He [Touched] a Tribe
by Robert Walker
With a five-and-a-half-foot-long Motilone arrow in his thigh and surrounded
warriors, Bruce Olson was about to test the power of God to deliver.
NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Bruce Olson stood at the edge of a clearing. He had
been following the thin jungle trail high in the Colombian Andes for several
hours. Somehow he felt he was being watched. Indeed, if this was a Motilone
Indian trail, he knew he was in grave danger. Should he cross the clearing?
Answer to his question came more quickly than he anticipated. He heard
the arrows, but could not see them until one struck him in the thigh. Dropped
to the ground, he looked up into the faces of five fierce-appearing Indians
with drawn bows.
They circled him, puncturing his skin -- whether to torture him to death
slowly or simply punish him for intruding on their territory, he could
not be sure. Plainly, however, these were the Motilone Indians.
Bruce Olson is willing to admit that, in the face of the fear that knotted
in his stomach at the moment, he was not then thankful to God. But hours
later as captive in a Motilone village, he expressed his gratitude to his
heavenly Father for finally enabling him to find the Motilones.
The year was 1961. For Bruce the trail to the Motilones had been a long
and tortuous one. As a youth in Minneapolis he had been converted to Christ
in the Lutheran church of his parents. Yet it was not until one day in
his senior year at school that he faced the challenge of total commitment
to Jesus Christ as Lord.
He was seated in the school library. He realized it could mean the loss
of friends, a promising career, wealth, and social prestige. As the minutes
passed, Bruce struggled over his decision. Finally he concluded that Christ
must control his life.
During high school Bruce had studied Greek and Hebrew. After graduation
he enrolled briefly at the University of Pennsylvania and later audited
classes in linguistics at the University of Michigan. But time was short.
He believed God wanted him to tell people who had never heard the Gospel
that Jesus Christ alone was the way to eternal life. He concluded that
the Indians of South America would be the best candidates.
Both his parents and friends attempted to dissuade him, but Bruce could
not be deterred. He bought a one-way ticket to Venezuela and landed at
Caracas with only $70.
Because he was only 19 Bruce immediately ran into the problem of getting
a permanent visa to remain in the country. Thoroughly discouraged, be sat
down at a table in a restaurant one day. The restaurant was crowded and
a man he had never seen before sat down at his table. Bruce explained his
predicament, and his newfound friend offered to help, identifying himself
as Roberto Irwin, private secretary to Rómulo Betancourt, then president
But Bruce's troubles were far from over even when Irwin fulfilled his
promise. For when he applied for a permit to contact Indian tribes in the
remote jungles, his request was denied. Nothing he could do or say would
avail. Missionaries simply were not wanted. But Bruce was convinced that
God had not brought him this far to desert him. As he prayed, it seemed
to him that he should contact his friend Irwin again. When Bruce did, Irwin
introduced him to President Betancourt. When Betancourt heard his story,
he authorized him to work with any aboriginal tribe he chose.
So, it was not long before Bruce packed and headed into the jungles.
He was poorly prepared for the rigors of the trail. When the first night
came he made a bed of leaves in the dark and tried to open a can of sardines.
He had forgotten a can opener, so the best he could do was puncture the
tin with a stone and drink the oil. The next three days he wandered on
and off the trail, until the afternoon of the third day when he topped
a ridge and spotted a village in the valley below.
As be approached the village be shouted greetings in Spanish. Several
old men came toward him, making sounds by running their fingers over their
lips. How could be communicate with them? Then he pulled out a flute he
had purchased in Caracas and began to play.
Immediately one of the men dived into a hut and drew out a flute made
of bone. For the next six hours Bruce learned the native tunes of the tribe.
That night Bruce was placed in their jail to wait the return of the
chief who was on a hunting expedition. The next day he learned these were
Yuko Indians who already had been visited by missionaries.
By the time the chief and his warriors returned, Bruce had administered
penicillin shots for an infection he had noted in some of the children
and had won the affection of the older people in the village. As a result,
he was allowed to remain in the village and learned to live like the Indians.
