Saturday, 2 March 2019

Painting Wild Indians


Painting Wild Indians
by A. Hyatt Verrill
From The Wide World Magazine, 1928, unsure which issue
  
I started to study the works and life of A. Hyatt Verrill almost 20 years ago. Verrill was contracted by the originator of the Museum of the American Indian, George Heye, to produce quite a few of these paintings. There were subsequent problems between the two. It appears that only 48 were ever delivered. Possibly an equal number were sold privately. His autobiography, Never a Dull Moment, published by Stillwoods, features one of these private paintings on the cover. This is the first full description of how these paintings were created.
I have substituted colour paintings where they were available, of course they were b&w in the original article./drf.

Very few men know more about the Indians of Central and South America than the Author, who has travelled far and wide among tribes who seldom set eyes on a white man. For years past he has been building up, for museum purposes, a series of pictures, painted from life, depicting Indians in ceremonial costumes or engaged in their daily avocations. This article describes some of his experiences while at work among these little-known races.

TO secure really good photographs of wild” Indians is not by any means an easy matter; and when I say “wild” Indians, I mean Indians who have not been in close contact with civilization, and not necessarily hostile or unfriendly tribes.
Indeed, one of the ethnologist’s greatest problems is to obtain pictures which are of scientific value as permanent records. This is especially true of the Indians of Central and South America, many of whom have scarcely been visited by white men, and most of whom are still in a far more primitive and unsophisticated state than the Red men of North America.
Usually, when one attempts to photograph these Indians, the prospective subjects either hide or run away, or else—in the case of those who are more civilizedassume such artificial and obviously posed positions and expressions that the results remind one of the old-fashioned photographs in the family album.
Indians, as a rule, strongly object to being photographed, even when they have never seen a camera before and have no idea what the instrument is for. To them it savours of witchcraft or magic, and while they may not actually fear it they feel that it is a good thing to keep away from. Moreover, the Indians dread the camera’s “eye.” The staring lens that “winks” in such a mysterious manner is, to their minds, the eye of some spirit who lives within the black box and is quite capable of looking into their minds and reading their most secret thoughts.
So great is their dread of this spirit-eye that if the lens is visible they will not approach within the camera’s range of vision. This is often a great convenience, for when one desires to be left alone, or wishes to guard against the curiosity and inquisitiveness of one’s Indian hosts, it is only necessary to open a camera and leave it in plain sight.
As long as the little glass “eye” is there to see, no Indian will approach, no matter how great the temptation may be. Many a time I have left my trade goods and other possessions fully exposed in the open, shed-like hut of an Indian village, and have been absent for days, feeling perfectly confident that the camera left on guard would prevent any native from rummaging through my property.
And here let me remark that the South American Indian is, until civilized, absolutely honest. He will not steal; but he is intensely curious, and delights in examining anything and everything the stranger possesses. He may rummage through one’s belongings, and even carry off handfuls of objects to show to friends and relatives, but he will invariably return them eventually. Nevertheless, it is not always desirable to have one’s possessions pulled about and hopelessly mixed when one is not present, and on such occasions an open camera is a most useful watch-dog.

INDIAN “PROXIES.”

