Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Into Unexplored Panama






This seems to be a very good, and new story, not reflected in Verrill's formal autobiography. From a 1922 magazine article, the images have just barely survived the three generations of copying, but 'you have to take the rough with the smooth' as Verrill would say.

Into Unexplored Panama

Among Darien's Most Primitive Peoples—A Savage Wedding in the Panamanian Jungle— Venturing Into Dangerous Territory—With the Indomitable Kunas—Trails Blazed by Balboa.

By A. Hyatt Verrill

Photographs by the Author

Travel magazine, October 1922, Collected by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2011.

One hundred and fifty miles from the Panama Canal lies the Darien district, a region rich in natural resources, difficult of access and almost unknown. Once the center of Spanish civilization, with thriving settlements along the banks of its rivers, it shows, to-day, no traces of the old conquest. Save for a few miserable villages, this area is now no more than a vast, unbroken jungle lying between the Bayano River and the Colombian frontier in the provinces of Panama and Colon. The inhabitants are Indians as primitive and, in certain sections, as savage as the natives of the forests, in the distant time when Balboa and his adventurous band hewed their way across the Isthmus.

Incredible as it may seem, less than two hundred miles from up-to-date Americanized cities of the Zone, there are Indians living in an unexplored portion of the district, so ferocious in character that no white man venturing into their territory is permitted to return alive. My visit to their villages was the first exception to this barbarous rule. Since the days of Balboa these “wild” Kunas have maintained their racial purity and independence, driving back or killing all outsiders who enter the "forbidden" district which extends, approximately, from the Atlantic coast to the western mountain ranges.

Panamanians sometimes confuse this mysterious tribe with the San Blas Indians of the Atlantic coast and neighboring islands, but they are markedly different. The San Blas Indians are a mixed race, friendly and industrious, who carry on an extensive trade in ivory-nuts and coco-nuts with Colon. They are apt to object to strangers remaining in their villages overnight; yet, there are missionaries, police and other aliens dwelling with them. Besides, many of their men have been sailors on whaling and merchant vessels and speak English with a fluent command of American slang. Although they claim relationship with the Kunas, they call themselves Towalis and fear the real Kunas as much as all the other races do.

It was to study these primitive tribes, and, especially, the Kunas, that I made my first trip through the district. The boat which launched me on my journey into Darien was a strange and uncomfortable craft. Her only accommodations consisted of a deck, thick with accumulated grease and filth, and as this was crowded with nearly a score of negro, Chinese and Panamanian passengers, to say nothing of the half-naked crew of six and a goodly assortment of freight, I finally climbed to the roof and slung my hammock between the davits.

El Real de Maria is the high-sounding name of the village where at last we disembarked, and never was a spot less appropriately christened. The village consists of ramshackle, wattled houses, a few Chinese shops and endless filth, and the pigs and cattle that wander at will among the houses outnumber the human inhabitants ten to one. At this miserable place I secured the services of two half-breed negro boatmen and a large cayuca or dugout, and, with our outfit stowed in the long, narrow craft, we bade farewell to El Real and headed up the Tuira for the Indian country.

After a day's journey the river narrowed considerably; the forests upon its banks grew more luxuriantly; the current became swifter. Soon we heard voices ahead and, swinging around a wooded point, arrived at the first Chokoi village. At a landing-place below a steep bank were a number of cayucas and about them clustered a crowd of men and women, naked save for loin-cloths and strings of gaudy beads. At sight of us the women and girls scurried up the bank and out of sight like a covey of frightened partridges, and a number of the men did the same thing. The others grinned and greeted us in Spanish, and, accompanied by quite an escort of Indians, we clambered up the bank to the place where the chief awaited us. He was a striking character clad as he was in an old duck coat and loin-cloth, with his fine, kindly face framed in a mane of white hair. He shook hands very gravely, welcomed me in Spanish and led the way to his house where, from every nook and corner, curious brown faces were peering forth at the strangers.

