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.
"It might be helpful, but I'm a fan of one particular book and in that book, God sent his Son down not when we were perfect but when we were not," Saint said. "God did not do it because we were ready or because we asked for him, but because we needed him."
But on the other hand, he does think that a willingness to forget is essential for forgiveness.
"If someone forgives you but remembers it, it's like ammunition in the back pocket," he said. "When God forgives, He puts it away 'as far as the East is from the West,' as deep as the ocean. So you let it go as though it hasn't happened."
Saint believes that forgiveness is as important for the forgiver as for the forgiven.
"I once heard that 'hatred is suicide on the installment plan,'" he said. "And recently I heard Rick Warren talk about how someone can cut you off in the church parking lot and make you furious so that you're still fuming hours later, while he is happily eating pancakes with his family and has forgotten all about it. The fact that you are upset doesn't hurt him; it hurts you."
So, he continued, you don't wait for an apology in order to forgive.
"To be forgiven, to be able to accept forgiveness does involve apology and remorse, but to forgive and to let it go does not. You can't force me to hold onto it, but you don't get the benefit without remorse."
Saint believes he owes a great deal to his friend Mincaye.
"He taught me the skills I needed to live in the jungle-I'm still alive because of him," he said.
It was obviously not the easiest way to start a friendship: A son facing his father's killer, the killer expecting to be murdered as revenge by the son. But both took the risk. As Saint tells it: "'What's with this kid?' he said to my aunt, 'He doesn't know how to make blowgun darts or spear fish or track animals--who's going to teach him how to live?' 'You being the one who killed his father, who do you think should teach him?' she answered."
Saint decided to move back to the Waodani village after traveling to Ecuador to help bury his aunt.
"They [the Waodani] told me that's what they had decided for me to do," Saint said. "They didn't ask--they told. The only time Waodani can tell you what to do is if you are in the extended family.... If you didn't come, the assumption was that you didn't care for them or were angry and might intend to do them harm."
It wasn't an easy decision or one he made eagerly. But Saint and his wife made the decision to go.
"I didn't want to go back, I couldn't imagine I could do anything more to help them because they had been the recipients of so much largesse [from oil companies that had moved into the area], but I could not risk jeopardizing the relationship that was so dear to me," he said.
In the movie, both Saint and his father are played by actor Chad Allen (though Saint himself did the stunt flying for his father's character). In the press notes, writer/director Jim Hanon explains, "We were telling the story with as much insight and authenticity from the Waodani point of view as we possibly could. They lived in a cycle of revenge where sons were responsible for avenging speared fathers. We wanted the adult Steve Saint, who faces his father's killer, Mincayani, at the end of the film, to look as much like his father in the eyes of Mincayani as we could get away with. We felt it would make the pain, guilt, and subsequent torment in Mincayani's character more personal and pronounced as he faced the son of the man he speared."
If Mincaye was responsible for Saint's survival in the jungle, the positions were reversed when Saint brought Mincaye to America for a visit to help tell their story and solicit humanitarian aid for the tribe.
"Here he's not totally helpless but close to it," Saint said. "He can't read words or numbers, doesn't really know about money, does not understand about cold, and he doesn't want to learn, so I do it for him."
During the credits of "End of the Spear," we see footage of the real-life Saint and Mincaye. Saint explains that Mincaye loves grocery stores because if you just smile, the woman at the cash register lets you take all the food you want. Saint tried to explain that he had given the woman his credit card, but Mincaye said he was not fooled-he saw her give it right back!
As for Mincaye's impression of the United States: He admires the big buildings in America but said (through Saint, who translated), "Our living places are better, you don't have to stack people on top of each other there."
The Waodani, unchanged for millennia, are now in contact with the outside world.
"Once you've been introduced to things like soap, medicine, salt, metal machetes, it would be undesirable to live without access to those things, and they have to be purchased with money," Saint said.
He is deeply concerned that they will become a "welfare community," dependent on handouts from the oil companies that have moved into the territory or from ethnographers, politicians, even church groups who mean well but whose contributions can create dependence. As the tribe began to develop relationships with outsiders, including the oil companies, they for the first time received some of the luxuries of the developed world. They had no experience with even the most rudimentary economy and were not equipped to make informed choices about how best to adapt.
"Nobody has explained to them the cost of taking handouts, what people expect in exchange for what they give. When I did, they said, 'That's why we told you to come and live with us, because you understand this,'" Saint said.
Saint said that the Waodani had beliefs and faith in a creator before encountering the Americans, but they did not have a religion with rituals or an underlying theory about what the creator wanted or the creator's relationship to individuals.
"The Waodani used the same word for creator and for the stone ax heads they had to be able to find in order to get food," Saint said. "No man could support a family without one, yet they never learned to make them. So they used the same word for both, because if the creator did not put the ax heads in their path to find, they would die."
The tribe has a "fairly detailed knowledge of the spirit world" but believes certain people use the spirits to do harm to other people. Tribe members do not have a belief in a power to help or heal. "People think they all became God-followers, but that's not the case," Saint said of the Waodani's experience after befriending the Americans.
Saint does not preach to them and does not try to convert them. They have a weekly Creator's Day service, in which members of the tribe speak about what is on their minds. It is an innovation they established in the years since their encounter with the Americans. Tribe members sometimes ask him to speak, but he said, "I am not their spiritual leader; they have been my spiritual leaders."