Learning to Forgive

A tribesman and the son of a man he killed forge an unlikely friendship, a story told in 'End of the Spear.'

In 1956, five American missionaries were killed by members of an Ecuadoran tribe called the Waodani. The Americans had been trying to penetrate the tribe's isolated culture, befriend its members, and bring them to Christ, but instead met their deaths at the hands of the Waodani's spears. The story could have easily ended there, another violent clash between disparate peoples. But that was only the beginning. In a decision that would have been unimaginable to most people, the wives and children of the murdered missionaries moved into the Waodani village and helped to care for them, successfully forging a friendship that transformed all of them.

Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the murders, the film "End of the Spear" tells the story of Steve Saint--whose father was one of the murdered missionaries and whose mother and aunt lived with the Waodani--and Mincaye (called Mincayani in the movie), the man who killed Saint's father. Mincaye is now a surrogate grandfather to Steve Saint's children--the grandchildren of the man he killed.

The Waodani live in the eastern rainforests of Ecuador, not far from the Galapagos Islands where Darwin first realized that natural selection is what permitted species of birds to adapt and survive. In the 20th century, the Waodani's inability to adapt to new realities left them on the way to extinction, according to the ethnologists who studied what little information was available about them at the time. A violent people, among whom killings were rampant, the Waodani lacked any concepts of trust, forgiveness, negotiation, even authority. Instead of describing something as good or bad, right or wrong, they spoke in terms of their own response: "I do not see him well" meant "I do not like what he is doing" or "I do not trust him." Linguistic differences like these were among the many things the Waodani and the Americans needed to overcome to forge a relationship.


"In the Waodani language, there is no word for forgiveness," Saint, now 55, said in a phone conversation. "That was kind of a new concept: I forgive you. The way they describe it now is. If someone does something you don't see well, then you forget it and let that go. If someone doesn't do something you do see well, you let that go."

Forgiveness obviously looms large in the story of Saint's life and is a subject he has thought about at length. To befriend his father's killer, he said he didn't necessarily need to understand what happened or why.

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