A Survey of Colombia’s Tribes

For three weeks in February, we worked an intense schedule with our team in Colombia to complete the first phase of a nation-wide survey of that country’s tribal groups. About twice the size of the state of Texas, Colombia is divided into six distinct geographic regions. Of these, in February alone, we traveled into the Andes Mountains, the eastern Orinoco Plains (or Llano), and along the northern fringe of the Amazon jungle. Depending on the source, there are between 100-105 tribes in Colombia. So far, we have interviewed key leaders from 12 of these tribes. In the process we have gained valuable insights into the presence and effectiveness of the local church, access to Biblical resources and training, influence and pressures from cults, data about literacy and language usage, and previously unknown issues of conflict and potential interethnic divisions. The really difficult work is yet to come. Many of Colombia’s tribes reside in very remote regions of the jungle or mountains, and/or situated in hotbeds of illicit drug production and trafficking. Heavy presence of guerrilla insurgents and illegal paramilitary forces is common in these areas. Because indigenous missionaries have greater range of freedom to travel in regions such as these where foreigners and non-indigenous nationals do not, we focus on equipping them to do most of this field work. Decades of prolonged conflict across Colombia has made it the country with the world’s highest number of internally displaced peoples (IDPs). Many IDPs are themselves indigenous who fled to cities to escape the sweeping violence. As our survey teams eventually assess the tribes remotely scattered across the countryside, we plan to also conduct separate investigations among urbanized indigenous communities.  Continue reading

Ashéninka or Asháninka?

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… Continue reading

Equipping the tribal church of Colombia!

As written in Ephesians 4:12, we are called “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. Empowerment is central to our work, and that includes equipping indigenous missionaries to do their own field research. Last month, Drake traveled to Bogota, Colombia, where he was invited by the tribal-led missionary movement of Colombia, RELIEC (Red de Lideres Indigenas Evangelicos de Colombia – Network of Evangelical Indigenous Leaders of Colombia), to train their missionaries through an intensive, two-day workshop. Following the training, he was also invited along with the rest of the ALTECO team to participate in a historic gathering of Colombia’s indigenous evangelical leaders hailing from tribal churches across the country. While Colombia has about 105 known tribes, many still do not have any access to the Gospel. In light of this, the event had a turnout of over 400 people from more than 30 different tribes! Indigenous leaders also came from neighboring Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, and Panama. An indigenous Christian gathering of such size and diversity has never before happened in Colombia. Such a movement of the Lord is an encouraging reminder as the Gospel breaks down historic barriers of darkness, hatred, and fear across an otherwise deeply troubled country. As a follow up to Drake’s workshop, each student was assigned tribes to interview during the conference using a structured survey that was refined during the training. By the end of the week, our team had a stack of completed surveys with current information about each tribe to add to our database. Through interviews with indigenous leaders during the conference, Drake learned much about endemic levels of conflict and persecution in remote tribal communities. He also… Continue reading

Mapping Linguistic Diversity

Mexico’s indigenous ethnolinguistic landscape is rich in diversity and complexity. While conducting research into the geography of ethnic people groups in southern Mexico from 2011-2013, we visited many indigenous communities. Amazingly, in Oaxaca state, by far Mexico’s most ethnically diverse, about 180 indigenous languages are still in use today. While many of these languages are disappearing, you will still encounter tribal communities where Spanish is hardly if at all spoken. Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (National Indigenous Languages Institute, or INALI) released its most recent Catalogue of Indigenous Mexican Languages in 2008, listing each known indigenous language and dialect with the names of the towns and villages where they are spoken. This data was compiled from multitudes of linguistic field studies, many conducted by Bible translators, and from government census notes. In spite of the geographic richness and detail of this data, surprisingly we could not find any existing maps prepared from it. Even after scouring the web, not a single map at this level of detail, even of Oaxaca, could be found illustrating the locations of Mexico’s hundreds of linguistic subgroups – which in most cases are very unique dialects unto themselves. The most detailed maps we could find depicted only the main language families. As the lead geographic researcher for this project, Drake was determined to convert this wealth of information from a list of names and places into an actual map showing the spatial spread and divisions among each ethnolinguistic group. However, preparing the data for mapping would prove tedious, as the INALI catalogue was not published in… Continue reading

AC-14 reveals an ever evolving movement

In May I participated in the 2014 Amazon Consultation (AC-14) in Quito, Ecuador. Prepared and hosted by ALTECO every year since 2004, this annual event draws together hundreds of individuals from ministries and organizations with a common focus on empowering Amazon tribes to complete the Great Commission in that region and beyond. For Megan and I, these gatherings have for years been a source of encouragement, and an opportunity develop friendships and working relationships with many people we might have never otherwise met. AC-14 was exceptional. It signaled a huge shift in momentum of Amazon missions work from the foreigners towards national and tribal ministries, which is our goal! Until recently, Amazon missions was largely considered the work of foreigners, including North Americans, Europeans, and (more recently) Koreans. And while foreign missionaries are still active across the region, our role is evolving more towards empowering Christians from national and tribal-led ministries. Field research is key to their success, and while in Ecuador I led a research workshop attended by a mixed group of North American, European, nationals from several South American countries, and tribal leaders. Practical research – the intentional gathering and use of coordinated field data – is helping ministries work smarter and closer together with better information to assess and meet the many needs of unreached and uncontacted Amazon tribes. Now more than ever national and tribal ministries want to do their own research, from field surveys, to database development and building maps. Mapping serves a big role in this work. I was amazed by the reactions of several indigenous attendees from Ecuador… Continue reading