At the end of six months he had learned a few Yuko words and formulated
a plan for reaching the Motilones. He would move from one Yuko village
to another in the direction of the Motilone territory. Because of the fierceness
of the Motilones, he knew that on the last leg of his journey he would
have to be on his own. No Yuko would enter the Motilone territory.
It was the following of his plan that had brought him to the clearing.
Now with a Motilone arrow in his thigh and surrounded by five Motilone
warriors, Bruce was again about to test the power of God to deliver.
The Motilones dragged Bruce to their village. As in the case of the
Yukos, the tribal chief was on a hunting trip. It was plain to Bruce, however,
that the majority favored killing him immediately.
That night he was stricken with amebic dysentery, the deadly disease
of the tropics. He diagnosed his own case and concluded that only God could
heal him, for he had no medicine. Dysentery ravaged his body. By the second
day be was so weak he found it difficult to walk.
The next night was a moonless one. Somehow it seemed to him he must
try to get away. Once more he called upon God for strength. Late that night
he was able to slip out of the communal dwelling where he had been held
prisoner. In the darkness he groped his way along the trail until he came
to a river. Stumbling and falling and rising again, he waded upstream.
Five days later he reached the head waters. Ten more tortuous days passed.
He had eaten no food and had no idea how many miles he had traveled. Then
he saw a clearing and stumbled into a settlement. From there he was rushed
to the nearest town for medical help.
Within two weeks Bruce was back in the jungle headed for his Motilone
Indians. This time he loaded a canoe with medical supplies and gifts. Eventually
he reached a beach where only a few months before the Motilone Indians
bad killed four fishermen and wounded five others. Pitching camp, he searched
the jungle for trails. Finding several, he placed gifts on them.
Months passed and the gifts remained undisturbed. One day, however,
they bad disappeared and in their place Bruce found four arrows stuck in
the ground. Oil company officials had warned him this meant 'stop or be
killed." Confident that the Lord would watch over him, 'Bruce pushed on
down the trail.
As he was chopping down a tree the next day be suddenly looked up and
saw that a group of Indians had surrounded him. Their bows were drawn as
bad been the case when the first Motilones had captured him. As they approached
Bruce recognized one of them from the communal dwelling where he had been
held. He gave the Motilone greeting, a lift of the eyebrows and a nod of
the head. Immediately the Indian smiled, spoke to the others, and they
withdrew the arrows from their bows.
Bruce was taken to the Motilone village and allowed to run free. Carefully
he studied their language, writing down words and phrases when he believed
he had their meanings. Occasionally he discovered how mistaken he had been.
On one occasion he kept repeating a phrase which he later learned meant
that he was asking to be taken to the great chief of the Motilones who
demanded death on sight of all white men. The Indians had refused. But
finally they agreed and it was too late for Bruce to retract.
Four days along the trail Bruce developed a serious case of hepatitis.
As he became weaker the Indians took turns carrying him. By the time they
reached the village of the chief Bruce was nearly unconscious.
The chief ordered him immediately killed. But the friendly Motilones
argued, "There is no reason to kill him. He is half dead already. Let him
die if God wants him to die." Bruce learned later that the worst thing
that could happen to a Motilone is to die a natural death outside his own
territory. Such a person is doomed and damned forever. Hence, the chief
decided this should be Bruce's fate.
One day he heard excited shouts of the Indians outside of the hut where
he lay. From what he could determine, the Indians were describing a vulture
like creature which was swooping over them. Moments later Olson heard the
drone of an airplane.
Although his mind was dulled by pain, Bruce persuaded the Motilones
to carry him out to the clearing. At his urging the Indians spread his
plastic jungle tent with red lining out on top of the communal hut. Then
they fled into the bush.
The plane proved to be a helicopter. After circling the clearing and
spotting the plastic tent, the pilot lowered the plane to the ground. Out
jumped a physician. The two men had decided to see what the famous Motilone
territory looked like. Of all the immense territory over which they could
have flown, God sent them to the exact spot where Bruce lay sick. Placing
the young missionary into the helicopter, they headed toward a hospital.
Again Bruce's recovery proved astonishing. Within a few weeks he was on
the trail again headed for Motilone territory. Five days later Bruce Olson
-- the man the Motilones had believed had been carried away by the giant
vulture -- walked back into their communal house. The Motilones shook their
heads in disbelief. "This could not be the same man; it must be his spirit."
