“Growing old ain’t for sissies” is an adage one hears a lot from the AARP set, a group to which everyone over 50 automatically belongs, One unsettling aspect of working in a discipline for decades is that some truths once regarded as self-evident reveal themselves to have been misguided or false. Depending on the situation, this reversal of fortune may be discouraging or uplifting. But for anyone committed to reality-based understanding, unexpected outcomes can be of great interest. They are also humbling.
An anthropological assumption that now looks less tenable than it did in the 1970s and -80s concerns the impact of evangelical missionary work on the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Arguably the largest and most successful Protestant missionary organization of this period was the Wycliffe Bible Translators, whose sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International), sent trained linguist-missionaries to scores of remote indigenous communities for the express purpose of creating an alphabet for previously unwritten languages, providing literacy training, and using this understanding of the local language to translate, print, and distribute bibles. WBT and SIL were once two faces of the same organization. As far as one can tell from their websites, they now appear to have taken divergent paths, with SIL International focusing on language documentation and preservation (although it continues to describe itself as “faith-based”), whereas Wycliffe retains its explicitly evangelical mission.
In the 1980s SIL was controversial for several reasons. Critics felt that the imposition of Western, Christian ideologies on vulnerable indigenous peoples represented a form of cultural imperialism, which it surely was. The U.S. origin of the SIL and the organization’s sophisticated infrastructure of radio communications and air transport in remote parts of the Amazon inevitably raised suspicions that it was a covert arm of US intelligence. More broadly, aggressive proselytizing by a minority religion in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Latin America was considered a threat to the region’s national cultures. In these contexts SIL downplayed its link to WBT in ways that critics found deceptive. These factors led several Latin American nations to expel the SIL, although it continued its work in Peru by muting its religious commitments and providing invaluable services to a Ministry of Education grappling with the challenge of providing bilingual teaching materials to children in Peru’s jungle villages.
Two books helped to frame anthropologists’ overwhelmingly negative view of American missionary work in the Amazon: Søren Hvalkof and Peter Aaby’s Is God an American? (1982) and David Stoll’s Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? (1983). Both have a polemical tone in places, but they also provide detailed historical and ethnographic information on the impact of American evangelical missionaries on a diverse set of indigenous communities. Neither book may have influenced popular opinion about American missionaries as much as the late Peter Matthiessen’s novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), which was brought to the screen in 1991 by director Hector Babenco.
I shared some of those negative views when working with the Awajún in the 1970s and -80s despite my minimal contact with American missionaries in the field. In the years since then, however, circumstances have made my prejudices look simplistic and in some cases misplaced.
For one thing, the work of the SIL brought literacy and bilingualism to the Awajún much earlier and faster than would have been the case had SIL not been there. The Awajún have embraced literacy with great enthusiasm and today have one of the highest literacy rates of any Amazonian community in Peru. Literacy in the Awajún language, which might not have been promoted by the Peruvian government if it had been in control of Awajún education in the early years, is now a significant factor in Awajún cultural survival and political mobilization.
A more subtle effect of Awajún contact with American missionaries is the sense of cultural separateness—the idea that the Awajún are technically Peruvians but have their own distinct identity and destiny. I can’t prove that this was explicitly promoted by the SIL, but it seems like a probable result of long involvement with powerful outsiders who thought of themselves as distant from Peruvian national culture and values.
It’s true that evangelical missionary work had negative consequences as well. For a time it promoted factionalism between traditionalists as well as converts to Roman Catholicism. It caused many Awajún to abandon traditional rituals and related cultural expressions, including the search for visions by young people. As I report in Upriver, this reflected a genuine desire of some Awajún to break out of the cycle of revenge killings with which the vision quest was strongly associated. But in the years since those early missionary contacts, more sophisticated Awajún are starting to return to the visionary language and practices of their ancestors while focusing more on the constructive, life-affirming possibilities of ayahuasca visions. A few are even converting to the Baha’i faith on the grounds that it is more ecumenical than Christianity and therefore more open to the Awajún’s own cultural traditions.
Thoughtful Awajún intellectuals recognize the positive as well as the negative impact of the missionary work of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Awajún country. They value the literacy and bilingualism promoted by both groups, as well as the global contacts that involvement with missionaries promoted. At the same time, they are critical of the paternalism of missionary organizations and their past reluctance to fight for Awajún civil rights and political self-determination.
For additional information on the impact of evangelical missions on the Awajún written from the perspective of committed Christians, readers may want to track down a copy of Mildred Larson and Lois Dodds, Treasure in Clay Pots: An Amazon People on the Wheel of Change (1985) as well as scholarly papers by Robert J. Priest, including this one. Sections of the Bible translated into Awajún can be found online in various locations, including here.
It’s worth noting that David Stoll followed up his book on SIL with Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, a work that revolutionized anthropological thinking about the direction and significance of Protestant conversion in Latin America.
One thought on “Pondering the Law of Unintended Consequences”
I agree with Michael Brown’s reassessment of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. There’s no doubt that it engaged in questionable practices, such as pressuring its bilingual teachers to do double duty as evangelical pastors even though these were Peruvian government employees. But in a rough neighborhood like the Upper Amazon, SIL and its Catholic missionary competitors were far from the worst problem facing the Awajún. Indeed, their schooling, medical work and peace initiatives helped the Awajún attain their current robust demography and political weight. So two cheers for missionary work!
One factual amendment is that, as far as I know, the memberships of the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Wyclilffe Bible Translators continue to be identical. If so, then it is misleading to talk about two organizations which go in different directions. SIL and WBT have always been a single organization which presents itself very differently to different constituencies. Thus WBT presents itself as a religious mission to its church donors in the U.S. and other sending countries, while SIL presents itself as a scientific and educational organization in the countries where it operates. This is one of the reasons it got in so much trouble in the 1970s.