In 1950, an Evangelical Christian missionary named Jim Elliot heard about a native tribe of people in Ecuador and believed that God was calling him to convert them.
The Huaorani people lived in the Amazon rainforest and were known for their violence towards outsiders as well as those within their isolated tribe. Elliot and four other men thought they could make peaceful contact with them, so they began studying the Huaorani culture and language before flying out from the U.S. to meet them. But unfortunately, the mission known as “Operation Auca” ended with all of the missionaries losing their lives.
In September 1955, Elliot and his colleagues Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Johnny Keenan began searching for the tribe by air. When they found them, the team began lowering gifts from a rope by fixed-wing aircraft at several locations. The gifts included clothing, tools, weapons, and various trinkets. They noted that the people seemed excited and even started tying their own gifts to the ropes for the missionaries.
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Encouraged by the gestures, the men planned to meet the Huaoranis on the ground. On January 3, Elliot, Saint, McCully, and another missionary named Roger Youderian successfully landed on Palm Beach along the Curaray River with their families in tow, where they set up camp and met Elliot’s friend, Peter Fleming. Saint then flew over a Huaorani settlement and used a loudspeaker to invite the tribe into their camp.
The first Huaorani visitors arrived three days later. There were two women and one young man named Nankiwi. The younger woman and Nankiwi were romantically interested in one another and the older woman had come as a sort of chaperone for the two.
The visitors were nervous at first, but became more relaxed when the missionaries offered them a few gifts. Saint even took Nankiwi on a plane ride, where the young man saw his neighbors and waved to them. However, the younger woman wanted to leave later that day, so Nankiwi took off with her while the older woman stayed behind to talk with the group of men.
The next day, another group of Huaorani people traveled to the camp after seeing Nankiwi in the plane and ran into the couple without their chaperone. They were furious at this, so Nankiwi lied and told them the foreigners had attacked them on the beach, separating them from the older woman. That’s when they decided to kill the missionaries.