Thursday, 6 October 2011

Among the Wild Tribes of Darien

Among the Wild Tribes of Darien

By A. Hyatt Verrill

The Wide World Magazine, March, 1919. Researched by Alan Schenker, Digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2011.

Although the Isthmus of Panama is pierced with a mighty canal, large districts are still unexplored, where dwell many strange tribes. It was to obtain information of these little-known races that led the Author to penetrate into this forbidden territory. He accomplished his mission and secured valuable photographs, but the journey proved exciting and he carried his life in his hands.

LESS than one hundred and fifty miles from the Panama Canal is a forbidden land, an unknown, unexplored district inhabited by primitive Indians who permit no civi1ized men within their territory. It seems incredible that such could be the case; that scarcely one hundred miles from this greatest achievement of civilization and progress, with its stupendous locks, its busy shops, its immense docks, and its roaring railway trains, there should be an area over one hundred and twenty miles long and twenty miles in width which has been closed to the outside world for centuries. But much of the Republic of Panama is still unknown and unexplored, and is as much a terra incognita as the heart of Africa or South America, and within a few hours' journey of the electric-lighted, sanitized, ultra-civilized zone dwell Indians as primitive in life, manners, and ways as were their ancestors in the days of the Spanish explorer Balboa.

The majority of these people are a happy, good-natured, peaceable lot and friendly with any strangers who visit them; but one tribe—the Kunas—have kept aloof and have successfully maintained their racial purity and their independence by forbidding all strangers to enter their territory under penalty of death.

It was to visit these people and to endeavour to penetrate the forbidden land that I made my expedition into the Darien region of Panama.

The so-called Darien district extends from the Colombian border to the head waters of the Bayano River, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but its boundaries are indefinite, for it is really more of a locality than a true district.

Historically, Darien is very interesting, for it was across this portion of the Isthmus that Balboa made his famous journey to the shores of the Pacific; it was here that the Spaniards established their first posts, forts, and towns on the continent of the New World, and it was from the Darien mines that Spain drew the first great riches of the Western hemisphere. Although the Darien district was the first portion of the mainland to be visited and settled by Europeans, to-day it is the least-known portion of Panama; although its mines were once the richest in the world, not a single mine is in operation at the present time, and while it once formed the high road from the Atlantic to the Pacific, today it is an unbroken wilderness threaded only by Indian trails.

The traveller who visits Darien must be prepared for a vast amount of discomfort and many hardships, for there is no accommodation to be obtained in the district, nor on the boats which run between Panama City and the outlying settlements. I left Panama on one of the local launches that ply between here and Garachine, the first port on the Darien coast. I have had the misfortune to travel on many miserable craft, but for outright filth, discomfort, and unseaworthiness, our launch exceeded them all. The food was uneatable, even the vultures disdaining to touch the meat supply spread out to dry on the roof. Finally, every member of the crew, as well as the captain and the Chinese passengers, had a game-cock tethered somewhere on deck, and the crowing of these creatures made sleep impossible after 3 a.m. Garachine is a miserable spot, a collection of flimsy cane huts built along a narrow strip of beach between the water and a vast swamp. Oil is known to exist in the vicinity, but all industry and progress is killed by the fact that the entire neighbourhood is owned by one man who will not permit anything to be done without payment of a fee. A little agriculture is carried on, but, as a whole, it is a most uninteresting, forlorn, and God-forsaken spot.

Our next stop was La Palma. While many of the houses here were of the same type as those at Garachine, there were a number of painted wooden buildings, and altogether the town is quite attractive and sanitary, owing to the fact that it is built partly over the water and partly on a steep hillside. All along the river, as we travelled onward, were wonderfully fertile and level lands perfectly adapted to agriculture, but absolutely untouched and uncultivated for mile after mile until Chipogana was reached.

