Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Mr. Verrill’s Sabanero-Guaymi Trip 1925

From Indian Notes 1925

Mr. Verrill’s Sabanero-Guaymi Trip and Indians of Surinam


Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill recently returned to the Canal Zone from a long trip to the Sabanero and Guaymi Indians of Panama, among whom he gathered a very comprehensive collection of ethnological objects, to which are added a bark dance costume from Coclé, Panama (fig. 103), and a few specimens from the Pano tribe of Bolivia and the Changa of northern Peru. This trip was the roughest and hardest of the many that Mr. Verrill has undertaken, not the least of his hardships being the fever he suffered from infection by ticks. Mr. Verrill was told that it would be impossible to take pack-animals into the Sabanero-Guaymi region on account of its roughness, but with characteristic perseverance he took in a train of six horses and brought them through where none had been before. Most of the region is at an altitude of 3000 to 5000 feet, and the only means of travel is by Indian trails which lead over precipitous mountains regardless of grades or natural obstacles, and often through deep gullies or cañons in soft rock with perpendicular sides, too narrow to allow a laden horse to proceed, and necessitating the hewing of grooves in the rock to enable the packs to pass. In other places it became necessary to cut steps that the horses might gain hoof-hold, while often the trails led along crumbling verges of precipices more than a thousand feet high. All this was accomplished with only insignificant breakage of specimens, although Mr. Verrill says, "The wonder is that, between horses tumbling down, packs knocking against rocks and trees, and other incidentals, anything breakable came through without being smashed to bits." Continuing, Mr. Verrill reports:

"I went straight through the heart of the Sabanero-Guaymi country, where the Indians are hostile and had never seen a white man, and many of whom had never seen a colored Panamanian. Fortunately I won the friendship of a sub-chief of the Guaymis living on the borders of the district, and he accompanied me, vouched for me, had me made an honorary member of the tribe, and forced the Indians to trade and to be photographed. He also sent runners to the most distant houses (there are no villages, the Indians living in houses often ten miles or more apart), had them gather at prearranged spots, held feasts, dances, and ceremonials for me to attend, and even had a stick dance performed by daylight so that I might obtain photographs.

"I found the Sabaneros more a name than an actuality. There are very few of them left—not over one hundred—and they have become so mixed and intermarried with the Guaymis that they have lost practically all tribal identity so far as arts and customs are concerned, although retaining their own dialect, which is totally distinct from all others of Panama. In appearance they are short, big-headed, brown-skinned, with oblique eyes, bridgeless noses, wide horizontally placed nostrils, and long thin chin beards and "Mandarin" mustaches. They are a far more primitive type than the Guaymis, and have been kept under subjection and almost absorbed by the latter. They are not permitted to have their own chiefs, and are completely surrounded by the Guaymis, who number probably 10,000. Although these Guaymis are of the same stock as the Boorabis of the Bocas del Toro region, their dialects are slightly different, and their habits, arts, etc., are quite distinct, though no more so than one would expect from the difference in environment. The Boorabis are seashore and river Indians, and depend mainly on fishing and some agriculture, while the Guaymis are mountain Indians, gaining their subsistence by hunting and agriculture.

"The pottery and terracotta work is particularly interesting, as also is the fine series of wooden stamps used in painting the face with black and red only, the designs often being very intricate and those of the women having definite significance. I do not know if I obtained every pattern, but I got all I saw in use. Neither tribe tattooes.

"During festivities the Guaymis decorate every wooden article with symbolic designs in soot mixed with grease. One sees them on gods, wooden pestle, spindles, etc. The odd mechanical device used by all the Guaymis for spinning twine, etc., is a clever combination of bow-drill and spindle.

"The terracotta figurines and the rough type of pottery are made only for ceremonial use and are afterward destroyed. It will be noticed that while these tribes are experts in weaving the chakaras, or bags, and in beadwork, yet their woodwork, pottery, and basketry are very crude.

"I was also greatly interested in the throwing spears and throwing sticks, which I have not seen used hitherto. There are three types of the latter, two used by the Guaymis only, the other by the Sabaneros only. The throwing spears also are used by both tribes as arrows with bows; they are, however, more effectual with the throwing sticks.

"These Guaymis are reputed to be cannibals. I cannot vouch for this, but just before my arrival several were arrested, charged with cannibalism, but were released for want of evidence. Among these was the chief I became friendly with. I strongly suspect they do indulge in cannibalism at certain ceremonies, for when I showed them some photographs of Guiana Caribs and mentioned that they were cannibals, the Guaymis became greatly excited, crowding about the photographs, chattering and pointing, and insisted on my giving them the pictures.

"The feather headdresses are worn either with or without hats. The hat appears to be an interesting development from the woven basketry crowns—with top added—which I was told were in use ten or fifteen years ago, but were supplanted by the hats which the Guaymis copied from the Boorabis."

