Victims and Martyrs: Converging Histories of Violence in Amazonian Anthropology and U.S. Cinema



Since the 1950s, indigenous Waorani people of Amazonian Ecuador have had a prominent place in the evangelical imagination in the United States and Europe because of their reputation for violence. Their symbolic status as “wild” Indians in popular imagination reached its peak in 1956, when five U.S. missionaries were killed during an attempt to convert the Waorani to Christianity. With the opening of a U.S.-produced film in January 2006 about the history of Waorani spear killing, entitled End of the Spear, Waorani violence has become part of a truly global imagination. In juxtaposing the film's Christian-inspired narrative with Waorani oral histories of violence, this article explores how indigenous ideas about predation and victimhood are related to the trope of martyrdom that has become prominent in Christian representations of the Waorani since the 1950s. It suggests that visual media such as popular film hold the potential to recontextualize ethnographic representations and allow us to rethink the ways in which Amazonian cosmologies are related to sociopolitical processes that transcend the temporal and spatial boundaries of ethnographic fieldwork. More generally, the article argues that new anthropological knowledge can be produced through the combination of fieldwork and attention to less conventional sources, such as historical missionary narratives and popular cinema.