Proselytism by the New Tribes sect among the Nukak hunter-gatherers

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Through the weapons of armies but also those of the gospel, the subjugation and annihilation of many American peoples advanced intensely during the European conquest. The consequences of this well-known combination of forms of domination are widely documented in their aspects of physical extermination and material dispossession, but the equally severe effects of indoctrination and manipulation of other spheres of indigenous life that was and is exercised today are not so easily discernible, causing a gradual but deeper transformation in actual community life.

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In this review, apart from traces present among the Nukak – the last nomadic hunter-gatherer people contacted in Colombia – I adhere to the hypothesis that systematic evangelization in the group not only points to profound changes in the system of thought and spirituality, but also figure decisively in the transformation of vital cultural practices in their traditional way of life as hunter-gatherers. These changes, in turn, transform social arrangements inherent in their economic structures, particularly strategies of occupation of the territory and ways of producing and consuming. We know the work of the religious proselytism of the Protestant sect of the New Tribes of permanent rapprochement began with the Nukak in the mid-1970s, amidst almost all of the bands of sectors of people calling themselves Wayari muno, located in the north of its traditional territory near the Guaviare River, Guaviare Department in the Colombian Amazon.

The missionaries who approached the first Nukak bands in places near the Guaviare River moved their mission in 1985 to Laguna Pabón II, an inaccessible and remote location from navigable rivers in the heart of their territory. From there, permanently and taking advantage of significant infrastructure and logistics (a landing strip, radio communications, regular provision of tools, food, etc.), they managed to consolidate a presence that, very soon, became essential to meet material needs and fulfill a fundamental role of assistance in the treatment of respiratory diseases that began to spread from the beginning of Nukak contact with coca colonization that, at the time, intensified on the borders of their territory.

From 1985 onwards, the missionaries guaranteed the supply of medicines and antibiotics in Laguna Pabón II to heal people with respiratory infections, and in a short time, the passing of bands and families through the Mission became frequent, with stays that facilitated the learning of language and culture by the missionaries– a communication tool that New Tribes used in the translation and adaptation of biblical passages and the teaching of a new faith to the Nukak who were easily assimilated because these contained elements of their own culture. In addition to this, they endeavored to consolidate dependence by imparting a narrative of fear according to which the Nukak bands should refrain from frequenting colonization areas because the community of coca settlers there and their “worldly” practices not only represented a threat to life, but they could also be trapped in situations such as the detention of people, labor exploitation, and practices and vices such as alcohol, drugs, and prostitution.

Despite this, for reasons not sufficiently understood, a group of 48 Nukak people undertook a journey, in 1998, that lasted for about 3 months, crossing villages and municipal seats of the department. Upon their return to Laguna Pabón, they shared their experience with other bands and apparently dispelled fears of losing their lives at the hands of settlers, despite having suffered some of the consequences pronounced by the missionaries.

From this moment on, many bands began frequent outings to populated sites along the Guaviare River, and as they became acquainted with the first features of “cahuene” (white) culture in the colonization areas, they suffered massive contagion of respiratory diseases that caused a significant demographic decline, bringing about the weakening of the bands and their social organization.

One of the practices that contributed to radically modifying the missions during the period from 1985 to 1995 among the Nukak bands passing through Laguna Pabón II (the Mission) was nomadic life. From this pole, they introduced the planting and management of permanent crops as a pillar in the model of land use and occupation because it was more functional for indoctrination. The indigenous people stopped at the Mission for variable periods of up to 15 days or more, during which they received attention at the medical dispensary that New Tribes provided to treat the sick, received goods and food in exchange for work for maintenance tasks of the facilities (houses, landing strip, crops), or they served as informants in language and cultural traditions to the missionaries. During these stays, they were also recipients of seeds and instructions on crop care, the construction of permanent houses, and were taught to avoid the health risks related to constantly traveling through the jungle.

At that time, the resource utilization system revolved around hunting, fishing, and gathering forest fruits, as well as the establishment of scattered crops for periodic production in extensive areas that marked milestones in seasonal journeys. This model entailed a particular social organization, with total autonomy in the leadership of the bands and sectors of territory, a system of relationships and alliance rules based on tradition, and a cosmogony capable of functionally articulating their conception of the natural and social order.

And although it impossible to specify the determinants of a change in the patterns of occupation of the territory of the Nukak groups, the abrupt change towards residence in permanent locations is evident, both among those who have freely chosen to concentrate in one place and make incursions into the jungle for food and raw materials in areas of the extensive traditional territory, as in the case of those groups that have suffered forced displacement for about 25 years and live in shelters on the outskirts of San José del Guaviare (Aguabonita).

In any case, for the entirety of the existing Nukak bands, a previous way of life of permanent movements through the territory seems to be a thing of the past, and in general, they express the need for support to build durable houses in the manner of farmers. Hence, some institutional programs and cooperation agencies promote small cultivation areas in settlement locations to provide basic food.

In this sense, it can be said that the New Tribes missionaries were pioneering agents who deliberated this change to sedentarism as a stage that favored and accelerated their indoctrination work from their early contact with the Nukak, and one of the consequences of this change towards the concentration of groups has been the amalgamation of leadership and, consequently, their indistinguishability and their weakening.

To gauge the magnitude of the impact of evangelical proselytism by the New Tribes Mission on the Nukak, we can also refer to an aspect not sufficiently accounted for when reviewing the religious aspect among other Amazonian communities. We must then differentiate between two types of missionary crusades. On the one hand, the indoctrination exercised by the Catholic Church and the other by Protestant sects such as the Summer Linguistic Institute (SLI) and the New Tribes.

The ancient conversion enterprise of the Catholic Church, economically and administratively powerful, with its parishes, priests, missionary nuns, schools, and boarding schools throughout the Amazonian territory, did not completely supplant the set of cosmogonic references of the culture of many of the peoples in which it intervened, nor did it dismantle social, ritual, and economic life entirely. An indication of this is that some of the young people educated in boarding schools who are back in their communities today are interested in validating, recovering from oblivion, weaving, and reconstructing with their language, the cosmogony from its fragments, supported by the persistence of the function of the “maloca” as a space for reaffirmation of the tradition with the help of older knowledge keepers who maintain the practice of traditional entheogens (plant medicines), encourage the performance of ceremonies, fiestas, rights and norms that feed and give cohesion to social life. 

On the contrary, communities, for example, that were evangelized by Sofía Muller, a missionary who single-handedly advanced the foundation of the “United Bible Church” among communities of the departments of Vaupés and Guainía—shows us that, in communities where traditional political leadership has passed onto the figure of pastors who permanently reinforce, through worship self-censorship and detachment from their traditional healing heritage to the use of ceremonial substances, to roles of specialists in the repetition of festivals, rituals or the teaching of tradition based on oral history, changes that, not infrequently, drive these groups to the confinement and separation of the spheres of the political and social life of other communities and those of the State itself, marking a singular path for their individual and collective life, leaving them at the mercy of its control.

In the case of the Nukak, following the important conversion gains achieved by the SIL and Sofía Muller- thanks also to the translation of biblical texts into native languages, the sect of the New Tribes perseveres in a strategy even more penetrating and invasive than the one used by the Catholic Church. They establish their permanent presence in the heart of the bands and approach with religious fundamentalism and an “exemplary” life, day by day, the work of crumbling the pillars of society and the culture of the hunter-gatherers.

Jorge Restrepo G.

Jorge Restrepo G. is an anthropologist with a master's degree in Human Rights, Democracy, and the Rule of Law. He has over 20 years of experience working with indigenous peoples and farmers in the Colombian Amazon on issues related to individual and collective rights, the environment, and culture.