Virtual Exploration of Our World

The world beckons, but we can't always experience its wonders in person. How lucky, then, that we can explore without setting foot outside our doors...

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Motilone (Bari) Tribe of Colombia

For images of the Motilone/Bari tribespeople, visit

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 ( 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


  1. Kristina ThigpenJune 6, 2010 at 12:25 AM

    I am atheist. Xtians that know this feel I am an evil heathen and know (in their deluded mind) that I am going to hell. But Xtians aren't allowed to think that, they are supposed to "redeem me, save me". I cannot fathom the idea of having a "personal god", but if i could you would think I would would be happy, content. But xtians will never be happy and content until YOU believe what they believe.
    And missionaries should not try to convert someone who already has a belief in a different religion.

  2. Because of their contradictions, not all religions can be true. Isn't it possible that not all religions are equally valid?

  3. I highly recommend that you read Bruce Olson's book, "Bruchko", or its sequel. When you do, you'll see your thesis is completely incorrect---Bruce agrees that Westernization is a wrong goal or method of seeking to help indigenous groups. He "went Native" totally, and would only help them within the context of their culture, not devaluing their culture.
    He has served as their protector and succeeded in getting a huge land reservation declared legally for them,and refused to build an airstrip there, so they would not have to change their culture.

    Jesus, to them, is a Motilone. His teachings flowed naturally from their own legends. Who are you to arbitrarily say it ain't so? How can you blithely dismiss Bruce Olson's work of a lifetime for which he suffered so much before having any success? READ HIS BOOK!!!

  4. Anonymous Comment 1: As a secular person, I know that no religion is really needed for morality. I have never needed it myself, yet I am a very moral person. So I do not think one religion is more right than another. They all contain bits of common sense intrinsic to humanity, but they all also contain things I personally think of as "unnecessary and potentially harmful nonsense," i.e. exclusivity principles, archaic ideas about homosexuality or women, etc.

  5. Anonymous Comment 2: Please reread the blog for the evidence that the Motilone Bari indigenous culture does not, in fact, remain intact. I did not blame Bruce Olson entirely; merely listed him as one influence, namely the person primarily responsible for introducing Christianity to the tribe. Even if it is dressed up as the tribe's own legends, the introduction of Christianity constitutes Westernization. Pray tell, who is Bruce Olson to arbitrarily decide what does (an airstrip) and what does not (his own preaching or "His teachings" as you put it) constitute a threat to the native culture of the Motilone Bari? I contend that a Christian missionary cannot act as an effective tribal advocate because their own religious agenda will get in the way. If Olson was so keen on preserving the culture, he could have tried to do so without introducing his unnecessary god to the tribe.

    As for who I am to say Christianity "ain't so," I am a non-Christian who values logic and human rights over any set of rules as dictated by archaic mythology. If you really want to get into the specifics, I think Christianity "ain't so" because it is still used by unsavory people to persecute homosexuals (see my blog on Uganda) and to manipulate poor uneducated people to forgo life-saving condoms and birth control. I still think people should have the right to choose Christianity and that of course, there are good Christians out there, but IT IS WRONG to impose such a flawed morality on people who don't know any better.

  6. Found your blog with google search for "Socony Vacuum Magnolia Oil Co.'s Colpet Colombia".

    In 1953, I was born in Colombia. My father was a chemical engineer for Magnolia Oil.

    My husband and I live on the west side of Lake Whitney.

    My father had an incident with the Motilone that I'd like to share with you.

    My email address is:

  7. Christianity isn't about moralism. It's about pointing people to Jesus.

  8. I happened to stumble upon your blog when looking for information on the Motilone/Bari people. I believe what truly destroyed the Bari culture is people like your father who trespassed onto land that did not belong to them. Perhaps you should not misplace the blame by making others the scapegoat of your father's/fellow workers' shameful actions. I applaud the work of Bruce Olson as it secured a place for the Bari to continue to live in peace. A place that surely would have been destroyed by now had it not been for people like Olson. You need to reflect on who is/are the true perpetrator(s) in this case. Shame on your dad and others like him for taking over Native lands just like the first explorers did upon landing in the Americas-greedily claiming land that did not belong to them. Had the explorers and your dad/fellow oil workers truly had Christ, they would not have been such greedy people. I'm so tired of new age/non-believers/whatever you want to call yourselves thinking you are so intelligent and enlightened. You're just blind-not wise-and quite close minded in my opinion.

  9. Geez, all these Anonymous comments. Makes one wonder why people won't own up to what they believe, if they believe it so fervently?

