Auca Martyrs (d. January 8, 1956)
John W. Cowart

              Until January 8, 1956, few people had heard of the Auca Indians of Ecuador. They were just another backwater primitive tribe scratching out a mean existence in jungle clearings. But on that day on a sandbar in a river near two Auca villages, two alien cultures — one dedicated to spreading the gospel of Christ, the other to war and murder—clashed. And the Aucas' murder of five American missionaries catapulted the tribe into world-wide news.

Life photographer Cornell Capa accompanied the team which buried the missionaries on the sandbar where they had been killed. He reported, “Among the effects of the missionaries ... were three diaries in which the men had recorded, step by step, the progress of their mission”.

In these diaries, notebooks and letters to their families, the missionaries reveal their motives for jeopardizing their lives among the Aucas.

Time magazine called the Aucas “the worst people on earth”.

They were, the magazine said, “A pure Stone Age people, they hate all strangers, live only to hunt, fight and kill. Their most notable products are needle-sharp, 9-foot, hardwood spears for use against human foes. . . . Even their neighbors, the Jivaros, famous for shrinking human heads, live in constant fear of the fierce Aucas”.

Murder was the most significant cause of death among the Aucas. Seventy-four per cent of all Auca men died through violent tribal warfare.

When one of their number got sick or old, his relatives dug a pit beneath his hammock, toppled him in, and buried him alive.

The tribe suffered a shortage of women because mothers often strangled girl babies with a vine as soon as they were born. One Auca mother of twins said, “I was so frightened to see two babies appear, instead of just one, that I buried them”.

The Aucas killed for sport, lust, jealousy or out of simple irritation. One Indian speared both his friend's wife and mother to death as a joke.

As soon as an Auca boy could walk, his spear practice began. Toddlers jabbed short spears into a balsa-wood log carved in human shape. Six-year-olds accompanied men on raids. The adults incapacitated a victim and encouraged the little boys to finish him off.

Murder for revenge and preventative murder also played a large part in the Aucas' lifestyle. They felt it a duty to avenge the murder of a relative by spearing the killer or any member of his family, even a distant cousin.

Therefore, when an Auca suspected that someone might hold a grudge against some member of his family, he endeav­ored to kill that person first.

Against such a background it is easy to understand how fear of outsiders and overwhelming suspicion of anything beyond their control motivated the Aucas to spear the five peaceful missionaries when the two cultures met. The drive which motivated the young Americans to expose themselves to such an attack may be more difficult to understand.

The five men represented several Christian denominations and three different mission groups.

Nathaniel Saint of Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania, flew as a pilot for the Mission Aviation Fellowship. Roger Youderian of Lansing, Michigan, served under the Gospel Missionary Union. James Elliot of Portland, Oregon, Pete Fleming of Seattle, Washington, and T. Edward McCully of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, worked for Christian Missions In Many Lands.

Nate Saint, while a maintenance crew chief in the Air Force, decided to become a missionary at a New Year's Eve church service in Detroit

He wrote, “It was the first time I had ever really heard that verse, 'Follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men.' The old life of chasing things that are of a temporal sort seemed absolutely insane”.

After his discharge from the Air Force, he joined Mission Aviation Fellowship as a pilot

While Ed McCully attended law school at Marquette University, he worked as a night-desk clerk at a hotel. During the slack hours before dawn he read the Bible.

He wrote, “On the way home yesterday morning, I took a long walk and came to a decision which I know is of the Lord. I have one desire now—to live a life of reckless abandon for the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it... If there's nothing to this business of eternal life we might as well lose everything in one crack and throw our present life away with our life hereafter. But if there is something to it... Well, that's it”.

Roger Youderian had jumped, as a paratrooper, into the Battle of the Bulge. He was decorated for his part in the fighting. In a letter to his mother he said, “Ever since I accepted Christ as my personal Saviour last fall and wanted to follow Him and do the will of the Lord, I've felt the call to either missionary, social or ministerial work after my release from the service.. . . I want to be a witness for Him and live following Him every second of my life”.

Youderian's call led him to work among the head-hunting Jivaros, and he developed a technique using drawings to teach them to read and write in their own previously unwritten language.

Youderian went through some deep physical and spiritual struggles, but, concerning divine guidance his diary records, “The Holy Spirit can and will guide me in direct proportion to the time and effort I will expend to know and do the will of God”.