The chief's house, like all Chokoi dwellings, stood raised on posts about ten feet from the ground and was entered by means of a rude ladder consisting of a notched log. The interior was divided by invisible boundaries into three parts; one for the men, another for the women and children and a third for the kitchen. The furniture consisted of mats made of the soft, inner bark of the rubber tree and low, carved, wooden stools which served both as seats and pillows. Calabash dippers, sieves and earthen pots comprised the culinary utensils, and the kitchen fire was built on a bed of clay plastered over the cane floor. Here and there, bright-hued loin-cloths and strings of beads, hung to posts and rafters, gave a touch of color, and numerous painted, grotesquely carved images representing various birds, beasts and reptiles, as well as human figures, were fastened to the timbers. These I found were not true idols but fetiches, which the Indians utilize for nearly every possible purpose. There are gods of hunting, of sickness, of crops, of love, of the household, of children and of anything and everything. If one of the images proves inefficient, it is promptly mutilated or destroyed and another is made to take its place, for the practical Indian only values a god so long as it fulfills its purpose. Within the chief's house was a large gathering: a dozen or more men, as many women and girls and innumerable children of all ages.

Unlike the North American Indians, these Chokois were far from unemotional. They told stories, laughed and joked good-naturedly. Like all the South American aborigines, the Chokois are short, the men averaging only five feet four inches in height, but powerfully built with enormously developed chest and arm muscles, a result of much poling and paddling. They are a copper-brown in color, with broad, rather flat faces, many of them closely resembling Malays. Their arts are few, unlike most tribes, they have no knowledge of spinning or weaving, but they are experts at wood-carving and make stools, clubs, musical instruments and other articles from the hardest woods. The Chokois are, however, chiefly an agricultural people, growing maize, rice and other tropical plants on tiny areas of cleared land near the rivers, and depending very little upon hunting or fishing.

Throughout the day of my arrival the people busied themselves preparing for a wedding to be given the next day at a neighboring village. Dressed in all their finery, the Chokois were wonderful and fearful to behold. From head to foot they were painted with scarlet anotto, yellow ochre, the black from some vegetable juice and the brilliant blue of berries, as well as white from kaolin. No two were decorated alike, with the exception of the inevitable red, tribal marks, painted horizontally across the nose and cheeks of everyone. About their waists they wore broad, gaudily colored belts of beads from which were suspended their scarlet, blue, yellow or purple breech-cloths. String after string of variegated beads were wound about their chests and draped diagonally like bandoliers over their shoulders. Bands of silver encircled wrists, ankles and arms, and about their necks hung collars of silver and mother-of-pearl. In their ears dangled silver earrings, generally so enormous that they were tied together behind their necks. But most striking of all were their headdresses. Several were unpretentious enough to content themselves with fillets of beads, stuck with scarlet Hibiscus; the majority, however, were topped off with huge crowns of wood or bamboo, consisting of basketry frames in which bits of painted wood or split bamboo were inserted and which, at a short distance, had exactly the appearance of feather crowns, similar to those worn by the Indians of Brazil and Guiana.

When we set forth at daybreak for the neighboring village we were accompanied by quite a fleet of cayucas, laden with men, women, children, dogs, household utensils and provisions. There was, in fact, a general exodus, for the wedding, with its subsequent merrymaking and feasting as well as drinking, was to continue for a week.

After a journey of several hours we reached the village where a score or more of cayucas of every imaginable size and in every possible stage of decay and disrepair were drawn upon the bank. In these canoes and squatting on tree trunks were Indians, ablaze with color and gay with their most cherished ornaments. Our canoe was fairly lifted from the water and run far up the beach by the Indians who flocked about, chatting and laughing and begging for biscuits and other dainties.

The village lay just beyond the top of the river bank, a cluster of half a dozen thatched huts on stilts, all decorated with flowers, streamers of dyed cloth and gaily painted dance-fetishes or gods. In the centre of the village, a large, open shed of thatch had just been built; within it stood a small square platform of wood raised a few inches above the ground with a carved and painted post at each corner. Suspended from the roof above this platform was a strange contrivance consisting of several hoops of varying sizes to which were hung a number of wooden pendants gaily painted and roughly carved in the forms of human figures and of animals. As the peculiar object swung in the breeze, the wooden images swayed, knocked against one another and emitted a peculiar tinkling, musical sound. The platform proved to be the dancing stage and the dancers kept time to their steps by striking carved dance-sticks or wands against the tinkling pendants above their heads.

