In Focus

Friendship: An Incredible Act of Forgiveness

Steve Saint as a boy with Kimo, a Waodani warrior. Saint still keeps a house in the village.
Steve Saint as a boy with Kimo, a Waodani warrior. Saint still keeps a house in the village. (Every Tribe Entertainment)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Steve Saint was only 5 when his father, Nate, a Christian missionary working in Ecuador, was killed by a group of Waodani tribesmen, who speared him and his four colleagues as the Americans prepared to bring the message of Jesus to the inhabitants of the remote Amazon jungle, whose endless cycle of revenge killings had brought them to the brink of extinction. It was 50 years ago this month, but despite his youth, he remembers it vividly.

"My dad was my hero," Saint says by phone from New York, where he's giving interviews promoting "End of the Spear" (see review on Page 39), a new feature film based on the 1956 killings and their aftermath. "All my dreams in my little-boy universe revolved around him.

"I wanted to be just like him," he continues, describing his emotions upon hearing the news as initial disbelief -- after all, his father had promised that he would someday teach him how to fly and fix airplanes, just like him -- followed by despair. "I can still remember this rushing feeling, that 'Oh, no, everything has changed.' For me, I thought there was nothing to live for. Life was at an end."

Saint fast-forwards to the present, where, as he points out, he ultimately did get to be like his dad, acting as stunt pilot for all the flying scenes in the movie. But he saves the really weird part of the story for the punch line. "I had no way of knowing," Saint says, "that the feeling, the yearning I had for my dad -- that bond that was yanked out of my heart -- that those same feelings I had for my dad I would one day have for the man who's half asleep here on the other bed in my hotel room: Mincaye, who is the man who killed my father."

Saint, who came to live with the Waodani as a boy, after his father's death, did not learn of Mincaye's role in the murders until much later. In their culture, Saint explains, there's only one reason to ask questions about such matters, and that's if you're plotting vengeance. Eventually, Mincaye (called Mincayani in the film) told Saint of his role in his father's death, but by that time, Saint says, "I loved him and his family and his people, and they had taken me in and made me part of them."

"I know it sounds strange," he says, recalling a comment from a USA Today writer a few years back that anticipates this very reporter's confusion. "He said, 'I can kind of get my mind around you forgiving him, and not wanting anything to do with him anymore, but the fact that you are friends -- that you're family, that you love him -- that's morbid.' "

Yes, Saint and his father's murderer are pals. Get over it.

They're neighbors part of the year. Saint keeps a house in the Waodani village, where he lives when he's not traveling or working in Florida, running the Indigenous People's Technology and Education Center, an organization founded in 1997 to bring mobile dental operatories and other technologies to primitive peoples. And they do a lot of father-son stuff together while traveling. In fact, they just went to see "Stomp" ("The Lion King" was sold out) while in Manhattan -- "the place of the hard water," according to Mincaye, who is still amazed that it can get cold enough for water to form snow and ice.

That's not the strange part.

What's strange is to listen to the almost casual way Saint talks about killing, or at least the way he reports its occurrence among the Waodani, mentioning, in seemingly offhand fashion, that, despite a precipitous drop in homicides in the years after the 1956 killings, there are still "relatively isolated" murders. "There was this one Waodani woman," he says. "She had lived on the outside and had come back in, and she was posturing, trying to get the attention of the young men, and acting pretty promiscuous. And the people found that unacceptable. So finally my friend speared her."

As barbaric as this behavior may seem to our ears, Saint points out that the ways of the modern world are equally incomprehensible to Mincaye, who is dismayed by documentaries he has watched on the History Channel about World War II and the Holocaust, in which he's seen footage of planes dropping bombs on people the pilots don't even know, and people starving in concentration camps.

In fact, it was Saint telling Mincaye and his people about certain news events that persuaded Mincaye to let the filmmakers tell his story. "When Mincaye heard what had happened at Columbine," Saint says, "he looked at me and said, 'You mean people that are so smart they can make little boxes that talk over long distances, that can make heavy airplanes fly, that can make medicines that make sicknesses, like fever, go away -- that can make all that stuff -- are you telling me that they live angry and hating and killing, for no reason?"

Of course the answer's yes, which raises the question of who's more in need of saving.

In that regard, Saint insists that he's not following in his father's footsteps.

"My father was a missionary," he says. "He was sent by people in North America to go and help people. I'm Ecuadorean. I was born and raised down there. If you speak Spanish, I tell people I'm Ecuadoriano con cascara de gringo -- I'm an Ecuadorian with a gringo shell. But also, the Waodani, when they asked me to come down, they didn't ask me to come down as a missionary. They asked me to come down -- what they said is, 'Just like we taught you the skills that you needed when you were a boy, now you having lived with the foreigners, you come and teach us to do the things that they never teach us, so that we can take care of our own people. They haven't asked me to be a spiritual mentor to them. I mean, these are the people that baptized me . These are the people that taught me to walk this new trail."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company