A hidden tribe emerges

Alto Rio Envira, Acre - FUNAI

Last week, video footage was released by FUNAI (Brazil’s National Indian Foundation) of a tribe living in voluntary isolation, possibly since the Amazon rubber boom of the late 1800’s, perhaps much longer, emerging recently from the jungle near the Peruvian border. Speaking a language from the Panoan linguistic family, interpreters brought in by FUNAI were able to communicate with the group of three young men. Transcripts of the reported conversation are chilling. Many from their tribe, including most, if not all of their leaders, were killed recently by drug traffickers and loggers intruding in their traditional (and supposedly protected) land just across the border in Peru. Those that that weren’t shot died of disease, likely flu or diphtheria, contracted from the intruders. Isolated tribes such as these have few immunities to common illnesses. According to our own contacts in the area, these men were probably part of a sub-group of the Mastanahua tribe, which according to Peru’s Ministry of Culture numbered less than 80 people in 2007. Christian missionaries have in the past attempted with little progress to contact this tribe. What could have been a peaceful contact by missionaries who care for these people, not only as a unique culture but as human souls loved by God and in need of a relationship with Him, instead became a tragic, violent encounter. Efforts by secular anthropologists and many NGOs petitioning governments to seal off these known tribal areas to non-indigenous outsiders have only succeeded in keeping out law-abiding missionaries. Drug traffickers, illegal loggers, miners, poachers and corrupt governing officials do not… Continue reading

2014 Amazon Consultation – Ecuador

Etnias del Ecuador

Every year since 2004, ALTECO has hosted an extraordinary event, the annual Amazon Consultation – the world’s only meeting that consistently brings together so many key participants from the “Three Waves” mission movement – expatriate, national and tribal – in a single venue. It is an incredibly strategic week where enduring partnerships that transcend culture and language are formed. And it is an encouragement for all of us working together to see that the remaining 200-250 unreached Amazon tribes may gain access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that they can truly understand, and that leads to transformation across the Amazon & Lowland of South America! On Monday, Drake travels to Ecuador to attend this year’s Amazon Consultation, held for the first time in South America! He will be leading a workshop entitled “La Investigacion: Paso Clave Para Tribus No Alcanzadas” (Research: Key Step for Unreached Tribes), an interactive training session to help national and tribal missionaries gather and share vital field information in remote jungle regions. He will stay a few days longer to participate in a seminar on leadership and character development in a tribal context, uniquely designed a coworker who is also a renown leadership expert in South America. We expect at least 130 key leaders at this event. Paul Johnson, president of ALTECO, highlighted the following: Over 40 tribal people from all across South America, including many tribal women, will attend! Around 10 men and women from the Waorani (Auca) tribe will also be there. This tribe killed the first five missionaries who… Continue reading

Strategic meetings with tribal leaders in Bolivia – please pray!

Tribal Christians across the Amazon and lowlands of South America face unique challenges. Radically changing social and political environments means that the need to organize and work together is greater than ever. Much of today was spent with key tribal leaders from several countries working out the realities and practicalities of creating an internationally-recognized, entirely-indigenous led network across 11 countries through which tribal Christians can effectively mobilize and complete the Great Commission in this region. These meetings will intensify over the days ahead as we move to a new location and as more tribal leaders join in. Please be in prayer for Drake and the rest of his team this week, that God will lead be glorified through these discussions, and that they will yield great changes for tribal communities of South America. Continue reading

Big event in Bolivia!‏

While most of the world fixates on the Winter Olympics and its many controversies, there’s another event about to quietly take place just outside of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It will not make international news. Yet the significance is enormous in terms of the Great Commission in the Amazon Rainforest. I am right now on my way there (writing this from the airport in Panama) where I have the privilege of joining some of today’s most active and strategic leaders in Christian missions across the Amazon. A very diverse group reflecting the evolving and future face of world missions, I will be one of only a handful of North Americans. These men and women are not just Spanish and Portuguese speaking nationals; they include many of the tribal leaders themselves from as far away as Colombia and Ecuador. Considered by many to be the most important Amazon missions leadership gathering in the past ten years, the focus of discussion will be on what progress has been made, what are the outstanding issues affecting so many tribal communities today, and how can we all work closer together to both disciple and reach further into the regions where the Gospel message has yet to be shared. I invite you to follow along on Twitter or by friending and following us on Facebook. Blessings in Christ, Drake Continue reading

The drive north

We are now back in Florida. And far from a leisurely joyride, the drive from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Texas was nothing short of an adventure! It certainly showcased God’s grace and protection, for which we are so thankful. While reviewing our ‘exit plan’ out of Mexico a couple of months ago, Megan and I debated whether or not she should travel by road with me. Anticipating difficulties on the road in light of her going into the third trimester of our pregnancy however, we felt it best that she fly back in advance to Florida. I have driven in many countries. Few match Mexico’s generous proportions of hazards such as corrupt police, drug cartel roadblocks and roaming livestock. The thought of dragging my late-term, pregnant wife along for three-days of such ‘adventure’ would be absurd, especially when we could board her on a quick flight out to Miami. So, with Megan safely in Florida, I spent the next few weeks wrapping up ministry responsibilities and preparing to leave Oaxaca, our home of the past two and a half years. Not keen on driving alone, I tried recruiting a ‘copilot’ for the road. Apparently the opportunity to drive through North America’s most notorious corridor was low on everyone’s to-do list, and I had no takers. Discussing this over Skype with my parents who live in Germany, my dad out of the blue offered to travel with me out of Mexico. For context, back in the 1970’s, before I arrived into the world, my parents were stationed as diplomats with the American embassy in Mexico… Continue reading