A very potent factor in the Indians’ attitude toward the camera’s eye” is their almost universal belief in what may be called “proxies,” which are widely used among nearly all Central and South American tribes. These take the form of crude wooden, terra-cotta, or even stone effigies, which travellers often erroneously look on as idols or gods, but which in reality have no religious or sacred significance whatever, merely serving to take the place of some person or creature.
Thus the medicine-men of the Kunas, Tegualas, and other tribes of Panama use wooden figures to aid them in curing illness. As the medicine-man cannot remain constantly beside his patients, he places a wooden image near the sick man or woman, the little figure taking the doctor’s place and serving as his proxy. If, on his next visit, the medicine-man finds no great improvement in his patient’s condition, another “proxy” is placed on guard, and very often a sick Indian will be surrounded by several dozen imitation doctorsof this kind.
Among other tribes, such as the Guaymís, proxiesare carried to even greater lengths.
When a man is compelled to leave his house untenanted for a few days, in order to go on a hunt or a journey with his family, he does not bother to lock or bar his doors. Instead, he places a crude wooden effigy outside and goes forth perfectly confident that no one will enter during his absence.
Not only does the “proxy” deter trespassers by its mere presence, but the Indian believes that in some mysterious manner the figure left on guard will warn him if anyone attempts to enter the house, and will actually make known the identity of the trespasser! The Indian is convinced that a proxy,” no matter how crude, is possessed with the spirit of the person or creature it purports to represent. Hence, to his mind, the camera is the “proxy” of the owner, and possessed with the white man’s spirit.
Moreover, when he learns the purpose of the camera, or has it explained to him, he is more reluctant than ever to have his picture taken. He believes that the likeness or image of a person must inevitably possess the spirit, or at least a portion of the spirit, of the subject. A photograph of himself, carried far away, must take with it some of his spirit, which he naturally does not care to part with.
Quite frequently I have found that this objection may be overcome by giving the subject himself a copy of the photograph, for then he feels he has lost nothing, andblissfully unaware of such things as negativeshe is quite content, regarding the portrait as a valuable “proxy” for his own use.
Oddly enough, most of the South American Indians have a remarkable way of looking at pictures upside down! Among the innumerable tribes I have visited I have never found an Indianexcept those who had been in close touch with civilization and had learned betterwho did not follow this strange custom.
With the pictures right-side-up the Indians would stare at them uncomprehendingly, their faces expressionless and blank; but the instant one of their number turned the photograph bottom-up they would become excited and interested, and would point, chatter, and laugh as they recognized the features of themselves or their friends,
Another factor which adds to the difficulties of securing good photographs of these South American Indians is the fact that they usually dwell in dense jungles or forests where the light is poor and there are usually heavy shadows, while, with the well-known perversity of things inanimate, it usually rains or is dull at the very moment when all other conditions are propitious for securing the desired pictures.
If the light is good, the confidence of the Indians won, and a member of the tribe has been prevailed upon to brave the magic eye of the camera, the result is usually far from satisfactory, for the subject forthwith assumes a set, martyred expression entirely unlike his natural self.
Having encountered such difficulties, as well as many others, including the development of mould on negatives and films, the ruination of cameras by water, and such minor incidents, during many years’ experience among South and Central American tribes, and having frequently failed to secure the pictures I most desired, I decided that the only practical method of obtaining satisfactory likenesses of the Indians was to paint their portraits.

DIFFICULTIES OF TRANSPORT.

This, however, did not prove as easy and simple as it sounds. In the first place, to carry canvas, colours, brushes, and drawing materials into the jungles and forests and across vast mountain ranges was a problem in itself. In penetrating the fastnesses of the South American wilderness, and visiting little-known and remote regions, every superfluous ounce of dunnage must be discarded.
For days and weeks travel is by dug-out canoes along rivers filled with cataracts and rapids, where one’s craft must be hauled through whirlpools and fierce currents by straining, tugging Indians. Portages are frequent and often long and arduous; washouts and capsizes are all in the day’s work, and provisions for the boat’s crew and oneself must be carried, together with clothing, trade goods, and other essentials.
Not infrequently it is impossible to transport a canoe round a fall or cataract, and it becomes necessary to portage the whole outfit through the jungles to the head of the falls and there construct flimsy, cranky woodskins”—fragile craft made from cylindrical sections of barkin which to continue the journey. Often, too, the rivers may be far too shallow to permit the laden craft to pass, and all cargo must be unloaded and carried piecemeal for miles up-stream.
On one trip to the Shayshan Indians of Central America more than fifty portages were made in one day; and later on, while two men pushed and lifted the canoe over the shoals, the others and myself tramped for more than sixty miles over the only possible routethe uneven, slippery, water-worn cobbles of the dried-up river-bed. Even when travel is by land the difficulties of transportation are great.
Much of the forest is impenetrable until a path has been cut with machetes; and often the way leads through apparently bottomless swamps or up the precipitous sides of jungle-covered mountains. Very frequently, too, it is necessary to cross deserts or endless grassy savannahs where there is little or no water, where the sun beats down like a furnace or else rain falls in torrents, and where the dust and the pollen from the grasses fill one’s eyes, nose, and mouth.
Under such arduous conditions, every additional ounce of weight becomes the equivalent of a hundredweight, so far as transportation problems go; and paints, canvas, stretchers, and similar things are by no means light.
Even when one has solved the difficulties of transport and reached an Indian camp, one’s troubles are not over. There is nothing mysterious or magical about drawing or painting, even to the suspicious and superstitious Indian mind, for with few exceptions the Indian is something of an artist himself. But he much prefers watching the painter to serving as a model, while the interested, chattering crowd that gathers round effectually shuts off the subject even if, after endless trouble, he or she has been induced to remain fairly quiet for the time being.
Occasionally an Indian is found who is a born model, but his or her lot is not a particularly happy one. The sitter at once becomes the butt of laughter, raillery, jokes, and good-natured chaffing from every man, woman, and child of the village. Wizened old hags warn him of the dangers of getting his spirit into the picture; and, as a rule, after one or two trials, the model gives up in despair and runs away, or else assumes a set, fixed expression, as if undergoing some ceremonial torture.

