The precipice – Page 29
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Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov, Laury Magnus, Boris Jakim – 1994 – Snippet view – More editions
They themselves had once shined in the great world of society, but they had become spinsters— for reasons long forgotten by everyone but themselves. … Sophie’s marriage had almost disrupted their life, but then she was widowed and lost her mother. … She always had several handkerchiefs nearby, and was forever accompanied by a lapdog— old, always sleepy, wheezing, and because of its extreme …
The Battle with the Slum
THE “PRETTY HOUSE” AND DANCE.
The chief amusements amongst the Indians (for hunting is a matter of business and not pleasure) consist in horse-racing, card-playing, gambling with dice made by themselves with mathematical exactness from bones, and thrown from the hand, or with small stones, and playing a game of ball. The horse-racing has been already described. The cards used are sometimes the Spanish pack, obtained in the- 175 – settlements, but very frequently constructed by the Indians themselves of hide. These, like the ordinary Spanish cards, are marked with the Spanish numerals up to seven; but the court cards are entirely different, having, instead of figures or pictures, monograms of native origin, the original significance of which, if any, was undiscoverable. The ace, however, is marked somewhat similarly to our own. The usual games played are ‘Panturga,’ ‘Primero,’ ‘Siete,’ and ‘Yaik,’ or fire, a sort of ‘beggar my neighbour.’ The players sit down in a circle, with a poncho or saddle-cloth to represent the board of green cloth; their markers consist of pieces of sticks or grass, and their system of marking is complicated. I generally—if I did indulge in the luxury of a gamble—played in partnership with another who took charge of the marking, but my invariable good luck rendered me unwilling to respond to the invitation to take a hand. When stakes are lost, whether a horse, troop of mares, saddle, lazo, or what not, the winner simply sends a friend for them, or goes himself and takes them; all debts of honour being scrupulously paid at once. Frequently large stakes are lost and won. On one occasion I had negotiated the purchase of a horse from an Indian possessed of a goodly troop, and having given earnest, had started hunting on the animal to test his staying powers. My friend the owner, who remained in camp playing, came to me on my return, and implored me to consider the bargain as nil, as during my absence he had lost nearly all his horses, and some of the articles of his wife’s dowry. I of course gave up the bargain, duly receiving back the earnest, and he subsequently won back his horses and riches. The game played with small stones is similar to that in vogue among schoolboys, and known by the name of ‘knucklebones.’ It is generally played by the boys, but their elders will not unfrequently join. The women play at cards, and also at this game amongst themselves, staking their mandils, hides, and saddle-gear on the results. Mrs. Orkeke was very fond of play, and on one occasion I have reason to believe that she lost some of her husband’s tobacco, and laid the blame on one of- 176 – the Chilians, who she averred had stolen it. The man nearly lost his life in consequence, and his tears and abject supplications showed the terror he was in, but happily he on this occasion escaped. Strange to say, I was in no way suspected, although I knew where the tobacco was kept, which I doubt if the deserter did.
The game of ball is confined to the young men, and is played as follows: A lazo is laid on the ground so as to form a ring about four yards in diameter; the players, generally eight in number, step into the circle naked, with the exception of the waistcloth. A ball composed of hide stuffed with feathers, about the size of or larger than a tennis-ball, is used by each party, who throw it up from under the thigh, and strike it with the hand at the adversaries’, each hit counting a point. Great dexterity and activity are shown by the young men, and although I never joined in any of their regular matches I frequently watched the parties occupied in the game, in which their splendid muscular development was brought out conspicuously. Besides these amusements, the Indians, when ammunition is plentiful, occasionally fire at a mark; but as their bullets are frequently hammered round with stones, the practice is at times erratic, and the guns are also sometimes more dangerous to the marksman than the mark.
