prostitution of their women. Then, when their backs have been broken, they sink rootless and unstable into decadent social and racial misery, and only a very few manage to make a successful transition to modern life.

— Peter Broennimann

  From the Introduction

Still almost untouched by civilization, the last free Auca live in Ecuadorian West Amazonia, where the foothills of the Cordilleras flatten out into tropical rain forest. Their traditional territory, an area of more than 10,000 square kilometers, lies east of the 77th meridian, extending from the sweeping arc of the Rio Napo in the north to the Rio Curaray in the south.

Their way of life has changed little since their ancestors migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait to America many thousands of years ago. In the isolation of the jungle they have remained semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers. Their history is obscure, and their ethnic origin and linguistic family are still matters of speculation.

The Auca believe that theirs is the only true world. They call themselves "Huaorani", or people. Anyone else is a "Cuwudi", a strange being from an unapprehended outside world. The term "Auca" is actually a contemptuous Quechua term for jungle barbarians; but the name has so firmly taken root that it can hardly be avoided today.

Forgotten by time, the Auca attracted worldwide attention in 1956, when five young North American missionaries were slain by their spears. The image of "Stone Age savages who hate all strangers and live only to hunt, fight and kill" was reinforced, and they were decried as "the worse people on earth". The inaccessibility of their native environment and their hostile view of the outside world have made them the ethnographically least known forest Indians of South America.

Their survival is endangered. The number of free Auca who have been able to assert their independence up to the present day by militantly rejecting any attempts at domestication has dwindled to one hundred. Five hundred that have already been "pacified" and missionarized live on the Auca reservation on the headwaters of the Rio Curaray.

From An Island in the Jungle

They crowd around us. Their hands are everywhere. We are touched, patted, smelled; they explore our bodies, unbuttoning our shirts and trying to unfasten our belts. They seem particularly intrigued by the hair on my chest; they stroke it and pull at it with cries of astonishment and delight. Their curiosity knows no bounds. More intimate parts of our bodies are not spared careful examination either; and a group of women and children seem to want to do an especially thorough job on Wally (Mr. Broennimann's wife).

In traditional Auca legends the Cuwudi appear as demons or cannibals, and traces of these beliefs have probably survived. Add to that the fact that the Auca are not familiar with clothing. Who knows what the strangers are hiding under it. Are they really people?

The air is cool and smoky, the floor tamped-down earth dry and clean. Three fires smoulder beneath the ashes; next to them, light-colored logs, calabashes, and clay and metal pots. Above, a confusion of hammocks, plaited baskets, spears, blowguns and quivers. Two green parrots are doing acrobatics on a branch, and a frizzy woolly monkey is pulling at its lead, screaming blue murder. One corner of the hut is cleared for us, and we find enough space to sling our hammocks between supporting poles.

Some Auca help us start a fire in front of the hut. As we prepare our first meal of rice and beans, they stand or squat around us, laughing and talking, observing our every movement and gesture with expressions of surprise and loud comments. A toppled tree trunk serves as a bench; and for the first time, over a cup of coffee, we have the time and the peace of mind to perceive this new and fascinating world with all our senses. And who would not be fascinated at the sight of these naked, light brown people. In the light of the setting sun they sit on their heels, flushed with excitement as they recount the arrival of their foreign visitors. Again and again their hands circle the earth like an airplane. They imitate the noise of the engine with low humming sounds. In between they slap their thighs in sheer delight and simply cannot bring themselves to end their chatter.

We cannot help thinking of all the well-meaning warnings about the "wildest and most dangerous Indian tribe on earth". These laughing, cheerful, primitive people, so childishly exuberant about our visit, who have welcomed us with such natural hospitality —can these be the unfeeling barbarians of the jungle, the feared, xenophobic spear-murderers? Maybe we are lucky and are encountering an exception.

From Waaponi!

Far removed from our technological civilization, hardly touched by its questionable progress, forgotten by time, they live in total harmony with their environment. In their timeless present, there is no ambition, no anxiety about the future, which does not lie much further ahead than tomorrow's hunt. Their thinking and behaviour are spontaneous, natural, uncomplicated and unembarrassed.

Even though blood relationships and style of life tie them to the group, they live as free, independent individuals within the community. Perhaps precisely this apparent contradiction between the goals and constraints of the community, which necessarily help determine individual behaviour, and the opportunity for the individual's self-realization provides an explanation of the success of the simplest imaginable, egalitarian, prehistoric form of society.

We have not encountered jaded, brutish savages; we have discovered sensitive people with a sense of humor and individuality, with good and bad traits as they can be found in people everywhere. But the Auca do not interfere in each other's affairs. Whether Uruka is fat and lazy is no one's business but her own; whether Apa wants to go hunting today or tomorrow, or laze in his hammock for hours is his business alone; no one minds if Boca prefers to walk around in an old pair of shorts; if Naenquiwi cannot resist the temptation of the missionaries and takes his family to the Reservation in Tiwaeno, and even if he decides to return to the Cononaco, no one expects him to justify himself —they simply welcome him back. Everyone acts the way he is and is accepted as such by the group with neither praise nor blame.

Private spheres of personal life hardly exist. No one is alone. The happiness and unhappiness of a lifetime take place in front of the same circle of ever-present spectators. Everyone knows everything in a way that we would find possible only in a very small village. And people have a lot of time for one another: they laugh and talk, naively carefree; they pick lice out of each other's hair and insects from each other's bodies. Free from anxiety about the future, free from material worries, they have an ability we envy them for: they can enjoy the present with genuine, animal contentment.