Five hours after leaving this ramshackle collection of huts I arrived at the end of my launch journey and disembarked at El Real de Santa Maria. This village with the high-sounding name is the successor of the old Spanish town whose ruins may still be seen a few miles below the present settlement, and which was the first European town on the Pacific slopes of America. El Real is a miserable village of cane huts built on level land at the junction of the Tuyra and Pirri Rivers, and is as filthy and forlorn a hole as one can imagine. The crooked paths which serve as streets are littered with stones and filth, the houses are neglected and half ruined, and all drinking water must be brought from far up the Pirri River, as the streams at the town are thick with mud.

Fortunately, I was not compelled to remain long in El Real, and by daybreak on the morning after my arrival I had engaged two boatmen and a big dug-out, and by nine o'clock was being poled up the Tuyra on the flood tide.

Here, as everywhere else, were endless level agricultural lands untouched save here and there where some more energetic native had planted a few rows of corn and beans on the beaches a few inches above the level of the water, or where some West Indian immigrant had built a tiny hut and had surrounded it with banana, plantain, and yam fields. Much of this country is covered with cane brakes, but in places are large patches of open forest, and many of the trees are gigantic. Game was scarce, but bird life was abundant. Soon after passing Pinogana—a tiny hamlet beside the river—I saw the first Indians, a Chokoi family paddling down-stream in their dug-out, and the next morning we reached the first Indian settlement on the Yapi River. This was a village of Chokois, a happy, good-natured tribe who, although comparatively near the settlements, live as simply and as primitively as before Europeans first set foot on American soil.

At the foot of the high bank a number of dugout canoes were moored, and gathered on the summit of the bank, and on the steep path which led up from the water, were a number of men, women, and children. The men were nude, save for breech-cloths of red and blue cotton; the women wore only a scant kirtle of calico, and both men and women had their coppery-brown skins decorated with red and black painting. The old chief, who wore a ragged coat in place of royal robes, came forward and welcomed me gravely and invited me to his house.

The Chokoi house is a simple affair of poles and thatch raised from the ground on posts, and with a floor of split canes which is reached by means of ladders made by cutting notches in poles. The interior is roughly divided by imaginary lines into three sections, one for the men, one for the women, and the third for the kitchen. Furnishings are of the simplest, for the Chokois are ignorant of the art of weaving and never use hammocks, but sleep upon the floor with wooden stools for pillows and the tough inner bark of the rubber tree for blankets. They are very deficient in arts and even their basketry and pottery are very crude, but they are quite adept at wood-carving, and make excellent stools, paddles, stirrers, and other utensils, as well as decorated and carved calabashes.

Like all the Darien Indians, the Chokois have a great number and variety of gods or idols, carved from wood and gaily painted, Strictly speaking, they are not true idols, for they are not worshipped and have no sacred significance, but are more in the nature of fetishes or talismans. There are gods of sickness, of dances, of drinks, of the house, of hunting, of travel, of crops, and, in fact, of everything, and if one of the gods fails to make good it is promptly discarded or destroyed and another made to take its place. Owing to this custom, I had little difficulty in obtaining some splendid specimens of the Indians’ gods, for I had merely to prove a god inefficient in order to secure it. On one occasion I obtained a beautifully carved Cocobolo god of sickness by curing a man of fever after the god had failed, but the most amusing incident occurred when I was among the Kunas. I noticed a very large and fine god which had been placed in charge of the village granary, and while examining it I discovered that a woodpecker had made its nest in the back of the god's head. Of course, even an Indian would lose faith in a god after that, and they gladly turned him over to me.

The Chokois are quite musical and use well-made drums, flutes, and flageolets, and they are the only tribe I have seen who use a bass drum and small drum together. Physically they are well built, although short, the men averaging five feet in height and the women four feet eight inches, and have broad pleasant faces and copper-brown or reddish skins. They are very fond of games of any sort, and were greatly amused and mystified at the simplest tricks of sleight-of-hand.

But their greatest delight is the dance, and a dance is held on every pretext, the people gathering from far and near to attend the festivities. At second village of the Chokois which I visited was fortunate enough to be present at one of their festivals and found the men arraying themselves in all their finery.

