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American Missionary Harriet Fields returning from Matses Territory after making peaceful contact

This black and white photographic image shows American missionary Harriet Fields returning from her historic mission in the 1960s during which she successfully made the first peaceful contact with the Matsés tribe who until this time were an uncontacted tribe living apart from the modern world.  Until her historic journey, the Matsés Indians were actively kidnapping women and raiding settlements for iron tools that they needed to survive in the Amazon Rainforest.  In the 1960s the last of the great Matsés shamans, Dunu (whose name means "snake" in the Matsés language), was leading his Matsés tribe on incredible and daring raids in both Brazil and Peru.  The Matsés shaman Dunu realized that his native tribe would become extinct and disappear, like so many small tribes in the area, if they did not expand their population and defend their territory.  To expand their population, they needed women, and to the horror of the Peruvians, Dunu organized a daring raid for women on a Catholic convent in Requena near the Ucayali River, far from the Matses territory located on the Yavari and Yaquerana Rivers.  The Peruvians were outraged when the Matses kidnapped the nuns and they created a militia to invade the Matsés lands. Incredibly, even the American military became involved, sending in helicopters from the US Southern Command to evacuate the Peruvian military when they became stranded in Matsés territory.  Perhaps even more incredible, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey helped the Peruvian military test out a new napalm by burning down Matsés villages.  Although Dunu and his Matsés people successfully escaped the militias sent to destroy them by abandoning their villages and hiding deep in the Amazon Rainforest, it was hard on the Matsés and by the end of the 1960s, they were ready to make peaceful contact with outsiders.  SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) missionaries encountered a Peruvian woman who had escaped from the Matses tribe and used her to learn about the Matses language.  They discovered that the Matsés spoke a Pano language in the same language family as the Shipibo Indians who lived nearby to their SIL headquarters in Yarinacocha, Peru.  Harriet Fields learned basic Matsés from this previously captured woman and successfully contacted the Matsés by flying in to their territory.  Recently when asked by email about how she convinced the Matsés to stop kidnapping women and killing outsiders, Fields replied that she never told the Matsés to stop their raids, rather she translated to them what the Bible says and the Matses on their own decided to stop their raids and to stop killing outsiders.  Fields ended up spending the next three decades with the Matsés helping these indigenous Amazonians learn how to deal with the outside world while at the same time preserving their language and culture.  In the early 2000s, Fields left the Matsés and retired in the United States.  Her departure has been hard on the Matsés people and currently, little aid reaches them and their suffering has increased in her absence.  Harriet Fields is dearly missed by the Matsés tribe; her dedicating her life to the Matsés was no small sacrifice and was probably as important to the survival of the Matsés people as were the Matsés shaman Dunu's historic feats to expand the Matsés population and territory.   


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Photograph © Copyright Chuck Clark, all rights reserved. Missionary Harriet Fields