Friday, 19 August 2011

Where the Wife is Boss

A. Hyatt Verrill was a nationally recognized adventurer and writer by the 1930's. This item comes from The Sun series of newspapers. It included two pictures of native women, but the quality of the copy of the so low that I am trying to locate replacement images./drf

Where the Wife is the Boss, Admittedly

Central American Aborigines and their Curious Customs


From Aug 28, 1932; The Baltimore Sun; supplied by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle August 2011.

REPORTS of the recent rescue of two American women from life among the San Blas Indians of Panama have revived interest in these famous aborigines of the Isthmus. The women, it appears, married the Indians, while the latter were in the United States. Dressed in the conventional clothes of the white man, well groomed—and these Indians when abroad are most meticulous in such matters—and speaking English, the aborigines doubtless appeared thoroughly civilized. And if they represented themselves as members of a civilized tribe they did so in good faith.

But when they reached their husbands' village these women discovered that "civilization" is an elastic term and that conditions which an Indian deems civilized are far from fulfilling the expectations of American women. Possibly—or rather probably—the husbands were ostracized by their own people because of their white wives, for the San Blas have always prided themselves upon maintaining the purity of their blood. As a result, possibly, of all this, the Indians deserted their white wives, or at least neglected them, and the unhappy women sent forth a pitiful SOS.


Few American Indian tribes have figured more prominently in the news of recent years than these so-called, San Blas. Yet in nearly every case the stories about them have been grossly exaggerated or utterly without foundation. Such was the announcement of the alleged discovery of a race of "white Indians" among the San Blas a few years ago. As a matter of fact, they were neither white Indian's nor any discovery, the "white" Indians being merely albinos who occur among all known Indian tribes. Unlike other tribes, however; the San Blas permit albino children to live, and regard them with a sort of superstitious respect.

Equally without foundation are the oft-repeated tales of these Indians permitting no strangers to dwell among them, of driving white men from their territory, and of their hostility and savagery. For many years trading companies have had representatives among the San Blas, and sight-seeing parties of tourists from Colon and Cristobal visit the Indians regularly.

I have lived for long periods among these aborigines; I have learned their language and have made a study of their customs, home life, religion and ceremonials; I have slept in their homes, have eaten with them, have doctored men, women and children—and I have always found them a most interesting, delightful, friendly and hospitable lot. This, however, is exactly what might be expected, for the Indians of the San Blas Archipelago have been in close contact with white men for over 400 years—ever since Columbus cruised along the coast of Panama. During the days of buccaneers, they rendered invaluable aid to the sea rovers as guides, hunters, fishermen and pilots, for the cruelty of the Spaniards had made them implacable foes of the Dons.


From their buccaneer friends and allies they learned seamanship and the English language and when, years later, Yankee whalemen appeared, the Indians proved as useful to the New Bedford, Nantucket and New London skippers as they had been to Morgan, Sharpe, Swan, Ringrose and other piratical skippers of the past. They took to whaling as the proverbial duck takes to water, and they regarded, the high-hatted, frock-coated whale-ship captains with so much respect and admiration that even today their favorite household gods are carved wooden figures with chin whiskers, high "stovepipe" hats and long-tailed-coats. Having acquired a love of ships and of visiting foreign shores, the San Blas men found sailoring exactly to their liking and scarcely a Yankee windjammer sailed the seven seas that did not include one or more San Blas Indians in its crew. And being adepts at picking up languages, many became excellent linguists. On one occasion I heard one of my San Blas boatmen speaking French with a Martinican. "How many languages do you speak?" I asked him. He grinned. "Mebbe ten," he replied.


yet throughout all these centuries of dealing, with white men of many nations and wandering over the world; the San Blas have maintained their tribal integrity, have retained their dialect, their faith, the ancient customs and ceremonials and have, until very recently, preserved the purity of their blood. And though they have been ever friendly with all Anglo-Saxons, they nevertheless have always had a smoldering hatred and distrust of people of Spanish blood.

At the time of an incipient rebellion against Panama, one of the subchiefs came to me to ask my advice in the matter.

"Why do you want to revolt and kill the Panamanians?" I inquired after he had stated his case. His reply fairly took my breath away. "Because we don't want to be civilized," he informed me. “We want to live like Americans!”

In the brief uprising that took place, several Panamanian officials were tortured and killed. For, peaceful, quiet, gentle and in many ways civilized as they are, the San Blas, like all Indians, become savages, fiends incarnate, when aroused on the warpath. And heaven knows they have had cause enough to be aroused and to go on the warpath to right the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of the Panamanians, who had exploited them, violated their women, placed Negro police over them, taken possession of their homes and islands and robbed them of their golden trinkets.

That short but sharp uprising, however, was a salutary lesson to the Government of Panama, and drastic changes were made in the treatment of the Indians. Today they are contented, happy and prosperous. The younger members of the tribe, abandoning the customs and conventions of their forefathers, have become ultracivilized. Many of the young men have been graduated from the university in Panama; many of the girls have become nurses in the hospitals or have become self-supporting wage earners elsewhere. Several of the islands have well-laid-out villages of neat houses and straight, wide streets, with artificial lighting, with gramophones and radios, with sanitary rules and street-cleaning brigades—in short, they are learning to "live like Americans," even if that necessitates being civilized.


but on many of the islands and on the mainland life goes on as it has for countless centuries; the people dress in their ancient peculiar costumes, the medicine men hold sway and the hereditary chiefs still rule. And here let me digress to state that woman's suffrage has been in vogue among these Indians from time immemorial. According to San Blas law, women hold first place in everything. Descent is by the female line and male ancestry counts for little, as is the case with many tribes. Hence the women literally rule the roost. When a man marries he becomes the virtual slave of his wife's parents until a girl is born of the union. I knew one old Indian fully 60 years of age who worked every day for his father-in-law, for although he had half a dozen children all were boys.