Their faces and bodies were painted in intricate patterns and in their ears were enormous silver ear-rings of two kinds, one in the form of a large hoop decorated with beads and bangles, the other being a silver-headed peg hung with more bangles. These were inserted through the ears and tied together behind the neck. Across shoulders and chest they wore countless strings of multicoloured beads, broad, woven bead belts were tied about their waists, wide silver bands encircled arms and ankles, their necks were hidden under collars and necklaces of silver and mother-of-pearl, and on their coarse, black hair were beautifully-wrought bead head-bands. A few also wore bright-coloured crowns, and strangely enough these were made of strips of painted wood and bamboo instead of feathers; indeed, I soon found that these Indians never use feathers for any purpose whatsoever; but they are exceedingly fond of flowers, and do not think their dance costumes complete until they have stuck red and yellow blossoms in their hair and ears.

When dancing the men carry carved wooden animals and birds suspended from cords at the end of their ceremonial dance-sticks which are carved to imitate human figures or spears. Not only do all the men dance together, as among other tribes, but solo dances are also held, the dancer performing on a painted and carved wooden platform, while above his head is suspended a curious sort of canopy consisting of hoops to which are fastened painted wooden pendants which rattle together with a musical sound much like the Japanese affairs of glass which we hang in doorways or on verandas.

Exchanging my big canoe for a smaller one, we soon left the last of the Chokoi settlements behind and pushed on up the Capetti through the unbroken forest towards the villages of the "tame" Kunas. Travelling was difficult, as the river was very low, and the men were constantly obliged to step out and lift and haul the craft up-stream.

The first Kuna house we found was a temporary affair and was occupied by two women, who, fortunately, did not know the purpose of a camera and permitted me to take a number of pictures. They were the only Kuna women I found who would knowingly have a camera pointed at them, while among the wild Kunas it was out of the question to secure pictures, as I shall explain.

Unlike the Chokois, the Kuna women wear a peculiar and strikingly picturesque costume. This consists of a short smock-like garment of gaudy colours and elaborate design made by sewing bits of cloth of various hues upon a coloured cloth groundwork. The designs are in geometric patterns, and by superimposing various colours, very intricate and attractive effects are produced. In addition to these garments the Kuna women wear bead, shell, and tooth necklaces, their legs and arms are tightly bound with strings of beads, and they invariably wear gold nose rings and paint their faces in a most hideous manner.

Several hours more of tedious poling up the Capetti brought us to the first Kuna village. Here there were a number of houses, large, well-built affairs, walled with cane and two storeys in height, and close to each was a smaller building which served as a kitchen and quarters for the women. The Kuna women are very shy and retiring and, according to the Kuna men, are very delicate and unable to labour in the fields, to take long journeys, or even to expose themselves to bright sunshine. This may be very true, or it may have been merely an excuse for the women keeping out of sight, but in all the Kuna villages I visited I found the women remained in seclusion within their quarters and only ventured forth to bathe early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and, unlike most Indian women, they certainly did no manual labour.

The large Kuna houses were very clean and neat, and were comfortably furnished with huge wooden seats, luxurious hammocks, and quantities of baskets, utensils, etc. The men were all dressed in shirts and trousers, for, oddly enough, the Kunas, although much farther from the settlements than the Chokois, are far more civilized in many respects. But despite their garments these "tame" Kunas were very savage in appearance, owing to their painted faces, and even those who wore belts and cravats bore the Kuna tribal mark on the nose.

These Kunas were most polite and friendly, but they refused to permit me to do anything or to move about until the chief had been summoned. A few hours after my arrival the chief appeared, accompanied by several sub-chiefs; a long conference ensued, I was questioned at length, and the chiefs held another conference.

In appearance they were the most strikingly Mongolian Indians I have ever seen, with pale yellow skins, oblique eyes, and small chins.

