Hunting the White Indians
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From McClure's Magazine July 1924. Digital Capture by Doug Frizzle 2007
FROM Brazil to Mexico—in Guiana, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Central America — one hears from natives and Indians, innumerable tales of "white Indians"—strange, savage, retiring denizens of the vast jungles or interminable mountains of the interior. The stories vary little save in minor details. Sometimes the "white" Indians are gigantic, fierce cannibals, again they are timid, undersized and peaceful, or they may he quite like their neighbors in all but color of skin, hair and eyes. How did these persistent tales originate? Is there any truth in them, and, if so, who or what are the "white" Indians?
It was with the expectation of finding such tribesmen—savages in whose veins flowed enough European blood to warrant the name "white" being applied to them—that I undertook two excursions into Latin American jungles.
My first attempt was made in British Guiana. Here, despite every effort, though I made diligent inquiries among all the tribes I visited during nearly three years in the interior of the country, I seemed as far as ever from solving the mystery until, one day, an Indian brought me in a number of utensils and specimens of savage handiwork. There were the usual feather crowns, the bows and arrows, seed necklaces and bead aprons, and among them two paddles that instantly attracted my attention. Not only were they of unusual form, quite distinct from anything I had seen, but the handles were elaborately and beautifully carved in open scroll work of most graceful design. I knew beyond doubt that they were from some unknown tribe I had not visited, and most remarkable of all, the broad, spear-shaped blades were decorated with incised designs of interlocking circles and semicircles—something unknown among any of the tribes of Guiana.
But my Arowak collector could give me very little information as to their origin. He had secured them, along with the other articles, from Indians "topside" or up the river, from wandering Akawoia traders, but that was enough for me. Somewhere up the Demerara River was an undescribed, unvisited tribe—it seemed to me a promising field for exploration. No one knew anything about the denizens of the upper reaches of the river or of the country between there and the Berbice and, upon inquiry, I learned to my surprise that the Demerara, despite the fact that it is commercially the most important river in British Guiana and comparatively small, had never been mapped or explored above Cannister Falls, and that its source and head waters were absolutely unknown.
Having decided to make an expedition I found that not a negro, Boviander or Indian could be found who would agree to accompany me on my proposed trip. One and all were filled with a vague superstitious fear. They told stories of insurmountable difficulties, of rumors of weird savage beasts and semi-human beings who dwelt in the unexplored country, and nothing would tempt them to go beyond the known reaches of the river. I had about given up in despair when by accident I met two Boviander youths and a young Arekuna Indian who were born adventurers. All three at once offered to accompany me or, as they put it "take a walk topside" regardless of man, God or devils.
At each and every village on our way I made diligent inquiries as to the denizens of the headwaters of the stream, and exhibiting my strange paddles, asked if any knew whence they came. But all were wholly ignorant of their origin. Likewise, all were unanimous in declaring that the river rose in "a hole in a mountain," and that the country about the source was the abode of evil spirits or monsters, half-man and half-jaguar, which destroyed all human beings who entered their country. But above Great Falls I had better luck. Here the Indians were more primitive, more cleanly and less ruined by civilization. Among them I again heard the tale of white Indians and one old chief expressed the opinion that the paddles were those of the mysterious white tribe.
Then, at a remote Indian village we found a "spree" in progress. From far and near, the Indians had flocked to the merrymaking, bent only on having a good time and getting outrageously drunk. But they were still sober when I arrived, and in reply to my inquiries, declared that the paddles had come from farther "topside" from the "white" Indians, and that no man had ever penetrated their country, although occasionally a member of the mysterious race came down the river to trade, always vanishing into the unknown district where, so my informants averred, they were guarded by the half-human creatures who dwelt in a stone city on the mountain top whence the river issued from its "hole."
And then Fate or luck played into my hands. Suddenly I leaped up, hardly able to believe my eyes. Into the dancing circle had stepped a strange figure. He was short, pudgy and wrinkled; about his neck and across his naked torso hung strings of seeds and jaguar teeth; in one hand he carried a calabash rattle, gay with streamers of gaudy parrot feathers; upon his head was a gorgeous crown of macaw plumes with streamers of feathers hanging from it to his waist, and the form of the crown, the design of its decorations, stamped him instantly as a member of a tribe I had never seen.
