“Not a crackle broke the silence” – the Waorani and “Operation Auca”

Work experience student, Ben Hebbron, writes about the Waorani community in Ecuador, South America and their interactions with evangelical mission workers.

Ben Hebbron, University of Manchester Library work experience student, writes:  

It is pertinent to note that history is almost always told from the perspective of the dominant group, a perspective which can be infuriatingly narrow. For this reason, while researching a fascinating event in the recent deposit of Echoes International archive material, I sought to view the story not from a singular perspective, and by doing so, give a voice to all the protagonists.

In Ecuador, South America, 1956, members of the Auca community and a group of Brethren mission workers, encountered each other.

The Auca, now known as the Waorani, were a small community living in the Amazonian Forest between the Curaray and Napo rivers. Colonisation – hundreds of years of exploitation by Spanish slavers, the violation of ancestral territories by oil and rubber prospectors and loggers, and an influx of missionaries – created generational trauma among the Waorani and made them wary of outsiders. Today’s Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimois is a key, global voice in the fight for climate change action. Here, Nemonte powerfully demands respect for her people and their tribal lands.  

Greyscale image of a square surrounded by colonial architecture and vehicles in Quito, Ecuador, 1951
Colonial architecture, Quito, Ecuador, 1951 © CC0

The encounter between American Evangelists and Waorani people and the ensuing tragedy was to become a defining moment in the history of mission workers. The initial American group Jim and Elizabeth (Betty) Elliot, and Pete Fleming, journeyed from California to Quito, to work initially with the neighbouring Quichua tribe translating the Bible into their language. 

Operation Auca" map, noting basic geography and travel routes, taken from 'Through The Gates of Splendour', 1957.
“Operation Auca” map, taken from ‘Through The Gates of Splendour’, 1957 (CBA 17542)

The young Evangelists then devised “Operation Auca”, a plan to live with the Waorani to bring God to them. The team grew after Roger Younderian, Ed McCully, and Nate Saint joined the group accompanied by family members. They had prepared by studying Waorani culture and language (called Wao Terero), in addition to making weekly air drops of gifts in hopes of forming amicable relations.

This appeared to have been achieved, as the Waorani traded with the Evangelists on several occasions and on the 6th January 1956 three Waorani people, Nenkiwi, Gimade and Gimare, visited the Evangelist camp to converse and barter; there seemed to be no malice from either side of the river. This made the disappearance of the five men two days later all the more mysterious.  The awaited radio call never came, “not a crackle broke the silence” (Through the Gates of Splendour by Elizabeth Elliot, 1957). The men were later reported dead.  Although the Evangelists had made piecemeal progress towards cooperation, ultimately this attempt to reach and convert the Waorani people was unsuccessful.  

This would have been the end of the story were it not for the coming together of two of the American women and the Waorani people. Betty Elliot sought permission to live with the Waorani to continue the mission effort, despite the death of her husband Jim. She and her infant child Valerie were joined by Rachel Saint, whose brother Nate had also been killed. Rachel was already known to the Waorani via earlier contact with Dayuma, a young refugee from the community. The women were not perceived as a threat and integrated into the tribe’s lifestyle. In her personal account of events in Ecuador, Through the Gates of Splendour (1957), Betty states that they lived “in a tiny leaf-thatched shack” and slept in hammocks. 

Greyscale image of Dayuma hugging Betty and baby Valerie in a sling on Betty's back, 1957.
Dayuma, Betty and Valerie, 1957 © 2023 The Elizabeth Elliot Foundation

The world press was fascinated by the turn of events and many column inches ensued.

With Dayuma’s help, Betty (tribal name Gikadi, ‘woodpecker’) and Rachel (tribal name, Nemo, ‘star’) translated the New Testament into Wao Terero. Dayuma was the first of the Waorani to convert to Christianity. Betty also asked the Waorani to renounce violence. The Daily Express on 2 December 1958 reports an alleged attack from the neighbouring Quichua, and a Waorani woman called Manhamn “addressing the darkness” to say, “we don’t kill, we’ll be glad to receive them if they come out without spears”.

Betty and Valerie lived with the Waorani for 2 years, and as Valerie later recounted they had lived in “safety and contentment”.

Today, the Waorani are around 40% Christian according to the Joshua Project.  However, renouncing violence ultimately led to greater global attention for the community, which exposed them to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ravages of state-sanctioned oil-drilling and illegal logging.  

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