As soon as we reached the village great calabashes of chicha were passed around and, although this beverage looked far from appetizing, to refuse to drink would have been an insult to our hosts. I drank as moderately as possible, but the Chokois knew no such thing as moderation. They swallowed gallons of the chicha and were soon highly exhilarated and ready for the dance. In all this the women took no part. They merely stood about, laughing, looking on and clapping their hands or droning a weird song in time to the beat of the big drums, the shrill flutes and the sonorous tones of the Pan's pipes.

Suddenly, two men, dressed in all their finery, faced one another and commenced to dance. In their hands they carried calabash rattles and beautifully carved, dance-sticks of cocobolo. The beat of their feet upon the resonant platform, the tapping of their dance-sticks, the shaking of their rattles and the musical inkling of the dangling contrivance over their heads made a strange, rhythmical accompaniment to their steps. As soon as one man tired, he would dash from the platform, gulp down a calabash of chicha, and another man would immediately take his place. Hour after hour this continued until all the men had danced themselves into exhaustion; then the women took possession and, crowding one another on the dance platform, pranced, cavorted and shuffled about to their hearts' content. Finally the bride-to-be appeared, a young girl painted in a peculiar pattern of vivid scarlet and carrying a carved, wooden tray full of ears of corn. Followed by all the dancers, she walked to a newly built house, mounted the ladder, and squatting on the floor, commenced to shell the corn. Then, taking a portion of it, she pounded it in a wooden mortar, worked it into a dough with water and commenced to bake it over a fire which she kindled in a corner of the hut. The bridegroom then approached, hung his crown and weapons to a rafter, placed his sleeping-mat on the floor and, seating himself upon a low, wooden stool, accepted the corn-cake the girl offered him and started to eat it in silence. The girl then stole off to the river, returning a few moments later with her red paint washed off and replaced by designs in black. Apparently the wedding ceremony was now over, for there was no further dancing.

Long before sundown most of the Chokois were snoring soundly in semi-drunken stupors. It was evident that we had nothing further to gain by remaining, so we embarked in our cayuca and, heading up the Capetti, soon left our Indian friends far behind.

About noon the next day we rounded a bend and came suddenly upon a small, shed-like house on the summit of a steep bank. The yelping of dogs greeted us, and, an instant later, two strange figures appeared upon the bank and gazed at us curiously. Their straight aquiline noses, high foreheads, long heads and high cheek-bones were very different from the features of the Chokois, and their skin, save where it was hidden under broad patches of coal-black paint, was pale yellow instead of coppery brown. The costumes consisted of short, shirt-like, sleeveless tunics of gaudy colors in geometrical designs with trouser-like skirts of equally brilliant hues. Around their calves and ankles were tightly-bound bands of woven cotton, broad, gold bands encircled their arms, and in their noses hung triangular, gold rings. They were Kuna women—the first I had seen—and the younger of the two carried a naked baby upon her hip. Fortunately no man was present, and as the women were apparently ignorant of the purpose of a camera, I secured a number of photographs.

This was an unusual stroke of luck, for throughout my entire stay among the Kunas I was never afterwards permitted to take a picture of one of the women.

The two women, as well as the entire tribe on the Capetti, were, my boatmen informed me, "tame" Kunas. In other words, they were friendly and peaceable, and members of a sub-tribe quite distinct from their relatives in the "forbidden" district, who are known locally as the "wild" Kunas.

As usual, the yelping of mongrel curs first apprised us of the fact that we were nearing an Indian settlement, and, a moment later, a savage figure appeared for a second upon the bank and then ducked out of sight among the shrubbery. From this momentary glimpse, I should have taken him for the wildest of wild Indians. Painted as he was, inky black with huge, red circles around his eyes and mouth, he presented a frightful appearance; but there was no hostile movement, and, as the cayuca grated against the bank, several men, including the black-painted fellow, stepped out from the path. They appeared friendly enough and led us a short distance inland to a well-built house.

Unlike the Chokoi houses, those of the Kunas are walled with cane and are two stories in height. Near this main house was a smaller structure, which I later discovered served as the women's quarters. Harem-like, the women are segregated and never allowed to appear in daylight. Physically they seem very delicate and, according to the men are unable to withstand bright sun or to take long journeys. So, day in, day out, they remain in the semi-darkness of their separate buildings, weaving hammocks and cotton cloth, making their strange garments and preparing meals, until evening, when they steal forth to the river to bathe and procure water.