WORKING IN SECRET.

I speedily discovered that ordinary methods would not serve in painting the Indians of the tribes I visited. Instead of at once proceeding to paint the people, therefore, I made brief and hurried pencil-sketches, working surreptitiously when my subjects were not looking or were busy at their various tasks.
I would jot down a bit here, a bit there; sometimes getting a nose, an ear, or half a face before the subject was aware of what I was doing; sometimes succeeding in drawing an entire head or figure, and often having great fun when some Indian would slip quietly up behind me and shout the news of his discovery, whereupon every member of the village would gather about, examining the sketches, holding them upside down, and shouting and laughing with glee at the various bits of anatomy on my sketch-pad.
Oftentimes, too, I made great headway by making drawings of various birds and animals, which I distributed among the Indians, who, in return, would allow themselves to be sketched. To supplement these hastily-made pictures, I would make equally rapid and usually unsuspected colour-sketches of costumes, facial decorations, and so on.
Sometimes, however, this proved difficult. On one occasion I found myself without the needed colour for recording the peculiar ochre-brown shade of the Indians’ skins, a shade which would, I knew, be impossible to carry in my mind; but I solved the problem in a rather unusual way. Gathering a number of dried leaves of various shades of brown, I matched the Indians’ complexions and carefully preserved the leaves, which were of exactly the same colour.
Very often, too, photographs even when entirely unsatisfactory as scientific records, or even for reproductionproved great helps in working up the portraits of the Indians in oils. Especially was this true of postures and attitudes assumed in ceremonial dances, religious rites, occupations, and so on. Quick snapshots taken without the subjects’ knowledge would record a position or attitude, even if all details of features and costume were hazy or lacking. But I had to be most circumspect in securing such snapshots.
Once let an Indian catch sight of the camera and one or two results was sure to occur. Either they would scurry to cover, buzzing somewhat angrily at having their ceremonies interrupted. or they would all halt in their tracks and stand staring at me. To obviate this, I found it necessary to conceal the instrument under my garments or inside a hut, and trust to luck and guesswork in snapping the shutter with the lens pointed from under my coat or through a chink in a wall.
Even with my sketches, my photographs, my notes, and my colour-keys to aid me, an immense amount of material was required in order to work up an accurate painting. Frequently I have used over fifty sketches, several dozen photographs, and as many colour-records in painting a single Indian; while hundreds of sketches, colour-charts, and photographs are necessary when painting a dance or a ceremonial group.
In nearly every case I have been careful to introduce only those costumes, ornaments, and implements which I actually collected, and which are now in the Museum of the American Indian. Thus the pictures become valuable ethnological records, and when it is desired to construct life-sized groups they can be used as guides, the identical costumes and decorations depicted being used on the models.

GORGEOUS HEAD-DRESSES.

