Bruce Olson, also known as Bruchko, was born in Minnesota. He is known for his success in helping the Motilone-Bari tribe of South American “Indians” come to terms with civilization and partaking of its benefits, but not its vices. He is also known for bringing Christianity to them and for his extreme bravery and godliness while being tortured by Communist guerrillas. However, his approach and the response of the Motilones was unusual and could be called unorthodox.
Bruce Olson arrived in Colombia, South America ca. 1961 with a burden on his heart to reach an indigenous tribe with the Gospel, and he had chosen the Motilone-Bari (or Motilón-Barí) group. He was initially rebuffed in his efforts to receive permission, but he was befriended by Roberto Irwin, private secretary to Rómulo Betancourt, then president of Venezuela. After meeting with Olson, the President gave him permission.
In his attempt to encounter the Motilones, Olson was shot in the leg with an arrow. The Motilones then surrounded him and took him captive to their village. When the wound became infected, Olson escaped and made it back to civilization to have it treated. He returned a second time, he became sick and managed to get out and get medical care again.
He settled among them a third time. At some point he brought antiseptic, antibiotics and vaccines. Then he was able to help the Motilones with their medical needs. Instead of simply replacing the traditional healer (“witch doctor”), he taught her about simple modern medicine.
He shared the basic Gospel message with the Motilones, but his method differed from most missionaries by simply letting the Motilones choose which elements of traditional Christianity to adopt. Most of the ones he worked with directly have professed faith in Christ, but without baptism, building a church, or gathering together weekly as a congregation. Instead of European style hymns, they employed their own chanting to express their faith. And, unless they went into the White man’s world, they went topless. Some Christians question his abetting this kind of religious development.
Book and Trip to United States
Olson wrote a book called For this Cross I’ll Kill You about his early experiences. It was also published as Bruchko, which is how the Motilones pronounced his name. When he toured the United States to raise money for what he was trying to do to help the Motilones, he took his best friend, Bobarishora, with him.
Slander and Exoneration
A French anthropologist named Robert Jaulin briefly visited Olson and the Motilones. Then he wrote a stinging attack on Olson. He alleged that Olson had abandoned a visitor named Alexander Clark and left him to die in the jungle. That he had taken an indigenous person with him to the United States to display him, to raise money. That he had killed some indigenous people and enslaved others, making them work for him on his plantation. That he had made them build him a big house where he lived in idleness. That the people Olson was forcing to work for him were not actually Motilones anyway.
These accusations were picked up and repeated by a Swedish anthropologist named Lars Persson. Olson’s book was a Christian best-seller and he had become greatly admired. These accusations were of some concern to the Christian community in Sweden, including a journalist named Andres Küng. Küng traveled to Colombia to check them out.
He found that the big house was a communal one, where Olson had one hammock among many. The Motilones had their own gardens, set their own schedules and provided for themselves. Olson had helped them get a school and a reasonably well stocked clinic. He did not live in luxury or idleness. Bobarishora had asked to go see Olson’s homeland, just as Olson had come to his. The Motilones with whom Küng shared Jaulin’s accusations repudiated them. The word Motilone was commonly used to refer to several tribes, including the Barí. Alexander Clark also denied Jaulin’s story. When Küng shared these things with Persson, Persson apologized for simply repeating what Jaulin had said.
Captured by Communist Rebels
In their attempt to take over Colombia, the rebels wanted have firm control over the Motilones and their land. They thought Olson had enough influence among the Motilones that if they could make him join them, this would greatly help their endeavor. So, they captured him They tried to make him join them, holding out the promise of supporting their “noble” cause, but if he refused - the threat of death.
It was found that he knew a little medicine, so the guerrilla who had been given the job of camp medic came to him to learn what to do. Many of the rebels were ignorant of political philosophy (in spite of officially being Communists). Many of them didn’t know how to read. So he helped them by teaching different things. He also shared his faith with them and won many of them to Christ. In this context, he treated Sunday special, and did a lot of his Christian teaching then.
They still threatened him with death as he adamantly refused to take up arms to achieve political goals. So, they tortured him and forced him to watch them kill other prisoners, with whom he had established friendships. Not surprisingly, they told him that the Motilones had turned against him. They finally tied him up to face a firing squad. When they pulled their triggers, sound was heard, but Bruce was still alive, because the guns had blanks in them. This was their final test for him. They told him he was free to go. But, before he went, he wanted to make sure the Motilones’ rights and land would be free and unmolested. The guerrillas agreed.
When Olson got out, he found himself an international hero. Christians in various countries had united in prayer for him and the various tribes in Colombia had leagued together that if the guerrillas killed Olson, they would take up arms against the rebels. The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela both met him personally after he got out.
Accomplishments of the Motilones
Thousands of indigenous students have received bilingual education. Many of the Motilones have gone to more advanced training, including university. They have served as high officials in Colombia’s government. Yet, as of the report on http://www.bruceolson.com, most of them have come back to their ancestral homelands and have maintained their culture. They have officially been granted a reserve which encompasses most of their original territory. Through the efforts of Olson and others, they have some of the Bible in their own language.