Saturday, 27 February 2010

Little Brothers of the Chilenos

Little Brothers of the Chileños

By A. Hyatt Verrill

From Travel magazine April, 1925. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, February 2010.

Araucania and the Araucanians—Unconquered Indian Stock Among the Chilenos—The Practical Side of Sorcery

This is the third of a series of articles by Mr. Verrill on the West Coast of our sister continent. Further articles will appear in subsequent numbers of TRAVEL.Editor.

PERHAPS no living race of South American Indians has been so often mentioned in song and story, or has been so surrounded with romance, as the Araucanians. The Spanish poet, Ercilla, in his epic poem "La Araucana" was the first to immortalize their name but, with poetic license, he used a misnomer, for the term Araucanian is as misleading and as indefinite as the term Incas when applied to the tribes of Peru.

The world, however, knows the aborigines of southern Chile by no other name, and their bravery, their love of freedom and the fact that they have never been conquered or subdued have made them famous. And so, to see Chile without a visit to these people and their country would be to miss what to many would be the country's most interesting features.

To reach Araucania, which, by the way, is a term almost as vague as Araucanians, is not difficult, for the Chilean State railway runs through the heart of the district to Valdivia. And so, having made the side trip to Concepcion and Talcahuano, we traveled back over our tracks to San Rosando, and crossing the half-dry Bio-Bio. sped southward once more towards the Indian country.

A great artist once said that Nature was badly composed and had too much green, and I feel quite sure that his criticism must have been inspired by a trip through southern Chile. There were endless green fields, pastures, hills, and valleys. Green on every side, monotonous in its unvarying greenness, and broken only by equally endless and equally monotonous lines and rows and avenues of stiff poplars. Gradually this gave way to even more endless rolling prairies like petrified waves of a monotone of dull straw color and whose only denizens appeared to be the countless harrier hawks that coursed back and forth close to the earth, and occasionally dropped swiftly to seize some unwary mouse or lizard or insect. But between the rounded ridges, as the train rumbled across bridges, we saw lovely vistas of delightful little farms with their neat houses, their groves of hardwood trees, their well-cultivated fields and their gardens in splashes of gay color, each looking for all the world like an exquisite little painting in the center of a brown canvas.

At frequent intervals the train would draw up at some neat and sleepy little station with its inevitable white-clad fruit sellers, its swaggering, huge-spurred, picturesquely garbed rancheros, and its pebbled platform shaded by maple or oak trees. But the first real interest came when, at a snail's pace, the train rolled cautiously, feeling its way, upon Colli-pulli bridge, a.\ mile-long, spider web of steel spanning a wondrous valley with a tumbling river nearly four hundred feet beneath the tracks. To many of the passengers it was a most nerve-racking experience, for the cars appeared to swing and sway; there was the strange optical illusion of the bridge bending under the train's weight. When, midway across, the train came to a dead stop to allow some iron workers to step aside, several ladies screamed in terror. They were not to be too greatly blamed for their fright, for the bridge was designed for light traffic and is being constantly strengthened to carry the ever increasing loads imposed upon it. Not long ago a section gave way and a train was hurled to destruction. But the view of the valley as the train crosses the bridge is so superb that one forgets the possible dangers and the thrill.

It is as if this valley were the introduction to a new land, or the frontispiece to a book of entrancing views. No longer were we amid the endless green fields and poplars or the interminable prairies, and no artist could have complained that Nature here was either too green or badly composed; indeed, no master of the brush could have hoped to equal or even imitate the scenery. Patches of meadow land alternated with bold hills. Brooks, ponds and rivers reflected the blue sky and the drooping willows. Picturesque clumps of dark foliaged algorobo trees with gnarled and twisted trunks, stately pines, clumps of ancient cedars, maples and oaks, basswoods and chestnuts dotted the hills and valleys. White and scarlet amarvllis, flaming crimson-flowered shrubs, blackberry thickets starred with white, trees that were masses of lilac bloom, and yellow poppies splashed the fields and roadsides with color, while, like a wall against the eastern sky, rose the hazy blue Andes with their gleaming caps of snow.

