Ocata and Moipa are father and son, members of the Waorani Nationality. In many ways they embody the contemporary story of the Waorani: a strong and proud hunting culture that controlled the largest territory of Ecuador’s Amazonian peoples, first contacted by missionaries in 1956, resistant to that contact but eventually succumbing to the inevitable changes abound, grouped into missionary settlements that would become the basis for many modern day communities, forced to learn Spanish and concede much of their traditional lands to the Ecuadorian state and to the oil companies. Marginalized and yet ever resistant, many Waorani gave in to pressure and began working in the extractive industries operating in their territory, or drinking newly available alcohol, while others continued fighting to protect their lands, culture, and their uncontacted family members living deep in the forest.
Ocata grew up in the time that preceded contact by the Western world. His father was Nihua, a legendary warrior and clan leader, who led many battles to secure Waorani territory south of the Napo River against other nationalities and tribes, and later, against soldiers of the Ecuadorian state. Ocata would accompany his father on raiding missions along the Napo, even into the quickly growing settlement of Coca, and was present on the raid in which his father was killed and beheaded by the Ecuadorian army: a message to the Waorani that continued to resist contact. Eventually, Ocata and his community were forced to put down their spears and accept, to a certain degree, the colonization of their lands. Despite this tragic turn from being a “free Waorani” to a contacted Waorani, Ocata has continued to maintain many of the old ways. He is considered one of the best hunters among his people. He hunts with a shotgun as well as the traditional blow gun and spear. He makes crafts, hammocks, and bags using palm fibers, and takes his young grandson on hunts and walks through the forest, teaching him about medicinal plants and how to hunt with spear and blowgun. Ocata is one of the last remaining contacted Waorani that can tell of a life before contact. His eyes squint wistfully as he recounts stories from his youth. Maybe he longs for times past, when the Waorani were truly free. Maybe he is saddened by the inevitability that when he passes, there won’t be anyone left to tell these stories. Or maybe he looks at his grandson and knows that despite the threats against them, the Waorani will continue to resist as a strong and proud people in their forest home.
Ocata Nihua on a hunt in the forest with his shotgun. Photo: Mitch Anderson
Moipa is Ocata’s son and a bridge between the ancient Waorani ways of life and the Western world. He no longer hunts regularly; he dresses in Western clothing except on special occasions, and spends a lot of time in the city of Coca. Yet, as leader of the Waorani organization of Orellana, ONWO, Moipa fights to defend Waorani territory from colonist invasion, deforestation, and extractive industry. He has been one of the primary advocates for the protection of the territory of uncontacted Waorani. Moipa represents the 32 Waorani communities in Orellana province and uses his position as a mediator between the Western political system that governs Ecuadorian society and Waorani decision-making practices to strengthen these communities. He also works as ClearWater coordinator for his community, Yawepare, working to ensure that his people have access to clean drinking water. Moipa speaks Wao terero, the Waorani language, with his wife and children, and prefers to be at his home in the forest than in the city. However, his political role would seem to indicate that in this day and age, it is the ability to adapt while maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity that will ensure the survival of his people. When his father tells stories, Moipa listens and translates. Even though Ocata recounts events and describes people from times long past— very different from the reality of today— the look on Moipa’s face indicates an inherent understanding. In the Amazon, place and memory are intricately linked. The Waorani’s struggle to protect their rainforest is a struggle to conserve their historical memory, their identity.
Moipa, his wife Ana, and their children in front of their rain catchment system. Photo: Mitch Anderson
Moipa, along with his family and various neighbors, relax at home during the evening, talking and watching Hollywood action movies on their television powered by a gas generator. Photo: Mitch Anderson