Lessons about Tribal Missions from the book, The Spirit of the Rainforest

Today, we conclude our series on The Spirit of the Rainforest by looking at how one might communicate the gospel message with the Yanomamo or similar tribal cultures. I do not claim to be an evangelist or a missionary. These are merely a few thoughts that came to me as I read the book and seemed to stand out. They are concepts that other missionaries have tried or were shown to work in the book.

Finally, we conclude the entire series by recalling what we learned and what stood out. For anyone thinking about tribal missions, I highly suggest reading Spirit of the Rainforest. It will provide an eye opening look at what missionaries have experienced or are going through. It is a brutally honest book that caused heartfelt pain and emotion in my own life.

As I read this book right after the birth of my daughter, I was struck by the brutal reality of what some people endure and go through. Thinking about the treatment of women, babies, and children, there were many times this book was a tough read. But, the reader is not left with just stories of bad things happening to people. The reader is able to see how the grace, mercy, and light of God can penetrate the darkest of places. There is hope. While it may not be now or any time soon, for the Christian, there is an eternal hope that far outweighs the pain and sorrow of this fallen world.


 

Communicating the Concepts of the Spirit World, Humanity, and Sin to the Yanomamo

The Yanomamo understand that there are some spirits that are “good” and some that are “evil.” They even recognize a hierarchy to the spirit world in describing the great spirit or the spirit that made other spirits. In communicating the concepts of the spirit world, I would establish a common ground that I also believe in the spirit world and that there are definitely “good” and “evil” spirits. These spirits can cause them to do good and know more about peace, love, respect, and doing good; or they can cause them to continue to do evil and live in a cycle of revenge, fear, and guilt. At this point, Ephesians 6:12 is helpful in talking about evil spirits and struggles, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” These evil spirits lie to the Yanomamo and trick them into believing half-truths that cause so much pain and misery. They deceive the Yanomamo and cause them to be afraid of Yai Pada, who is the only spirit that truly loves them, can help them and is not their enemy. Unlike the evil spirits who many times seem ineffective in healing or finding food, Yai Pada cares and provides for their needs. Even these evil spirits recognize that there is nothing they can do against the great spirit.[1] The evil spirits trick them into thinking the Yanomamo rule them, but it is actually the evil spirits that rule the Yanomamo.

The Yanomamo culture is one of revenge and bravado, but even those times when innocent people are killed, many warriors experienced guilt and were troubled with what they had done. They would not tell anyone out of fear of being labeled a coward, but inside they knew that the killing was wrong. This knowledge of wrong points to an awareness of good and evil and shows the depravity of humans as we are all inherently evil. The Yanomamo typically let the men eat first and then whatever was leftover would be for the women and children. Following the ways of Yai Pada, all of the villagers are seen as wanting to take care of and help each other to ensure everyone’s needs are met. Yai Pada is able to change the Yanomamo culture where once children were the last to eat, now they are first. Yai Pada can change the hardest warrior’s heart who has done much killing, hurt, and pain into treating others with love, helping others, and being able to sleep again without the weight of guilt.[2]

This killing, raping, and cycle of revenge is all part of the lies these evil spirits have told them. It leads to a discussion on sin and how the original humans did not obey the great spirit Yai Pada. In the beginning, Yai Pada created a perfect world that was very good.  He created humans in His own image and likeness. There was peace and rest as these first humans enjoyed fellowship with Yai Pada. But an evil spirit deceived these humans causing them to disobey Yai Pada because they were prideful and wanted to be just like Him. Every child born to these humans were born with this curse of disobedience and pride called sin. This sin nature is what causes all humans to do bad and be separated from God. Every time the Yanomamo hear about Yai Pada, the evil spirits get extremely uncomfortable inside the Yanomamo and do not want them to listen to these stories. These evil spirits know they sinned and are trying to get the Yanomamo to also follow their sinful ways, instead of the good and loving ways of Yai Pada that lead to eternal life.

It is important to communicate to the Yanomamo how Yai Pada changes lives. There are many Yanomamo that are miserable, angry, and restless; but, Yai Pada offers a way out. With Yai Pada there is no longer a reason to be scared because He will give peace, protection, and remove fear. In much the same way that Yai Pada protected Jungleman and said Jungleman belongs to Him, Yai Pada does the same for all Yanomamo. Once the Yanomamo believes, they enter a relationship with Yai Pada as their eternal Father and are adopted into His family. In fact, Yai Pada offers a way to every Yanomamo to get rid of that guilt, fear, and shame. As Shoefoot describes, Yai Pada became a Yanomamo himself. He came as a baby, grew up, and showed a completely different way to live. Even though he knew he would be killed, he did it anyway. His death was a death for all Yanomamo’s.[3] “Because he was Yai Pada, he was able to come back from the dead. That is how he cut the trail to where he lives.”[4] He was never unfriendly to the Yanomamo, but is the enemy of the evil spirits from Omawa. The evil spirit Omawa deceived them into this life of fear, killing, and pain to keep them from a life of peace, happiness, and love. Yai Pada is the friend of Yanomamo that put their desires and trust in him. Yai Pada offers the greatest sense of safety and protection, more than the Yanomamo has ever known.