Like a veritable wall these lofty, serried mountains form the boundary between Argentine and Chile, with their mightiest peaks standing like giant sentries with casques of burnished steel. Nowhere, in all of our sister continent, is there a finer, more impressive array of snow-capped, titanic peaks.

It was black night when the train pulled into Temuco, a bitterly cold night with the tang of mountain heights in the air, and as we were driven shivering through the town we had but a vague vision of endless one-storied buildings, double-decked trolley cars, a dark plaza, and roughly cobbled streets. The place seemed dead, although it was barely eight o'clock, and the three or four pedestrians still abroad were mysterious figures bundled to the eyes in heavy ponchos. But we soon found that in Temuco, "early to bed and early to rise" was an axiom carried out literally. It seemed as if I had scarcely closed my eyes when I was rudely awakened by the stentorian shouts of a man on the street, and I dashed to the window expecting to find a riot, a revolution or a conflagration taking place. But everything appeared peaceful, the faint light of dawn was dimly penetrating the gray night mist, and for a moment I felt that I must have been dreaming. Then, from the sidewalk beneath my window, once again the deep shout roared through the silent night.

"Madruga! Es madruga!" echoed from the semidarkness, and out of the deep shadows appeared the figure of a man. He was wrapped to his ears in poncho and scarf, in one hand he carried a heavy staff, in the other a flickering lantern. Slowly he crossed the street, once more shouted his wholly unnecessary information that it was dawn to an apparently oblivious world, and vanished down the next street. As his cries grew fainter and fainter I disgustedly returned to my bed wondering why on earth anyone should lake the trouble to patrol the town and disturb persons' slumbers at this unearthly hour merely to spread the news that the sun was rising. Was he, I wondered, a peculiar local variety of night watchman or Sereno; was he the village lunatic whose obsession was thus to arouse the sleeping populace, or was he merely some fellow who had been overlong with convivial companions, and, returning homeward at break of day, felt in his befuddled mind that it was high time for the rest of the world to be up and about?

Later I learned that he was none of these. No, he was the town's alarm clock, and aroused the heavy sleepers with his shouts in order that those who desired to take the early morning train might be up and ready in ample time. No doubt the fellow serves the Temucans most excellently for this purpose, and equally, no doubt, they are quite accustomed to his bellows and pay no heed to them unless they plan to be off on their travels.

Having thus been introduced to Temuco by such an unusual custom I quite naturally expected to find many another sight and custom equally peculiar. And when, with the sun shining brightly from a cloudless sky, I again looked forth, I was not disappointed. Indeed, I was actually amazed, for, gazing across the roofs of the little city I had the feeling that I was somewhere on the shores of the Bosphorus rather than in Chile. On every side, above the low buildings, were towers, spires and domes so typically Slavic that they seemed transported bodily from Russia. But one had only to glance down to realize that this effect was as superficial as it was superimposed.

On all sides were low, Spanish buildings, iron balconies, flat roofs and dull red tiles. Even without these earmarks of a Spanish-American town one would have known one's geographical position by the few human beings astir upon the street. Across the way, two girls leaned indolently over a jutting balcony and bargained in raucous, parrotlike voices with a broad-hatted, poncho-draped individual bearing huge baskets of oddly white Chilean strawberries or frutillas. Down the street a rangy horse came trotting, the two battered milk cans slung on either side of the saddle rattling and banging, and with a swarthy-skinned rider, also enveloped in the inevitable poncho, perched above the rest. Then, a clatter of unshod hoofs, and two piebald ponies dashed by, their riders typical Huasos in short, gay-colored ponchos, ornate short jackets, and with ridiculously huge spurs on their heels; and looking as though they might have materialized from some story of old California days. But as the denizens of the town rapidly increased in numbers the streets took on a new national aspect. A German butcher's two-wheel wagon rattled by. Then came a vivid green and yellow cart filled with bread, and also bearing the name of a Teutonic firm. Policemen in white spiked helmets and with sabres at sides appeared. Stiff, pompous army officers wrapped in gray cloaks strolled past, and one might well have imagined oneself in some town beside the Rhine. But the next passers-by were of a very different type and race— silent, solemn-faced fellows in ragged black and white ponchos, voluminous dark nether garments of Gaucho type, and riding sturdy Indian ponies. They were the first Araucanians, or more properly Mapuches, I had seen, members of that fine indomitable race who never bowed to Spanish rule and held their own against sundry and all that the power of Spain or Chile could send against them. And as the day wore on and I strolled about town I saw more and more of the Mapuches, for Temuco is in Araucania and everywhere, beyond the confines of the town, are the Mapuche homes and villages. There were more men, both astride their ponies and afoot; women and girls, more picturesque in their dark skirts, maroon or purple shawls, gay kerchiefs about their heads, and necks and breasts loaded with heavy silver ornaments. Indeed, they were the most striking features of the place, an integral part of Temuco's life, and a most important factor in its business, its trade and its existence.

