Yukei Indians


I am happy to dialogue about the work with the Yukui (or Yuqui) as
we write it in Bolivia.  Although I have had contact with this
work during my 20 years in Bolivia, I have not been directly
involved.  I am a seminary professor and I confess that my
knowledge is limited.

New Tribes, in keeping with their primary mission, tried to make
contact with the Yukuis back in the 1950s.  They were a nomadic
tribe in the lowlands of Bolivia.  Their primary goal was to reach
them with the gospel.  Because of colonization, their habitat was
diminishing.   Their numbers were also rapidly decreasing for several
reasons.  They believed that when members of the tribe died they
needed to be accompanied into the afterlife by slaves (usually
members of the tribe), so slaves were usually killed when the
master died.  They were also at war with the Bolivian colonists
in the area, in part, again because Bolivian colonists were also
seen as a possible source for slaves to accompany tribal members
that died.  On top of that there was the generally precarious and
dangerous nature of their nomadic life style (more on that in a
minute). Finally, because the Yukuis did not swim or build boats
the tribe was increasingly fragmented by the floods and changes in
the rivers.  The gene pool was diminishing, which was seriously
affecting their immune system (still  a significant problem today).

When the first major contact was made, there were 80 plus people
in  the tribe.  When the second contact was made a few years later
(sorry I don’t have exact dates or figures), the number was half
of what it  had been because of the high mortality rate.

The initial contacts between New Tribes and the Yukuis were very
dangerous.  Because of the war with the Bolivian colonists, the NT
missionaries always had to have a plan of escape before dark.  My
missionary friends have told me that the Yukuis would tell them as
they sat around talking, that they would kill them as soon as the
sun went down.  (Steve Parker, who told me the story, took a spear
in the back trying to get away and almost didn’t make it.)

Eventually, NTM persuaded the Yukuis to abandon their nomadic life
style, in part to be able to build a more stable relationship with
them, but also to save them from extinction.  That was the
flashpoint for the attacks from the anthropological world against
New Tribes and  the focus of the BBC documentary.

An anthropologist was assigned to protect the Yukuis and keep an
eye  on the missionaries.  Since the posting, I have heard that she
feels that she was very badly treated by the missionaries.  I
hadn’t heard that before, but I won’t question it.  One of the key
missionaries that was there through most of what happened has told
me that their  relationship is now very friendly (they both live in
the same city  here in Bolivia).

When I visited the work in 1990, Steve Parker had just returned to
live at the Yukui settlement. Three months before, he had
persuaded his Yukui friends from the jungle to come and live at
the settlement.  He said that he didn’t recognize any of them.
When they lived in the jungle as nomads their lives were dominated
by fear.  They walked hunched over.  He said that even the fellows
he knew well, were so relaxed in posture and their faces so
changed from the fear and suspicion that characterized them
before, that he didn’t recognize them. He told me that he told
one of his friends in the tribe that some were saying that it was
wrong to persuade them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle.  He
said, “If they think it was so great, they should try it.”

One of the subsequent conflicts was that NTM was accused of
sheltering the Yukuis from the rest of Bolivia.  NTM felt that
since they did not swim or make boats, it was not their place to
change that.  They were also afraid that outsiders would take
advantage of them.  Also, the Bolivian officials did not recognize
the leadership within the tribe. Again, against the advice of NTM,
another member of the tribe was selected as the tribal chief by
outsiders and he used the position to enrich himself and
impoverish the tribe.

Our local church here in Bolivia has a national missionary that
continues to work with the Yukuis.  His concerns about how they
are continually taken advantage of, are part of my reasons for my
interest in this work. The primary impetus, however, came from one
of my seminary students.  He is a pastor, but he is also taking
classes from the Sociology department at the university here.  He
says that the NTM work with the Yukuis is a continual point of
condemnation of evangelicals.  He approached me about this and
when I described to him  a different perspective about what
happened, he was intrigued and  asked if any studies, other then
the earlier condemnatory studies,  have been done.  I started
looking into it and the result was the posting that Dean Arnold
put on the website.

I do not pretend to be an expert in anthropology, nor do I pretend
to know all of the facts.  I will also assume that NTM made
mistakes (in fact in retrospect, I might withdraw my comment in the
posting about Christian apologetics).  My thought at this point is
that this could be the source for a fascinating follow up study,
useful for anthropology and missiology).  Enough time has passed
for this to be reviewed again in light of later developments.

What are your thoughts?

Jim Hansen
SIM Bolivia

Pearlers – please feel free to respond to fellow pearlers on this, or to James Hansen at james.hansen@sim.org