There were half a dozen men gathered in the main house and several more soon arrived. The place was well furnished, judged by Indian standards, and showed unmistakably that the Kunas were a race superior to the Chokois. The men's apparel, also, indicated a higher degree of civilization. They all wore trousers, most of them shirts, as well, and several had on odd tam-o-shanter-like head-coverings of finely woven, bright-colored cotton and pita-hemp fiber. In appearance they were distinctly and strikingly Mongolian. With their pale-yellow skins and almond-shaped eyes they bore no resemblance to any Indians I had ever seen. When they spoke, it was in the sing-song tones of the Chinese, and any one of them could readily have passed as a Chinaman.

But my ambition to explore the "forbidden" district was still unsatisfied. Finally I broached the subject, and the "tame" Kunas did their best to discourage me. They insisted that we would all be killed or driven back, adding that even they would not dare attempt to go beyond the Membrillo's mouth into the district of their wild kinsmen. I learned, however, that there were more Kuna villages on the Pukro, and, after a few days stay, headed down the Capetti and up the Tuira for the Pukro River.

Once beyond the Membrillo, we were in the "forbidden" district where we felt that at any moment we were liable to be welcomed by poisoned arrows from an unseen foe. We had no knowledge as to the location of the first villages, but, feeling sure that they would be situated on the tributaries rather than on the main river, I headed up a small stream, a day's travel beyond the Membrillo. Through this section the banks were covered with dense forests and the abundance of bird and animal life testified to the fact that it had never been disturbed by hunters. The creek itself was shallow and it required all the efforts of my men to drag and push the cayuca over the shoals and up the rapids. With no good camping spot in sight, we pushed on until nightfall, hoping to find some sandbar or open space. Then, without warning, we suddenly collided with a big canoe tied to the bank, and the next second shadowy figures sprang up about us. Our canoe was seized and dragged onto the shore and we found ourselves surrounded by Indians. In the darkness it was impossible to distinguish features or other details, but I could see that all the Indians wore their hair long, either hanging below the waist or looped in a huge mass on one side of the head, and I knew that we were among the "wild" Kunas at last.

Not a single one of them made an attempt to seize or even touch us; yet all were armed with bows and arrows, and, by means of broken Spanish and a few significant gestures, they made it plain that we were captives. With some leading the way and others following behind, we marched off through the jungle for a mile or more, and then, crossing a small stream, approached a group of houses. Here we were led to a good-sized hut; by the flickering light of a fire I could make out the faces of our captors, and a hideous-looking crew they were. Most of them wore shirts and breech-clouts, some appeared in ragged trousers only and a few were naked save for their loin-cloths; but all had been painted from head to foot in solid black, blue or scarlet with great circles of other colors about their eyes, and on every face a most unpleasant and savage expression glowered down on us. Not a member of our welcoming committee was able to speak or understand a word of Spanish, so apparently there was no means of communicating intelligently with our captors. Despite the uncertainty, not to say danger, of our predicament, I could not help laughing at the strange spectacle of a white man and two mulattos sitting in the center of a circle of savage Kunas in absolute silence, and evidently waiting for some miracle which would enable us to understand one another.

Presently the miracle arrived in the person of a huge, fat, but very dignified individual, clad in a cotton shirt and breech-clout, with a scarlet cotton cap surmounting the mass of hair looped up to one side of his head. Unlike the others, he was not painted, save for a red perpendicular line on his nose, but in his ears dangled heavy gold rings, and a necklace of cowries and gold bangles hung upon his chest. For a moment he looked us over gravely and then, seating himself in a hammock, he spoke to me in fairly good Spanish. His manner was so thoroughly pompous and judicial, and his questions so peremptory, that I began to feel like a criminal in a courtroom before the prosecuting attorney.