The Yanomamo understand the practice of putting the bow and arrows on a tree after they are done with unokai. The tree takes the killing tools and makes their hands clean so the Yanomamo’s can touch themselves again.[5] That is what Yai Pada’s death did. It changed the Yanomamo’s from being his enemies to making them his friends so they can follow his trail. Just as Yai Pada took the sins of the Yanomamo and forgave them, so too can a Yanomamo now be saved from the fire pit and forgive others because of Yai Pada’s gift.

Conclusion

Spirit of the Rainforest provides readers with real life examples and stories of spiritual warfare that is oftentimes overlooked or not thought about in American culture. Honey provides a great reminder for all of believers that our mission field is all around us; it shows how Christ’s love and power can make a difference not only in a person, but in a village and an entire community. The change in Shoefoot led to a change in a village and eventually the surrounding area. A simple but profound change of rebuking the old ways for following Christ with all our hearts can make us stand apart to live for God’s glory and be examples of Christ. Spirit of the Rainforest challenges Christians to be examples and obedient to God no matter where we are at.


[1] Ibid, 119.

[2] Ibid, 230.

[3] Ibid, 159.

[4] Ibid, 160.

[5] Ibid.

Cross Cultural Review: Spirit of the Rainforest

Continuing our series by looking at the book, “The Spirit of the Rainforest.” This post will take a brief look at the aspects of the tribal Yanomamo culture that is not necessarily better or worse than those in the West, but is something that Americans can relate to with that culture.


Neutral Aspects

The Yanomamo tribes and American’s view the spirits or God as a tool used to get their way, envisioning a “genie” to grant their wishes. Both cultures experience Satan’s lies that God does not exist or is an enemy as he masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:4). Americans struggle with many negative aspects found in the Yanomamo culture like vengeance, murder, and mistreatment of minorities. While the Yanomamo are much more aware of the spirit world including the good and bad spirits, a hierarchy to the spirits, and even inquiring of the spirits, the spirit world of the American culture has deceived many to move away from spiritual matters including to believe there is no God. Shoefoot even identified many signs and symbols of the spirit world while visiting America.[1]

Instead, many Americans are worshipping the counterfeit gods of money, sex, fame, and success without ever realizing what they are doing. Despite the differences between environment and culture, both suffer with sin and desiring more material possessions. Yanomamo men are more concerned about displaying courage and bravado[2], while in much the same way, Americans fall into the trap of displaying a false sense of success. Christians, like those of Honey, are often tempted to follow the surrounding culture and give in to its temptations. But as Christians, we are asked to stand apart and stand up for what is right, true, obedient, and to be faithful to God.

[1] Ibid, 251.

[2] Ibid, 44, 59.

The harmful Yanomamo culture as portrayed in Spirit of the Rainforest

Today, we will continue the series of “Spirit of the Rainforest” by looking at the negative aspects of this culture from an outsiders perspective. This is a commentary on the appearance of a culture that was portrayed in the book.


 

Negative Aspects

A major negative aspect of the Yanomamo culture is a degrading and disrespectful view of women. They are often raped and captured as part of village raids. If they try to escape and leave their husbands they are maimed or killed. Women are promised to whoever presents himself as a good son-in-law by hunting meat and serving the parents, regardless of a woman’s desire and age. The men assert that the women are only here for the men, not the men for the women.[1] The men seem only to care about sex and when the woman is ready for sex (meaning of age).[2] This is further illustrated in the story of Longfoot and Yoshicami when she was sick, he left her because he could not “get any more sex out of her.”[3] However, many of the wars that occur in the book happen over a dispute over a woman, including the war between Honey and Mouth.

Another negative aspect is the cycle of vengeance. It is taught from an early age and continues throughout one’s life as long as that may be. If a village kills a relative, the relative and the rest of their village is to raid the killer’s village to kill them as well as others. This often led to fear of attack and ambush, eventually causing villages to starve. While Honey turned from this Yanomamo culture, they still faced that struggle of seeking revenge when they were wronged. But, God changed their lives and helped them understand what it means to live a life that honors Him valuing peace, love, and respect for others including women over vengeance and war. Their loyalty to God surpasses their loyalty to others and even one’s appearance when they appeared as cowards.

[1] Ibid, 102.

[2] Ibid, 102, 157.

[3] Ibid, 189.