INDIAN NOTES 1925 [Page 144]

Chilean Archeology.—While in Chile last winter, Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill obtained for the Museum a collection of archeological material found in kitchenmiddens and burial sites in the vicinity of Taltal, classified in accordance with the four cultures represented therein, the earliest of which is regarded as paleolithic in type. The stone objects include some that are eccentrically chipped to represent birds, human beings, etc., also arrow and spear points, knife blades, pendants, and tobacco pipes. Bone artifacts, also well represented, include many ornate so-called spatulas or mixing spoons. The collection, which numbers about two thousand specimens, was gathered by and obtained from Mr. N. Cassanova.


From INDIAN NOTES Volume 2 1925 (pages 309-313) Compliments of the National Museum of the American Indian, NYC. Digitized by Doug Frizzle May 2011.

In former issues of Indian Notes brief accounts of a few of the writer’s field activities in behalf of the Museum have been presented. During recent month he has gathered for the Museum about four thousand ethnological objects, representing twenty-two tribes, in Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Surinam, Trinidad, and Dominica, together with interesting archeological collections from Chile and Panama.

The most recent gatherings were among the Indians of Surinam, who are decreasing very rapidly in numbers and have practically abandoned all primitive arts and customs. In the colony there are now probably not more than one thousand Indians, comprising only five tribes. These are the Carib, Arawak, Warrau, Trio, and Akawoia. Unlike British Guiana, the hinterland of Surinam is almost totally uninhabited, the Bush negroes, or Djoekas, extending barely one hundred and fifty miles up the rivers, and the Indians being confined to the coastal district and the Brazilian border. Undoubtedly this dearth of inhabitants in the interior is due to the relentless warfare waged for many years against the Bush negroes, during which the Indian allies of the whites were wiped out by the black men, who exceeded them in numbers, whereas in British Guiana the Indians were more numerous than the Djoekas and exterminated the latter. The coastal tribes (whose farthest villages are barely sixty miles from the sea) are wholly Arawak, Carib, and Warrau. Of these the Carib are the most numerous, and have been influenced the least by contact with whites and negroes. Few of the Arawak retain anything of their primitive ways, and the Warrau even less. Among the Carib there are many of pure blood, with a fairly small proportion whose blood is mixed with negro, Chinese, Javanese, or European. Among the Arawak the mixed-bloods exceed those of pure Indian descent. In many districts also the Arawak and Carib have mixed, and the few primitive customs preserved are in no way typical of either tribe. In some villages, however, the peaiman, or medicine-man, still practises his profession, and in nearly all the villages, especially those of the Carib, the people wear only the fringed Carib breech-cloth, and the women retain their tight ligature-like leg- and arm-bands of woven cotton. Bows and arrows are still used to some extent; basket weaving is an important industry; and during ceremonial dances feather crowns, clubs, teeth necklaces, and cotton head-ornaments are worn. All of these, as well as fish-traps, a remarkable rat-trap of unique design, drums, flutes, rattles, wooden stools, charms, feather ornaments, etc., were obtained.

It is in pottery that the Surinam Carib excel, and a very large and complete collection was procured. Of all the Carib tribes those of Surinam alone have retained the art of making this striking pottery, with its buff and red colors and ornamentation of narrow black lines and figures. Of special interest are the earthenware figurines, in which animals predominate, although practically every natural object, animate and inanimate is reproduced. The exact use or purpose of these effigies is not definitely known, and the Carib are reticent on the subject. As in many ways they are much like those obtained from the Guaymi of Panama, who use them in ceremonies, it is highly probable that the Carib figurines were originally employed for a similar purpose. In fact I found certain forms in use in peai, these being coated with white paint made from kaolin, in one or two villages. At the present time, however, the figurines appear to be more in the nature of toys or ornaments. .

I could find no important differences in the dialects of the Surinam and British Guiana Carib and Arawak, although in the forms of their houses and in physical appearance they are rather distinctive. No doubt this is attributable to the intermixture of Carib and Arawak in Surinam, and to the influence of the Bush negroes. A representative collection was secured which well illustrates their wood-carving and other arts. I found no trace of the use of the blow-gun and poisoned darts among the Surinam tribes, although the weapon is still widely used by the British Guiana Indians. Nor did I find any of the "beenas," [charms?] so common to British Guiana, among the Surinam Indians. The nose-beena, ant-beenas, and others, are wholly lacking, although one very old Arawak stated that he could remember when his tribe used the ant frames. The memory of it, however, was so dim that he could not even remember how to make one.

The effects of civilization, Christianity, and contact with other races have made far more rapid inroads on the Surinam tribes than on those of British Guiana, owing to the better transportation systems of railway and river boats in Surinam, and the fact that all the Indians, with the exception of the few Trio and Akawoia on the Brazilian frontier, dwell within comparatively easy reach of the settlements and of Paramaribo. In many of the villages there are churches, schools, and police; a sanitary inspector of the government visits them and strives to enforce sanitation; and the majority of the men who are inclined to work at all, are employed as laborers in the bauxite mines, on the timber grants, or by the balata gathers. No government supervision or protection of the Indians exists in British Guiana, with the result that the tribes are at the mercy of whites, blacks, and others. Within the last five years the Indians have decreased fully fifty per cent, and within a few years more they will completely disappear as a distinct people.

A. Hyatt Verrill

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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.