By Ralph Kurtenbach, Special to ASSIST News Service
ECUADOR (ANS – September 19, 2018) — Watching from the opposite shore of the Curaray River, Dawä witnessed the fatal spearings of five young missionaries by six Waorani, including her husband, Kimo Yeti (also spelled Kemo or Quemo). In the aftermath of the 1956 attack in Ecuador’s rainforest —the plane’s canvas wings shredded, one victim face down, partially submerged in the river—also lay the body of missionary pilot Nate Saint.
A Tribal Grandmother
The announcement decades later of Dawä’s own death came from Saint’s son, Steve. His weblog entry affectionately remembers the Waorani woman as “Dawä, My Tribal Grandmother.” He said her July 15 death had resulted from complications of gall bladder surgery in a Puyo hospital, at the edge of Ecuador’s Amazon region.
Decades on, people take varied perspectives on the efforts by Saint’s father, along with Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian to contact the indigenous group then known as savages, or Aucas. However, at the heart of matter lies an undeniable—and to many unexplainable—fact: forgiveness of the killers by the missionaries’ surviving family members.
“The prayers of the widows themselves,” wrote Elisabeth Elliot in the 1957 book, Through Gates of Splendor, “are for the Aucas. We look forward to the day when these savages will join us in Christian praise.”
Early Life for Dawä
Dawä was born in about 1935. Her world carried a constant threat of attack or reprisals by other Waorani. At eight years old or so, she survived one such killing spree that left many of her immediate family dead. Kimo, who helped to carry out the raid, then took her as a child bride.
In the 1956 missionary killings, Dawä had hidden in the jungle, later relating her helplessness to end the massacre. Two years later a Waorani runaway, Dayömæ “Dayuma” Cænto, returned to the tribe. Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot accompanied her.
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.
Dawä was an early Waorani follower of Christianity—the first, according to Steve Saint, who wrote that she plied Dayuma for a careful explanation of “all she knew about Wængonguï (the creator) and the Good Trail [that] Itota (Jesus) had marked with His blood.” Other accounts have noted Dayuma’s conversion as the first.
Earlier, high levels of violence had made Waorani lives short and trauma-filled. Subsequent studies have since documented that pacification occurred as tribe members became Christians. Saint said that Dawä was a key figure in the Waorani story, yet her death would not be broadly mourned, as “not many people know who this very special woman was.”
Steve Saint coupled the missionary widows’ prayers for the Waorani have been accompanied by ministry efforts. After his aunt’s death, he accepted the tribe’s invitation for his family to live with them in Ecuador. He also developed an organization, Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center (I-TEC), to help the Waorani and other indigenous groups innovate ways of adapting to encroaching dominant cultures.
A Supernatural Dimension to the 1956 Killings
Dawä is survived by Kimo as well as the Waorani who respected her Christian influence. In addition, she leaves a legacy. Her detailed account of the 1956 event revealed a supernatural dimension.
Decades after the killings, one of the widows, Olive Fleming Liefeld, and her daughter, Holly, visited the Waorani in Ecuador. With interpretation by Rachel Saint—then with some three decades of living with the Waorani—Dawä told of strangers above the trees singing over the bodies on the beach. Kimo, sitting with Dawä, Rachel and their visitors, said he too had seen and heard the music.
Responding, Holly offered that the Waorani had made it up. But immediately, Rachel Saint discounted Holly’s conjecture, because “she had heard the Waorani tell stories for many years, and had verified their accuracy again and again,” wrote Liefeld.
Years later Steve Saint, writing in Christianity Today, said that Dawä’s account has been confirmed by three of the killers—Kimo, Mincaye and Dyuwi, although the latter “describes what he saw more like lights, moving around and shining, a sky full of jungle beetles similar to fireflies with a light that is brighter and doesn’t blink.” The experience drew Dawä to God when Dayuma spoke of Him.
According to Saint, Dawä “didn’t know what this kind of music was until she later heard records of Aunt Rachel’s and became familiar with the sound of a choir.”