“My daughter is in there. Every night I see her in my dreams, and I know that some day she will join the others to come and fetch us”, says Shury, pointing into the forest.
The forest where just a few years ago he lived in isolation with his wife and mother in-law, Fuenea and Asto, and the rest of the group. The forest where they lived as their people had always done. Until destiny took an abrupt turn.
Missionaries and strange objects
“Before the others left, they said they would never have anything to do with us or the missionaries", Shury says.
Now he is a “newly contacted” Mastanahua Indian, always looking for food to feed himself and the rest of his family. Always hungry and on the move. Always unhappy.
“We thought the metal things in particular, like knives and machetes, were very tempting"
Since the 1990s, missionaries from the US missionary agency Pioneers have tried to contact isolated indigenous groups in the region where Shury and the others lived. The missionaries built the village where Shury is now staying, and from there they sought out the footpaths that Shury’s people used as well as their settlement in the rainforest.
The missionaries put out enticing gifts to lure the Indians. Shury recalls the strange objects that suddenly appeared on their trails.
“It took a long time before we would even touch them,” he says. “But when we did, we thought the metal things in particular, like knives and machetes, were very tempting.”
Let their guard down
The forest dwellers became more incautious as time went by and let the missionaries come closer. Once, when the missionaries sent in some Indians who speak a related language to the one Shury and his group speak, Shury went to meet them, and traded for several items. For the next two years there was sporadic contact between the missionaries and Shury’s group, with the only ostensible purpose being the exchange of gifts.
Shury was the only one who ventured to the edge of the missionary village. He came there with meat from the forest to exchange for the foreign objects.
But there was disagreement within his group as to whether contact with the missionaries should continue. Shury was alone in favouring it, and tensions arose between him and the others. One day, one of the dogs that Shury had received from the missionaries bit a little girl, resulting in a serious conflict that split the group.
He and his wives were thrown out. They found themselves all alone.
Collaborating with the oil industry
In their search for so-called “unreached” tribes in the rainforest, missionary agencies like the Summer Institute of Linguistics/Wycliffe Bible translators (SIL) and the New Tribes Mission have opened the path for foreign infectious diseases to a great number of indigenous groups, leading to an enormous loss of life in the affected communities. The missionaries have continued their pursuit anyway, well knowing what will follow in their wake.
Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett have written the book Thy Will Be Done, the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. It is based on extensive documentation since their first visit to the Amazon in 1976, and was released in 1995. While full of stories about US foreign policy in the Amazon over the past 50 years, the book’s greatest emphasis is on the work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.
It shows how these missionaries help oil companies from the United States gain access to oil-rich rainforest areas. Almost all of their financial backers are North American oil companies or others with financial interests in the Amazon, according to the book. SIL’s job is to pacify isolated tribes that are preventing exploitation of an area’s natural resources.
Penetrating a tribe’s isolation is the first necessary step for international companies to gain entry. Although SIL present itself as a linguistic research insitution, its overarching goal is to evangelise indigenous people. These threats break down a tribe’s social structure, and hence its ability to fight for its rights to a dignified life.
Brainwashed with the bible
To achieve their goal, the missionaries resort to harsh brainwashing of key people in the tribes.
“According to many of my friends among the indigenous peoples and charities in Peru, it is typical to bring these people to the nearest city by airplane,” explains Anders Krogh, head of Rainforest Foundation Norway’s Amazon department.
“These are Indians who have never been outside the forest. For several months they are then subjected to brainwashing with the Bible, before being sent back to their tribe to serve as an instrument of further conversion.”
Krogh has lived with indigenous people in the Amazon for 18 months, and is familiar with their way of life. He tells of an English friend who since 2002 has worked with a tribe called the Yaminahua, who were contacted by missionaries in the 1980s.
"He just sat there with his head lolling, tossing out mixed-up words about Jesus, mother, father, God and the Holy Ghost”
- Anders Krogh
“They have become deeply alcoholised, and he thinks this is SIL’s doing”, Krogh says. “One day he met a Yaminahua man who had just returned after one such trip to Pucallpa in Peru. The Yaminahua man had been sitting outside his house with a liquor bottle in hand, and was impossible to communicate with. He just sat there with his head lolling, tossing out mixed-up words about Jesus, mother, father, God and the Holy Ghost. He had been crying, and my friend told me the whole tribe was like that.”
Indigenous peoples are brainwashed into believing their traditional way of life is dirty and wrong, while at the same time that life remains dear to their hearts. Missionaries are railing against the forefathers of these indigenous people, causing an identity crisis that tears them to pieces.
“The last thing a missionary wants is an independent and tradition-rich indigenous community,” says Krogh “They receive financial support on the basis of what they call ‘cultural development work for tiny minorities that are very often overlooked and forgotten’.”
Live like nomads
Through their work, the missionaries seek to make indigenous peoples dependent on them – a relationship that Shury and his wives are a tragic example of. Although they refused to leave the forest, the missionaries insisted that Shury and his wives moved into the mission village. The only solution was to hide at a camp in the woods a few hours away by foot.
Only after the missionaries gave up and left the mission village did Shury and the women move into it. That was a few years ago, and since then they have survived in part by begging food from the nearest Cashinahua Indians, who live a few hours downriver.
"There is no one to help us"
Before that, they had lived as nomads their whole lives, along with their group. They had had all the skills they needed, with access to wild game and fruit from the forest. The lifestyle that has now been forced on them, however, is almost killing them.
“If we stay permanently in one place, we have to cultivate the land as a supplement to hunting and gathering, in order to have enough food,” says Shury. “We have no idea how to do it, and there is no one to help us.”
"There are very many of them"
When asked why they don’t go back to their group, the reply is quick:
“We have no idea where they are.”
He adds: “We can’t find enough food on our own. We are exhausted and hungry. And without our people around us, we can’t defend ourselves from the others.”He lifts his t-shirt, showing a large scar from an arrowhead.
Who are the others?
Shury waves towards the forest interior and says, “There are very many of them. Not so long ago, some of them passed by the river, right down here.”