Health and the Huaorani

Huaorani Blowgdart Ecuador

Nestled at the heart of the thick and humid Amazon jungle in Ecuador, the Huaorani tribe lives a quiet and conflicted existence, walking a perilous tightrope between tradition and modernity. These cultural transitions manifest themselves in the everyday anachronisms of their surroundings, a Frisbee lying beside a blow dart quiver or a boy typing on a laptop as his mother weaves a basket, anachronisms that highlight the enormity of the changes that have taken place in mere decades. In the 1940’s, oil giant Shell Oil caught whiff of the 900 million barrels of crude oil beneath what is now Yasuní National Park and began extraction on Huaorani territory. The Huaorani, who were then an un-contacted people, killed several oil workers, forcing Shell to abandon their operations in the area. In 1955, five American missionaries ventured into Huaorani territory in an attempt to evangelize the indigenous peoples in what was known as “Operation Auca,” ‘auca’ being the Kichwa word for ‘savage.’ By 1956, all five had been killed. Peaceful contact would be made for the first time in the next decade, followed almost immediately by relocation efforts and new extraction attempts by Texaco, today the subject of a class action lawsuit by 30,000 Ecuadorians living in the Amazon rainforest.

Since contact, the presence of the oil industry in the remote eastern regions of the Ecuadorian rainforest has introduced an assortment of what the outside world would consider everyday objects to the Huaorani—a volleyball net, soccer jerseys, a boxy old television set. These items have slowly penetrated the peripheries of the “Intangible Zone” of Yasuní and found their way to the Huaorani villages, carried in the packs of oil workers, shoved in the suitcases of missionaries, or crammed into the cargo space of government-funded charter planes. Yet the Huaorani, having been contacted so recently, are still in the process of adapting to these new circumstances; they are a time capsule, offering insights into the lifestyles of ancient cultures and the experiences of indigenous peoples around the world as they make first contact with the rest of the globe. Perhaps no aspect of Huaorani culture has been as affected by this transition as health care; a 2012 YIRA trip to Ecuador sought to investigate from an ethnographic perspective the experience of the Huaorani as they navigate this uncertain new globalized landscape.

Bameno, the largest Huaorani community, comprises just 98 villagers and 20 families. Most immediately apparent upon first encounter with the Huaorani is their stature; the Huaorani are very short by Western standards, their height belying a great strength often put to use scaling trees or catching crocodiles. There are many elders in the village, all of whom maintain active positions in their old age. The shaman, a man appearing to be in his late 70s, still hunts and walks miles at a time collecting ingredients for traditional medicines. While the Huaorani have been known to live into their 70s and 80s, their life expectancy is unknown. In fact, many members of the tribe do not know their exact age.

Physically, the Huaorani seem healthy by most appearances. The tribe practices several types of body modification in keeping with Huaorani standards of beauty. Many of the elders have gaping, loose earlobes, the effects of traditional gauging. Both men and women grow their thick, black hair long, and no one in the village shows signs of balding. Men and women, especially in the older generation, walk around in a state of semi-nudity, wearing neither shoes nor any kind of sun protection. As a result, their feet have taken on a splayed and malformed shape from constant exertion without the support of shoes, though the condition appears to have no effect on their ability to walk, or on their gait. Although tribesmen boast of their resistance to the smoldering heat of the equatorial sun, skin cancer has been an occasional problem. As for their diet, the Huaorani do not take prenatal or daily vitamins or consume any kind of dairy product. They live off of monkey meat, bird meat, fruit, fish, and the occasional government shipment of food

“There were only two diseases before the outsiders came,” said Penti, the chief of the Huaorani, “wounds and pain.” Today, cancers have grown more common, possibly the result of their natural water source, which shimmers on occasion with the rainbow sheen of oil residue left behind by Texaco. Despite their limited exposure to the outside world, the Huaorani believe themselves to be healthier than average Ecuadorians and associate most health problems they have with outsiders. Their wariness of outside contagions is a historically justified fear, given the outbreaks of smallpox and malaria that struck shortly after missionaries began to live alongside the tribe, diseases against which the Huaorani had no immunity. More generally, the Huaorani concept of disease revolves around the idea of nature as a net good, capable of producing cures, and outside forces as pathogenic. They believe their own exposure to processed and artificial foods has worsened their health, as has exposure to foreigners.

The shaman, the healer and the spiritual leader of the community, is venerated within the tribe. A shaman is selected by being healed by the previous shaman during his youth, and then receiving a vision (in the case of the current shaman, this was a panther) in a dream as an adult to inform him of his calling. The shaman is responsible for the practice of traditional medicine. The Huaorani have hundreds of uses for plants and animals, from an extract from boiled termites used as an antibacterial agent for infected wounds to curare employed as a poison for the tips of their darts. The shaman is responsible for this knowledge, and for the passage of these ancient recipes to the next generation. The shaman is by no means the sole provider of healthcare for the Huaorani, though he is consulted as the source of primary care. He has no role in birthing procedures, for example, which is an exclusively feminine responsibility, and he is also powerless in cases of serious injury, like the hunting accident that cost Penti three of his fingers. Despite a progressively more pluralistic health system and the emergence of new diseases since contact, the shaman continues to reprise his central role in Huaorani health care system..