They squatted, like the Quichuas of Lima, at corners and in doorways with their fruits and produce spread before them; they chattered and bargained in the shops; they drove creaking, low-slung, solid-wheeled oxcarts piled high with grain or corn to the dealers' warehouses, and with whoops and cracking whips they herded their wild-eyed cattle or their bleating sheep to the stockyard corrals. And yet they seemed out of place in the city, aliens in the very land that was once all their own.

Temuco itself has no especially interesting or picturesque features, but it is a neat, clean, orderly little spot, attractive in its Old World atmosphere; quite alive and bustling, and up to date as evidenced by the number of radio antennae that stand sharply forth against the sky wherever one looks. The plaza, too, is attractive, with its odd juxtaposition of palms and pines, cacti and roses, and shaded by the familiar tulip trees we know so well in the States. A friendly sort of little plaza where the local military band plays once or twice a week, where people loaf and gossip and parade, where ragged urchins squabble for the chance to polish one's boots, where the photo-as-you-wait men have their cameras and paraphernalia, and which, as is invariably the case in South America, is surrounded by an arcade, a hotel, the municipal buildings and a huge church.

I lost little time in making arrangements to visit the Rucos or houses of the Indians. To be sure, I was greatly discouraged by the people I met in Temuco, for I was assured that the Mapuches were surly, aloof and had no desire to have strangers visit them. Also, I was told, the Mapuches were lazy, shiftless, inveterate drunkards and dishonest, not to mention the fact that they were all civilized and retained nothing of their original habits and arts. But I took such information with a grain of salt, for throughout Latin America I have found that the supposedly white population looks down upon the aborigine—though oftener than not there is more than a drop of Indian blood mingled with the Caucasian—and credits the red man with all the worst vices and traits of the whites. And, also, I have found that in nine times out of ten the Indian is the better man, as far as honesty, hospitality and earning his daily bread is concerned, while his dirt and his sins and his objectionable ways have been taught him by his alleged betters. And I was soon convinced that the Temucans were no exception to this rule of vilifying the Indians. A prominent merchant—an unprejudiced foreigner— had a very different story. "Yes, they're a bit dirty and unsanitary," he admitted, "but they're a good lot. Any time a Mapuche comes to me and wants an advance and says he has a certain number of hectares in grain, or a certain number of sheep or cattle, I'll make the loan on his say-so and I've never lost. But if a Chileno comes with the same story I want to see the wheat or livestock, and I want it in black and white, and even then I often lose out."

I heard much the same tale from the proprietor of the largest of Temuco's numerous pawnshops. His shelves were loaded with Mapuche blankets, ponchos, rugs and saddlery.

"Most of these have been sold or traded in," he informed me. "but a few have been pawned and not redeemed—bad crops, drought, the owner dying or some other reason. But as a rule an Indian who pawns anything expects to get it back. Just step this way."

He led the way to a heavy door, unlocked the padlock and swung back the portal. I was speechless. Everywhere, covering the walls, piled on shelves, filling boxes, were countless collars, immense earrings, huge pins, belts, breastplates, necklaces; enormous spurs, bridles and stirrups; head bands and reins, even saddles of silver, a fortune of the heavy, barbaric, but beautifully wrought silverwork of the Indians.

"About twenty thousand dollars' worth of silver," my friend informed me. "Every piece pawned and some of it here for two years. But there's mighty little of it that won't be redeemed in time. Yes, sir, the Mapuches are my best customers and they're honest. Of course they get drunk now and then, who doesn't? And the Chileans fill them up with rotten rum to get the best of them in a bargain and then damn them. The trouble is they're jealous of the Indians' land and cattle. But you'll see for yourself and you'll find the Mapuches all right."