They are a very intelligent race, and have developed the art of weaving cotton to a very high degree and make beautiful hammocks and head-bands, the latter being woven of pita fibre and wool in intricate patterns.

At last the chief decided that I might be permitted to take photographs and make collections, and we were soon on friendly terms.

I had visited these "tame" Kunas mainly to obtain information regarding the "wild" tribesmen of the forbidden district, and to acquire a knowledge of their customs and language, which I thought would be of use to me in my attempt to penetrate the danger zone. But when I mentioned this to the Kunas on the Capetti, they did everything to dissuade me from entering the wild Kuna district, assuring me that to do so meant death, and that even members of their tribe were not allowed in the closed territory.

Finally, however, one of the men informed me that the Kunas on the Pukro River were friendly with the wild Indians, and that members of the latter tribe often visited the Pukro villages. Accordingly, I left my Capetti friends and, descending the river, travelled on up the Tuyra to the Pukro.

This river is a very beautiful, swift-flowing stream with high, rocky banks and numerous rapids, and progress up-stream was very slow, and was made more difficult by the huge fallen trees which had been carried down river in the rainy season and had become stranded on bars and beaches, with their enormous trunks and limbs barring the channels. For several days we worked our way slowly up the river and just at sunset reached the first Kuna house. But to our chagrin I was not permitted to land, the occupant telling me that the chief expected me at his house, and consequently we were compelled to go on for several miles farther through the darkness. When, at last, we ran the canoe ashore and the chief met me, judge of my surprise to find he was the same man whom I had met on the Capetti. He had cut across by land and was waiting for me, and the wily old rascal had never even hinted that he governed the Indians on both rivers. He made us comfortable in his home, but no other Indians were present, and I strongly suspected that they had been sent out of sight purposely.

The following day a number of the sub-chiefs arrived and another conference ensued, and I realized from the tones and gestures that some discussion of importance was in progress. While the pow-pow was going on two strange Indians appeared, and I at once recognized them as "wild" Kunas from the forbidden district. They were clad in shirts and trousers like their hosts, but instead of wearing their shirts inside their trousers they wore them outside, while their hair was worn very long and was looped up on one side and fastened by a peculiar ornamental comb of palm-wood. They were hideously painted, their faces completely covered with scarlet paint with the exception of a round space including nose, eyes, and mouth, which was painted white, while their hands, arms, and feet were dyed inky black.

But they stoutly denied knowing anything of the forbidden district or its denizens, and silently slipped away ere the conference was concluded. Although I was finally permitted to collect specimens and to photograph some of the men, I was cautioned not to photograph the women, which was quite unnecessary, as they remained in their quarters, and finding that little could be accomplished and no information of value could be obtained, I decided to waste no further time, but to retrace my way and boldly proceed as far as possible into the forbidden area.

Descending the river was far easier and much quicker than poling up, and at times it was quite exciting. After refitting at El Real, we slipped down the Tuyra to Yavissa on the Chukunaque. Here I was regaled by blood-curdling tales of the wild Kunas, and many stories of unsuccessful attempts to enter their territory were related. I was told how one party of rubber gatherers, nearly one hundred strong, had gone forth, believing their numbers sufficient to awe the Indians, how they had never seen a savage, and yet each morning they would be killed by twos and threes by poisoned arrows shot from invisible foes, until at last but a scant half-dozen of the terror-stricken survivors escaped and reached Yavissa. Only a few weeks before my arrival, I was informed, two Panamanians who had been driven away from the district had endeavoured to return by a circuitous route and had disappeared, and their four thumbs had been sent down to the settlements as souvenirs.

However, I had visited many "wild" tribes in South America, and had successfully and safely penetrated districts of Guiana where no white man had been before, and I felt confident I could convince the Kunas of my good intentions, and could obtain first-hand information regarding them even if I were driven back from the first settlement. I had expected to find a great deal of difficulty in persuading my boatmen to accompany me, and, to my surprise, found they were quite willing to share any risks I assumed.