But I scarcely noticed these details at the time. My eyes were fixed incredulously upon his face and body. His hair was gray, upon his good-natured grinning face was a straggling gray beard and mustache, and—his skin was white! Not that it was the white of a pure Caucasian. It was tanned and burnt by weather and sun, it was daubed with paint, and in every superficial character the man was an Indian. But there was no hint of brown, copper or yellow in his skin. Rather, it was that of a sunburned European and the old man's cheeks were as rosily pink as any Englishman's. Unquestionably, beyond the shadow of a doubt he was a "white Indian" if ever there was one and, pressing through the throng, I reached the old fellow's side. "With some difficulty I managed to induce him to leave the dance for a time and, by means of Akawoia, gestures and the help of other Indians who had gathered about I questioned him. And as I talked I was even more astounded at the stranger's appearance. His eyes twinkled and instead of being dull black or deep brown they were light hazel; his features were more Caucasian than Indian, and without his headdress and barbaric ornaments he would have passed anywhere as a good-natured elderly Scotchman, or, if clad in wide trousers and blouse and with a peaked cap on his gray head, he would have been transformed into a typical easy-going old Dutchman.
I was elated beyond words. Incredible as it seemed, I was actually talking to a "white Indian" and my discovery confirmed my theory. I felt certain that he was neither an Indian nor white, but that he was a living proof of my theory that the white Indians were descendants of Europeans and Indians. Conversation was not easy. The old fellow, moreover, was a bit loath to divulge any information regarding his tribe. His eyes lit up when I showed him the paddles; he admitted they were those of his people, and he informed me he was an Akuria. Presents, tobacco and a little coaxing soon established most friendly relations, however, and the fellow, waving his hand indefinitely toward the upper river, declared his people dwelt between the Demerara and the Berbice.
One village only was there, a settlement of less than one hundred individuals, and, so he informed me, it could be reached by a trail leading from a spot beside the stream which he minutely described. But the old fellow refused absolutely to accompany me and guide us. He had come a long distance to have a good time, he had no intention of missing the drinking bout at the end of the festivities, and the merry twinkle in his eyes and the wink he bestowed upon me as he said this were such as no true Indian ever knew or could accomplish.
If I was to follow up my discovery and visit the tribe, there was no time to be lost. "We were woefully short of provisions and game was exceedingly scarce. So I left him, stripped of his regalia but gloriously happy in a pair of drill trousers and a calico shirt, to resume his merrymaking, and pressed on into the indefinite beyond.
Never have I experienced a more heartbreaking, terrible journey. The knife-sharp rocks, the tangled vines, the dense jungles of razor-edged saw-grass made traveling an endless agony.
When at last we reached the end of nowhere and found our farther passage barred by a lofty, impassable mountain side, I no longer wondered at the tales of the river coming out from a "hole in the mountain" and of the stone city on the mountain top. The river did literally issue from holes—scores of them—great fissures and crevices among the rocks. And there, outlined against the heavy sodden clouds, or concealed by scudding vapor and a veil of rain, rose what I first took to be veritable stone buildings—massive fortresses and towers, tapering spires and castellated walls—but which were nothing more than the mountain's cap of sandstone, carved by the elements.
We had run the Demerara River to earth, but we had found no trace of the trail of the strange tribe I sought. There was nothing to do but retrace our steps and discouraged, utterly exhausted, we stumbled back through the wilderness. Then luck again favored us. One of my men, the Arekuna boy, seeking an easier route, came upon a landing place and we hurried to him at his shout. From the spot, a winding, half-obliterated trail led into the jungle, and forgetting our weary bodies and fever-racked bones, we hurried along the pathway. On and on it led; zigzagging, doubling, crossing streams, winding over hills, until at last I halted and declared that I believed we were on the wrong trail and were blindly following some game trail that led nowhere. The next instant we stood speechless, our ears straining. From far away, thin but unmistakable, had come the bark of a dog. Then, as the yelping was again borne to us, we forgot all else and raced onward, for where there are dogs in the bush there are Indians.