Cross Cultural Review of Spirit of the Rainforest

Today, we continue our Spirit of the Rainforest book review series by examining what are some of the positive aspects of the Yanomamo culture. While they are in a completely different place and have a completely different set of rules, are there aspects of their society that they do better than we do? Is there something we can learn from them? The next post will look at some of the negative aspects of that type of culture.

Positive Aspects

A major positive aspect of the Yanomamo culture is a strong sense of loyalty and community. The Yanomamo are so loyal that any offense to one is an offense to all. This loyalty is tested as those who want to live in Honey often have to give up their families in order to live in the Honey culture of peace and love. The Yanomamo’s are also very generous, even saying being stingy is deserving of the fire pit.[1] Compared to the nabas who never shared, the Yanomamo’s provide a model of a generous community helping out, particularly in the story of Yoshicami and Honey village.[2]

A major difference between the Yanomamo worldview and the secular American worldview is that the spiritual world is intimately tied to the physical world far more for the Yanomamo. The spirit world is more important to the Yanomamo than many Americans, as Americans separates these two worlds much more. Yanomamo generally seek out healing, advice or help from the spirits first, whereas Americans will typically turn to a medicine, science, or their own efforts first, then will turn to spirituality as a last resort. In addition, the Yanomamo display a greater obedience to their spirits leading, even prompting Jungleman to say, “When you have spirits as wonderful as mine are, you would never think of ignoring their advice.”[3] My culture tends to wrestle God for control, oftentimes not submitting to His leading.

[1] Ibid, 96.

[2] Ibid, 190.

[3] Ibid, 42.

Spirit of the Rainforest: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Culture

This post will finish the summary of Spirit of the Rainforest by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the book. We will also introduce the next part of this book review by looking at the Yanomamo culture and my own Western culture. The next post will give an expanded look at the positives of their culture and after that, the weaknesses of their culture compared to the West.


 

The strength of this book is the personal and intimate account of an actual Yanomamo shaman. Jungleman describes the Yanomamo life in graphic detail and gives the reader reasoning to understand their culture and lifestyle. Spirit of the Rainforest shows how God can truly make a difference in a community. The book beautifully shows a village of new believers struggling between their old traditions and new beliefs. It describes how they become different and standout from other villages by treating women and children appropriately and by not seeking revenge.

The weakness of this book is primarily with the verifiability of the stories. It seems that Ritchie did all he could to verify the stories and research, but many anthropologists seem to differ with him due to the negative impact and experiences described in the book. Also, since Jungleman was not physically present for every account or event described, the accuracy of the stories is questionable: information could have been missing or altered through second hand accounts. Ritchie however does state repeatedly that the events are true and that “truth is stranger than fiction.”[1]


Compare and Contrast Cultures

Spirit of the Rainforest provides the reader with a glimpse into a different culture, a different way of life, and the impact of true Christianity. The heavy reliance on the spiritual world is more neutral for the Yanomamo’s when compared to an American worldview. The Yanomamo’s loyalty and community is a positive aspect compared to an American society, while the revenge mentality and poor view of women is a negative in comparison.


[1] Mark Andrew Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Island lake Press, 2000), 8, 245-48.

Spirit of the Rainforest: A Summary

Continuing the series on “The Spirit of the Rainforest” that was introduced in the previous post, this post will give a brief summary about the book. Hopefully this summary will provide a foundation for what will be discussed in future posts as the Yanomamo culture is compared and contrasted to our own culture. Following that will be a post on an outsiders look on how to share the gospel with a community like this

This post will take us through the book from the opening raid, the barbaric results, and the consequential fear to new way of peace, love, and forgiveness that is introduced. As one village becomes an example and a light for others, Spirit of the Rainforestprovides a case study for tribal missions in a very difficult environment.


Summary of Spirit of the Rainforest

Told from the perspective of a shaman named Jungleman, Spirit of the Rainforest provides the reader with a glimpse into the life of a shaman, their dependence on the spirits of the jungle, and the role of a shaman in the village. Jungleman grew from a boy scared of these spirit encounters to one of the most powerful Yanomamo shamans. Eventually, he began to teach other shamans how to use the spirits for various purposes including healing, cursing, and sexual fantasies. Jungleman’s account of the Yanomamo tribe provides readers unprecedented access to a vastly different culture as he describes the Yanomamo customs that includes their reasons for fighting, wars, treatment of women and children, the effect of the nabas (term for foreigners), and the role of spirits.

The book begins by describing a conflict between two villages, Honey and Mouth that epitomizes the Yanomamo struggle between the old culture (Mouth) with the new culture (Honey) that is being introduced by some of the nabas. The old culture includes revenge, fighting, guilt and fear, is contrasted with this new way of life that is peace, love and respect. Honey has thrown away the old Yanomamo customs and spirits and has started following the great spirit Yai Pada’s new ways. Honey flourishes under the new ways and soon becomes the envy of the other villages that are experiencing difficulties.

