Wheaton College to Reword Plaque Calling Indigenous People ‘Savage Indians’

Wheaton College has decided to reword a plaque located on its campus that refers to Indigenous people as “savage Indians.”

The Illinois-based evangelical liberal arts college received the plaque in 1957 by Wheaton’s class of 1949 to commemorate classmates Jim Elliot and Ed McCully, as well as Nate Saint, Roger Youderian and Peter Fleming, who were killed in Ecuador while serving as missionaries to the Waorani people. 

The missionaries’ story was memorialized in the film End of the Spear and in books written by Elliot’s widow, famed author Elisabeth Elliot. After weeks living among the Waorani, the men were killed by a group of Waorani warriors. The plaque commemorates their lives and missionary work, but the language regarding the Waorani people as a whole became a topic of concern among the Wheaton community. 

In a joint statement from Wheaton’s students, faculty and staff, they addressed the negative connotations and effect harmful language has on Indigenous people. They wrote,“Specifically, the word ‘savage’ is now recognized as being inherently pejorative and having been often used historically to dehumanize and mistreat native peoples around the world.”

Wheaton College President Philip Ryken addressed that a task force had been created earlier this spring to analyze the plaque and come up with a solution that would continue to honor the missionaries’ work while respecting the Waorani.

“In the 64 years since the College received this gift, we have continued to grow in our understanding of how to show God’s love and respect to people from every culture,” Ryken said in a written statement. “We have also learned much more about God’s ongoing work among the Waorani. We welcome this opportunity to ensure that we tell this unforgettable story in ways that reflect the full dignity of people made in the image of God.”

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The plaque will now be reworded in part to say: “God called them to the rainforest of Ecuador and the Waorani, a people who had never heard the gospel message. Known for their violence to encroaching outsiders and for internal cycles of vengeance killing, they were among the most feared indigenous peoples in South America at the time… God’s redemptive story continues as the gospel is still shared among the Waorani to this day.”

Wheaton plans to dedicate the new plaque this fall in the lobby of Edman Chapel.

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