For images of the Motilone/Bari tribespeople, visit http://www.bruceolson.com/english/english.htm.
At my request, my father wrote down a story which I heard many times growing up. It involves a tribe called the “Motilone,” officially the “Bari,” who lived in the Colombian jungle. What follows are my father’s words, then my own research and opinions about what happened to the Motilone/Bari.
“In 1958 I was working as a petroleum engineer for Colombian Petroleum Company in northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela. We were drilling exploratory wells in a rugged, mountainous area. This was a wild place with only scattered groups of native inhabitants called the Motilones who had not yet been introduced to civilization and who were aggressive toward the oil company people who they undoubtedly considered invaders of their territory. They were seldom seen and then only in fleeting glances. These people were truly wild and uncivilized but had a great deal of fear of the ‘invaders.’ Previous attempts to make contact by Catholic priests had only resulted in the disappearance of the priests.
Our base camp consisted of a bunk house, and a kitchen and dining room. A surrounding area had been cleared of the jungle all the way down to a small fast-running river that was called Rio de Oro. The other side of the river was in Venezuela and the jungle extended all the way to the river bank. The vegetation was so thick that you could not see even one foot into the growth.
One morning when things were a little slow (as often was the case), I decided to try my hand at fishing in the river. In a short while I had caught a large stringer of fish of various descriptions. I took the fish back to the kitchen and gave them to the 'boss' cook. He was very excited and decided to go down to the river to try to catch some more. I was sitting in the bunk house game room about 30 minutes later when I heard someone screaming down by the river. When I got to his location, the cook was unable to move as he had a Motilone arrow through one thigh and another through the muscle in his neck.
Although the Motilones are very small people, they have large bows and very long arrows of almost six feet. It was urgent that we get this man to the main camp some sixty miles down a mountain road, but he would not have survived the jostling in a pickup with the long arrows protruding from him. With much discomfort on his part we were able to cut the ends of the arrows off with a hacksaw. We did not attempt to remove the arrow stubs as we were afraid of too much bleeding.
The trip to the main camp was uneventful and the injured party was delivered to the dispensary, where his wounds were treated. After a couple of weeks he was advised that he could return to his job at Rio de Oro camp. His reply was an emphatic ‘no me voy!’”
My father's story is significant because it occurred a few years before the tribe he talks about became officially “civilized.” The company for which my dad worked, Colpet or the Colombian Petroleum Company, played a large part in the destruction of the native Bari culture. Dad says that before his company arrived, there were no roads in that part of Colombia, and this served to preserve the indigenous culture. Once a road was laid by Colpet, poor Colombians from the villages began to squat in the jungle alongside it, and thus the contact between civilization and indigenous people began.
Soon there followed attempts at conversion by Christian missionaries. My father told me a particularly grim story about how some priests went into the jungle with machetes to look for the Motilones, only to have their own weapons used on them by the tribesmen. However, an American Christian missionary named Bruce Olson finally made successful contact with the tribe. Like the cook from my dad’s camp, Olson was shot in the leg with a Motilone arrow upon entering their territory. Olson would eventually be successful in his attempt to convert the tribe to Christianity and to modernize it. According to Delores E. Topliff of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle Online, “Forty-six years later, those tribes are almost entirely Christian and hold positions in Colombia’s government, assist other tribes with representation throughout South America, address the United Nations, and travel the world.” Another website (joshuaproject.net) claims that 70% of the tribe is now Christian.
Is the assimilation of indigenous cultures into more dominant cultures necessarily ideal? On the subject of religious conversion, I can attest that as a non-traditionally-religious person, I have always been extremely offended when people have approached me with the assumption that their own beliefs are superior to my own. At least I, being aware that there are multitudinous religions (and non-religious people) in the world, can remain confident that my own beliefs are just as valid as anyone else’s. Members of indigenous tribes, on the other hand, haven’t been exposed to the wider world and don’t have an inkling that there are many belief systems. They also don’t have any real hope of maintaining their own belief system once tenacious missionaries have them in their sites. If natives are likely to attribute any healing which results from a Western missionary’s medicine or any effect of Western technology to supernatural powers, they will be more easily convinced to accept the missionary’s religion. Is it ethical for one group of people be allowed to use modern medicine and technology to bring another group around to their way of thinking?
According to a Wikipedia article, a man named Robert Jaulin observed the destruction of the Bari culture by various outsiders, a phenomenon which he called “ethnocide.” He wrote a book titled La paix blanche : introduction à l’ethnocide ("White Peace: Introduction to Ethnocide") after witnessing the “ethnocide-in-motion suffered by the Bari… in the second half of the sixties …multiple vectors of ethnocide in place (the Catholic Church and other Christian confessions, the Venezuelan and the Colombian armies, the American oil company Colpet, and all the ‘little colonists’ as Jaulin calls them) converged to the relentless disavowal and destruction of Bari’s culture and society.” According to the same article, Jaulin’s book concerns “Western Civilization's tendency to disacknowledge, lower and destroy other cultural worlds as it comes in touch with them, while extending its own domain, bringing the focus of the discussion back from the frontiers of Western civilization to its core and its history.” (A side note/disclaimer: I recognize that Wikipedia is not considered a “reliable” source. The primary sources for the information in this paragraph are in French and are not translated into English, but I wanted to include it anyway, because I thought it so aptly described what happened to the Motilone tribe).
Many people hold the belief that their “civilized” way of life is inherently superior to a “primitive” one, and that it is inherently good to spread their culture to indigenous groups. I have often wondered at this human compulsion to convert or change other people to be more like ourselves. This phenomenon is seen throughout history; countless cultures have been overrun by more dominant cultures. Who is to say which culture is preferable – surely it is subjective? If we in the West are truly enlightened, shouldn’t we value all cultures and prioritize the ability of cultures to maintain their own identities?
My father told me that one day he and a friend took a dog and a shotgun and trailed the Motilone, driven by the thought of retribution for all the giant arrows they suffered while working on the rig. At the foot of a bluff, they saw a single big, round house, which the entire tribe inhabited, and the remnants of a fire with a monkey skeleton nearby. There were no people to be seen. Upon nearing the Motilone camp, the dog’s hair bristled and he turned and ran home, yelping all the way. Dad and his friend tripped over each other trying to follow the dog. Unlike my dad, other outsiders eventually decided to stick around. So it was that my father got a rare glimpse of an indigenous culture immediately before its decimation by civilization.
Personal recollection of Douglas Z. Gayle