The daily routine of occupations and amusements is varied sometimes by a fight, and more pleasantly by some one or other of the ceremonials which mark—as in all nations—the principal epochs of Tsoneca life, from the cradle to the grave. On the birth of a child, if the parents are rich, i.e. own plenty of mares and horses, and silver ornaments, notice is immediately given to the doctor or wizard of the tribe, and to the cacique and relations. The doctor, after bleeding himself with bodkins in the temple, fore-arm, or leg, gives the order for the erection of a mandil tent, or pretty house as the Indians call it, and mares are slaughtered, and a feast and dance follow, such as described in Chapter III., p. 76 as having taken place in the valley of the Rio Chico. The child, shortly after birth, is smeared over with damp gypsum.- 177 – The mothers are able to travel on horseback the same, or, certainly, the subsequent day, with the infant carried in a wicker cradle, and most tenderly cared for by both parents.
To every child in its infancy horses and gear are allotted, which are considered thenceforth as the personal property of the boy or girl, and cannot be resumed or disposed of by the parents. No ceremonial attends the naming a child, nor, as far as I could see, is there any fixed time for doing so. The names most commonly used are taken, I think, from places—from the place of birth. Patronymics or hereditary names—except in rare instances, which appeared to be imitations of Spanish usage—are unknown, but nicknames are universal, and parents are frequently known by the name of a child, which usurps the place of their own.
The boys soon learn the use of the weapons, and both boys and girls ride almost before they can walk: the sons rarely accompany the father to the chase before ten or twelve years of age, and do not join in fights till they are about sixteen years old, but there is no fixed period and no ceremonial to mark their admission to the state of manhood. The attainment of puberty by the girls is celebrated as described in p. 76. From the age of nine or ten they are accustomed to help in household duties and manufactures, and about sixteen are eligible for the married life, though they often remain for several years spinsters. Marriages are always those of inclination, and if the damsel does not like the suitor for her hand, her parents never force her to comply with their wishes, although the match may be an advantageous one.
The usual custom is for the bridegroom, after he has secured the consent of his damsel, to send either a brother or an intimate friend to the parents, offering so many mares, horses, or silver ornaments for the bride. If the parents consider the match desirable, as soon after as circumstances will permit, the bridegroom, dressed in his best, and mounted on his best horse, decorated with silver ornaments—if he possesses any—proceeds to the toldo of his intended, and hands over the gifts. The parents of the bride then return gifts of an equal value, which, however, in the event of a- 178 – separation (a rare event), become the property of the bride. After this the bride is escorted by the bridegroom to his toldo, amidst the cheers of his friends and the singing of the women. Mares are usually then slaughtered and eaten on the spot; great care being taken that the dogs do not touch any of the meat or offal, as it is considered unlucky. The head, backbone, tail, together with the heart and liver, are taken up to the top of a neighbouring hill, as an offering to the Gualichu, or evil spirit. An Indian is allowed to have as many wives as he can support, but it is rare to find a man with more than two, and they generally only have one.
On the death of a Tehuelche all his horses, dogs, and other animals are killed, his ponchos, ornaments, bolas, and all other personal belongings are placed in a heap and burned, the widow and other womankind keeping up a dismal wailing, and crying out loud in the most melancholy manner. The meat of the horses is distributed amongst the relations on both sides; and the widow, who cuts her hair short in front and assumes black paint, repairs, bag and baggage, to the toldo of her relations, or if she has none in the party, to the toldo of the chief.