    Anyway,February 5 Anonymous comment: I don't care what Christianity is about to you. It's not right to force it down other people's throats. Every religion that has ever existed has KNOWN with certainty that they were the right one. I'm sorry to shatter your delusions, but Jesus isn't the Way for the whole world, no matter what you were taught. I am happy and moral and productive and giving etc. without religion. So why should I need Jesus? (That is rhetorical, please don't answer).

    I don't have a problem with people believing in Jesus, Mohammed, the Easter Bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as long as they don't trick naive people into accepting their beliefs (brainwashing) or say, commit mass murder in the name of religion (Crusades, present-day fundamental Islamic terrorism). That's the sort of thing I have a problem with. Oh, and the whole false authority religion sets up that allows for grievous abuses, like that committed regularly by Catholic priests on little children.

    So, how about belief as a personal thing? Not needing to have authority and trying to spread your views to everyone with either direct or indirect force?

  10. Anonymous March 10:

    You write, "Had the explorers and your dad/fellow oil workers truly had Christ, they would not have been such greedy people." Then you write that people like my dad were "just like the first explorers did upon landing in the Americas-greedily claiming land that did not belong to them." Um, those 'first explorers' were CHRISTIAN, and used their Christianity to justify the dehumanization and genocide of the indigenous people. Please do get thee to an elementary-level history class, posthaste!

    Also,if you had actually taken the time to read the entire blog, you would have come across this description: “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.” Just to be clear, did you see the "American oil company Colpet" mentioned in there? Please try not to see only what you want to see. This blog was mainly about religion taking over indigenous culture, true, but I don't hide truths just because they don't tidily fit into my argument.

    Also, my father at twenty-something may well have been a greedy American capitalist with little regard for native people; I don't know as I wasn't born for a good thirty years. However, he has done what blindly religious people like you seem to refuse to do: grown as a person. Expanded his mind. Looked inside at his conscience for morality instead of to a false, exterior source. Now, he is a peace-loving man, an environmentally-conscious man, and a charitable man. So I will thank you not to try to shame him. Isn't there something in that book of yours about casting stones?

    I want to take a moment to point out that based on my OWN morality, I'm refraining from saying something very nasty to you right now because you are personally attacking my father, instead of keeping the argument at an academic level. And look, Ma, no Jesus!

    And as for Bruce Olson, I don't doubt that his intentions were pure. I just think he was gripped by a madness that grips many people and has since the beginning of time: religious fervor. And you are probably right that if he didn't come along and help destroy the Bari culture, someone else would have done. That doesn't excuse the fact that he played a part, just like all the other groups mentioned in the blog.

  11. Oh also, Anonymous March 10, my father was born during the Depression. He knew the fear of going hungry. He took care of not only his own immediate family, but his siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. I think that making enough money to ensure his wife and infant didn't go hungry was probably more on his mind in those days than taking over someone else's land. Like Bruce Olson, and like every human, my father is a flawed person, but he was doing a job for survival, not to intrude on a group's way of life out of some misguided ideology. Not that you even deserve to know that much about my dad.


    I am done responding to you. I've posted your comments thus far in the interest of fairness, but I've lost interest. You are frankly beginning to bore me with your uneducated nonsense. This blog was academic in nature; you are bringing it down to a ridiculously ignorant level. I might as well engage in the Evolution versus Creationism debate with you, or as I think of it, "No, the Flintstones isn't based on history."

    So if you are going to write anything pertaining to how someone desperately needs Christ or Jesus or the Tooth Fairy, please don't waste your time anymore. I am only interested in intelligent discussion, and you lot just ain't bringin' it. Have a nice, Jesus-filled life, and I will go on my way toward a future filled with books and science and philosophy and above all, reason.

    (DISCLAIMER: I practice a philosophy of mutual tolerance, as in, you respect my beliefs, and I'll respect yours. I do NOT, repeat NOT have a problem with all Christians. In fact, there are a couple in my life that you less-enlightened people could learn from. They take the whole "love" message, leave out the "judgment" part, and generally approach life with a more open mind. Oh and they don't BOTHER OTHER PEOPLE WHO DON'T AGREE WITH THEM.)

  13. Was interesting to hear about the pre-60's history of Motilone/Bari people and the 'outside world'. There really seems a general lack of info on the intertubes about these fascinating people, so I enjoyed reading your dad's story.

    1. I know this reply is late in coming, but I haven't kept up with this blog in a few years. Thank you for your comment.

  14. Thank you for posting your dad's personal stories from Colombia and the Motilone people. I'm doing research on them and came across your blog. I read the Bruce Olsen story "Bruchko". I'm trying to find additional sources regarding his story. Do you know of any other books on the Motilone / Bari people and their history?

    1. Hi, and thanks for your interest in my dad's story. Unfortunately, I don't know of any other books on the subject as I haven't done any research of any kind for a few years. Good luck though.