The Waorani are Amerindians from the Amazonian region of Ecuador. Their territory spans from the Napo, Curaray River, to Peru. They are a semi-nomadic group of hunter-gatherer and horticulturists known for violent resistance to intruders.
This should come as no surprise, considering their contact with the outside world has centered around major oil and rubber booms, in addition to missionary work. The Waorani, however, are not considered to be a “violent” people. As a matter of fact, they have received great recognition for their inherent optimism, being described as a very happy people; always laughing and joking, as well as being very kind, passionate and – not to mention – hilarious.
Anthropologist Tessa Maree says of the Waorani:
“The idea of them having to explain what makes them happy is like asking the Harpy Eagle why she has wings: it just does, and they just are.”
She explains that their perceived joyfulness derives from a close relationship with spirituality and an intrinsic sense of purpose.
In fact, the Waorani have an elder spiritual leader, kindly referred to as “the jaguar shaman,” whose focus is the healing and health of the tribe. This person stores an extensive knowledge of botanicals ranging from poisons to medicines, and is responsible for curating all tribal potions. In addition to that, they also have spirit animals, which play an important part in their spiritual life. By honoring their spirit animal, they honor the eternal connection between people and nature, which carries the history of each animal and ancestor’s relationship from their past.
One particular practice led by the shaman is that of the “cleansing ceremony,” which works to absolve darkness – whatever form that may take – from an individual. Rachael Kinley, documentary and film series director who spent several weeks with the tribe, had the opportunity to experience this practice up close. She describes, “ spit on my face, and rubbed me with his sweat and some giant nettles. Despite my giggles, he never laughed. This was real business.” These practices signal the importance of spiritual cleanliness and general “goodness” in the Waorani tribe.
Another key piece of their religion is the belief that spirit and nature are interchangeable. This feeds their greatest intention as a group: to preserve the natural world. Recent plans to sell as lucrative land concessions to oil companies have challenged the tribe to meet these objectives. They have taken the matter to court, where they are ready to fight invaders of the land once more.
The current Waorani settlement sits relatively close to the town of Shell, one of the first areas captured in the oil company’s initial incursion of the rainforest in the 1930s. In other words, the tribe’s struggle against multinationals is not new news. The surrounding areas have been swallowed and picked off for decades now, depleting the jungle of its life and resources.
But instead of lamenting their losses, we should laud their accomplishments as a people. The Waorani resistance should be celebrated. Their fight proves that some work for a purpose far greater than themselves. In contributing to a greater cause, they have found that happiness is not a tangible “thing” that can be taken or given away. It’s just there.