The body is sewn up in a mantle, poncho, or coat of mail, if the deceased possessed one, and is taken away by some of the relations and buried in a sitting posture, its face to the east, a cairn of stones being erected over the place, varying in size according to the wealth and influence of the deceased. I have never seen any of the graves described in Mr. Wood’s work, but as my travels as a rule were confined to the interior, they may exist in some part of the sea-coast; nor did the exhumation and removal of the body ever come under my notice, and I should be inclined to doubt its being ever practised by the Tehuelches, inasmuch as it is a rule amongst them never to mention the name of, and to avoid all allusion to, the deceased, their idea being that the dead should be utterly forgotten, though they will add a stone in passing to the cairn of a distinguished chief or hero. The death of a child is marked by a display of sincere grief on the part of- 179 – the parents. The horse it has been accustomed to travel on during the march is brought up, the gear placed on it, even to the cradle, and the horse, thus fully caparisoned, is strangled by means of lazos, whereas in all other ceremonies where horses are killed they are knocked on the head with bolas. The saddle gear, cradle, and all belonging to the child are burned, the women crying and singing. The parents moreover throw their own valuables into the fire to express their grief. These things some of the women who cry are allowed to snatch out, as a recompense for their services, but they seldom benefit much. On the occasion of the death of an only child of rich parents, fourteen horses and mares were slaughtered in addition to the one it had been accustomed to travel on. Towards evening of the day of the event, previous to the burial of the corpse, a select party of old women marched in procession round and round the camp, crying and wailing. Gifts were also sent to the bereaved parents by the chiefs and relations, as a well-meant effort to divert their minds from dwelling on their loss.
The religion of the Tehuelches is distinguished from that of the Pampas and Araucanians by an absence of any trace of sun-worship, although the new moon is saluted, the respectful gesture being accompanied by some low muttered words which I never could manage to hear. They believe in a great and good Spirit, who according to the tradition related by Casimiro at the place, created the Indians and animals, and dispersed them from ‘God’s-hill,’ as he explained the Indian name of the down (p. 89). I am not at all certain that this was not a confused combination of the story of the Creation, as told by the missionaries, with his own ideas. There is a great tendency in the Indian mind thus to combine the marvels told them, or even to cap what they consider one legend with another; but there is no doubt that they do believe in a good Spirit, though they think he lives ‘careless of mankind.’ They have no idols or objects of worship, nor—if a year’s experience can enable one to judge—do they observe any periodical religious festival, on which either the good or evil Spirit is adored. The mention- 180 – of this by other travellers can only be explained by confused accounts which have attributed Araucanian customs to the totally distinct Patagonians. The belief which prompts all their religious acts is that in the existence of many active and malicious evil spirits or demons, of whom the principal one is always on the watch to cause mischief. To propitiate or drive away this spirit is the function of the wizard, or doctor, or medicine man, who combines the medical and magical arts, though not possessed of an exclusive faculty for either. All sacrifices of mares and horses, not at stated times, but as occasion requires, such as a birth, death, &c., are intended to propitiate the Gualichu. When a child hurts itself, the slaughter of mares seems to partake at once of the nature of a thank-offering that the hurt was no worse, and a propitiation to avert further harm.
In camp the Gualichu takes up his position outside the back of the toldo, watching for an opportunity to molest the inmates, and is supposed to be kept quiet by the spells of the doctor, who is not only gifted with the power of laying the devil, but can even detect him by sight. I inquired of one of the doctors what he was like, but received an evasive answer; on which I informed him that my devil took all sorts of shapes—sometimes appearing as a guanaco, ostrich, puma, skunk, or vulture, at which the medical man was intensely amused. This household devil is, as far as I could ascertain, supposed to enter into the different parts of the bodies of people, and cause sickness which the doctor is appealed to to cure. The treatment in the case of headache, for instance, is very simple: the doctor takes the patient’s head between his knees, and performing a short ceremony of incantation, shouts in his ear, exhorting the devil to come out. Mr. Clarke, when travelling with the Indians south of Santa Cruz, was treated in this fashion when suffering from feverish headache, and said that at the time it relieved him.
Besides this Gualichu there are many others which are supposed to inhabit subterranean dwellings, underneath certain woods and rivers and peculiarly-shaped rocks. I was very much surprised at seeing the Indians salute these- 181 – objects by placing the hand to the head and muttering an incantation; and for a long time held to the belief that they were only expressing admiration for the Creator’s handiwork; but subsequently I learned that they sought thus to conciliate the spirits of these places, reputed to be the spirits of deceased members of the faculty. These devils’ powers, however, are confined to the districts contiguous to their habitations.