Yavissa is situated at the junction of the Chukunaque and the Rio Chico and is a very ancient settlement, being the successor to the old outpost of the Spaniards whose ruined fort still stands beside the river bank.

The Rio Chico is a broad, deep stream, navigable for a long distance, even in the dry season. A number of Chokoi villages are scattered along its banks, and trails lead from its head waters to the Atlantic coast. There are also paths connecting this stream with the Capetti and Pukro, and also with the Tupisa, the Tuquesa, the Membrillo, and other tributaries of the Chukunaque which rise in the forbidden district. By means of these trails and the waterways the Indians are enabled to travel between the territory of the "wild" Kunas and their "tame" tribesmen without passing through the settled districts, and they also trade with and visit the so-called San Bias Indians of the Atlantic coast, who are a totally distinct tribe, properly called Towalis.

No Indians were seen for many miles after leaving Yavissa, and I had commenced to think the country deserted, when, upon rounding a turn in the river, we were greeted by the yelps and barks of a dozen or more vicious-looking dogs and came suddenly upon a landing-place with several narrow dug-outs moored to the bank. We had no means of knowing if we were in the forbidden district or not, and as it was out of the question to go ashore, in the face of the yapping curs, we merely waited in mid-stream until something should happen.

Almost immediately several men appeared from the bushes upon the bank, and instantly I knew we had reached the country of the wild Kunas, for the men were naked to the waist, their bodies and limbs were dyed blue, scarlet, and black, their faces were grotesquely and frightfully painted, and their long black hair hung below their waists. They were such a savage, picturesque lot that I hurriedly opened my camera and attempted to photograph them regardless of consequences, but at first sight of the instrument the Indians ducked out of sight. But the peals of laughter and good-natured exclamations which sounded from the screen of foliage somewhat reassured us, and calling to the Indians in Spanish, I asked them to call off the dogs and allow us to land.

For a moment there was silence, and then an older man appeared, and with sharp words, kicks, and blows the yelping curs were driven off and we were rather peremptorily ordered ashore. In a few curt words we were told to follow, and, surrounded by the savage-looking Kunas, we marched off along a narrow winding trail. As we walked along I studied the Indians with interest, but aside from the fact that they were very muscular, splendidly-built fellows, I could gain but little idea of their appearance as their features were effectually disguised by the multi-coloured paint. They were armed with machetes in addition to bows and arrows, wicked-looking spears, blow-guns, and an occasional shot-gun.

The trail twisted and wound about until I lost all sense of direction, and then, descending a steep bank, we came upon a shallow stream with a good-sized village visible among plantain and banana trees on the opposite bank. As we entered it some naked children scuttled out of sight, and I caught glimpses of one or two women hastily disappearing within their quarters. We were led to the largest house in the village and, clambering up the crude ladder, found ourselves in a big airy room. From the rafters were suspended great golden sheaves of rice-heads; elaborately carved stools were placed about; baskets, drums, and other utensils were hung upon the walls or tucked between the rafters and the thatch, and a number of beautiful cotton hammocks were slung between the posts and beams.

In one of these was seated a dignified old man, who rose as we entered and greeted us gravely in Spanish. He was tall and rather stout, with a splendid head, and was dressed in loose cotton trousers and shirt, with a pink silk kerchief bound around the mass of long black hair which was coiled upon his head. Unlike his fellows, he was not painted, and his wrinkled, yellow face was far from savage or forbidding.

He was the chief and at once proceeded to question me as to the object of my visit, and as to why I had entered his territory. He listened attentively to my explanation, and in order to make clear the object of my studies among the Indians, I handed him a number of photographs of British Guiana tribes. These interested him and his fellows immensely, and a lively discussion ensued as the pictures were passed from hand to hand, but later I found I had made a great mistake in exhibiting the photographs of the nude Guiana women, for the Kunas got it into their heads that clothing became invisible when photographed, and that their women would also appear almost naked in a picture, and consequently no woman was permitted outside of her quarters during my stay.

