Undergrad studies indigenous group in Amazon jungle
January 15, 2014
Johnny Miguel Tenorio Ochoa, a University of Wisconsin-Stout international student from Cuenca, Ecuador, has taken his studies off the beaten track into potentially dangerous territory.
Last summer he spent 10 days with the Waorani, an indigenous group from the Yasuni Jungle in the Amazonian Region of Ecuador. The Waorani, also spelled Huaorani, have a longstanding fear of outsiders and a reputation for violence when met with uninvited visitors.
The Waorani are the subjects of the nonfiction book “End of the Spear” by Steve Saint and a movie with the same name. Steve Saint is the son of Nate Saint who was killed by the Waorani in 1956, along with four other missionaries, while attempting to evangelize a Waorani settlement on the Curaray River in Ecuador.
This January, during semester break, Tenorio returned to help his new friends. “I’m working with them again because they are my family, and I consider myself a Waorani,” he said.
An applied social science major at UW-Stout since 2011, Tenorio studies sociology, anthropology and peace studies. He also has a special interest in global minorities and the negative effects of globalization and global systems.
He was a foreign exchange student at Menomonie High School, where he learned about UW-Stout.
“I am also an activist for human rights, especially indigenous minorities’ rights,” he said.
Tenorio’s interests took him to the village of Migwauno, although first he had to earn the privilege of entering.
Tenorio accepted into village
Tenorio has a love for the wilderness and for diverse peoples. With the help of Xarly Azcona, a monk in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, and Tenorio’s father, John, Tenorio was able to make contact with the Waorani.
After five trips to the nearby town of El Coca, he was finally welcomed in Migwauno, a village of about 500 where everyone is related, he said.
“I worked with the community as a teacher for the young, mentor and dancing instructor for the teens at evenings, worked with the adults in literacy and helped them to manage food and resources; I even was a nurse a couple times, but most importantly I educated them about their rights and pacifist ways of resistance,” he said.
His grandmother, a nurse, also volunteers to help. She brings medicine and checks on the women, he said.
During his time in the village, Tenorio also read and explained documents from oil companies — since the 1950s the area has undergone exploration and extraction of oil — looked at maps and identified social, cultural and political issues of pertinence. He shared teaching techniques at local schools and introduced alternative ways young people could spend their time.
“Civilized Waorani are split because of manipulation and disruption of the cultural traditions and ways of life,” he said.
Nels Paulson, assistant professor in sociology at UW-Stout, is one of Tenorio’s instructors. “This is a case of a very dedicated and socially skillful undergraduate student who, on his own, is spreading UW-Stout’s influence and impact globally,” Paulson said.
Tenorio has some ambitious goals for the Waorani people. He wants to help them overcome the crisis their culture has experienced, to educate them so they stop killing neighboring tribes and most importantly, he said, to raise awareness about the human rights of all, including their traditional enemies.
He also wants to help them find sustainable ways to coexist as they assimilate and to research and write about their history.
The techniques Tenorio uses in his study are applied social science, “but it's more a journalist study than a scientific study itself,” he said.
On a smaller scale, he works with Waorani women in producing and selling their handcrafts in the fair trade market. Tenorio would like to share with the world the stories behind each craft.
Visit cut short
Tenorio’s January visit to the village was cut short owing to a crisis involving members of another Waorani community accused of killing about 40 individuals of the Taromenane , a neighboring tribe.
In response to the accusation and the jailing of six Waorani, “They have destroyed some equipment and refused to follow civil laws but (follow) their own law, which can be violent,” Tenorio said.
“Sadly I had to leave because it wasn't longer safe for me to stay,” he said. He may be able to return in the summer, if matters can be settled.
The Waorani and the Taromenane, another indigenous group from the Yasuni Jungle, are traditional enemies. The Taromenane choose to live in isolation.
The Waorani speak Wao Tededo, not known to be related to any other language. To communicate, Tenorio works through a translator but is learning some of the language. He is teaching the youth Spanish and English as well as sustainable tourism to help them find ways to gain income without having to engage in crime, he said.
The Waorani have even given him a Wao name, which when added to his already substantial list gives him five. His names are Johnny, his and his father’s first name; Miguel, his middle name; Tenorio, his father’s and his last name; Ochoa, his mother’s last name; and Nenquee, his Wao name.
Tenorio’s hometown is in the southern Andes about 14 hours from the ancestral territory of the Waorani.
After attending Menomonie High School, he chose UW-Stout for several reasons: he liked the size, not too small or too large; the innovative hands-on approach; and the staff, who are engaged in each student’s education, he said.
“Particularly the professors in my major have been very open-minded, welcoming and supportive,” he said.
Tenorio’s future likely will involve an internship or two, graduate school and continuing to work in the area of sustainability as related to indigenous peoples.
For more information about UW-Stout’s applied social science major, go here.