Pete Fleming had been converted at age thirteen through the testimony of a blind evangelist. When he chose to become a missionary, he had already earned his master's degree in literature and was majoring in philosophy at the University of Washington. Concerning his decision to go to Ecuador, he wrote, “A call is nothing more or less than obedience to the will of God as God presses it home to the soul by whatever means He chooses”.

As he decided to move from work among the relatively peaceful Quichuas to the warlike Aucas he said, “It is a grave and solemn problem; an unreachable people who murder and kill with extreme hatred. It comes to me strongly that God is leading me to do something about it, and a strong idea and impression comes into my mind that I ought to devote the majority of my time to collecting linguistic data on the tribe. ... I know that this may be the most important decision of my life, but I have a quiet peace about it”.

The fifth missionary, Jim Elliot, wrote to a friend mentioning his motive for being a missionary: “The command is plain; you go into the whole world and announce the good news.... To me, Ecuador is simply an avenue of obedience to the simple word of Christ. There is room for me there, and I am free to go.... The will of God is always a bigger thing than we bargain for”.

The Auca tribe came to the attention of the missionaries when two Indian survivors of an Auca raid staggered into a mission station. Saint described the victims before he flew them to a hospital:

The woman was being carried on a bamboo stretcher and had a serious-looking lance puncture under the armpit They told us that the lance broke off in the wound. Her attacker was going to jab at her again but she grabbed the end of the lance and hung on to save her life. She is about six or seven months pregnant The man arrived under his own power although considerably crippled up with chest punctures, a hole all the way through one thigh and a hole through his hand where he had apparently tried to stop one of the deadly shafts.

The missionaries decided to reach the Aucas and began learning rudiments of their language from an Auca woman who had been captured as a slave by another tribe.

They made air drops of gifts useful to the Aucas: copper kettles, red shirts, buttons and small knives. Nate Saint devised a method to exchange items with people on the ground without landing the airplane. As his plane circled, he played out a long rope with a basket tied to the end. Centrifugal force caused the basket to gravitate to the center of the circle as it dropped lower and lower. When the rope was fully extended from the spiraling plane, the basket remained almost stationary a few feet above the ground and trade items or messages could be placed in it.

The missionaries used this method to lower pictures of themselves so the people would recognize them when they landed. And as they flew over villages in the dense jungle, the Americans shouted over the plane's loudspeaker, “We like you. We like you. We are friends”.

The Aucas took the gifts and replaced them with fruit, feathered headdresses, live parrots and even a balsa-wood carving of the airplane in exchange. This friendly commerce continued for months before the missionaries hazarded direct contact

Saint landed the plane on a firm sandbar in the Curaray River at a spot near two Auca villages. The Indians first sent out a nubile young girl, apparently intended as a gift, to meet them. The missionaries nicknamed her Delilah.

She left abruptly.

During a supply flight, Saint spotted a large party of Aucas approaching. He quickly landed, and the missionaries prepared to greet their visitors.

The Aucas attacked.

They skewered the Christians with spears and hacked diem down with stolen machetes. In a frenzy they peeled the fabric from the fuselage of the plane and twisted its steel landing struts.

Then they crept back into the jungle to await the massive retaliation which their culture taught them to expect

It never came.

Instead of bombs, Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots continued to drop trade items on the Auca villages, just as though the attack had never happened.

The widows of the five missionaries asked the outraged Ecuadorian government not to send the army against the Indians. These women continued to study the language of the Aucas and to pray for access to the tribe.

Within three years Mrs. Jim Elliot, her daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint, sister of the pilot, were living in an Auca village teaching the Indians about a forgiving Christ

Soon a Christian church was established among the Aucas. Nathaniel Saint's son was baptized on the sandbar in the Curaray by an Auca pastor who had once been in the raiding party which martyred his father.

A Mission Aviation Fellowship spokesman said, “About a third of the tribe are baptized believers, and meet weekly in six different settlements for Bible study and prayer.

“In the years since Saint and his fellows were killed, quite a few Christians—I would estimate several thousand in the overall missionary community—have dedicated their own lives to Christ because of the example of these men. M.AF. constantly gets applications from people who have been inspired by the story. This is still going on right now”.


NOTE: This piece is a sample chapter from Bluefish Books upcoming offering, Strangers On The Earth by John Cowart. Projected publication date: February 2006.

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