In part, this is a product of Bameno’s isolation; reaching the village from the outside is by no means easy. From Coca, the gateway to the Amazon, the journey begins with a two hour drive on the Auca Road, to the edge of the Intangible Zone in Yasuni National Park, followed by nearly two days travel by motorized canoe on the winding Napo River before arriving at Bameno. The remote village, situated on the river, is 200 km away from the nearest road, allowing its inhabitants to remain in voluntary isolation. They still depend on their canoes for their everyday needs, and when a villager becomes seriously ill, transportation is a major barrier to care when the nearest hospital is back in Coca. Although Bameno is the site of an old airstrip, built by oil companies and later reclaimed by the indigenous peoples, the Huaorani have limited access to emergency transportation by air on short notice, though it is not uncommon for the occasional small airplane to deliver supplies or tourists with Huaorani clearance.

Penti has worked in recent years to establish an emergency fund that will hopefully provide his people with greater access to care by land and by air when needed. At the same time, the logistical difficulties of transporting the sick and injured are a product of conscious decisions that the Huaorani of Bameno have made. They have chosen to remain in Bameno even as other Huaorani tribes traded access to rivers for access to roads built by the oil companies, like the Auca Road. To those tribes, the roads represented opportunities for education, access to markets, and perhaps the inevitability of modernization. Although they have recognized the potential and the need for better healthcare through better access, the Huaorani of Bameno prefer their traditional canoes just as they prefer their ancestral territories.

The permeation of Western medicines into Huaorani territory has also been difficult owing to the remoteness of Bameno; allopathic medicines provisioned by the government reach some Huaorani, but rarely those in Bameno. Disappointed but not disheartened, the Huaorani procure medicines from Coca on their own to supplement their traditional medicines. Between traditional and modern medicines, the Huaorani of Bameno believe that they have covered all their bases and that they are, as a result, healthier even than outsiders. Others tribes have, since contact, welcomed the exploitation of natural resources by oil companies in exchange for money and medicine. While the government of Ecuador has taken steps to minimize the imbalance of power between multinationals and indigenous peoples, the cycle of dependence is difficult to break. Many Huaorani have embraced a new, and easier, way of life.

A day’s stay in Bameno as an outsider costs more than $100 USD, the cost of food, shelter, and cultural edification. Profits from the sale of blowguns, bags, and necklaces are communal, used whenever needed. At present, the Huaorani are saving up for a satellite radio for communication with the outside world in the event of an emergency. Other supplies bought using revenues from tourism include drugs from Coca, which the Huaorani pay for out of pocket. Penti is most interested in safeguarding the future of Bameno, and following contact, the Huaorani have had no choice but to adapt. In order to sustain their independence, they are forced somewhat contradictorily to open up to outsiders. They have many takers; there is no shortage of visitors captivated by the Huaorani’s rich history, their unique culture, and their unusual seat at the tipping point between tradition and modernity.

The narrative of the Huaorani is so interesting to outsiders precisely because it is one that is so filled with conflict, both physical and cultural. The Huaorani subjected many missionaries to the spear in the early years of contact, then oil workers in later years, and were in turn killed not only by the outsiders directly, but by diseases like malaria that the outsiders carried with them, according to Martin, Penti’s brother. Some violence persists to this day, with reports of loggers killing the indigenous, and of still-un-contacted tribes attacking trespassers in a desperate effort to maintain their lands. In the early years, culture shock killed many people, with the introduction of Western foods that weakened many of the elderly residents. Today, the Huaorani strike a balanced approach, allowing the gradual introduction of new technologies and even Western culture in moderation; in Huaorani schools, Spanish is taught alongside their own language and history.

Before we left via small airplane from the airstrip, we were asked to send some of our pictures to the Huaorani via email, which they could access every now and then while in Coca. This came as a surprise, coming from the same individuals that had days earlier led us through the jungle, wielding machetes and blowguns. The pictures included the shaman standing next to the airplane, a family of half-dressed elders next to children in T-shirts and jerseys. The clash between tradition and modernity displays itself in every aspect of the Huaorani existence. The story is now more complicated than ever, with government and businesses interests pulling at the Huaorani, and the Amazon itself, from all directions. As a result, the Huaorani are undergoing an unprecedented transition over which they have limited control. The Huaorani of Bameno, self-pronounced guardians of the rainforest, have protected their culture and their surroundings, and possibly in turn their health. All the same, the challenges that they face today are different from the challenges that they have had to face before. As international development continues, it will be increasingly important to weigh the benefits against the costs to those who are so easily overlooked. Should the Huaorani continue to be neglected by the rest of Ecuador, their health will be among the first indicators of their declining society.

Nearing outskirts of the Amazonian Rainforest, looking down on the vast canopy and the winding Napo River, the effects of urbanization and modernization begin to appear. Rivers become roads, rainforests become villages, villages become towns, and towns become cities. In the face of these developments, the Huaorani look towards an uncertain future. What will be the final state of the Huaorani? Can they continue to choose a middle road between our present and their past, or is modernization inevitable? Will they come to embrace change, and will they have a choice in the matter?

We find no answers.


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