Introduction / History The Deni people are located in Amazonas near the Western border of Brazil, very close to Bolivia. Until 1976 the Deni had extremely little contact with the outside world due to the distance to the closest pockets of population. In 1976, the accessibility to the Deni increased dramatically but even with that, the distance made it difficult for anyone to come into the area and have an impact.
The first contact with the Deni was with rubber traders, prior to synthetic rubber being invented. Rubber comes from sap of a tree and was collected and exported. The Goodyear company was especially prevalent in that area of Brazil and built a very opulent opera house in Manaus, where most of the executives lived and the location of the export hub of the rubber trade. During that time in the history of the Deni, they indicated that it was almost slave labor and very little benefit for the people. At the advent of vulcanized rubber, that ceased very quickly and, outside of some people going for exotic timber, they were left alone. During the time of the rubber barons some of the Portuguese language was acquired.
Any contact involves gaining trust with the people. The first two groups that had contact with them -- the rubber traders and the loggers -- had a negative impact on the people. They were forced to work for next to nothing while starving because as they were working they could not hunt or tend their gardens. That started a mistrust of outsiders that had a lasting impact.
Gordon and Lois Koop, along with their five children moved into the Deni village in about 1972. These Wycliffe Bible Translators did not demand to speak to them in Portuguese. Instead they started right off with language acquisition. Things that made their acceptance possible were: learning their language, building a house similar to theirs in the village and paying them for work that they did while building the house. They primarily paid them in axe heads and bush knives, matches and the like. They were not there to transform culture but to build up trust. Neither did they give things away because that would be counterproductive. They were tearing down the walls that could cause misunderstanding.
After a few years, the Deni were very curious about their reason for being there. Everyone else was there to get what they wanted and were gone as fast as they came. They told them of the God that loved them, wanted the best for them and wasn't interested in their offerings to ensure safety in the jungle. That got them interested and they asked if they would be allowed to record some of their stories into their language so that they could know who God was. They did not demand, but asked for permission. They gave it to them because they had earned their trust over the years of language learning.
They had to create the alphabet and analyze the grammar and translate stories of how Jesus loved, healed, cared for and looked out for the best of everyone. Sunave, a man paralyzed from the waist down, was the first language helper and became the first Christian. There were a few others that became followers of Jesus Christ in those initial years because they recognized the love of God rather than the wrath of the gods in the everyday lives of the people. It was a major breakthrough in the tribe when some of the men went on a hunting trip without the typical sacrifices to the gods. They trusted in the God who loved them to take care of them. This was huge! There was a struggle with the shaman when this began but it was short-lived.
In 1976 an airstrip team arrived. There were a lot of questions at first as to how much money the team was going to make. When they heard the team members paid to go there and work for 8 ½ weeks with them, it had a major impact on their lives. They had already been working on the airstrip for 2 years and hadn't gotten that far and God made it possible for the team to finish in the time available. As they were getting a team picture in front of the airplane on the airstrip for the first time, many of the Deni joined them because it was a team effort.
As the team departed, the chief of the Deni said, "Send them back because they are a part of us now and we belong together" as tears were streaming down his face.
Where are they located? The Deni are located near the Bolivian boarder in Amazonas, Brazil. With estimates ranging between 1,100 and 2,000 speakers, there is no known presence of this group in any other country than Brazil. Deni is the commonly known name of the language and although there are several who have a rudimentary knowledge of Portuguese, there is not an in-depth understanding such that there would be a great understanding of the Bible or any other printed material.
What are their lives like? The Deni received the rights to their land and resources in just 2003 with the help of FUNAI. The culture of the Deni is one of a subsistence culture. The culture is male dominated and polygamy is an accepted way of life. The main crops are manioc, banana, pineapple, some type of greens and locally grown cocaine for the all-night festivals.
Marriage happens for the females at about 11-12 years of age and for the males at 15-17 years of age. The "marriage ceremony" is when the father of the bride cuts her hammock down in his house and goes and hangs it up in the house of the man (By this age he usually has a home of his own). If there is a falling out and a divorce, which is rare, it will be the man's decision. The hammock is cut down from beside the husband's and he throws it out into the middle of the village.
It is primarily the ladies' job to tend the crops and the men's job to hunt. The main sources of protein are monkey, wild tapir, snake, turtle, fish and exotic birds. The weapon of choice is the bow and arrow, with different kinds of arrows used for different types of game. Even with protein available, there is pronounced malnutrition, especially in young children.
Family is important to the Deni and they seem to lead a peaceful existence. They possess weapons, some that are traditional and a few that are obtained from the outside through trading. Several have shotguns, very prized, and more have bush knives. The ladies have inexpensive metal pots and pans from river traders that come through occasionally.
What are their beliefs? The basic worldview is a pantheistic view of the world. They see deity in things and there are different offerings to placate the gods as they go into the jungle. It is a dangerous place and they don't want to take any chances. There is no evidence of love toward God, but fear as to what he would be able to do if not satisfied with their gifts.
Since Pantheism is prevalent and they have shamans in order to advise them, they are compliant, not wanting anything bad to happen to them. There is no evidence of love, care and concern that the gods necessarily have for the people and the attitude of the people is more of fear and dread. They are devoted to the point that they don't want something bad to happen to them, their families and their crops, but devotion out of a sense of love and duty is not evidenced.
What are their needs? They need, at least, the whole new Testament. That would provide a chance for health for a growing church. In the new paradigm for Bible translation, there are many more people involved. That would give the number needed to be exposed to the Bible that a small Bible study or church could form, by the Deni from the things that they learned in the translation process.
Literacy is needed in order for the church to be fully formed. The Deni culture would be very receptive to multimedia resources for the pre-literate. That would give everyone a chance to hear the Bible in a language that they most clearly understand. Imagine listening groups around Proclaimers growing into Bible studies and churches.