Again and again the welcome sound came to us, each time nearer than the last, and then, so suddenly and unexpectedly that we stopped short, we came into view of a clearing and, on the farther side, Indian houses! At our first glimpse of the thatched roofs we knew we had reached the Akuria village. High above the surrounding trees and shrubbery rose an immense conical-roofed house fully sixty feet in diameter and as many feet high, open at the sides under the eaves that reached to within a yard of the earth, while all about stood square huts.
As we stood gazing, figures appeared: short, naked men and women, little children and half-grown boys and girls and, to my delight, all of the same peculiar pinkish color as the old man at the dance. Only a fleeting glimpse did we have. No sooner did the denizens of the village catch sight of us than they vanished like ghosts, leaving the spot deserted save for the curs that nipped at our heels as we made our way to the great house. But the Indians had not gone far.
The men, a dozen of them, were seated about on wooden stools or in cotton hammocks and they gazed at us, as we bent low and entered, with strange expressions of mingled fear, wonder and curiosity. I glanced about. The interior of the huge dwelling was divided into sections radiating from an open space in the center wherein a fire smouldered. I say divided, but properly there were no divisions or at least partitions, the sections being marked by upright posts, each carved and painted in grotesque conventionalized figures of animals or birds, which later I learned were the totems or insignia of the families occupying the house. In each of these sections dwelt a family and in the hammocks swung to the posts, the trembling females of the tribe were lying, wrapped like chrysalids in their cocoons. But the Akurias, though they had never seen white men or black, soon overcame their fears and shyness and, filled with intense curiosity, drew about us. Then as I distributed presents, we became good friends and space was made for our belongings and for swinging our hammocks. I had found the white Indians, was living among them, but—were they white or Indian?
In language, habits, arts, every external and visible characteristic, with the exception of color, they were unquestionably Indian. But their skins, though by no means really white, were not the color of any Indian I had ever seen, and the darkest member of the tribe was lighter than the lightest colored Carib. Moreover, the oldest members had gray hair; many of the men had well-developed beards, and several had light gray eyes. The younger children were almost pure white—where not dirty—and several had brown hair, tow-colored at the ends. But the hair was coarse, straight and typically Indian; the features of both men and women varied from distinct Indian types to those strikingly Caucasian, and I was more than ever convinced that the Akurias were the descendants of some forgotten European expedition —Dutch or British or perhaps Spanish or French—that had been lost or cut off in the bush, and had mixed with some Indian tribe. All about the interior of the house were feather crowns, bows and arrows, baskets and fans; bead girdles and queyus and similar objects. All were distinct in pattern and design from those of any other tribe, and I soon discovered that the Akurias' customs were as unique as their handiwork. In many ways they were communistic, all dwelt together in the great house, all shared equally in the food from the fields and the game and fish obtained, and all worked together and equally at tilling their gardens and at other labors. But there the communistic idea ended. Ornaments, bows, hammocks, utensils were personal property, and the Akurias bartered among themselves, as though dwelling in widely separated villages instead of under a common roof.
A few, I found, dwelt outside in the smaller huts—square, walled-in, two-storied buildings. These I learned were homes reserved for newly married couples, persons who were ill and women about to bear children, while the upper stories were used as storerooms for corn, rice and cassava meal. Although the Akurias had never seen a European or a negro—many had never seen an Indian of another tribe—yet they showed no astonishment at steel or iron tools or utensils. This did not surprise me. I knew that the Indians of the upper Demerara were in touch with them, that they traded with them and thus, through barter with near-by Indians, the Akurias had learned to use many articles of civilization though knowing nothing whatever of civilized man.
But many of the commonest articles of European make had never been seen in the village. Not one had ever seen soap or a mirror; thread, needles, pins, fish-hooks, files were absolutely new to them, and to my utter amazement I discovered they were wholly ignorant of salt! With wondering faces they tasted it, hesitated, made wry faces and showed every symptom of feeling nauseated. Of course they must have salt, no doubt obtaining enough for life and health from plants or other sources of food, but salt, as a separate thing, they had never seen.
