There have been many instances throughout history in which indigenous people have unwillingly suffered the consequences of foreigners’ interaction with their culture. In the case of the Huaorani two foreign groups, the oil companies and the missionaries, invaded their land and gravely affected the life they led in the Ecuadorian amazon.
In the book Savages Joe Kane gives a firsthand account at how the Huaorani fight to preserve their land and traditional way of life. ‘’We live with the spirit of the jaguar. We do not want to be civilized by your missionaries or killed by your oil companies. Must the jaguar die so that you can have more contamination and television?” (Kane 4) In this excerpt from a letter addressed to the President of the United States, it was clearly stated that the Huaorani did not want oil companies or missionaries to disrupt their way of life. It was more or less a plea to the United States government to stop the invasion of their land.
This quote explains how the spirit of the Huaorani is connected to the land in which they inhabit. If the land is destroyed then their spirit is destroyed along with it. Unfortunately little attention was paid to how the Huaorani felt and many conflicts arose, beginning with the introduction of Christianity by the missionaries. In the mid-1900’s missionaries from the United States felt it was their responsibility to spread the word of God to countries and people whom they believed were less ‘civilized’. Rachel Saint was determined to spread the word of God and ‘save’ the Huaorani and lead them away from their life of savagery. Because of our cultural advancements we, as Americans, tend to compare other cultures to our own standards. Rachel is exemplary of the ethnocentricity that exists within our country. Those who do not fit the standards of our culture are seen as ‘primitive’ or ‘uncivilized’, but this ethnocentric thinking can have many negative consequences as is seen in the case of the Huaorani.
The Huaorani are animistic in that they believe their spirituality is derived from nature. The land and forest provide everything to them; it is their home, it offers them protection from neighboring peoples, and an abundance of food. However things changed with the introduction of Christianity. I believe Rachel Saint to be a major component in the destruction of the Huaorani culture. She taught them that everything they had believed was wrong, nudity was wrong, shamanism was seen sorcery and therefore evil. Nomadism was seen as evil as well; ‘’the Lord’s way dictated that the Huaorani must settle down, build permanent villages and raise garden crops and barnyard animals” (Kane 86).
The Huaorani were forced to forget ancient traditions, they no longer hunt with spears and blowguns but instead wait the arrival of planes that bring food to their community. The Huaorani who were once so self-sufficient are now forced to rely on foreigners for their next meal. Not only has the Huaorani culture been impacted but so has their health, many Huaorani suffered from diabetes due to the high amounts of processed sugar in ‘civilized’ food. The education that the missionaries provided eroded what little bit of their culture and traditions they maintained; the Huaorani were forced to change their way of life. ‘’Change is inevitable. The Huaorani cannot avoid change. The real question is, on what terms will change occur? The right the Huaorani have – a basic moral right that all people have – is to be allowed to evolve their own cultural tools for dealing with change, rather than having that change imposed upon them’’ (Kane 75)
The Huaorani territory underwent rapid change due to oil exploration and extraction, environmental degradation and new settlers seeking land and work. In the above quote a long term resident, Jose Miguel, remarks Huaoranis’ right to be among the agents of their own change. But was any consideration being given to the Huaorani? This question can be answered by simply looking at how the Huaorani once lived and how they live now.
Kane goes on a trip with a member of the Huaorani tribe into the forest, as they are driving the author sees past the oil-soaked roads into low hills, and in the distance he sees an ‘arboreal quiltwork that looked to be four billion shades of green’(Kane 54) in response to the authors awe the Huao answers ‘abundancia’. The Huaorani show a respect and reverence for the land, which at times is hard for people to understand, everything they are comes from the spirit of the forest and the animals whom they live in perfect harmony with it. They do not own the land but rather share in its abundance.
They value self-reliance; their culture revolves around food,
ritual sharing, feasts and now famine. They believe in the notion of ‘abundancia’- of the forest as always providing- and that is why the preservation of their land is critical in their ability to survive. The oil companies, however, have made it quite difficult for the Huaorani to continue with the notion of abundancia. Forests had to be cleared in order for new pipelines to be constructed, leaving many members of the Huaorani to be displaced. Deforestation not only took away the home of the Huaorani but also their major food source. There were many oil spills that were mentioned in the book, which caused rivers and lands to be contaminated giving the Huaorani no choice but to avoid them. The oil companies not only contaminated the environment the Huoarani lived in but Huaorani culture itself. As previously stated the huaorani were a self-sufficient people, but due to food necessities and medicine to treat illnesses brought on by the oil companies, the Huaorani were forced to work. The Huaorani had to leave old traditions behind and work for the oil companies to provide for their family.
The oil companies and the missionaries have had a tremendous impact on the livelihood of the Huaorani. Oil spills, deforestation, pipeline operations and Christianity had more of an effect on the lives of the Huaorani than they thought possible. The Huaorani suffered ethnocide at the hands of foreigners, mainly the missionaries; the Huaorani were forced to change their traditional way of life to fit the standards of western culture. With the intrusion of the missionaries and the oil companies many Huaorani have lost themselves to the empty promises of the oil companies. Enqueri (tribe member) for example allows himself to be bought by the oil company MAXUS in exchange for money and nice clothes. The huaorani are caught between their past traditions and their present reality.