Presently one of the men slipped out, to return accompanied by two others whom I at once recognized as the men I had seen in the village on the Pukro. Their presence at once explained my reception and the fact that I had been expected, for they had hurried overland from the headwaters of the Pukro and had reported my conference with the tame Kuna chief, and no doubt had also brought a message from him. Evidently their story agreed with my own, for after a deal of conversing with them, the old chief notified me that we would be permitted to remain at his house for a day or two, that his men would take me to the various houses in the neighbourhood, and that I should be allowed to collect specimens, secure a vocabulary, take measurements of the men and photograph some of the "boys," but I was warned not to attempt to photograph women or children or any portion of the village.

Then, having delivered his official decision, he became quite friendly. I soon found that these people, although called "wild," were in reality more civilized than the "tame" Kunas or the Chokois, and that they were well informed of the world's doings and were very intelligent. All possessed clothes and guns. In several of the houses there were sewing-machines, and the old chief had taught his two sons to read and write both Spanish and English. He was very anxious to know how the great war was proceeding, and appeared to think that Germany was somehow akin to the Kunas in a desire to keep outsiders from entering her territory, and that the Allies represented the prospectors and rubber-gatherers who were ever striving to force their unwelcome presence on the Indians. I tried to explain the real causes of the war, but it was quite beyond his comprehension, for he could not understand why people should fight when there was so much unoccupied land, even in Panama.

I found he was deeply interested in astronomy, and was very curious to learn something of the movements of the planets. I quite won his heart by presenting him with a pocket compass, and when, later, I made him a sundial his delight knew no bounds.

The Kunas are governed by chiefs whom they obey implicitly, and who are hereditary. They have developed many arts to a high degree, especially that of weaving textiles, and their cotton hammocks are as close and fine as the best canvas, though much softer. Their basketry is excellent, while they are experts in the art of wood-carving. They also make ornamental combs of black palm, and possess a number of interesting toys as well as many musical instruments. In addition to bone whistles, they have flutes and flageolets—the latter unique among Indians, as they are made with mouthpieces—Pan's pipes, and fifes. Their method of playing on these is peculiar, as one musician plays the bass on one instrument and another musician plays the treble on another instrument, the resulting music being very plaintive and melodious and quite distinct from the barbaric music of most other Indian tribes. Their songs, however, are far from musical, as the Kunas sing in a queer, high-pitched forced tone through their closed lips, and sound exactly like worn-out gramophones.

I had found so little difficulty in entering the forbidden district, and was received in such a friendly way by these supposedly hostile and savage Indians, that I was very anxious to learn whether or not there was any truth in the stories I had heard regarding them, and I questioned the chief about their attitude towards outsiders.

He did not hesitate to admit that they permitted no strangers in their territory, but be also assured me that they never killed or injured a person who entered the district for the first time, but merely ordered such unwelcome visitors out of their country and warned them not to return. If they did not obey, they suffered the consequences, he added, making a significant gesture.

As for my own case, the chief stated that as I was neither a prospector nor a rubber-hunter, and had come all the way from New York just to see him and his people, he was sure I was a good friend of the Indians, especially as other Indians who were much wilder had allowed me to take their pictures. But while thus making an exception of myself, yet the Kunas watched my every movement, and I was not allowed to stir from the chief's house unless accompanied by several armed Indians. I also found it impossible to buy or trade any specimens. Finally, I decided to distribute presents in the hopes that the Kunas might reciprocate, and I freely distributed all my trade goods, and even my extra garments, leaving myself barely enough clothing to carry me through to Panama. I was not mistaken in my judgment of Kuna character and custom, and before I left the village all the articles which I had tried to obtain were handed to me as presents by the owners.

How many of this tribe dwell within the forbidden area is unknown, and I had no opportunity of visiting other villages, but the chief stated that he governed ten camps or about five hundred people, and that there were at least five other chiefs, thus bringing the total population to about two thousand five hundred.

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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.