In the months that followed Bruce won his way into the Motilone tribe.
He learned to eat inch-long soft-skinned worms (a Motilone delicacy) by
biting off their heads and sucking out the insides with a smack of his
lips (to indicate his pleasure). He also mastered the art of pulling off
the legs of the walnut-size beetles before cracking their backs like a
nut and sucking out their insides.
His first confrontation with the witch doctor of the tribe -- a woman
-- came during an epidemic of pink eye. Deliberately Bruce infected himself.
When the witch doctor came to chant over the others Bruce asked for the
same treatment. Everyone was worse the next day. Again the witch doctor
came. By the third day Bruce's eyes were swollen almost shut. As he watched
the witch doctor, he could tell that she was using her strongest spell.
Now was the time to try his plan.
Calling her over, he offered her tube of Terramycin. "Put this in my
eyes," he said, "and see if it does any good."
The next day Bruce's eyes were improved; the others worse. In 48 hours
his eyes were completely healed. He suggested to the witch doctor that
she try the Terramycin on the eyes of the others. She did and was acclaimed
for her cure.
When the epidemic spread to other communal dwellings Bruce offered her
the tube of Terramycin again. This time she didn't bother with her chants.
In much the same way Bruce helped the tribal chief. Bruce did not attempt
to offer new foods to the Indians. Instead he planted corn in a little
patch of ground that he had cultivated away from the communal house. The
Motilone Indians were the only known tribe in South America who did not
grow corn. In fact, they had no word for corn in their language.
When the chief saw Bruce eating it, he asked what it was. After the
chief had eaten it several times and had expressed his delight with it,
Bruce suggested that he offer some seeds to his people and encourage them
to plant it. When the chief did, his people hailed him as a great benefactor.
Although Bruce did not get the credit himself, the chief became his friend
One day the chief and the witch doctor asked each other, "Why is this
white one helping us with our people? When he came we tried to kill him.
But everything he has done for us has been good. Does this good one have
some message for us from the god of the great vulture bird that snatched
him away, healed him, and then brought him back to us?"
These questions soon came to Bruce. Now the long hours he had spent
sitting around the fire listening to the folklore began to bear fruit.
He had gained a fair command of the language; he knew the folk stories.
There was Dibo-dibo (God) and Iskoridida (heaven, or literally translated,
Carefully Olson reconstructed their fireside stories for the Motilones.
He pictured Dibo-dibo as so loving the Motilone that He wanted every one
of them to live with Him. But because the Motilones stole and cheated and
killed, God had to send His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth many years ago.
Here He lived like a man and underwent all the hardships of the trail that
every Indian experiences.
Then some wicked people, despite the many good things that Jesus did,
killed Him. Because He was the Son of Dibo-dibo, however, God raised Him
from the dead and took Him to Iskoridida.
Bruce pointed out to the Motilones: that if they would commit their
lives to Dibo-dibo's Son, Jesus Christ, and try to please Him. He
would always be with them on the trail no matter how great the danger.
About two years ago Bruce Olson saw the first evidence of the Holy Spirit's
work in the heart and life of a Motilone. Kobrydrá Bobarishora was
the young man whose arrow first hit Bruce on the trail to the village.
He had listened more intently to Bruce's story of the Gospel than the others.
Soon Bobarishora's actions evidenced a change in his thinking. "I have
Jesus talk in my stomach and in my mouth," he said. (The stomach is the
center of emotions for the Motilone.)
Since Bobarishora's conversion, other Motilones also have "Jesus talk
in their stomachs."
Meanwhile Bruce Olson, now 25, has continued to help Motilone tribal
chiefs improve the physical life of their people. He has brought in domesticated
chickens, turkeys and sheep. In addition to corn and rice, he has taught
them to cultivate coconut trees. As a result the Motilones, once a nomadic
people forced to move about to locate food, now have settled down to a
more happy and healthy life.
Bruce Olson insists, however, that the prosperous future of the Motilones
does not depend upon these material advantages. Rather it is the lives
of the born-again Christians who will insure the physical health and material
welfare and -- above all, an eternity with Christ for the Motilones.