One of the most striking things about them was their small size. Not a single man was over five feet four inches tall and many were barely five feet; the tallest woman was five feet one inch and the average height of the women was four feet six. And the women were, without exception, the ugliest females I have ever met. None of the Indian women in Guiana are beautiful but, beside the Akurias, an Akawoia, Arekuna or Macushi would be a veritable Venus. But the crowning surprise came the second day I was at the Akuria village.
I had questioned the men about the paddles, had secured several even more elaborately decorated than those which had led me on my search, and I asked, as well as I was able, how the circular designs were made. For a moment the old fellow with whom I was talking hesitated. Then he grinned, rose, took a battered but magnificently woven basket from its resting place on a timber overhead and lifted the lid. Poking about among its contents, a heterogeneous assortment of feathers, balls of cotton, small baskets, karamani was and odds and ends, he drew out the most amazing thing I had seen—a pair of clumsy, ancient, hand-made iron dividers.
Where had they come from? How had these strange people obtained them? How old they were I could not say, but at the least a hundred years.
Carefully I put questions to the old fellow. His replies were sincere, evidently made with every intention of telling the truth, and yet were unquestionably ridiculous. Long ago, in the very beginning of things, he declared, the first Akuria had been given the dividers by the creator. There were two pairs, he said, and ever since, guarded as their greatest treasure, handed down from chief to son through generations, the magic things had been preserved. The incised designs of circles and semicircles were placed on everything as the tribal mark of the Akurias for no Indians but the Akurias possessed the power to make such patterns.
"Very proudly he spoke of this; very carefully he restored the clumsy dividers to their place in the basket and to my own satisfaction at least I saw in the presence of the ancient instruments the key to the puzzle of the Akurias’ white blood, the proof that they were a mixture of Indian and Caucasian. Sometime in the past—one hundred, two hundred years before—a Dutch expedition, perhaps seamen exploring some river, perhaps engineers bent on roughly surveying the country or making maps, had been stranded in the wilderness. Among friendly Indians they had found a home, through years of primitive life, their arts, knowledge, tongue, all civilized things had been lost; the little isolated tribe had intermarried, the blood of the two races had blended, a new race had resulted, and, throughout the years, through all their wanderings, the people had preserved the compasses as talismans, sacred things connected in some vague, incomprehensible manner with their origin. Of all the European objects and attributes of civilization, of all the Dutch characteristics, only the ruddy cheeks, the light eyes, the humorous expressions and good-natured features, and the hand-wrought compasses remained to link the Akurias with the past. To all intents and purposes they were white Indians.
My second experience with white Indians was some years after my discovery of the Akurias, and many miles from Guiana. Many tales had been told me of the fierce, unknown, unconquered savage Kuna Indians of the forbidden district of Darien, in Panama. Within their territory — a vast area stretching from the headwaters of the Canazas River to the upper reaches of the Chuquenaque, no stranger was permitted. Many had tried to go in but, so the stories went, they had either never returned or had come forth mutilated or bearing tales of being driven from the country under pain of death. Government officials declared that one party of nearly one hundred Panamanians had attempted to enter the Kuna territory and only fifteen had returned alive, yet no Indian had been seen, the men having been shot from ambush with poisoned arrows.
All of this naturally whetted my desire to visit and study the savage Kunas, and I made up my mind to enter the forbidden district.
To reach Darien was easy enough though the trip in the filthy, ramshackle coastwise launch was far from pleasant, but once at the miserable Panamanian towns, squatting close to the shores of San Miguel Gulf and the coastal streams, I found that to penetrate to the interior would be no simple matter. To enter the Kuna country was, the natives declared, to sign their death warrants.
But even in Panama, there are certain adventurous fellows, perhaps men in whose veins flows a little of the blood of the dare-devil old buccaneers who under Sharpe crossed Darien centuries ago, and I found two such men. So with the two negroes and my West Indian black boy, Claude, I left the last outposts of so-called civilization behind and headed for the unknown. Our conveyance was a dugout cayuca, long and narrow, cranky as a floating log, and with the two extremities extending out in flat platform-like projections on which the men stood as they drove the craft up stream by means of poles—punting it, in fact.