After questioning and cross-questioning me as to my intentions, my reasons for entering his district, my nationality and my past, present and future, he turned and addressed the other men assembled. At length, after a long and heated discussion, the chief asked me for my photographs of the Guiana Indians, and they all gathered about them, as excited as a lot of boys. It was evident that the old chief felt kindly disposed toward us, and, after his second speech, all the others, with the single exception of one evil-faced fellow, voted in our favor. As soon as our opponent was quieted, the chief informed me that I would be permitted to remain in the "forbidden" district for two weeks, with certain reservations: I was held responsible for my boatmen, who were confined to the immediate vicinity of the hut; I was forbidden to go about unaccompanied by Kunas, to take any photographs or attempt to approach the quarters of the women whom they guarded so jealously. We were allowed to remain on account of our photographs. According to these logicians, they could not very well exclude people who had been permitted to live among tribes more primitive than themselves. Later I learned that their only objection to photographs was the fear that in the pictures they would appear as naked as the Guiana Indians. After I convinced them that this would not be the case, a number of the men, including the chief himself, posed for me; but I was never allowed to photograph the women to their knowledge, although, by stealth and at the risk of my life, I did manage to secure a few pictures. During our visit among these Kunas I recognized in my hosts a most interesting and intelligent race. The chief, particularly, possessed an intelligence far surpassing that of any other Indian I have ever met. Still, despite his intellectual curiosity and, especially, his keen interest in the natural sciences, he was, fundamentally, as superstitious as the rest of his race.

In the course of our friendly discussions, the chief informed me that members of the tribe had, at times, visited the Panamanian settlements, carefully concealing their identity, for fear of retaliatory measures on the part of their hosts. But the promiscuity of the wild Kunas ends there. Until the end of our stay we heard the same story: that we were the first outsiders to gain access to their territory and remain among them. A stranger seldom attempts to enter the district, but, if he does, he is first warned off, and then killed, should he venture to return. Outrageously brutal as this may sound, one who has observed the results of contact with civilized man, as exemplified by the other Indians, can scarcely blame the Kunas for the stand they take, or begrudge them a secret admiration for their success in maintaining their independence and the purity of their stock. Approximately five thousand of this intrepid tribe are now dwelling in the "forbidden" district, with, possibly, another five hundred of the "tame" kinsmen scattered over the adjacent territory.

During my two weeks stay among the Kunas I secured a vast amount of data and valuable information. Try as I might, however, I was unable to induce them to sell or trade a single utensil, weapon, ornament or other article for my collections, with the exception of a splendid harvest god which they discarded on account of inefficiency.

At last, on the day before my departure, I decided to make one final attempt to secure some specimens of Kuna handiwork, and, knowing the almost universal unwritten law of the Indians, which decrees that a gift must be returned for a gift, I summoned all the men of the village and distributed everything I possessed among them. Beads, powder and shot, mirrors, knives, machetes, fish hooks, files, cotton cloth and other trade goods were divided and passed around; then came all my extra clothing, all the supplies I could spare, all my surplus ammunition, until, at last, I was reduced to the barest necessities and the garments I stood in. Impassively the Kunas received the presents and, without comments, departed to their various houses. I gave up in despair.

But the next morning, as we were preparing to leave, the old chief brought out a bundle of bows and arrows, a roll of the beautiful Kuna cotton cloth, a big drum and a gorgeous dress and presented them to me. Even as I was thanking him, another man arrived loaded with a hammock, a blow-gun, several musical instruments and a carved stool. For the next half hour I was busily occupied in accepting the gifts which were pressed upon me, until every article I had coveted, admired or attempted to secure was in the pile of presents which had accumulated.

And then, just as I thought the last had arrived, an ugly chap, who had wanted to slice off my feet, appeared. With a murderous leer which he intended for a smile, he handed me a magnificent basket. Within was a woman's dress, a number of the prized cowry-shell necklaces, several beautifully engraved calabashes, three of the odd, palm wood and fiber combs worn by the men and one of the closely woven and brightly colored headbands of the chiefs. All his former animosity was forgotten, and, as I thanked him for his gift, he fumbled in his garments. With a ludicrous expression of shyness upon his broad, yellow face, he handed me a tiny, exquisitely carved god of lignum vitae with eyes of uncut emeralds. It was his personal god, his most highly prized possession and the greatest pledge of friendship he could bestow, for he had given me the fetish to insure my safety and to protect me on my journey. I realized that in my former enemy I had, now, a steadfast, lifelong friend, that I, alone, of all white men, had won the confidence, the trust and the friendship of the wild Kunas and that, for me, henceforth, their country was no longer the "forbidden" district.

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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.