End of the Spear and Beyond the Gates of Splendor

In the 1950’s five young Christian men decided to go to Ecuador as missionaries. By 1956, all five were there with their wives. One, Nate Saint (Chad Allen), had an older sister, Rachel (Sarah Kathryn Bakker), who had helped raise him, and was already working there as a missionary.


In 1948 the Shell Oil Company had begun to drill for oil on the land of the Waodani, an indigenous tribe different from all others. They were so fierce that the company withdrew. A few years before that, in 1945, three young girls had fled from the Wao tribe led by Dayumae (Christina Souza); she would prove essential to the events to come.


By late 1955 the missionaries, especially Nate Saint who flew the plane that delivered supplies to missionaries scattered throughout the region, wanted to make contact with the illusive tribe because the government was threatening to attack them. The Waodani tribe was different from almost every other existing indigenous tribe in the world according to anthropologists; they had no sense of morality toward the community but were at once egalitarian and each man autonomous, that is, a law unto himself. The males would spear and kill anyone who got in his way, including one another. The people were killing themselves into extinction, homicide killing off six out of every ten people. 


The missionaries wanted to do something so that the people would not be exterminated and the only way was to make friendly contact.


Nate made eye contact with a male member of the tribe as he flew over their territory one day in January 1956. He noted the place and returned with another missionary and dangled a canvas bag to the group; the second time they dropped a chicken and a toy and oneof the tribesmanput a parrot into the sack for the men in the plane. Nate interpreted this as a good sign of friendly contact.


Although the women wanted to make the first personal contact thinking that the tribe would not attack them or their children, Nate and four companions decided they were more suited to the task. They decided to take guns for protection – to shoot into the air to scare the Waodani off. They were ready to give their lives but never to kill another human being.


They landed the plane on a sandbar. At first things went well when the people came to investigate, but very shortly, the internal relations of the tribe would cause the deaths of the visitors. A young woman was being courted by a man who had already killed one wife and had another; when they returned from visiting the missionaries along the river without their chaperone, they said the visitors had threatened to kill them so they ran. Their lie provoked the men, led by Mincayani (Louie Leonardo). When the missionaries failed to make radio contact, a rescue mission was launched. The men were buried on the site of their martyrdom.


What is so remarkable about this film is what happened in the days, weeks, months, years, and decades that followed. The women went to the village; at first two went, one with her daughter. Their message was simple: God had left signs, like marks on a tree, for them to follow to get to the other side of the Boa, or death. And the only way to get there was to stop the killing. The other wives followed. Helped by Dayumae, the message began to sink in. Through the ravages of a polio epidemic and Mincayani’s endless hostility, the wives, Rachel, and the children, persevered in living forgiveness. 


The End of the Spear telescopes the events, but tells the storywith economy and without evangelism of the audience. The serene dedication of the young men and their wives unfolds with beautiful cinematography, courage, and yes, loss, and pathos.


Beyond the Gates of Splendor (released in 2005 and available from www.amazon.com) recounts the story through the photos, 8mm footage, and voices of the wives and relatives, especially Steve Saint, the son of Nate. There is also information on the historical events and input from an anthropologist. The story is told with much generosity of spirit – the kind that only forgiveness and reconciliation can generate. Elisabeth Elliott, the wife of missionary Jim Elliott, wrote a book by the same title in 1995.


Steve Saint published End of the Spear in 1995. Jim Hanon wrote and directed the documentary; he also directed End of the Spear and co-wrote the script with Bill Ewing and Bart Gavigan. These are the first credits for all these men and they acquit themselves very well. The acting, for the most part, was excellent. Chase Ellison as the young Steve Saint was spot-on and the audience responds to him emotionally as a child and then as an adult, played by Chad Allen (Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman). The only somewhat weak performances came from the women, even though this was their story to tell.


The web site for the film offers a time line that is helpful in understanding the “journey” that the Waodani and the outside world had to make: www.endofthespear.com. Today the Wao people control their own land, negotiated drilling rights with Shell, and though they at first declined to have the End of the Spear made on their land, when they were told the story of Columbine, they agreed, since that was how they used to be; they wanted now to help others live in peace.


I recommend this film especially for how it approaches evangelization and telling the story of Jesus in the language of the people – not just the words, but the concepts that they can enter into, reflect upon, and accept or reject. I recommend this story for the boundless forgiveness and love that continues to this day. I recommend this film for its themes of social justice, globalization, and development of peoples.


Mincayani’s story is riveting; be sure to stay through the credits for the real finale.

Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s