Jewish World Review June 27, 2003 /27 Sivan, 5763

A lesson about
the Tribe

He risked life and limb to travel deep into the jungle to learn about the natives, instead they wound up spiritually awakening him.

By Ira Rifkin

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | In my early thirties, I went to South America in a futile attempt to escape from myself. Another relationship had ended, and I was lonely and withdrawn.

I thought that if I put myself in the middle of an unknown and dangerous environment I would be forced to connect with others, if only for my physical survival. And so I chose as my destination the rain forest of eastern Ecuador, home of the Huaorani people, a nomadic tribe I had read about in Life magazine as a boy in the '50s. The article told how the natives had killed several American missionaries who tried to make contact with them. If you're going to the extreme, I figured, why not go all the way?

Traditional Huaorani culture was extremely violent. It viewed all outsiders as a threat (as most actually were, in one way or another), and dealt with this by making the concept of "first strike" a tenet of society. Huaorani feuds would rage for decades, and they never forgot or forgave. Their neighbors called them Auca, a Quechua word that means, "savage." To get around, I managed to hook up with a missionary named Jim. He belonged to the same group as those who had been killed years before, but my impression was that he was really more anthropologist and linguist than Christian proselytizer.

By 1974, the year I showed up, few Huaorani still killed outsiders on sight, so it was relatively safe to accompany him as he visited Huaorani families in their temporary shelters hidden deep in the jungle. Just to be safe, however, Jim would alert them of our approach by shouting "whoop, whoop" -- an all-purpose Huaorani phrase signifying positive intentions -- as we walked through the forest toward a settlement. Surprise guests were a definite no-no in polite Huaorani society; unless you heard a return series of whoops, you did not approach.

One day Jim and I entered a clearing in which an extended family of a half-dozen or so men lived with their families. The women and children scurried to the rear of the thatch-roofed communal hut as the men, wearing an odd assortment of old bathing suits or leaf-and-bark genital coverings, approached us offering bowls of masato, a foul-smelling drink made from boiled and fermented manioc tubers.

They giggled and spoke nervously among themselves. One man touched my light brown hair. Another opened my hip pouch to examine a notebook and pen. Others fingered the stitching on my clothes, trying, I assumed, to figure out how it was done. I just stood there, my consciousness having been propelled into an altered state. I smiled broadly and allowed their curiosity free expression, as Jim had advised.

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Then the headman -- a squat fellow not more than 5 feet 6 inches -- asked me the sort of questions he put to all strangers, to determine whether they were friend or foe: Who were my relatives? Where did I live? Whom did I live with?

I thought it best to simplify my response. I said I lived by myself beyond the mountains and left out all details about a son living with an ex-wife, about family members as perplexed as the Huaorani chief about what I was up to. Jim translated my words, and as he did their smiles disappeared. Then the headman, his eyes locked with mine, spoke, and Jim again translated.

He said he was saddened to learn I lived alone. He wondered who hunted for me when I was sick or injured, who fought alongside me when I was attacked, what children would take care of me when I became old?

His genuine compassion touched me deeply. This "savage" knew something that I had missed about the importance of community, and hearing it unleashed my vulnerability. I started to cry, and the Huaorani continued to stand there, his gaze never wavering.

That moment in the jungle was a turning point in my life. It marked the beginning of a gradual shift in my thinking about my own tribe back home. My tribe was the Jews, a group that also tended to view outsiders with suspicion, also for good reason, but which I had dismissed as counter to the universalist view I then thought paramount for human progress. Until that encounter in the jungle, tribe to me meant tribal restraints and responsibilities. I had failed to recognize and appreciate the joys of family and community, or to acknowledge my deep need for the transcendent connection gained through living life committed to others and in embracing the ageless wisdom of Judaism's spiritual core.

In truth, family and community, not to mention religious observance, are too often still a struggle for me, and there are still times, so many years later, when I want to run off to another distant rain forest, figuratively and literally. But I don't. Instead, I live with my conflicts, and struggle to remain focused on my deeper needs -- and to remember that others harbor similar conflicts and needs.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the war on terrorism, Iraq and who knows what's next, the words of a Huaorani chieftain underscore even more for me what staying home is all about.

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Ira Rifkin is the author of "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval" (Skylight Paths). He lives in Annapolis, Md. To comment, please click here.

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© 2003, Ira Rifkin