Missionaries Serve as Tribe's Guides to 20th Century


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.


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.

And soon she will be leaving. Fields and Kneeland completed their Matses translation of the New Testament two years ago. By the end of the millennium, Fields will finish a Matses-Spanish dictionary.

In her letters, Fields asks those who support her work to pray that God will send another missionary. "They have come a long way from where they were when we first made contact," she said. "But they are not at the point where they are completely independent. Someone could still take advantage of them."

The Story of Contact

Fields' search for the Matses began in 1963.

The following year, U.S. Marines were called into Peru to help rescue several men who entered Matses territory in search of oil and exotic wood. A storm of arrows fell upon the expedition. One man died.

The men said their attackers were naked Indians, their bodies painted with black dye. They had whiskers--and looked like cats.

Determined to stop the assaults, the Peruvian army prepared to bomb the area. Word of the plan leaked to Fields.

"We begged the military not to drop bombs on them," she said. "We told them we were trying to make contact with the people and that maybe we could do something to stop the violence."

Fields began learning the Indians' language with the help of a Peruvian woman who was captured by the Matses but escaped. The woman taught her the names of many Matses, information that would later prove life-saving.


Fields and Kneeland began camping along the Yaquerana River in hopes of finding the Indians. In 1969, the missionaries were flying over the jungle when they spotted a Matses dwelling, looking like a stack of hay as long as a city block.

Then, three men emerged from trees, waving their arms and shouting. Fields and Kneeland dropped food and machetes. Fields spoke into a loudspeaker. "Dacuedenda. Dacuedenda," she repeated in Matses. "Do not be afraid."

The three Matses brothers who were waving at the plane recall that day too.

"We were speaking to it. 'Come down. Come down,' " recalls Marcos Bina Uaqui Moconoqui, 45. "The old people stayed under the trees. But we were not afraid."

Fields urged the Matses to go to the river. "We are good," she said into the loudspeaker. "Follow the plane."

The missionaries and two assistants landed in a clearing. They reached the Chobayacu River several hours later and spied a dugout canoe.

A dozen men suddenly appeared. They screamed wildly and waved animal skins. Fields felt her knees shake. She didn't understand the shouts. Death flashed though her mind.

"Dacuedenda. Dacuedenda," she said to them. "Do not be afraid." And then she called out all the Matses names she could remember.

The Indians froze. "She knew our names," Marcos Bina recalls. "We thought she must be a Matses. She is like us. She is good."

Gifts--machetes, clothing, canned meat, hard candies and blankets--helped seal the friendship. The next day, Fields invited some Indians on airplane rides.

The missionaries asked the Matses if they could live with them, saying they wanted to learn their language and help with food and medicine.

"They were good," Bina said. "They had an airplane. They could talk to machines [the radio] and they gave us machetes. When they asked to come live with us, we said yes."

At the start, only 45 Matses came to the village set up by Fields and Kneeland. The Indians built the women a hut, which was little more than a platform with a roof and no walls.

One of the Indians' favorite activities was show-and-tell. They demanded that the women unpack each item in their duffel bags and explain its use. The Matses were especially curious about Kneeland's pink hair curlers and Fields' cotton tights. Everyone took turns trying them on, over and over again.

"I remember times when I just wanted to be alone so badly that I would go and sit in our stinky outhouse," Kneeland said.

Village Life

Today, the men of the village spend their evenings on Fields' wide front porch. From a distance, they appear to play charades.

Nearby, women croon. There are no words to their songs, just a low-pitched moan. "They're singing their children to sleep," Fields said. "That's a Matses lullaby."

It's her favorite time of day. She sits past dark listening to the men's tales and she laughs, a high-pitched cackle that gives away the deep affection she feels for the Matses and softens the flashes of crankiness that result from the stresses of jungle life.

She has endured bouts of food poisoning, dengue fever, malaria and hookworm. She sleeps on a thin mattress and takes baths in a washtub not even big enough for a toddler.

Fields still has the stamina of someone half her age. Growing up on a farm and living in the Amazon has made her body strong.