One immense advantage that such pictures possess is that they show the gorgeous colouring of the Indians’ costumes. This is especially true of the feather headdresses, particularly those of the tribes of the interior of Brazil and Guiana. These are crown-like affairs of most brilliantly-coloured parrot and macaw feathers, fastened to a framework of basketry and topped off by several long scarlet, orange, or blue feathers from the tails of macaws.
At the rear, a long train or bobof gaudy feathershumming bird, cock-of-the-rock, parrot, and toucan skinshangs down the wearer’s back, and often a magnificent feather cape or mantle is also worn. Much of the detail and all the colour of such regalia are lost in photographs.
The same is true of the colours of the Indians’ skins. In this respect the pictures prove a revelation to many people who are accustomed to thinking of all Indians as “red men” or copper-coloured. Among the South and Central American tribes the colour varies from a rich brown to a pale yellow or olive, and many of these Indians are so fair-skinned that if dressed in conventional garb they would readily pass for white. This is also true of their features.
With few exceptions, the South American Indian bears little facial resemblance to his Northern cousins. Seldom do we see the high and prominent cheek-bones, the aquiline nose, thin lips, and strong chin which have become accepted as typical of the Indian. Instead, the South American Indians, as a whole, have rather flat, broad noses, rounded cheeks, full lips, and receding chins.
Among the Andean tribes of Peru are many with enormous beak-like nosesthe so-called Inca noseand among the Mapuches, or as they are more commonly called the Araucaniansof Southern Chile, we find regular Caucasian features, with well-developed beards and moustaches. We should never recognize these people as Indians if they were dressed in everyday clothes and met with in city streets.
Although comparatively few people realize the fact, there are many times more Indians in South America than in North America, and no one can say positively just how many tribes inhabit the jungles, forests, and mountains of the great southern continent. Of course, it would be practically impossible to paint the whole of these in a single lifetime, but much headway has already been made, and eventually it is hoped that all of the more important and characteristic types will be preserved on canvas.
A series showing the types, occupations, and dances of all the British Guiana tribes, together with several Panama tribes, was completed two years ago, and is now in the Museum of the American Indian; paintings of all the tribes of Panama, and many of Peru and Chile, were completed last year; and this year I expect to finish the series illustrating the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean tribes.
I have often been asked if I am not afraid of these Indians, and if I have not been in constant jeopardy while among them. This is a most natural question, as the public has been bountifully supplied with exaggerated tales of ferocious headhunters, lurking assassins with poisoned arrows, and unprovoked attacks, so that the average man thinks of all wild” Indians as hostile. As a matter of fact, I very much doubt whether any Central or South American tribe ever wantonly attacked a white man without provocation.
Of course the innocent may have suffered for the guilty at times, and Indians who have suffered at the hands of Venezuelans, Brazilians, and others, or who have been ill-treated by prospectors, rubber-gatherers, and adventurers, have often, no doubt, evened up scores by taking reprisals on white men who were in no way responsible for the abuses. But such cases are rare.
As a rule the Indians are discriminating, take the stranger at his face value, and treat him according to his deserts. Personally, I have never been attacked or even threatened by Indians, and I have visited many remote and almost unknown tribes. Some of these were reputably savage and hostile, and not a few had every reason to make short work of any white man they met.
As a rule, I have found these tribes hospitable, friendly, and most delightful peopleas long as they are untouched by civilization and have not learned the white men’s vices. To be sure, on one or two occasions I have passed some most unpleasant hours and have had some narrow escapes from serious trouble, but in every such case the fault was my own, or was due to some act on the part of my men or to a misunderstanding.

A NARROW SHAVE.

