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Missionaries Serve as Tribe's Guides to 20th Century

Cultures: Two American women have lived with the Amazon people since 1969. The Indians have embraced them and--to a degree--their religion, but time is bringing the test of faith to an end.

August 16, 1997|GINGER THOMPSON | THE BALTIMORE SUN

BUENAS LOMAS, Peru — When their journey into the 20th century began, the Matses Indians imitated the jaguar. They tattooed their faces and wore whiskers of palm straw on their lips and chins.

They kidnapped women, killed intruders, choked unwanted babies and ate their dead.

Three decades later, the Matses wear T-shirts and baseball caps. They read and write, practice birth control and plant crops. On Sundays, some go to church and pray--"talk to our father," they say.

Their guides into the modern world were two American missionaries, as ordinary as the Matses are exotic. In 1969, Harriet Fields of Indiana and Hattie Kneeland of Missouri were the first outsiders to establish peaceful, sustained contact with the tribe.

The women are members of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, which aims to translate the Bible into all the languages spoken on Earth. Along with linguistic skills--between them they speak seven languages--Fields and Kneeland went deep into the Amazon with Tupperware, flowered tablecloths, peanut butter and their faith.

Anthropologists and others contend that missionaries impose their beliefs and culture on native people too vulnerable to resist. But Fields and Kneeland have no doubts about the rightness of their work.

"These people were killers," Fields said. "They lived on the run, in fear of anyone who was not part of the group. Because of my bringing the Gospel to them, they don't kill anymore."

The Matses have no regrets about losing old ways. They have embraced the missionaries--many still call Fields "Tita," their word for mother. She has saved their lives many times, the Indians say: first, when the Peruvian army wanted to bomb their jungle hide-out, and then when disease threatened to ravage them. Most important, the Matses say, the missionaries freed them from fear.

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Their stories offer a glimpse of the journey of a primitive people catapulted into the world of clothes, vaccinations, books, airplanes and money.

"We were warriors," Solomon Tumi, 60, said on a recent afternoon. "We used to kill and steal women."

His father, Marciano Tumi Dunu, 76, gives a toothless grin. Solomon Tumi looks over and brags, "My father stole a woman, and that woman was my mother."

The crowd laughs. But when asked whether that life was good, everyone hushed.

"No," Solomon Tumi frowns. "We were afraid of outsiders. We hid in the trees when the outsiders came. They would cut down all our yucca, so we had nothing to eat.

"Some shot guns at us. All we had were bows."

Marciano Tumi said, "Now, when outsiders come, our children are not afraid. They do not want to fight. They go to school. It is good."

Fields and Kneeland describe their extraordinary mission as the ultimate challenge and test of faith.

"I guess I'm probably an adventurer," said Fields, a former insurance office secretary who will turn 70 in November and still lives among the Matses. "I didn't want to build on someone else's work."

Kneeland, 55, who returned to Missouri two years ago to care for her mother, said she's not a natural pioneer. It took nudging from God to get her to Peru, she added. "I'm not the go-grab-them-by-the-beard type."

Isolated Village

Buenas Lomas sits amid hills an hour west of the Chobayacu River, with water so dark the Matses call it the Black River. The nearest town is three days away by canoe.

The village is a collection of rickety bungalows on stilts. The scent of lemon and grapefruit trees fills the air. Roosters and trumpeter birds wander about.

At one end is the clinic, staffed by three Matses trained by the missionaries to give shots and treat jungle illnesses such as malaria, flu and snakebite. The sanitarios have fourth-grade educations and don't understand the Spanish-language health manual, but their limited services help, Fields said.

Nearby is the dentist, Benito Demash, who never finished grade school and was trained by missionaries to pull and fill teeth. He uses a World War II-era drill powered by a sewing machine treadle and sometimes runs out of Novocain. "I let him fill one of my teeth," Fields said. "And I haven't had a problem with it since."

In the village's center is the school, equipped with chalkboards and tattered textbooks written by Fields. Seven Matses men teach the children to read and write in Matses; they also teach some basic Spanish.

The melding of old and new is apparent. Women still hike from the fields carrying food in baskets woven from banana leaves. Young men play rock 'n' roll tapes--Sting is a favorite. One daring teenager got his hair permed in town.

The journey of the Matses is still an uncertain one. The tribe is threatened by drug dealers who want their isolated fields to grow coca. Although most are literate in Matses, few speak Spanish. In many ways, they are as marginalized from Peruvian society as they were 30 years ago.

Most live only on what they hunt or grow. Fields is their primary source of trade goods such as batteries, soap, shotgun shells and shoes.

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