Fields' tastes remain pure Indiana. Often she's dressed in pedal pushers, a sailor top and canvas tennis shoes. For breakfast, she likes pancakes with peanut butter or Cream of Wheat. She falls asleep perusing Reader's Digest and wakes before dawn to read Scripture.

Kneeland has a similar background. She was born in Kirksville, Mo., a small farming community.

When she arrived in Peru, she weighed more than 300 pounds. The Matses--generally no taller than 5 feet--were astounded.

"They were utterly fascinated with my size," she said. "One of the oldest men said, 'She doesn't have any bones."

And so he named her "Kanitiniwudet," which means "No-Bones."


Intially, Fields and Kneeland worked more as medics than linguists. As word of the missionaries spread, the village swelled to about 250 people. Most sought medical help. Children were brought for vaccinations.

Later, the missionaries enlisted "language informants," to teach them the Matses language and tribal legends. Fields developed an alphabet and started to record the language.

In 1974, she and Kneeland began teaching the Matses to read, using flashcards with Matses letters and syllables.

They worked with the Indians to begin Bible translation. Some stories, like those about the miracles performed by Jesus, were easy for the Matses to comprehend.

"Miracles are more conducive to their way of thinking than ours," Kneeland said. "We want to know how and why things happen so that we can control them. The Matses accept that things happen that they have no ability to control."


Other concepts, such as accepting the word of Jesus into one's heart, were harder to interpret. The heart holds no symbolic importance for the Matses, Fields said. To them, the ears--which receive information and guide behavior--are far more significant.

"When they pray, they ask God to fill their ears with his word," Fields said, "in the same way that we ask God to fill our hearts."

In 1986, attendance at the first Matses church was booming. Soon after, 40 Matses were baptized.

As the Matses became familiar with the Bible, they tried to reconcile its lessons with their customs. Fields said she offered guidance, but never insisted that the Matses abandon their beliefs.

For example, killing unwanted newborns was common when the missionaries arrived. Parents often clubbed or choked baby girls or children born with deformities.

Kneeland recalls the first time an expectant father came to discuss the matter with her. Segundo Pacha was in his late 20s and had two wives and six children.


The older wife--who already had two girls--was pregnant. If another was born, he was not going to keep her, Pacha told Kneeland.

"I didn't have time to think of a response, but the words seemed to come to me," Kneeland said. "I told him, 'The one who created us says that baby girls have souls too.'

"His mouth dropped open," Kneeland remembers, "and he said, 'I didn't know that. I'll have to keep her then."

Fields and Kneeland introduced birth control shots a few years ago. The missionaries also discouraged the Matses from performing some rituals, including the "Cueden Quido," which means "Singing People."

Anthropologists describe it as an elaborate ceremony, a rite of passage for young men. The ceremony began at sundown when men and boys prepared to enter the spirit world. They put on spirit robes, coats made of tree bark, and blew hallucinogenic tobacco into one another's noses, which made them fall to the ground, coughing and spitting. They danced, chanted about animals and burned patches on their skin, rubbing open wounds with frog venom that caused them to vomit.

"They would have this ceremony day and night, and then they'd get really sick and come to us for medicine," Fields said.

Kneeland said that when her language helper asked her about the Cueden Quido, she reminded him of the Bible. "You have been working with me for a long time and you should know that God, the creator, demands absolute allegiance," she told him.


This tug-of-war between the Matses' beliefs and Christianity continues. Many still wear the jaguar tattoo, believing it makes them good hunters. Even those who profess to be Christians have little faith in God's supremacy over jungle demons.

"I don't expect them to get over all their old beliefs at once," Fields said. "It takes time."

There is little time left, however, before Fields leaves the tribe.

"I don't know what the Lord's going to do," she said, "but I know he's not going to forget them."

The older Matses feel that they've come far and are content to stay in Buenas Lomas.

The young feel that their journey is just beginning. Some want to finish high school. Others want to move the village closer to jobs and trade goods.

Some have grander dreams. "One day, I am going to get on a big airplane," said Alberto Nava Pacha, 20, "and fly to Lima."

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