But do not imagine that men are the only workers among the San Blas. Woman may have an exalted place, she may be regarded as man's superior in many ways; but she is no drone. She has the household duties to attend, to—the cooking, washing, cleaning, caring for the children and making the family's clothing; she dresses and cleans the fish and game, grinds the corn, weaves baskets and makes hammocks.


The woman is exempt from any heavy manual labor, however. She is not, expected to carry burdens, nor even to bring a bucket of water to her home, wherein she rules supreme. She owns everything—only his hammock, his canoe, his gun, his clothing and his fishing gear actually belong to the subservient male—and he cannot sell, trade or give away anything without the permission and approval of his better half.

Even the chiefs have little control over the women. On one occasion I landed at an island where the Indians were still rankling under treatment received at the hands of Panamanians and had a grouch against all strangers. Scarcely had I stepped ashore before the local chief appeared, fairly bristling with fury, and ordered me off.


but the women had caught sight of my trade goods. Chattering excitedly, they surrounded the chief and importuned me to bring my goods ashore and trade. In vain the poor chief protested, stormed and threatened. The women were as keen bargain hunters as any feminine shoppers in a metropolitan department store, and they didn't intend to let any mere man—even if a chief—interfere with their fun. Finding himself utterly helpless in the face of the feminine majority, the old fellow sheepishly rescinded his orders.

On the islands, where modern ideas and civilized conditions have not supplanted the truly aboriginal life and customs, the women still adhere to their picturesque, gaudy costumes, and still wear the heavy gold nose rings; and herein lies an interesting story and one reason for the women's social status. For the nose ring, now a badge of superiority, was once a symbol of servitude and inferiority.

In the olden days, before the coming of white men, these Indians—like their neighbors and distant relatives, the Caribs—were confirmed cannibals and raided other tribes for the purpose of obtaining a supply of fresh meat. At such times the women and girls of the vanquished were made captives, and as it was no small task for the captors to control a bevy of female prisoners, the warriors hit upon the plan of linking their captives together by means of cords through their noses—like so many fractious bulls.


of course, the pierced noses identified the women as aliens, and hence inferior beings, once they were established in the villages of their conquerors. But leave it to the women to find a way out of any such situation. And, putting their heads—or their noses—together, the captured women soon hit upon a way. It was very simple. They spoke their own language among themselves and taught it to their daughters, but not to their sons, so that very soon the women of the community had a medium of communication which was unintelligible to the men. As a result, and owing to the fact that females always outnumber males among savage tribes, the women soon had the upper hand and ran things to suit themselves. Instead of being ashamed of their pierced noses they gloried in them, and to draw more attention to the perforations they wore heavy ornamental nose rings.


like all Indians, the San Blas are superstitious and believe in a number of good and evil spirits, in omens and signs, and have implicit faith in their medicine men or neles. As medicine the nele uses a most remarkable assortment of objects. Skulls and bones of birds and mammals, teeth, claws, pebbles, bits of water-worn coral, oddly shaped twigs and stones, tubers and seeds, buttons and coins, old doorknobs and electric-light bulbs—all have their places in his medicine kit. Rarely are herbs, decorations or brews prescribed.

The San Blas nele is the original layer-on of hands, and his "cures" consist of rubbing the afflicted portion of his patient's anatomy with the corresponding portion of some defunct creature, or some object which bears some imaginary or real relation to it. Thus a man with a headache is treated by having his head vigorously massaged with the skull of some creature. A doorknob also is deemed a wonderful specific for head troubles, while there is nothing so good for sore eyes as an electric-light bulb.


although these Indians are always referred to as the San Blas tribe, this is a misnomer, for there is no San Blas Tribe. The Indians living on the islands of the San Blas Archipelago and the neighboring mainland belong to five separate though related tribes—the Tegualas, Towalis, Tupi-towalis, Toles and Kunas—forming a rather loosely organized confederation, each having its own tribal chiefs, but all speaking the common Towali language. Although ordinarily at peace with one another, intertribal feuds with open hostilities and bloodshed are quite frequent.

Originally all these tribes inhabited the mainland along the rivers, but for purposes of defense from enemies, as well as to avoid the mosquitoes and other insect pests, most of the Indians took to the numerous islands offshore for residential sites, while still cultivating their gardens and fields on the mainland. As islands are not elastic, and as populations increase, most of the islands now are completely covered with the thatched houses of the Indians, with only narrow lanes between them. Some, however, are uninhabited and covered with Coconut trees, which form the wealth of the Indians. The San Blas nuts are famous the world over.


probably nowhere in the world are the men more skillful in the handling of open boats. With huge sails spread the Indians will sail their dugouts through a heavy sea and half a gale of wind, steering with one hand and holding the sheet in their toes, and for hour after hour keeping the lee rail within an inch of the water, But never shipping a drop.

To sail the open Caribbean Sea in one of these canoes laden with coconuts for the Colon market, and with a San Blas boy at the helm, is an experience to thrill the heart of any sailor, but is not to be recommended as a recreation for people with nerves.

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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.