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First Convert to Christianity in Once-Violent Tribe Dies in Ecuador

March 7, 2014

First Convert to Christianity in Once-Violent Tribe Dies in Ecuador

March 7, 2014
(March 7, 2014 - by Ralph Kurtenbach)  Dayömæ “Dayuma” Cænto, the first among the Waorani people of Ecuador to put faith in Christ, died on Saturday, March 1, in Puyo, a town on the western edge of Ecuador’s Amazon region. She passed away in her sleep following a lengthy illness.

Dayuma was born sometime in the early 1930s to Cænto (father) and Acawo (mother) in the Ecuadorian jungle. Her Waorani relatives considered all cowode (outsiders) to be nonhuman cannibals and a dangerous threat. From the earliest known records of contact with the Waorani in the 1600s, few who encountered these hidden jungle dwellers were known to walk away alive.

Death by spearing was the most common fate of the cowode who ventured into their territory. Violence also awaited those who trekked in from the neighboring Quichua-speaking areas where people called the Waorani “Aucas” which means savage or enemy.

The Waorani (a term meaning “the people”) also turned their long spears of sharpened chonta palm wood on each other in revenge killings, so much so that Dayuma’s people were on a path of annihilation. The spearings were common, and few lived to an old age, unlike Dayuma.

When her own father was killed in a raid, she had fled the jungle as an adolescent, taking a young cousin with her. Later befriended by members of another nearby tribal group, the two were taken to a hacienda in the Andean foothills. Working at the plantation for several years, they adopted the ways and language of the Quichua-speaking people. She married a Quichua man and gave birth to a son, Sam. During her years on the farm, Dayuma was widowed, leaving her to raise her young son alone.

Rachel Saint Contacts Dayuma

In the 1950s Dayuma became acquainted with a missionary, Rachel Saint. About that time Saint’s brother, missionary pilot Nate Saint, was attempting friendly contact with the Waorani in the interior. The story is well known that Waorani warriors killed Nate along with four other men (representing three separate missions) on the shores of the Curaray River on Jan. 8, 1956.

“By the time of their deaths in January 1956,” wrote Ethel Wallis in Aucas Downriver, “Rachel had gradually teased Dayuma back into memory of her native language, using gestures in a monolingual effort to aid the young woman’s recall. Slowly, Dayuma remembered words, then phrases, then whole sentences of the language of death she had tried to forget.”

Together Rachel and Dayuma toured the U.S. in 1957, appearing with famed evangelist Billy Graham at Madison Square Garden and on Ralph Edwards’ television show, This Is Your Life. Although she learned to write her name, she did not become literate enough to read. She was Rachel’s key language helper in the first translation of the Gospel of Mark and a draft of the book of Acts. The Wao New Testament translation was completed by Catherine Peeke and Rosi Jung with a team of Waorani co-translators, printed at Radio Station HCJB's printshop and dedicated in Ecuador in 1992.

Re-entering the Tribe

In 1958 Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot, one of the missionary widows, accompanied Dayuma back to the jungle to meet her Waorani family. By returning, she became reunited once again with her mother. The homecoming for Dayuma posed a dangerous venture for her as well as for her two companions, but the result was the first extended nonviolent Waorani encounter with outsiders.

Dayuma married a second time in 1962 in Waorani territory. This time she wed Cöme, whose father, Guikita, had led the 1956 attack on the five missionaries on the Curaray River. Guikita later led his people to put aside a lifestyle of vengeance and killings in which most men died violently before reaching middle age.

Prior to her death, Dayuma had been living with the family of one of her daughters in Puyo. Following her demise, her body was taken to her jungle village of Toñampare for burial on Sunday, March 2. Rachel Saint is buried in that same village.

Dayuma is survived by her Waorani husband, Cöme; two sons, Sam and Solomon; two daughters, Nanci (Mingo in Waorani) and Eva (Iiba); and numerous grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her parents, her Quichua husband and by a daughter, Euni, who died in a drowning accident.

Dayuma’s name became famous worldwide, especially among evangelicals acquainted with the five slain missionaries’ effort to share Christ with the Waorani. An example of her prior celebrity status in Ecuador is reflected in a non-Waorani town in Orellana province that was named after her.

A Lasting Legacy

“It is probably safe to say that were it not for individuals like Dayuma, a peaceful, enduring contact with the Waorani would not exist today,” wrote Jim Yost, an anthropologist whose initial research among the Waorani was at the request of his mission agency, the Summer Institute of Linguistics. (Rachel Saint was at that time with the same agency but resigned only to return to minister with the Waorani independently.)

Yost’s family lived with the tribe from 1974 to 1984. The Waorani friendships have continued with the Yosts. In response to requests from tribal members, he returns to be of help to the Waorani in specific ways as they face the challenges of intense contact with surrounding Spanish-speaking cultures and cowode from other countries.

Dayuma had fled the tribe as a fugitive, but her re-entry created her status as a cultural broker between the diverse populations, according to Yost. From 1958 on, the gospel’s influence allowed for “an increase in scale for Waorani society,” he said.

Increase in scale entailed growth in numbers and population density due to significantly diminished spearing raids and reduced hostilities with outsiders and fewer deaths by infanticide. Accompanying these changes were “the end of the notion that all [cowode] are cannibals and the development of a sense of trust in the [cowode],” according to Yost.

Pat Kelley lived among the Waorani for a number of years, doing language and education field work under the auspices of SIL and later HCJB Global (now Reach Beyond). She continues to keep in contact with the people.

“Pray for the extended family as they say goodbye to this one who has been such a strong figure in their lives,” Kelley concluded. “And pray that Dayuma’s testimony during her best years in turn would impact their lives as followers of the One the Waorani know as Wængonguï.”

Sources: Reach Beyond, Aucas Downriver, El Comercio, Twenty Years of Contact: The Mechanisms of Change in Wao (“Auca”) Culture