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These Men Entered The Rainforest To Convert A Native Tribe, But They Never Came Out

FEBRUARY 28, 2017  —  By Corinne Sanders

In 1950, an Evangelical Christian missionary named Jim Elliot heard about a native tribe of people in Ecuador and believed that God was calling him to convert them.

The Huaorani people lived in the Amazon rainforest and were known for their violence towards outsiders as well as those within their isolated tribe. Elliot and four other men thought they could make peaceful contact with them, so they began studying the Huaorani culture and language before flying out from the U.S. to meet them. But unfortunately, the mission known as "Operation Auca" ended with all of the missionaries losing their lives.

In September 1955, Elliot and his colleagues Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Johnny Keenan began searching for the tribe by air. When they found them, the team began lowering gifts from a rope by fixed-wing aircraft at several locations. The gifts included clothing, tools, weapons, and various trinkets. They noted that the people seemed excited and even started tying their own gifts to the ropes for the missionaries.

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Encouraged by the gestures, the men planned to meet the Huaoranis on the ground. On January 3, Elliot, Saint, McCully, and another missionary named Roger Youderian successfully landed on Palm Beach along the Curaray River with their families in tow, where they set up camp and met Elliot's friend, Peter Fleming. Saint then flew over a Huaorani settlement and used a loudspeaker to invite the tribe into their camp.

The first Huaorani visitors arrived three days later. There were two women and one young man named Nankiwi. The younger woman and Nankiwi were romantically interested in one another and the older woman had come as a sort of chaperone for the two.

The visitors were nervous at first, but became more relaxed when the missionaries offered them a few gifts. Saint even took Nankiwi on a plane ride, where the young man saw his neighbors and waved to them. However, the younger woman wanted to leave later that day, so Nankiwi took off with her while the older woman stayed behind to talk with the group of men.

The next day, another group of Huaorani people traveled to the camp after seeing Nankiwi in the plane and ran into the couple without their chaperone. They were furious at this, so Nankiwi lied and told them the foreigners had attacked them on the beach, separating them from the older woman. That's when they decided to kill the missionaries.

When the second group got to the camp, they began attacking the missionaries as they approached to greet them. They speared Elliot first before killing Fleming, Saint, McCully, and then Youderian as he was about to report the attack on their airplane radio. After throwing the men's bodies and belongings in the river, they returned to their village and burned it to the ground before disappearing into the jungle.

Their wives hadn't been there and had no idea what happened to them, so they reported them missing. Search parties were organized and aircrafts flew over the jungle in the hopes of spotting them. Their bodies were found over the next few days and buried in a common grave at Palm Beach.

The news of their deaths spread around the world and actually led to many Huaorani conversions to Christianity. Elliot's widow, Elisabeth, her daughter, and Saint's sister, Rachel, even went to live with the Huaorani a few years later and ended up converting some of the people involved in the killing.

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Some anthropologists look at this missionary work negatively and think it caused the decline of Huaorani culture, but others believe it gave these people a way to escape their culture of violence. What do you think? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to share this story to get other people's takes on it as well.

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