Sunday, 22 May 2011

Indian Notes - Verrill 1924


Published Occasionally in the Interest of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Broadway at 155th Street, New York

Vol. I No. 4 OCTOBER, 1924 (Page portions 166, 194-200, 246) Provided by the Museum of the American Indian, NYC. Digitized by Doug Frizzle May 2011.

[This is the first appearance of AHV under the masthead of NMAI/frizzle]

Mr. A. Hyatt VERRILL, who left New York in February to gather objects representing the material culture of the Teguala Indians of Darien, Panama, has finished his task and forwarded the collections to New York. Further mention of Mr. Verrill's gatherings will be made in the next issue of Indian Notes.


In February Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill went to the province of Darien, Panama, for the purpose of collecting material illustrating the ethnology of the little-known Indians of that region, with the result that the Museum has received a very complete collection gathered among the Teguala, Tupi-Towali, and Juarro tribes. Mr. Verrill's observations among these Indians has brought forth some illuminating facts. The Tupi-Towali are the River Towali, and should not be confused with the Towali of the San Bias Indians. The Cuna, Towali, Tupi-Towali, and Teguala are now all included in the Cuna-Cuna group, and with slight variations speak the same language. Originally, however, they were independent tribes, and even today some of the old people of the respective tribes converse in their distinct tongues, which cannot be understood by members of the other tribes of the group. The symbol of the Cuna-Cuna is a four-pointed star, the points signifying the four confederated tribes and typifying originally the cardinal points of the compass—the Towali north, the Tupi-Towali east, the Cuna south, the Teguala west. At the present time the Teguala and the Tupi-Towali dwell about the headwaters of the rivers, although many members of these tribes, and those of the Cuna, have migrated to the islands and mixed with the Towali.

The Tupi-Towali are the largest in stature, the lightest in color, and by far the most intelligent of all the Cuna-Cuna tribes. Many of the men and most of the women are as light as a dark-skinned European, and their skin is tanned to a distinct reddish instead of brown. The younger children appear perfectly white, but the boys soon become darker from exposure to the tropical sun, while the girls remain light. Unlike the Teguala, whose women clip the hair short when they reach puberty, the Tupi wear it long throughout life. Their dress is unusual, with very distinctive patterns, and their face-painting is also different from that of the other tribes. Their woven headbands and other handicraft are almost identical with those of the Cuna.

Especially notable among the objects gathered are six head-ornaments, or crowns: one from the Juarro, two from the Teguala, and three from the Tupi-Towali. So far as can be ascertained, those from the latter two tribes were the only ones owned by them. These ornaments, worn only by the medicine-men, consist of a circle, about five inches high, woven of strips of palm-leaves, at the outer base of which fits a rim of the same material, about which is tied a band of feathers. Five pompons made from sections of reed, with feathers attached by means of cotton cord, are placed equidistant about the crown and fastened with palm-wood spikes, one end of each of which is thrust in the pith of one end of the pompon, the other in the palm-leaf rim. Long plumes are then stuck upright in the upper ends of the reeds (fig. 57).

The containers for these feather ornaments are also interesting. The smaller ones are kept in a gourd, the cover of which consists of a section of another gourd that fits over the open end. This receptacle is placed in a carrier of coconut fiber. The longer plumes are preserved in a bamboo case. The two forms of container are shown in fig. 58.

Other crowns, made of forest flowers and worn by the Indians in their ceremonial dances, are unique. The use of the feather crowns, however, is confined to the medicine-men, or lele. When an Indian feels impelled to become a lele, he goes to the forest, where he "makes medicine" and fasts for three days. If a bird should come close to him or alight upon him during this vigil, it is considered a sign of his mystical power, and thus he becomes a lele and entitled to wear a feather crown.

In woodcarving these Indians are highly efficient, their skill being shown not only in such utilitarian objects, of mahogany and other woods, as seats (many of which are carved in representation of animals), bowls, stirring paddles, floor smoothers, etc., but also in their fetishes carved from balsa, as well as of hardwood, in human and animal forms, the latter said to insure success in the hunt. Many of the separate human figures, as well as those carved on the ends of dance-wands, have a head-covering that bears a striking resemblance to a high hat, a style supposed to have been copied from the hat of some European whom the Indians had seen and to which they had taken a fancy. These fetishes, each with its distinct function, are used in treating disease, in aiding childbirth, and for other purposes, the figures acting as proxies for the medicine-men themselves. The household "gods," some of which are almost six feet in height, also have the capacity of "doctors," for they are believed to prevent sickness from entering the house. These, as well as the dance-sticks showing a bird perched on a man's head or on a house, are believed to possess magic power and are borne by the medicine-men.

In the collection are also many figurines made of coarse clay in representation of animals of many kinds, as well as of human beings in canoes, seated on stools, etc. These probably were used as toys.

As a reward for doctoring several of the Indians, Mr. Verrill was presented with two sets of medicine paraphernalia, each contained in a basket. These outfits, so sacred to the Indians that no outsider must even see them, are supposed to be susceptible of curing all ills. The baskets contain a large variety of objects—upward of a hundred in each. The skulls of small animals and birds forming part of the paraphernalia are worn smooth by repeated rubbing on the bodies of patients.

Many cloth dresses worn by the women were obtained. The designs on these garments are heraldic, as are the totems of the women's families, hence it is probable that descent among these tribes is matrilineal.

A long blowgun from the Juarro is rather unusual, being distinct in form from the blowguns of the Teguala and the Tupi-Towali.

Other materials include basketry, pottery, fishing and hunting implements, canoes, and a great variety of bead and seed necklaces and breastplates, most of which ornaments bear pendants of innumerable objects ranging from coins to crab-claws. All together there are about a thousand ethnologic objects from a group of tribes which heretofore have yielded little to scientific collecting.

Mr. Verrill plans next to go among the Terribi and Boorabi of Bocas del Toro province, Panama

George G. Heye

Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill who has completed his collecting in Panama for the present, has obtained representative collections from the Boorabi, the Terribi or Shayshan, and the Cocle Indians. The wooden carvings and feather head-dresses in the collections are most noteworthy, as are also the complete dance costumes made of palm-bark, with painted decoration. Mr. Verrill has departed to Chile, where he will collect ethnologic material until December, when he will return to Central America in the interest of the Museum.

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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.