For my means of transportation I secured a battered automobile, and I must admit that long before I reached the Indian district my respect for the much maligned product of Señor Ford had risen by leaps and bounds. And we literally traveled by leaps and bounds as well. Never have I attempted to travel by motor car over such roads as those that meandered across hill and vale about Temuco. Evidently the road builders—we must say roads for the sake of clarity though they are unworthy of the name—had merely followed cattle tracks in laying out the so-called highways. Or, more probably, there never were road makers. No, I truly believe that each and every Chilean peasant and Indian rode his pony or drove his cart by any route that seemed the worst, and, in time, wore the fearful tracks that now pass for roads. In no place, as far as I could see, was there the least attempt at grading, draining or crowning. Even on the level plains the tracks wound aimlessly about, as if quite uncertain of their ultimate objective; they ascended hills with such steep ascents that only by zigzagging was it possible for the panting little car to surmount them; they dropped precipitously to river beds; they ran through dense jungles of wild blackberry and bamboo; they rose and fell like the petrified billows of a storm-lashed sea; crevasses yawned across them as though the earth had been cracked by an earthquake, and they were alternately composed of deep ruts and high ridges, holes like pitfalls and great boulders, steep-banked gulleys and ankle-deep dust. But the country about, as we caught fleeting glimpses at intervals between bumps and jolts and sickening rolling, was delightful. Far below us the river wound in great curves between green banks. Like seas of green and gold the wheat stretched for miles into the distance. Hardwood trees, in clumps and singly, dotted the landscape. In level pastures herds of sleek cattle and clean-limbed pinto ponies grazed, and the hillsides were white with flocks of sheep watched over by tiny Mapuche shepherds and shepherdesses. Here and there the Mapuche houses could be seen, those near town roughly built of boards and steeply roofed with grass thatch; those more remote from civilization beehive-shaped mounds of gray thatch and bamboo. Often, too, we passed a lumbering oxcart piled high with produce, its solemn-faced Indian owner stalking before the tugging oxen, his wife and family clinging to the load or perched upon its top. And in every cultivated field Mapuches were busily tilling the soil, the men in soiled, somewhat dilapidated garments of conventional cut, and looking in no way different from any dark-skinned farm hands of Italian or Spanish bloods; the women always picturesque, and forming bright spots of color in their native costumes and silver decorations.

Every mile that we progressed the huts became more numerous, the fields better cultivated, the herds of cattle, horses and sheep larger, the Indians more in evidence and the clusters of houses more like villages. Presently, leaving the so-called road and bouncing across an open pasture, our chariot came to a rattling halt before the heavy wooden bars of a fence enclosing half a dozen Mapuche homes. A wrinkled old hag peered rather curiously at us from the doorway of a hut and promptly vanished, slamming the slab door shut. Half a score of mangy, yelping curs came snarling and growling towards us, and from another portal a tall, dignified man emerged. From shoulders to knees he was covered with a magnificent poncho of soft fawn-colored wool striped with black and white; his limbs were swathed in blue woolen Gaucho trousers; his feet were encased in moccasinlike slippers of cowhide with the hair on, and a battered felt hat topped a mass of coarse black bobbed hair. But his face was the most striking feature of all. Amid any other environment no one would have dreamed he was an Indian. His skin was no darker than a well-tanned Caucasian, his eyes, deep set, were large, intelligent and soft; his features were clear cut and wore an expression of gravity and dignity, and a heavy mustache and pointed beard covered his lips and chin. In passable Spanish he welcomed us, informed me he was the village Cacique, and having ascertained the reasons for my visit, invited me to enter his house. I had expected to find the Mapuches civilized, at least outwardly, but I found that in their home life, in their customs and among themselves they were almost as primitive as though civilization had never touched them. There were the same smoke-blackened rafters and thatch and the pungent smell made so familiar to me by countless days and nights in the homes of untamed red men.