The Yanomamo culture of vengeance and loyalty is introduced early on through the raid on Potato Village. This one story sums up the Yanomamo tradition. The extent of the raid can vary from two opposing warriors clubbing each other to more serious raids where every male is killed and the women are assaulted, raped, and carried off to become wives of the raiding village. Children in the raided village are often killed, or occasionally captured to become slaves. Many village raids were spurred on by the killing of a relative that was a result of a revenge killing; this became an endless cycle of raids and fighting that sparked more revenge. The assaults on the women and children were to stop future generations from exacting revenge on that tribe. Often this tradition would fail as different tribes retaliate for those relatives showing familial loyalty by raiding the attacking village.

The Yanomamo’s discovered that the great spirit they thought was evil and would kill their children was actually a good spirit named Yai Pada. Jungleman’s apprentice Shoefoot, threw away his spirits to follow Yai Pada, and soon Shoefoot and his village Honey, begin changing. Honey becomes the envy of the Yanomamo’s as they flourish under this new culture of peace, love, and respect. Every shaman that visits this village is met with the same response from their spirits pleading not to be thrown away. As the story concludes, many Yanomamo villages tired of dying and spiritual ineffectiveness, rebuke the old ways to follow Yai Pada.

Spirit of the Rainforest: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Tribal Missions

Over the next few post, we will be looking at and reviewing the book, “Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story” by Mark Ritchie. This book tells the story of the Yanomamo tribe located in the Amazon Rainforest of South America. It tells the story of how this tribe has evolved over the last 30-40 years and that outsiders have had on them.  

Spirit of the Rainforest offers a glimpse into how tribal missions have played out for this one particular tribe. The book recounts some of the most brutal and barbaric stories of this culture. A group of individuals that was overwhelmed with the evils of this world. This included gang-rapes, dismemberment’s, torture, violent killing of babies, and many more atrocities. The book is at times hard to read because of these violent stories and how these people treat others. It is also a reminder of the effect evilness and demons can have on a culture. Throughout the book, there are stories of the shamans interacting with these spirits. It also shows how much these evil spirits try to keep the shaman’s and tribe away from healing power of God. They will go to great lengths to cloud the people’s mind. As one tribe flourishes because Christianity is introduced and practiced, their light and love and peace become infectous to the other tribes. However, as more of the tribes become converted, a sociological war breaks out between the missionaries and anthropologists. The missionaries try to help the tribes, while the anthropologists try to convince the Yanomamo people to stay true to their culture and tradition. It is amazing to hear how the people want to change and see the benefits of moving to the Christian faith.

While many of the the tribes seek out their own missionary, there are a number of stories of bad and fake missionaries that are taking advantage of the unsuspecting tribes. While these missionaries are supposed to be there to help and evangelize, they instead offer a horrible example. At times, they do just as many horrible atrocities to these people including taking advantage of them, raping men, women, and children, taking pornographic photos, and abusing them. The way some of these “missionaries” treated the tribes people, ruined much of the amazing work the God had done through these wonderful missionaries. It was so bad, that some of the tribes wanted nothing to do with these outsiders because of the pain that was associated with them.

As will be shown over the next few posts, it will be shown how God loves all people and how one spark can cause an amazing reaction. This one little spark caused such a stir that so many people left everything to follow this new way that brought peace to a people that never knew it. It removed fear and anger, and turned a culture of revenge into a community of forgiveness. This is a reminder of the spiritual warfare that we all face everyday, and while this book portrays how demons work, it also offers a glimpse into how God will use angels even to protect his people. This book will show many believers some of the best and worst tactics to use for evangelism, not only in tribal missions but in normal missional daily living.

The background and plot of the story will be given in the next post, but below is a brief introduction to the book and what to expect. This paper was meant to be short so many of the details were left out, but hopefully it will show a good summary level of the book and its application. For any interested, the book can be found here: Spirit of the Rainforest


 

Spirit of the Rainforest: A Critical Review

Spirit of the Rainforest, tells the story of the Yanomamo tribe and  lifestyle through the perspective of a powerful shaman named “Jungleman” over a 30 year time span. The book provides a glimpse into the Yanomamo culture that shows their reliance and interaction with various spirits, a revenge mentality, and views regarding women and children. Spirit of the Rainforest also details the positive and negative encounters and impacts of anthropologists and Christian missionaries on the Yanomamo villages. This review will provide a summary of Spirit of the Rainforest, compare the Yanomamo worldview and culture with my own, and finally describe how this author would communicate the concepts of the spirit world, humanity, and sin to the Yanomamo.