On Jan. 8, 1956, five missionaries to Ecuador — Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint and Roger Youderian, were speared and killed by Waodani (pronounced wow-donni) Indians on a jungle river sandbar. Only 5 years old at the time, Nate Saint’s son Steve continued to have contact with the Waodani through his Aunt Rachel (Saint) and Jim Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth, who established friendly relations with the tribe and learned their language. This January, 50 years after the martyrdom, the film End of the Spear will open in theaters across the country, relating the historic missionary account from the perspective of Steve Saint and the Indians he now calls family. In a recent conversation with Decision, Saint talked about the savage tribe that God transformed through tragedy and about the film that tells the story of their redemption.
Q: When the news reports broke in 1956, the Indians were referred to as the Auca. Why are they now known as the Waodani?
A: “Auca” is a Quechua term. Quechuas are a large tribe that lives on the borders of Waodani territory. Auca has its roots in the term for “naked savage.” I don’t use the term because it’s derogatory. They were known as Auca until people found out their real name.
Q: According to anthropologists, the tribe was in danger of extinction.
A: The Waodani basically lived by the rule that if somebody does something you don’t like, you ignore it. If you can’t ignore it, you kill the person–with the understanding that the family of the one you killed had the right and the responsibility to kill somebody in your family or to kill your whole family.
Fifty years ago, when the Waodani were probably fewer than 500 people, it was getting hard for young warriors to find girls that were properly related to them. So more and more they were reverting to what they called wild marriages, where they would kill a family and take a girl. That was considered immoral to them, but they were getting desperate. The violence was escalating and more people were being killed. So yes, they really were in danger of extinction.
Q: The first contact with the Waodani was prior to the time of the slaying, correct?
A: The first contact with the Waodani was in 1954. My Aunt Rachel had found a young girl, Dayumae, who had fled from the tribe. My aunt lived with her and learned the language of the people, hoping that God was opening the door for contact with the tribe.
My dad, Roger, Pete, Ed and Jim had one friendly contact Jan. 6, 1956, a day that we call Friendly Friday. Before that, Dad would fly his plane in tight circles over the tribe and let a long line out of the plane with a bucket at the end that would stabilize in the air and then be lowered to the ground. They used that to drop gifts to the Waodani, who then started exchanging gifts with them. That went on for 13 weeks.
This interaction established some friendship. When Dad and his friends landed on a beach, they hoped that these people would find them. They went in on Tuesday, but there was no sign of the Waodani until Friday morning, when they heard a voice call from across the river, and then two women and a young man stepped out of the jungle. They walked across the river and spent the day with my dad and his friends. We have that documented because the five men took pictures and my dad had a movie camera. The Waodani man got in the plane and Dad gave him a ride.
My dad and Pete flew out every night because they didn’t want to take a chance that the river would flood and wash the plane away. The other guys spent the night up in the tree house that they had built so that during the night they would have a position of defense, should the Waodani decide to attack.
Nobody came back on Saturday. On Sunday, as my dad was flying, he saw a group of Waodani. He radioed my mom and told her: “It looks like our neighbors will be here for the afternoon service. Pray for us. I’ll call you back at 4:30.”
Dad flew back to the beach and told the other guys that the Indians were on their way, expecting that this was the beginning of permanent contact. But unknown to the men, as a result of animosities within the tribe, the warriors had decided that they were going to kill the foreigners.
Q: How long did you live with the tribe?
A: I had a relationship with the tribe from the time I was 8 or 9. I went in to live with Aunt Rachel, whom the Waodani called “Star,” during summer and Christmas vacations. When Aunt Rachel died, I went and helped them bury her. They said, “We’ve decided now you should come back and live with us.”
I didn’t want to go, but they had insisted. I realized that I would jeopardize my relationship with them–they weren’t asking me, they were telling me to come. So my family and I went to live with them for about a year and a half.
Since we returned to the States I’ve continued going down there four times a year, working for them, helping them with medical things and teaching them to fly their own airplane. They wanted me to help teach other people like them to do these things, so we started an organization called ITEC (Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center).
Q: When you were living with the Waodani, did you ever feel threatened by them?
A: I felt very comfortable with most of the warriors. I didn’t feel like somebody was going to spear me, but I knew that I needed to be guarded.
Mincaye was the one who actually took me into his family. Recently I read a letter that Aunt Rachel had written to Mom. She said that Mincaye had come to her and said, “My having speared his father, I myself will teach him how to live.” Over all these years Mincaye has maintained this special relationship with me that he had initiated when I was a boy.
Q: Have you ever been criticized by people for trying to modernize the tribe or change their culture?
A: “You’re not doing enough to bring them into the 21st century” is one criticism. “You should just leave them the way they are” is another. I only do what the Waodani have asked me to do. I would just as soon they live in their old culture–without the killing. But that really isn’t for me to decide. The people in the culture who have to live with the ramifications of the change are the ones who should decide.