Our way led up the Tuira River, for while no wild Kunas dwelt on that stream I had formulated a plan of action which I felt sure would result in getting us safely into the forbidden land. In brief, my idea was to visit the peaceful though primitive Chokois; from their villages proceed up the tributaries of the river to the villages of the "tame" Kunas, who I was told were scattered through the district, and then head for the wild Kuna country. By doing this I felt confident that my presence and my designs would be carried from tribe to tribe and would eventually reach the wild Kunas. Thus, knowing my expedition was peaceful and that I was after neither gold nor rubber, the Kunas might allow me to enter their country. And my plans fell out as I had hoped.
Once beyond the Membrillo River, we were in the "forbidden land." We had no knowledge of the location of the first villages, but, feeling sure they would be on the tributaries rather than on the main river, I headed up a small quebrada above the Membrillo.
As we pushed along shore in the dusk, without the least warning we collided with a big canoe moored to the bank. At the same instant, shadowy figures sprang up about us. Our cayuca was seized and dragged ashore, and we found ourselves surrounded by Indians.
Not a single one made any move to seize or even touch us, yet all were armed with bows and arrows, and by means of gestures and a few words of Spanish, they made it quite plain that we were prisoners and were to follow them. With some in advance, others in our rear, we were marched through the jungle for a mile or more, and then, crossing a small brook, approached a group of houses. Here we were conducted to a large hut, and, by the flaring light of a fire, I saw our captors.
A hideous-looking lot they were. Each and every one was painted from head to foot in solid black, blue or scarlet with great rings of contrasting color about eyes and mouth, and on every painted, savage face was an unpleasantly hostile expression. That there was downright peril in our predicament I knew, and yet I could not help laughing aloud at the strange spectacle of a white man and three colored men sitting in a circle of savage Indians in absolute silence, as if awaiting some miracle to enable us to understand one another.
And presently the miracle arrived in the person of a huge, fat, but excessively pompous and dignified individual garbed in cotton shirt and breech-cloth, and with a scarlet cotton cap surmounting the mass of hair looped to one side of his head. Unlike his fellows, he was not painted, with the exception of a red perpendicular line on his nose, but in his ears dangled heavy gold rings and a necklet of cowry shells and gold bangles hung upon his broad chest. For a few moments he looked us over as if we were some strange specimens, and then he addressed me in fairly good Spanish.
After cross-examining me as to my intentions, my reasons for entering his district, my nationality and my past, present and future and making similar inquiries regarding my men, he turned and spoke to the assembled Indians.
At length, after a long and somewhat heated discussion, of which of course I could understand not a word, the chief, as he turned out to be, quite unexpectedly demanded my pictures of the Guiana Indians. I had been right— word of my coming and all I had said and done among the tame Kunas had been reported. As I handed the photographs to the chief, his fellows gathered about, examining them, exclaiming over them, as excited and delighted as a crowd of boys.
It was laughable to see them hold the pictures upside down, yell with surprise, and then peer half fearfully at the back of them and utter ejaculations of wonder when they found them blank.
Once more the old chief spoke to his tribesmen, and, as well as I could judge from, his tones and gestures, argued in our favor. There appeared to be less opposition to the old fellow's arguments than before. But one fellow—a villainous-looking chap I thought him, too, with small roving eyes, thin cruel lips and hawk nose—rose and addressed the others in vehement tones. That he was utterly opposed to whatever the chief had said I well knew, and I surmised that the whole controversy had a direct and very important bearing on our case.
However, even in a Kuna council, the majority wins, and despite the eloquence of the lone opponent, who glared at me with a demoniacal leer as he ceased speaking and seated himself, the chief had his way. Quite as pompously as ever, he informed me that I would be permitted to remain in the district "half a moon." But, added the chief, there were certain conditions affixed to the verbal permit: I was held responsible for my men who were to be confined to the immediate vicinity of the house; I was forbidden to go about unless accompanied by Kunas; I was not to approach or enter the ladies' quarters, nor was I to take any photographs.
