Story and photos by E.J.Brunton
After we chatted with them a few moments, with Moi interpreting from Spanish to Huaorani and back, an elder told us something about the origins of the tribe. “The others call us Aucas” he said. “This means savages in jungle Quichua. Our language, Huaorani, is only spoken by the 1,500 remaining tribes’ people”. I had read that it is unrelated to any other language on earth.
Moi, like the rest of the tribe, spoke in a quiet voice barely audible to our city ears but useful when hunting in the jungle. I strained to hear as he recounted how the oil companies had built roads in the jungle and settlers (colonistas) had moved in. As a result of the these interlopers he said “We are starving because the animals are moving farther away. They dynamite the rivers and kill too many fish they can’t even eat. They slash and burn the jungle for their crops and for grazing their cattle. What they don’t scare, kill or burn, they pollute. Some of our men are going to work for them to feed their families. That is why I am working with an ecotourism company to find another way to preserve our environment and our way of life.”
I had heard from another friend that the eternal flames of the oil wells attracted billions of moths and their singed hulls were mounded 6 feet high around each flame. The effect this had on the night birds is as yet unknown. Tiny Ecuador was, at that time, home to 33% of all the known species of birds in the world.
I saw for myself that many rivers had a black oily scum at the edges. The people were dying of cancers heretofore unheard of. The Shiripuno where we were visiting was still pristine, but for how long?
This experiment we were involved in hoped to prove that the Huaorani and other tribes could make a decent living by sharing their home with eco tourists without contributing to their own destruction. Their harmony with and deep respect for all forms of life is exemplary.
As we walked through the jungle Moi pointed out various plants to us. As the son of the Shaman he had a vast knowledge and would be next in line for the throne.
The Shaman fills a vital role in the life of a tribe. He (and sometimes she) is their religious and secular leader as well as their doctor. They look to him for their very existence. By the aid of certain plants such as the hallucinogenic Huando (Datura or Angel’s Trumpet) he communes with the spirits of the animals and plants and advises the tribe what animals to hunt, where and when. He performs healing rituals to drive out the spirits that cause disease but his.her arts are no match for the measles and sexually transmitted diseases brought by the white man in the guise of missionaries, rubber workers, oil workers and colonists.
Moi pointed at various plants and trees as we walked. “This one is the shampoo tree. We use the sap from its bark to wash our hair.” Pulling off a spiny brown pod from another plant he added “And this we use as a comb.”
Stopping at a small bush he pulled a twig off and peeled back the bark. There were dozens of small black ants scurrying for cover. He caught a few, squished them with his brown fingers and handed them to me saying, “Taste these.” I popped them into my mouth, some still kicking and squirming. They were just like scratchy lemons!
“Don’t go near these ones,” he pointed at the 3 inch black Conga ants marching over a rotting log. “They have a fierce bite that will make you feel like you are on fire.”
Other ants were busily at work harvesting tiny bites of leaf. They carried them umbrella-like over their shiny black heads and marched in a wavering line back to their nest. I knew that they used the leaves as a mulch in which to grow miniscule fungi which they dined on. The intelligence and diversity of ants has always been fascinating to me. I was thrilled to be up close and personal with creatures I had only read about.
Iridescent blue Morpho butterflies, the size of bread and butter plates, floated lazily by. Others had transparent wings and Moi patiently pointed those out to us. “There, No, there, right in front of you”. He would say as we peered and peered in vain. Flocks of parrots clattered overhead. Monkeys were heard but not seen. Toucans clacked their oversized bills. Red and yellow Heliconium flowers hung upside down forming handy watering troughs for the birds and insects. Tiny frog orchestras were tuning up. My senses were overloaded.
Continued in part 3 of 4