Film tells rest of unusual story of slain missionaries

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
MIAMI - Five Christian missionaries ventured into the dense jungles of Ecuador, looking to reach the reclusive Waodani tribe known for its violent treatment of outsiders.
The Americans arrived on a Friday. They were dead by Sunday.
The killings in January 1956 shocked many in the United States, especially after images of the dead men were displayed in a Life magazine spread.
But the story didn't end there. In a turn that was perhaps as stunning as the killings, the wives and sisters of the slain men went to Ecuador to pick up the mission. The women were accepted by the tribe, living among them and becoming like family.
Decades later, the son of missionary Nate Saint was able to build a relationship with the warrior who had fatally speared the 32-year-old American.
The story of the missionaries and Saint's son, Steve, will be told in a film set for release this month. "End of the Spear" spans the entire 50 years of a unique tale that experts say is a snapshot of the often forgotten and misunderstood existence of indigenous tribes.
"It's such a compelling story that even I got caught up in it, realizing that there are aspects of this that you never dare make up if it was fiction," Steve Saint said from his home in Dunnellon, in Central Florida.
Steve Saint was 4 years old when his father was killed by the Waodani, who also are known as the Waorani or Auca. Nate Saint and his fellow missionaries had spent months flying over the region, dropping gifts from the sky in hopes of befriending the Waodani, who were fighting encroaching industrial development and had a reputation for killing intruders.
Saint said his father and the others felt an obligation to reach the Waodani. "They said, 'If we don't make this peaceful contact, somebody else will make armed contact, and that will be the end of these people.' "
According to journals left by the Americans, they landed their small plane on a riverbank they dubbed Palm Beach and made peaceful contact with some of the Waorani. But a journal entry two days later - the last one made Jan. 8 by Nate Saint - had a more serious tone.
"Heart heavy that they fear us . . ." Saint wrote in his journal, which was cited in the Jan. 30, 1956, edition of Life magazine that included photojournalist Cornell Capa's images of the slain men.
Later that day, Nate Saint failed to make a scheduled phone call. Soon after, the Americans' bodies were found in separate parts of the river.
The precise motivation for the killings is unclear. But the tribe had been left suspicious and fearful of outsiders following conflicts with whites during the "rubber boom" between the late 1800s and early 1900s, and during confrontations with oil companies, according to William Vickers, professor emeritus of anthropology at Florida International University in Miami.
"The Waodani were hunted by whites almost to the point of being exterminated," Vickers said. "The Waodani became aggressive toward any outsiders as a method of defending themselves."
However, Steve Saint and others saw the use of violence as germane to the tribe's existence. Saint calls it a "culture of violence."
"There had been a long set of violent practices . . . long before the white missionaries arrived," said Rudolph Ryser, chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies in Olympia, Wash. "Waodani society held and used violence as a means of solving vendettas and taking care of revenge."
Nonetheless, the slayings did not deter five women - wives and sisters of the men - who decided they would go to Ecuador to carry on the mission. They befriended an indigenous woman who spoke the Waodani language, and learned how to communicate with the tribe.
The ability to communicate became a key for the women, including Nate Saint's sister, Rachel Saint. They were accepted by the Waodani, and Steve Saint, at times, spent part of his childhood with the tribe.
After Rachel Saint died in the 1990s, the family's connection to the tribe compelled Steve Saint to settle with them. It was then that he learned the truth behind his father's death. One warrior, Mincaye, confessed to killing his father, and even went on to teach him how to survive in the jungle among the Waodani.
But why? "Remorse yes; guilt, no," Steve Saint said. "I think his motivation was really a love for my aunt, which he transferred to me. And he has loved me all my life."
Eventually, Steve Saint joined forces with Mart Green, a film producer who knew of the story and wanted to turn it into a feature film. They enlisted director Jim Hanon and set out to do the film - with the Waodani's permission.
The filmmakers went to live with the tribe, and were hooked on the story of the two men, Mincaye and Steve Saint.
Filming didn't take place among the Waodani but instead, due to logistical concerns, with a tribe in the steamy forests of Panama. Steve Saint consulted on the production and the Waodani are to receive some the film's proceeds.
Hanon said he had to work through some details dealing with culture and religion.
"Because this story was really revered by a strong Christian audience, we really did risk telling the story from the Waodani point of view," Hanon said. "It meant that a lot of the core audience ... would wonder why the missionaries weren't more involved."
Saint says the film may serve to help the Waodani deal with challenges to their existence. Development has pushed them farther into the jungle, and some younger Waodani have abandoned traditional clothing and language for more modern dress and the Spanish language.
"This movie could be a strong tool for them to see that they are a respected people, and unless they see themselves in that light, I think their way of life will be unsustainable," Steve Saint said. "It will just disappear into the Ecuadorean culture."
Actor Chad Allen, who appeared in TV shows such as "My Two Dads" and "St. Elsewhere," plays the roles of both Nate and Steve Saint. Louie Leonardo plays Mincayani, an amalgam of Mincaye and other tribesmen.
Allen said they were emotionally affected by making the film. Steve Saint particularly was affected by the recreation of his father's death, he said.
"He was in torment and agony about his life and decisions he had to make about the film," Allen said. "Steve had never fully contemplated what it would be like to relive the death of his father.
"He wrapped his arms around me and he cried."

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