The Amazon jungle region of Peru is home to tribes that still have no contact with the outside world. This isolation is believed to be largely voluntary on the part of certain small, nomadic tribes as they flee encroachment by extractive industries, drug traffickers, and other outside entities pushing their way further into the remote areas where these people groups have traditionally sought refuge. Such isolation, and its underlying causes add difficult dimensions to an already difficult cross-cultural missionary task. And while remoteness and voluntary isolation may affect the bringing of the Gospel to tribal people groups, other factors can certainly inhibit long-term discipleship within tribes.
As a geographic researcher mapping tribal groups in South America, I would find myself at times trying to distinguish between two tribal groups, the Ashéninka and the Asháninka. At certain points I was partially convinced that they were one in the same, even while encountering sources indicating otherwise. What I discovered ultimately is that official government sources lump the two together as Asháninka, even pointing out cases where Ashéninka self-identify as Asháninka. At the end of the day, the Ashéninka are not granted official status by the national government. So what does this mean exactly? In practical terms, such recognition is a linguistic issue; it’s a recognition of the language used by that tribe. Around the world, indigenous people groups are most commonly identified and named for the language they speak. Depending on the country, official recognition of an indigenous language can opens doors to grants and programs offered by the government, including among other things education, medical and legal services in the tribal language. While such bias would seem to affect less populous tribes or those speaking languages in decline, apparently even larger tribes can be affected as in the case of the Ashéninka people. The Ashéninka (commonly confused with the related Asháninka), is a tribe spread out across hundreds of jungle communities. They speak the Ashéninka language which itself has up to seven different dialects. Currently, according the Peruvian government, this language is basically the same as Asháninka. Therefore, any government-funded programs for the Ashéninka are conducted only in Asháninka. This may be similar to an English-speaker having to communicate in German. Under the current circumstances, an Ashéninka child learning to read or write in a government school cannot do so in their own language.
How might this affect the Gospel? The Bible is God’s way of communicating with us. If I as an English speaker I had the Bible only in German, it may take me a long time to gain enough proficiency to understand God’s Word. When a national government intervenes as an arbiter of language usage, the effect can be a reinforcement of certain languages while others are deemphasized. Immediate impact on the Gospel may not be so apparent as missionaries seem to have successfully translated the Bible into various forms of Ashéninka. Longer term however, if this trend persists, we may realize a loss of the Ashéninka language in favor of Spanish or even Asháninka. With the loss of language also comes the disappearance of a culture. While missionaries are not called to be “linguistic-warriors” “language-crusaders”, we have been given a mandate by Jesus Himself, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In this context, the Ashéninka is a nation; they are their own people and tongue. And we must do what we can to ensure that they continue to receive the Gospel in a manner that they can understand.
This issue was brought to light by a missionary friend of mine who works among the Ashéninka in Peru. His explanation of the situation helped me to finally cut through the confusion that plagued me for so long. He asked me on behalf of other missionary-linguists to produce a map showing where the Ashéninka language is spoken in its various forms. The map had to be created quickly, as it was to serve as a visual aid in support of critical meetings with government officials related to giving official status to this language. Upon agreeing to do this, I set to work gathering as much data as possible from the missionaries and their contacts, while also digging through as many open-source reports and documents (almost all in Spanish) I could find. For this type of project, I start by envisioning the map that will be front and center during the meetings, and work back from there. As the data rolled in I made all necessary edits to my old map data inputs, and ended up with this map graphic which I hope finally helps to clarify a long-standing ethnolinguistic problem. Though I do not yet know the outcome of the meetings, I pray that the Ashéninka receive official status, and with that status new opportunities for the Gospel to thrive among them. Ultimately, I am grateful for the opportunity as a researcher and geographer serving in the Great Commission, albeit in a behind-the-scenes manner with long term implications I may never know.