On one occasion, while visiting a remote Carib village in the hinterland of Guiana I found the Indians engaged in a religious ceremony and wrought up to a high pitch of excitement. As I arrived, followed by my retinue of Indian boatmen and their women, who served as porters, I noticed an ugly expression on the face of the chief, who was beating a ceremonial drum with a human leg-bone.
Instead of turning and welcoming me, as I greeted him in Caribee, the old fellow only banged his drum the harder, while his eyes fairly blazed and his painted face took on a demoniacal expression. I noticed, also, that the other Caribs were drawing nearer, that each had grasped a club, bow, or spear, and that we were entirely surrounded by a cordon of armed warriors.
I was utterly at a loss to account for such behaviour, for the Caribs are usually friendly and good-natured. For a time things looked ugly. I could not get a word out of the Indians; there were no replies to my questions, no explanation of their hostile attitude.
My black camp-boy was fairly shaking in his boots; the docile Indian boatmen were evidently frightened almost out of their wits, and I have no doubt that serious consequences would have resulted within the next two minutes if it had not been for the timely appearance of a young Carib whose village I had visited a few days previously, and who chanced to arrive at the psychological moment.
In a few words he cleared up the matter, and then I no longer wondered that the Carib chief was sullen. Some time previous to my visit, it appeared, a young buck of the village had run off with the chief’s favourite wife. To add insult to injury, the rascal had joined my party as a boatman and had had the effrontery to bring his lady friend with him into her ex-husband’s camp, trusting no doubt to my presence to safeguard him from the righteous vengeance of the wronged chief.
Once the reason for the Caribs’ attitude was made clear, I lost no time in straightening matters out. Cuffing and kicking the offending Indian from the village, and driving him and his woman to the boats, I ordered him to be off. Liberal presents of knives, files, and other trade goods mollified the angry chief, and presently we were all on the friendliest of terms.

THE SACRED COSTUMES.

On another occasion, while travelling up a Guiana river, I found a number of the strange parasara dance costumes hanging on snags or tacubas in the stream. The Indians wear these costumes of palm and fibre in the parasara dance, and after the ceremony, which is of a most sacred and religious character, the dresses are suspended from trees in the fields and snags in the rivers in order to keep evil spirits away.
These ceremonial robes are extremely rare in collections, and as I felt confident that no Indians were near, I helped myself to several of the costumes andto guard against any possible chance of discoveryhid them from sight under the floorboards of the batteau, beneath all my dunnage.
Several days later we arrived at a Patamona village where a bimiti-running was in full swing. This ceremonial always follows the parasara, and usually ends in an orgy of drinking. Leaving two men in charge of my boat, I made my way to the village, which was at some distance from the river, and found the Indians hilarious and excited but friendly and good-natured. An hour or so later, however, the camp was like a hornets’ nest which has been poked with a stick.
Two of the men had been to the riverside, and had returned bringing news that promised to make it decidedly hot for me, for they reported that three of their sacred parasara costumes were among my belongings! How they had discovered the dresses I could not at the time understand, but later I learned that my over-zealous boatmen had decided to take advantage of my absence to clean the boat, and had unloaded everything, including the sacred costumes, which were in plain sight on the river’s bank.
Fortunately for all concerned, the Patamonas were, on the whole, still sober enough to listen to my explanations and to reason. Declaring that I had been quite ignorant of the sacredness of the dresses, and did not even know they belonged to the Patamonas, I expressed the deepest regret for the mistake on my part and offered amends in the shape of presents.
Somewhat mollified, the Patamonas considered the matter, and after a conference and much discussion the village peaiman or medicine-man announced that everything would be all right if I would go back down the river, accompanied by some of the Patamonas, and replace the costumes where I had found them. There was nothing else to be done, so, willy-nilly, I was forced to retrace my way down-stream, hang the dresses on the snags again, and travel the weary journey back to the camp.
Needless to say, when, a few days later, I left the Indians and headed downriver, I did not fail to again gather in the costumes which had caused the trouble; but I was careful not to visit those particular Patamonas again.
On one other trip I also underwent a most unpleasant experience, and one which I would scarcely care to repeat. That was when I was among the mountain Guaymis of Panama—Indians usually regarded as hostile and who certainly do not welcome the average stranger who enters their territory. But I had been most fortunate. I had rendered one of the sub-chiefs a favour, and, in return, he had vouched for me and had accompanied me to the most remote villages of his tribe, and had enabled me to meet and make friends with the high chief, Montezuma.
A great ceremonial and dance had been given in my honour; the chiefs had compelled various members of the tribe to permit me to photograph and sketch them, and, as a grand finale, I had been formally initiated as a medicine-chief of the tribe. This experience I described in The Wide World Magazine for February - March, 1927.
Everything had been favourable, and the usually suspicious and rather hostile Indians proved most friendly and hospitable, doing all they could to make my trip a huge success. Then an event transpired which, for a time, threatened to end in a tragedy. One morning a number of Indians from a remote village visited the chief’s house, and though several objected strenuously, their ruler forced them to line up to be photographed.
That evening, as I lolled in my hammock in the home of the chief, listening to the chatter of some twenty painted and feather-crowned Guaymis who had gathered within the dwelling, a young Indian quietly entered and seated himself in a shadowy spot at one side of the house.
Instantly I recognized him as one of the strangers I had photographed that morning, for his head-dress was most unusual, consisting of a huge cap or hood of sloth-skin. Presently the newcomer uttered an agonized groan, and as all eyes turned toward him he doubled up, grasped his stomach, and rolled, moaning and screaming, on the floor.