On one occasion, a horse about to run a match was taken up to a neighbouring hill before daylight by the owner, and some secret ceremony was performed by the wizard. Previous to the race the owner (Wáki) came to me and advised me to put my stakes on his horse, as he had been made safe to win by mysterious incantations which had secured the favour of the local Gualichu; and, strange to say, the horse, which by his appearance was much inferior to the other, did win, thereby establishing a reputation for the wizard and the Gualichu.
I remember on one occasion when riding with Hinchel we came in sight of a peculiarly-pointed rock, which he saluted. I did the same, at which he appeared much pleased; and on our subsequently arriving at a salina, where we found good salt, much needed at the time, he explained to me that the spirit of the place had led us in that direction. In the meeting of Indians the devils are supposed to be driven away by the horsemen chasing at full speed round and round, and firing off their guns.
With all this superstition, regard for omens, and belief in demons, they by no means accord implicit faith and respect to the wizards. Nor do they trust to their spells alone in case of disease; many possess an acquaintance with medicinal herbs, and apply them with good effect. Besides being good farriers, they practise blood-letting, not only on the sick, but, like our grandfathers, at regular seasons have themselves blooded, believing it to be beneficial. Casimiro declared that the superior health of the Tehuelches, compared with that of the colonists or Christians, was attributable to this practice. They also understand and sometimes employ poisons, not to envenom their weapons, but for secretly taking off an enemy. Such cases are rare, but in one, which came under my own observation, beyond all doubt, death was caused by poisoning the inside of a potro boot, the wearer of which had a slight wound on the leg.
Inquirers into the Tsoneca language are referred to the vocabulary in the Appendix; but it is needful to state most distinctly that it is altogether different from either Pampa or Araucanian. Though able to converse in Tehuelche, I could not at all understand the Pampas; and this is noted with reference to statements made in M. Guinnard’s work, which, coupled with other internal evidences already alluded to, compel me to doubt that the author was ever in the hands of the real Patagonians, his captors and masters being Pampas or Araucanos, whose customs are well described by him.
As distinguished from these Indians, the number of the- 184 – pure Tehuelches, both northern and southern, in Patagonia does not exceed 1,500 men, women, and children, according to the returns of effective warriors given at the time when the union of all the various parties, combined during my journey for political purposes, enabled me to compute them with exactness. Beyond the two great divisions into northern and southern, the subdivisions of tribes, so frequently given, are imaginary, or arise out of names of temporary leaders. Nor is the term clan very appropriate to the nomad parties, combined by custom or often by chance. The population is steadily and rapidly decreasing, and the inroads of disease and ill effects of liquor are, as usual, doing the work of extirpation of this race.
As to their organisation, it must be distinctly understood that these Indians owe no manner of allegiance to any head cacique, such as Calficura, or any other, though they may agree to obey one chief, as, for instance, Casimiro; nor are they, except by intermarriage or voluntary association, politically united with either Pampas or Araucanians. Their natural bias is to independence, and rather insubordinate ideas of ‘one man being as good as another.’ Cuastro’s dying words, ‘I die as I have lived—no cacique orders me,’ aptly express the prevalent feeling on this subject. Nevertheless, all ‘parties,’ however small, are, when travelling, under the command of a cacique or ‘gownok,’ who is sometimes also designated by the more endearing epithet of ‘yank,’ or father; but his influence is very frequently confined to ordering the march and chase. Some of the chiefs are hereditary, but it is not invariably the rule; and amongst the northern Indians there are many petty chiefs, who are men that, having become possessed of a few mares and horses, assume the title of cacique. Great etiquette is observed between them; one chief being prohibited by custom from entering the toldo of another unless presents have previously been interchanged. Another curious point of etiquette is, that a man is not allowed to look towards his father-in-law when in conversation with him; this is, however, not confined to the aristocracy, but also applies to the- 185 – common herd. When two parties of Indians are approaching one another, and sufficiently near to distinguish the smoke of the hunting-fires, a signal-fire is lighted, and a chasqui—called by the Tehuelches coêto—generally some relative of the chiefs, is despatched from either side. On meeting they repair to the camp of the most powerful, and, on arriving near, more horsemen sally out and escort them to the toldo of the chief. On arrival the new comer dismounts, his horses and gear are taken charge of, and he is shown, with great formality, to a seat, where he patiently remains, sometimes for an hour, answering, with grave face, all questions; and then delivers any message he may be entrusted with. Although he may be wearied, tired, and hungry, he never moves until the formalities are concluded; he is then provided with the best food and accommodation his host is possessed of.