In the center of the beaten earth floor smouldered the same fire with its steaming earthen pot of stew. Depending from posts and rafters were the crude wooden hooks bearing baskets, mesh bags and rawhide sacks of household belongings. Bright-hued bits of cloth and glittering silver gleamed in the semidarkness. There were carved wooden stools and a primitive loom bearing a half-finished poncho at which a gray-haired, witchlike old woman was working with bony but deft fingers. Shy, frightened, naked youngsters peeked timidly from hiding places, and, hanging on a peg, there was even a dance mask of wood, grotesque in its decorations of paint and horsehair. But there were many objects which could be seen in the homes of no tribe other than the Mapuches. One of these marvels was a kind of odd pot of stiff, dried hide made from a cow's udder with the teats serving for legs. Still stranger hide pouches formed from the skin of calves' or colts' heads and still retaining their original forms. Rawhide saddles and bridles heavy with silver; bolas which serve these Indians in place of lassos, piles of the beautifully woven rugs or chupinas, ponchos, and blankets rivalling those of the Navajos, covering cowhide beds; immense, traylike flour baskets so finely woven that they will hold water; twenty-foot bamboo-hafted long-bladed lances, the Mapuches' traditional weapons, and, propped against the walls or suspended from hooks like so many inanimate bundles, tiny, solemn-faced infants strapped fast to their wooden papoose carriers or chiffuas.

It goes without saying that the Mapuches are a superior race of Indians and are extremely intelligent, else they could not have existed in any numbers until today. Moreover they are far in advance of their Chilean neighbors as regards stock raising and farming. Nowhere in Chile did I see better tilled fields, more healthy and extensive herds and flocks, or more carefully cultivated farms, than those of the .Mapuches. Indeed, the only i tractors I saw in use by farmers in southern Chile were owned by Indians. As I have mentioned in a previous chapter, the Chilean farmer takes life very easily, and, once his crops are planted and well under way, he leaves Nature pretty much to itself until harvest time. But I noticed that the Mapuche farmers were constantly at work hoeing, weeding and cultivating, and I do not remember seeing a single patch of cultivated Mapuche land wherein there were not men or women, or both, at work.

And though, as I have said, the Mapuches' civilization is purely superficial, yet they are keenly alive to the advantages of many of the products and inventions of civilization, and in one or two houses I was amazed to find the Indians owning and using radio receiving sets. I did not, however, meet a Mapuche who owned a motor car, not even a Ford, for the Mapuche most wisely realizes that Araucania is far better suited to travel by horseback than by automobile. But let good or even passable roads be built through the Indian country, and Mapuches by the hundred will be using cars. On one occasion we met a stout, good-natured looking Mapuche driving a flock of sheep, and halted to make inquiries regarding the location of a village.

Evidently we had asked the right man, for he proved to be the Cacique of the place we sought and offered to accompany us. When I invited him to enter the rattle-trap of a Ford, he was as delighted as a boy, and grinning from ear to ear, he crowded his corpulent person into the front seat.

Never, he declared, had he ridden in a car before, and as the machine began rocking and rolling over the prairie he shouted and whooped and roared with glee, stamping his feet, urging the car on in shrill Mapuche and lashing the sides and mud guards with his rawhide whip.

In one spot a good-sized log lay across the trail, and the driver brought the car to a stop. This didn't suit our Mapuche passenger at all.

"It is not as good as a horse." he exclaimed disgustedly, "for even a colt would jump that tree."

Our Chilean chauffeur was not to be dared by any Mapuche. With a muttered. "Caramba pues!" he drove the little car full tilt at the log, and with a jar and a jolt that threatened completely to disrupt the integrity of the machine, we hurdled the barrier much to the uproarious delight of our Indian.

"Now, I suppose you will have a car of your own," I suggested to the Cacique as, having reached the village, he slowly and reluctantly disembarked. He shook his leonine head as he carefully and minutely examined the tires and peered under the chassis.

"No, Señor," he replied with something very like a sigh. "These things are good for the white men, but they are not for the Mapuches. Look you, if a horse dies or breaks its leg, always is there a colt to take its place, but this thing breeds not colts. Also, Señor, the horse eats grass and the world is wide and grass is for the taking, but this thing eats the gasolene and." with a humorous twinkle in his keen eyes, "even the white men have not learned how to plant the seed of the gasolene and reap the crop."

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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.