Mincaye Ænkædi knew what it was to kill a person. He knew forgiveness for his actions. And he knew what it was like to later become a father and friend to his victim’s son.
As word spreads of his April 28 death, social media posts will refer to him as “Mincaye”, variously rendered as “Mincayi”, “Minkayi” or “Mincayani”. Many people will not have heard of him. But to some Christians around the world, his first name is all that’s needed to envision the story of his dramatic conversion to Christianity in the late 1950s in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
His name means “Wasp”. He died of natural causes at home in the tiny village of Tzapino. He was between 88 and 91 years of age, according to Steve Saint, an adopted son. Mincaye is survived by his wife Ompodae (Otter), 13 children, more than 50 grandchildren, many great grandchildren as well as “tens of thousands of people who saw him as proof of God’s redeeming and transforming power,” Saint said in a published tribute.
A Life of Violence and Revenge
When his life began in the jungle, Mincaye’s people, the Waorani, were trapped in a cycle of revenge killings amongst themselves. Internecine warfare seemed to point them toward self-decimation by time evangelical missionaries attempted to reach the tribe. On January 8, 1956, Mincaye and a small cohort of warriors speared to death Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint and Roger Youderian.
Within two years after those spearings on a sandbar of the Curaray River, Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, and Saint’s sister, Rachel, were living in a Waorani settlement with members of the tribe who had killed their loved ones. The women’s message of forgiveness and peace was transformative in Mincaye’s life.
Nate Saint’s young son, Steve, eventually spent time with Rachel Saint in the jungle. He was known to the tribe as “Babae”. Expressing concerns, Mincaye asked Saint why the boy didn’t know how to craft hunting darts or make poison for them, didn’t shoot a blowgun and couldn’t track animals. Steve’s Aunt Rachel countered by reminding Mincaye that he had speared Steve’s father, then asked from whom he thought the boy should learn .
Documenting the Waorani Past
Mincaye volunteered to train Steve, knowing fully that the child would, within Waorani culture, be within his rights to someday avenge his father’s death and kill him.
“Of the reported deaths spanning up to five generations,” missionary anthropologist Jim Yost later wrote, “only two individuals purportedly died of natural causes in old age. Forty-four percent of the deaths were a result of intratribal spearing, and 5 percent were due to infanticide. Seventeen percent were a result of [cowode or “outsider”] shootings and captures; snakebites accounted for another 5 percent and illness 11 percent.”
Yost has described his work as an effort to document and preserve as much Waorani culture as possible, seeing the tribe’s isolation in Ecuador’s Oriente under ever-increasing incursions by outside interests after petroleum was discovered there. He said that “in the first decade that I lived among the Waorani, I doubt a day ever passed that I didn’t hear the wrenching stories of past atrocities.”
Walking God’s Trail Brings Peace
Steve Saint, who toured with the elder Waorani promoting the movie, End of the Spear, said that Mincaye’s most frequent speaking theme was, “We lived angry, hating and killing, ‘ononque’ (for no reason), until they brought us God’s markings. Now, those of us who walk God’s trail live happily and in peace.”
Saint said after that, Mincaye would ask the crowd, “How long did you have God’s Markings before you brought them to us?”
In 2013, Mincaye and two others (Kemo and Dyowe) who had speared the missionaries in 1956 told their own stories—the first time the killings and the Waorani reception of the gospel was reported from a non-Western viewpoint. They were helped by missionary Chet Williams and Yost.
“The tendency to idealize or romanticize ‘primitive’ cultures falls to crushing blows … as the reality of life in the upper Amazon rainforest plays out in gruesome details often too explicit and vivid for the cushioned Western mind,” wrote Yost and Williams in the book’s foreword. “The reason is obvious—watching parents, children or siblings murdered in their sight burned indelible memories and emotions that could be erased only by a total transformation of the spirit. The fact that that transformation has taken place is the real story here.”
Some Still Not Reached with God’s Love
Mincaye insisted upon the title, Gentle Savage—Still Seeking the End of the Spear, according to translator Tim Paulson, “because it’s been stated in the outside world that the days of spearing among the Waorani are over, which is far from the truth. It’s still very much a way of life, especially for the Tagaeri and the Taromenane who remain isolated and intentionally out of reach by even the upriver Waorani. But even among the upriver Waorani, who have had significant contact with the outside world, spearing is far from over.”
Since the spearings of 1956, Christians have mostly told the story of the Waorani in ways that left few loose ends, few questions unanswered. These accounts have lacked full context of the era, according to Lucy S. R. Austen, review of historian Kathryn T. Long’s book, God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador. Austen cites the author as deeming the book, Through Gates of Splendor, by Elisabeth Elliot as having been written quickly and by a grieving widow who “was tasked with deciding how to present the story of her loss to the world.” Released in early 2019, God in the Rainforest refers to Elliot’s work as, “a brief book that created its own world.”
To tell any story is to leave parts untold, focusing on a core set of data. At the heart of Mincaye’s are the undeniable facts that he killed a man—and perhaps many men, as well as women and children—and that he knew forgiveness for his deeds, and that he became to Steve Saint a father.
To Steve and Ginny Saint and their descendants, he will ever be known as “Grandfather Mincaye”.