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by Jack Orlick
Aug 6 2010, 10:27am
Before their first violent contact with the West, when they speared five Christian missionaries in 1956, the Huaorani of Ecuador had it sorted. The men and women wore a cotton string around their waists, which men tied to their foreskins to stop their schlongs from getting caught up in thorns. Both sexes wore necklaces made of palm fibres and woven with the teeth of animals hunted for meat, and, on special occasions, donned crowns and arm-bands decorated with the brightly coloured feathers of jungle birds. That, apart from balsa-wood earlobe stretchers and the occasional splash of red face-paint, was pretty much all the Huaorani had to worry about. Then, Rachel Saint, the sister of one of the murdered missionaries, made it her business to compile a Huaorani dictionary with the help of Dayuma, a Huaorani girl she had found working in Ecuador, so that they could translate the Bible into the tribal language. Saint, and Elizabeth Eliot, both from the evangelical Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), moved in with a Huaorani clan in 1959, and begun the process of religious conversion. According to the SIL, they helped end an ongoing war between two Huaorani groups, but, as an aggressive evangelist, Saint completely changed the lifestyle and social structure of the Huaorani people. A whole bunch of Huaorani were persuaded to wear clothes, move out of their communal huts into homes for nuclear families, and were drawn into villages in a tiny reservation created by the SIL and the Ecuadorian government--conveniently, some have argued, around the same time that the big oil companies started prospecting in the area. Now, most of the Huaorani wear jeans, t-shirts, rubber boots and baseball caps. Moi is a friend of Laura Rival, the anthropologist who took me and two other students to Ecuador as her assistants. He never seemed to take off his bright orange boiler suit except in the mornings, when he strode through the undergrowth in nothing but a pair of grimy pair of very skimpy underpants. His nephew, Daime, (below helping him gut a capybara) always wore an enormous digital watch which made his hand look like a little doll's. We were told by Quengohuanto Yeti, an indigenous health worker in Quehueire Ono, in English the River of Cannibals, a settlement deep in the jungle, that the Western clothes they wore meant that the Huaorani were no longer savages, but 'civilized'. Ironically, though, the Huaorani, and other indigenous people in the Amazon Basin, have found that their best bet to keep their land and rights is to parade themselves to tourists and in courts of law in their traditional costume, presenting an image of themselves as authentic eco-Indians, in need of power and protection. Shows like Tribal Wives, which featured the Huaorani in one episode, show how limited and patronizing Western ideas of indigenous people are – TV producers have to go out of their way to find the most 'real' natives they can--if they're seen to wear clothes, or own digital watches, they're thought of as fakers, undeserving of any special attention. A woman wearing a t-shirt from AMWAE, a Huaorani woman's association, stamped with TIERRA ES VIDA. NO MAS PETROLEO - Land is Life. No More Oil This outward posturing of traditional ways, while helping Huaorani political status, makes it pretty difficult to fit into everyday South American society. Not wearing Western clothing opens the natives up to racism of the less paternalistic, native-bashing variety. An Ecuadorian girl in Puyo, a town on the edge of the forest, told me that she didn't like the indigenous people because they were naked, and they smelled bad. Basically, they're fucked if they do, and they're fucked if they don't. When Moi and his family took us to the frontier town of Coca so that they could go and buy supplies, we saw them change out of their jungle clothes into clean city costume to try to look as 'normal' as possible. For the Huaorani, and the native Indians in the Americas, dressing right isn't just a matter of looking good, it's vital for their survival. WORDS AND PHOTOS BY JACK ORLICK