With the movie, I’ll be criticized for trying to capitalize on the Waodani, though I have no financial interest whatsoever. And some people will say, “It’s the same old missionary thing–ruining the culture.” I can’t answer all the criticisms.
Q: But after Rachel and Elisabeth Elliot went to live with the tribe, the homicide was reduced, wasn’t it?
A: Ninety percent of the killing ceased almost immediately. There are still some tensions between them and the Arunaidi–that’s what the Waodani call the Quechuas–but there’s very little killing between them.
Q: Would you say that the Waodani are effectively discipling one another and teaching their own people about the Bible?
A: There are very fervent believers, but the church as an institution doesn’t really function. People from the outside, who characterize the attitude toward a lot of indigenous people, don’t think that the Waodani can manage their own affairs. So they have been doing things for the Waodani that they should have been doing for themselves. Consequently, they have become so dependent that their church has ceased to function. I’ve spent 10 years encouraging them to choose elders for leadership. I also look for opportunities to try to gently encourage North Americans not to be so heavy-handed. The Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, “I told you I’d come back, but the reason I haven’t come back is for your own good, because I don’t want to lord it over your faith, but I want your faith to become strong instead” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 1:23-24).
Q: The movie has a scene in which Mincaye invites you to take his life in payment for your father’s. Did that happen in real life?
A: No, that scene was necessary to bring the reconciliation to a head. There are aspects of it that are real. But this is why I finally asked to have Mincaye’s name changed to Mincayani in the movie. I didn’t want them to use “Mincaye” lest he be hurt. I suggested “Mincayani” since we’re taking a composite of a couple of characters that’s mostly Mincaye.
When we watched the movie together he leaned over to me and said, “Look, that’s like me,” as he saw Louie Leonardo playing his character. The Waodani don’t do make-believe, so when we’ve watched other programs I’ve told him, “That’s onoki,” make-believe. If someone was getting blown up, I’d say, “Mincaye, that guy’s not really getting blown up. They were just making it look like that.” He tried to understand, but he couldn’t really understand it.
So when Mincaye said, “Look, that’s like me.” I said, “Yes, that’s like you, and do you see that little boy? That’s like me.” Then later he said, “Who is that like?” I said, “That’s like Kimo.” For the first time this 75-year-old was looking at a movie and saying, “Oh, I get it. So they are pretending to be us.”
When it came to the killing scene, I was so nervous. I prayed, “Lord, please don’t let Mincaye be hurt by this.” And as soon as the movie was done, I said, “Mincaye, did you see it well [approve of it]?” He looked at me, grabbed my arm and said, “I saw this very, very well.” And I didn’t ask him any more questions.
Q: So you’ve had a history of reconciliation over a period of years, but there wasn’t a specific moment of reconciliation?
A: It was a developing thing, but I think that the point of reconciliation really was with Mincaye and my Aunt Rachel. In her journal she once wrote, “Tonight when I was sleeping in the hammock I heard a noise. Somebody was walking around in the dark.” Mincaye called out to her and squatted by her fire, wanting to talk. He said, “You said that Waengongi, the Creator, is very strong.” Aunt Rachel said, “Mincaye, He is very strong. He made everything here, even the dirt.”
Mincaye said, “You said that He could clean somebody’s heart. My heart being very, very dark, can He clean even my heart?” Aunt Rachel said, “Being very strong, He can clean even your heart.” She wrote that Mincaye got up and walked away, but that the next morning he came back excited. He said, “Star, what you said is true. Speaking to God, He has cleaned my heart. Now it’s waatamo , it’s clear like the sky when it has no clouds in it.” That was the real beginning of reconciliation.
Q: Were there significant conversations or incidents during the filming of the movie?
A: After the filming of one scene, the one in which my dad is speared, an actor came to me and said, “Steve, what is sin?” I told him that the Waodani say that sin is those things that God sees well that we don’t do and those things that God does not see well that we do do. He was one of the actors who wanted to meet the Waodani in their own territory. He said to me, “I want you to tell the Waodani that I, too, have lived badly, badly. But now I want to live well. Would you ask the Waodani to pray that I will live well now?”
The Waodani were so excited. They said, “Oh yes, that’s what we say, too. We say, ‘God, You helping us, we’ll walk Your very good trail.’” So, the Waodani got around and prayed for the actor, that he would walk God’s trail and that God would clean his heart so that he could see the trail and that once starting, he would not veer off one way or the other.
Q: What is your hope and prayer for the movie?
A: My hope is that people will see a compelling picture of God Followers but not be distracted by the God Followers so much that they can’t see that all of us have tragic, shattered relationships in our lives and that God is the One who can put them back together in incredible ways. If Mincaye and I can be very close friends, be family, love each other, and my kids and my grandchildren can love Mincaye and his family–if that can happen out of the tragic relationship that we started with–then maybe it’ll give people hope that their strained relationships can also be reconciled and that, better yet, God can be part of the answer.