Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Review: Aucas Downriver (Update)

[Apology: In order to maintain this web site's status as a book review blog, while working with a computer that does not have enough memory to open flashy sites like Amazon, Yahoo, Bing, Twitter, or even Google +, I've released a few book reviews in draft form--without web links or price information. I'm able to look up whether authors are maintaining web sites or have been reported dead, but not contact the authors. When I'm able to contact authors and add links, I'll go back and update these posts. Since the main actual function of the book reviews has so far been to market books I'm physically selling secondhand in real life, I don't expect this will create a terrible inconvenience. If it does, please e-mail salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.]

Title: Aucas Downriver

Author: Ethel Emily Wallis

Illustrations: black and white photos

Publisher: Harper & Row

Date: 1973

ISBN: none

Length: 126 pages

Quote: “[T]his account will focus upon Wycliffe translator Rachel Saint, sister of pilot Nate Saint, one of the five slain by Auca spears.”

Aucas Downriver is part of the history whose documentation began with Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor. Elisabeth's first husband, Jim Elliot, was another one of the five martyred missionaries; Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint were the team who successfully brought Bibles, the English and Spanish languages, and willingness to cooperate with land “developers,” to the tribe of “brutal warriors” called “Aucas” by outsiders. More recent visitors have wondered where all the Aucas went. Many survived the polio epidemic Rachel Saint unknowingly brought to their territory. The survivors became Christians, and since they now talk to outsiders they're called by their own name for themselves, Waorani.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote about her life with Waoranis as Gikari the Woodpecker. Wallis here tells us about some of the adventures of Rachel Saint, whose Waorani name was Nimu the Star, and Dayuma, the woman who had learned enough of other indigenous languages to be able to teach Saint and Elliot the Waorani language.

While evangelical Christians admired the forgiveness and fortitude of the American women, non-Christians are often appalled by the destruction of “Auca” culture. Aucas Downriver is not exactly an impartial account, but does call attention to the destructive forces already working on these people, independent of missionary efforts. The Aucas were one of several small, poor groups of people who'd been targeted by greedy Euro-Americans for destruction. In North America “funny-sounding” place names are all that remain of many similar groups.

The “distinctiveness” of such groups often consisted of being a small, poor minority, somewhat despised by a more powerful neighboring group, and the immigrants liked to inflame inter-tribal hostilities to eliminate as many of the warriors in both groups as possible. Ideally, and actually in some cases, the immigrants could blame “tribal unrest” (as well as the diseases of which they were immune carriers) for the obliteration of smaller groups that would soon be remembered only by some old woman, somewhere, who could tell her grandchildren, “Your grandfather and I belonged to different nations. I am the last of my people...” Ideally, and sometimes actually, the smaller group's sense of being cornered, bullied, and hunted down would produce so much distress that members of the group would also kill each other: “Weaker people drag us down, we can't feed or protect them, better to kill them ourselves than let the enemy eat them and grow stronger,” etc. Wallis documents that this was already going on among the Aucas. If the teenaged son is dead, a father vows at one point in the story, he'll kill the younger child himself.

Rachel Saint's long stay with Dayuma and her family was to blame for the death of several Waorani people and the disability of others. Nevertheless, at the same time, it's possible that the attention and sympathy drawn to these people by the missionaries deserves some credit for the survival of such of the Waorani language and culture as has survived the encroachments of Euro-American “development.” Saint became ill too; her Christian colleagues supplied palliatives and antibiotics to the community, and made possible a higher rate of survival than was observed in other Native American groups after the first exposure to polio, smallpox, syphilis, or other European diseases. And there are languages that survive today because someone took the trouble to translate part or all of the Bible into them.

Apparently not much that was truly Waorani could have survived. New to Dayuma and the family, according to Catherine Peeke, were the biblical concepts “of buying and selling...trading...specialized labor, as a carpenter, fisherman, teacher, sower; any religious or governmental organization, any concept of village or city; any idea of law...They know neither bread nor paper...horses, donkeys, or cattle...grapevines...grinding stones...stones used in building. Market places...servant-master relationships...[t]eaching-learning situations...” The Waorani were familiar with paper wasps, and used phrases based on “wasps' nests” to translate the concepts of dry ground-up food material (bread), writing paper, and paper money (“wasp's nest which is given-taken”).

What the Waorani had to offer either North Americans, or Euro-Ecuadorans, or Quichuas, in the way of cultural exchange, was devalued—as seems to be usual in such cases. Whatever music they might once have made among themselves, they were able to teach foreigners “three-note melody” that apparently nobody bothered to transcribe or record. The tribal identification mark had been grotesquely stretching and deforming the earlobes around progressively larger chunks of wood; apparently this custom was happily abandoned by Waorani Christians, although removing the chunks of wood left their ears looking even stranger. The traditional cuisine was, as seems to be typical, based on access to more and richer hunting-and-gathering territory than was deemed “sustainable” on the small strip of land left to the tribe; during the course of Aucas Downriver people are getting hungrier and having to learn to eat disgusting (to them) foreign food. Such stories have to be read with detachment and a healthy sense of irony.

The dramatic scenes in Aucas Downriver document a time of massive, traumatic change and near-destruction of the nation. Christian-phobics may not be pleased that the Waorani survived as Christians through the efforts of evangelical Protestant missionaries. People of good will, however, will agree that it was wonderful, bordering on miraculous, that they survived at all. Ask any of the South American or Caribbean people who are still alive today, who may remember a grandmother who was “the last of her people.” Or ask any of the North Americans who've traced a family legend of a Native American ancestor, discovered that this long-gone great-great-great-grandparent was not Cherokee, and found that “the last of his/her people” died of smallpox in 1859.

Though Aucas Downriver is short enough, and simply written enough, to be appreciated by middle school readers (and was undoubtedly published with the intention of adding high adventure to Sunday School bookshelves), it is here recommended to adults who can read it in historical perspective. For the rest of the story, Through Gates of Splendor and other books by Elisabeth Elliot are also recommended.

Ethel Emily Wallis no longer has any use for a dollar so Aucas Downriver is not a Fair Trade Book. You may, however, add it to a package that includes a Fair Trade Book and pay only one shipping charge per package. Standard prices are $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping.