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.)

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

  1. What a wonderful, detailed review. It makes me appreciate so much those who have felt called and been brave enough to go into territory so unknown. The story of the spearings of the 5 missionaries has always inspired me and saddened me at the same time. So interesting to read from another perspective all that went on. Thanks for sharing.

  2. thank you for writing this post…going to read it later ‘cuz i’m real interested in it for lots of reasons and i don’t read a lot….so, am sure this will help me know more about this story….read gates of splendor when it first happened and the story has stayed etched inside of me forever….no time right now to read this but putting it as a priority for me to do before this day is over……….have a great day………..and thx for sharing your thoughts with me…………:)

    Sent from my iPad


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  5. I’m going to have to read this one! I remember reading an abbreviated account of the Auca mission in The Smoke of Ten Thousand Villages when I was a child – and I’ve seen “The End of the Spear” on film, but this sounds like a wonderful perspective on the story.

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  7. thank you for sharing your wonderful reviews…i don’t read much but surely love reading the things you write….and, this is definitely something i’d like to read some day…appreciate all the wonderful things you write about….

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