Later, I learned that their only objection to being photographed was their belief that in the pictures they would appear as nude as the Guiana Indians. So I showed the Kunas photographs of myself fully clad and, thus convinced that nudity was not a necessity in the magic, the men, and even the chief himself, posed for me. Not until I lined them up and used my camera did I realize that I might have taken photographs ad libitum without the least danger, for not one had an idea that the camera was the means to the end.
Of course I made inquiries about the white Indians. Every one knew of them. In fact the chief gravely informed me there was one at another village less than a half day's walk distant, and if I cared to accompany him, he would show the fellow to me. Highly elated, I jumped at the chance for I felt that at last I was about to look upon a really white Indian. But after a terrible tramp judge of my utter chagrin and disappointment when the "white" Indian proved to be a blind and helpless old Kuna, in fact a relative of the chief, and an excellent example of almost complete albinism! Yes, he was most truly and literally a "white" Indian—skin and hair as white as snow and sightless eyes as pink as an albino rabbit's but he was not by any means the kind I sought.
The wild Kunas were, however, far nearer white than either the tame Kunas or any other real Indians I have ever visited and long before I bade good-by to them I had come to the conclusion that if a white tribe existed in Darien it would prove to be, like the Akurias of Guiana, a mixture of the pale-skinned Kunas and white men lost in the jungle.
According to the chief, there were approximately five thousand of the wild Kunas in the forbidden area, but the villages are widely separated and my restricted stay of half a month was far too fully occupied with making notes and studying the habits, language and customs of the villagers to permit me to make a tour of the district. That the Kunas are of almost pure Mongolian ancestry I was convinced; their language is strongly Chinese, their features thoroughly Mongolian; the odd costume worn by their women is strikingly like that of the women of China in pattern, and they use wooden pillows very similar to those in Japan.
Interesting as these observations were, I seemed doomed to disappointment in another respect, for try as I might, I was unable to induce the Kunas to sell or trade a single weapon, ornament or other article for my collection. This was all the harder to bear as I was surrounded by objects of the greatest scientific and archaeological value, specimens of which no museum in the world could boast. But I had still one card up my sleeve. As a rule, a gift to an Indian requires, by strictest etiquette, a gift in return, and the day before I left I decided to play my last card.
Summoning the men of the village to the chief's house, I distributed everything I owned among them until at last I was reduced to the barest necessities and the clothes on my back. Quite impassively the Kunas received the presents and without comments departed to their homes. I gave up. Evidently the Kunas had unique customs.
But the next morning, as we packed the cayuca in preparation for leaving, the old chief brought out a bundle of bows and arrows, a roll of beautiful Kuna cloth, a huge drum and a gorgeous woman's dress which he presented to me with a grunt. Hardly had I thanked him, when another man arrived laden with a hammock, a blow-gun, several musical instruments and a carved stool. Then, for the next half hour, I was kept busy accepting gifts pressed upon me, until every article I had coveted, admired or attempted to secure was in the pile of presents which, had accumulated.
Then, just as I thought the last had arrived, the cruel-lipped rascal who had been disposed to slice off the soles of my feet upon my arrival, appeared on the scene. With a murderous leer which he no doubt intended for an ingratiating smile, he handed me a magnificent basket. Within was a woman's dress, a number of cowry shell necklaces, several carved calabashes, three of the odd palm-wood combs, and a carved club.
All his former animosity was forgotten, and as I tried, with the few Kuna words I had learned, to express my thanks, he fumbled in his nether garments, which the day before had been my own. With a ludicrous expression of shyness upon his broad yellow face, he handed me a tiny exquisitely carved god of lignumvitae with eyes of uncut peridots. It was his personal fetich, his most highly prized possession, the greatest pledge of friendship he could bestow. No longer was the fellow an enemy. He was now a steadfast, lifelong friend, and as I waved farewell, and the cayuca slipped down the stream, I realized that henceforth to me the Kuna country was no longer a "forbidden land."