They do not recognize any institutional authority apart from the laws of nature that regulate their lives and determine their fate. Only their dependence on the rhythm of nature subjects them to constraints that allow of no alternatives.

No one gives them orders. They have no chief, and their language has no word for the function either. There are no courts and no judges. Punishment for a wrong, whether real or imagined, is the business of the one who feels he has been wronged. Brawling and swearing are unknown. One begins to understand why they do not carry grudges in connection with minor, everyday occurrences, why certain things that would make us angry or even livid with rage are simply received with disarming laughter here.

They know nothing or envy, jealousy or theft, and the Auca language has no words for these concepts either. How could it, in a society that knows only the unavoidable differences of age and sex. The forest belongs to everyone, and the opportunity to use it is equally open to everyone. What little the Auca possesses he has taken from the forest: wood for spears and blowguns, clay for pots, chambira for hammocks, poison for darts, and feathers for headbands. Their technology requires neither specialists nor complicated processes or tools: every family can produce all the things it needs independently and find the raw materials to do it in the immediate surroundings without any great difficulty.

Their thoughts and senses are chiefly channeled towards the vital aspects of life: hunting, food, safety, sexuality. Abstract ideas are foreign to them. To know, one must see, hear, touch, smell, taste. Thus their religious world is uncomplicated too. They believe in the power of the invisible, in the magic of the forest, in the legends of their ancestors, and in the power of an unfathomable creator-god.

Child-raising is casual and unrepressive. Growing children learn by their own experiences and by observing the adults and their environment every day. They grow up in a carefree, easy-going atmosphere and are subjected to as little discipline as possible, which allows their own personalities to develop freely. During its early years, however, a baby is constantly looked after by its mother or an elder sister and is never left alone. It is taken everywhere in a baby-sling and sleeps in its mother's hammock at night. The child feels safe in the gentle care and constant proximity of its mother. Several times a day it is deloused and washed; it plays with little pet monkeys or is tugged from its hammock by its sisters and often hugged so hard it almost suffocates.

When a child is weaned, often only in the third year of its life, the reins are loosened and the child begins to explore the world on its own. Toys in the actual sense of the word are unknown. Children play with leaves or pieces of wood. They pass the time with animals: bats discovered in the framework of the hut, turtles from the river or lizards that are caught, tied up and innocently tortured to death, or furry bees around whose legs they tie chambira fibres and have great fun whirring round their heads. Children swim, fish, romp in the clearing, try to stand on their heads, improvise wrestling matches or build slides on the loamy river bank.

We never see children quarrel and rarely hear them crying. Omamo seems unconcerned as her two-year-old son Yata sits next to her playing with a sharp, pointed knife. But her attitude is conscious, never losing sight of the aims of Auca upbringing: if he cuts his finger, he will learn about the danger of a knife.

Have I now described the "bon sauvage" with the virtues of the noble son of the wilderness so highly praised by the Romantics? That was not my intention. The romantic idealization of the Indian and a way of life that may awaken feelings of nostalgia in us but we can never return to ourselves is as far from reality as contemptuous portrayals of the Auca as horrible, unfeeling spear-murderers.

From The Auca Reservation on the Curaray

The outpost of the Linguists from the American Wycliffe Bible Translators missionary group responsible for the Auca reservation is in Tiwaeno. This worldwide Protestant group is well known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics. It has a well trained staff of over 3,000, making it by far the largest and most energetic U.S. mission. It has set itself the task of missionarizing small, forgotten and isolated tribes in remote corners of the world. The starting point of their work is language, which is the key to their attempts at establishing contact with these so-called primitive peoples. Their goal is evangelizing infidels through the New Testament liberally translated into their native tongues. They believe they have heard God's call and let nothing get in the way of their task: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.

The basic problems that arose on the reservation can be summarized as follows:

  • Concentration of the population in relatively large, permanent settlements caused the system of social and political equality, which had proven itself in small family groups, to begin deteriorating.
  • The surrounding forest was soon hunted bare. There was a protein deficiency. The principle of self-sufficiency began to falter. For the first time, nature had left the Auca in the lurch!
  • The imposition of a doctrinaire religion led to the collapse of traditional cultural values.
  • The growing demand for consumer goods, which could not be obtained from the natural environment, resulted in the development of social distinctions and thus envy among those without property.
  • The integration of new groups caused tension; old hostilities flared up, creating new danger of spear feuds and personal vendettas.
  • The outbreak of diseases against which the Auca had not yet developed natural immunity had disastrous effects.
  • Dependence on the Linguist staff increased (food, salt, medicines, vaccines, snake serum, munitions, clothing, tools, schooling, religious worship, allotment of places to live, etc.), while the Auca's own will to be independent and free diminished.

These Auca make a strangely depressing impression, and we see in their eyes the resignation and sadness of people who have been transformed from Indians to indios. Their clothing ranges from gym shorts and T-shirts to torn shirts and unwashed, ragged, calico skirts. Pego, who had led us through the jungle in search of an anaconda on the Cononaco only a year before, greets us with an embarrassed, wistful smile. He has folded a headband out on an old newspaper, his ears hang empty without their balsa plugs, his dirty yellow T-shirt advertises Japanese bicycles, and his feet are in cut-off rubber boots two sizes too large for him.

We see nothing of the Linguists…

© 1981 Peter Broennimann

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