AN AWKWARD PREDICAMENT.

Instantly I realized that I was face to face with the gravest danger. The fellow had been photographed against his will, he had come into my presence, and almost immediately he had been taken seriously ill. To the assembled Indians this would mean but one thing: I had bewitched him!
And as many of the others present had also been photographed they would at once believe that they, too, would be taken ill.
And what if the fellow died? Each and every Indian would, I knew, attribute his death to me, and every one would be in mortal terror of a similar fate as long as I lived to “control” their spirits. To be sure, the chief, Neonandi, was a sensible fellow and my best friend, and I was, moreover, an adopted member of the tribe.
But even the chief, I felt sure, would be powerless to curb the Indians’ anger once they were convinced that I had caused a man’s death, and my honorary membership in the tribe would count for nothing. And, judging by the fierce expressions on the faces of the Indians, and the manner in which they regarded me, I felt that my own end would not be long delayed, especially as the sick man was apparently on the point of expiring.
Aided by Neonandi, I carried him into the light of the fire and feverishly administered every remedy I could think of, at the same time plying the chief with questions. Did anyone know if this man was subject to these sudden attacks? Had they ever seen him act in this manner before? Did they know if he had eaten anything which might have caused his illness? But no one could give me the slightest information.
In fact, not an Indian present even knew who the sick man was or anything about him. He was a stranger, the only member of his village present.
Despite my every effort, the poor fellow was apparently dying, and presently with a last convulsive kick and a gasping groan, he stiffened and lay still. I listened for a heart-beat, but found none; I placed a mirror before his lips, but there was no sign of breath; I turned up his eyelids and exposed glassy, fixed eyes.
Meanwhile the Indians, grim, forbidding, and silent, drew nearer in the shadows, while above me and the body of the Indian beside which I knelt stood the chief, arguing, haranguing, and trying his utmost to calm his warriors. He assured them that the “white medicine-chief” would speedily bring the cause of the trouble back to life. He was, I knew, playing for time, and at last he succeeded. One by one, the Indians drew back into the shadows, squatting on the floor or on low, wooden stools, but never once taking their eyes from me.
There was nothing more I could do. I had wrapped the apparently dead man in blankets, I had forced stimulants down his throat, I had tried artificial respiration, but with no signs of success. How much longer the superstitious Guaymís would wait for a miracle to happen I did not know, but I rather wished that they would get the business over and not prolong the suspense.
However, my play was to appear unconcerned, to act as if I felt entirely confident and at ease, and, controlling my real sensations, I calmly filled and lighted my pipe and seated myself once more in my hammock.
Slowly the minutes passed. Never in my life have I undergone a more trying ordeal, and then, when it seemed as if the suspense would never end, the miracle happened! The blanket-wrapped body moved; the dead Indian sat up. Rubbing his eyes, he glanced about, rose unsteadily to his feet, and turning, stalked from the house into the night! He had merely had a fit, but I almost fainted from relief, and the assembled Indians firmly believed I had worked mighty magic.
I had brought a dead man back to life, and they gazed upon me with a strange mingling of awe, respect, and terror. But I thanked my lucky stars that during the remainder of my stay among the Guaymís I was not called upon to repeat my magic and resurrect a really dead Indian!


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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.