It is to be hoped that the narrated actual life in the toldos will have enabled the reader to form an idea of the character of the Tehuelches more favourable than that which—except by the missionaries, Messrs. Hunziker and Schmid—has usually been assigned to them. They certainly do not deserve the epithets of ferocious savages, brigands of the desert, &c. They are kindly, good tempered, impulsive children of nature, taking great likes or dislikes, becoming firm friends or equally confirmed enemies. They are very naturally suspicious of strangers, but especially those of Spanish origin, or, as they term them, Cristianos. Nor, considering the treatment, treacherous cruelty and knavish robbery, experienced by them at the hands of the invaders and colonists alternately, is this to be wondered at.
In the southern part of the country, their frequent intercourse with sealers on the coast has rendered them favourably disposed towards Englishmen. This remark, of course, does not extend to the northern Tehuelches, who have not the same opportunities.
In my dealings with them I was always treated with fairness and consideration, and my few belongings—although borrowed at times, according to their mutual way of acting- 186 – towards one another—were taken the greatest care of; thus an Indian would frequently ask to look at my arms, and, after examining them, would carefully return them to me. During my whole stay amongst them I only lost two articles: the first, a flint and steel, was, I have reason to believe, stolen by one of the Chilians; the second was a pair of ostrich balls, which were abstracted from the toldo. The Indians, although honest enough as regards each other, will, nevertheless, not scruple to steal from any one not belonging to their party. Thus, when they enter the colonies for trade, they will pick up a stray horse in the most natural manner; and in Santa Cruz, Graviel and others constantly pilfered iron nails and small articles. With regard to their truthfulness, my experience was as follows. In minor affairs they nearly always lie, and will invent stories for sheer amusement; thus, Mrs. Orkeke came to me whilst in Teckel with the news that Casimiro’s wife was dead. My remark was, ‘And a good riddance too!’ which was received with a burst of laughter, and the information that she was as alive as ever, only her eyes were bad. I could cite many other similar instances of romancing on the part of the Indians. Old Orkeke I never caught out in a direct lie, and he always, when informing me about any subject, added, ‘I do not lie.’ In anything of importance, however, such as guaranteeing the safety of a person, they were very truthful, as long as faith was kept with them. After a time, when they ascertained that I invariably avoided deviating in any way from the truth, they left off lying to me even in minor matters. This will serve to show that they are not of the treacherous nature assigned to them by some ignorant writers. Nor are they habitually cruel, even to slaves or captives. The Chilian deserters were always well housed and fed, and lent horses to ride; and nothing but their incurably bad dispositions and constant plots brought on them a fate which, in truth, could hardly be thought ill-deserved, whereas the few good ones of the party rose into high favour.
For my own part, I felt far safer amongst the Tehuelches, as long as they had no drink or no fights, than I subsequently- 187 – did in the Rio Negro. Of course when they are drunk their passions become unbridled; they remember old feuds, and at times will fight for mere fighting’s sake. It is not necessary, however, to go so far as Patagonia to observe this. The finest trait, perhaps, in their character is their love for their wives and children; matrimonial disputes are rare, and wife-beating unknown; and the intense grief with which the loss of a wife is mourned is certainly not ‘civilised,’ for the widower will destroy all his stock and burn all his possessions: thus Paliki, before the death of his wife, was a wealthy Indian; but when I knew him he was poor and reckless, having destroyed all his property, and taken to gambling and drinking in despair at his loss. Casimiro even declared that his son Sam—whom I certainly should not have suspected of disinterested affection for any human being—had ruined himself, and become careless of his life, after his wife’s death.
The children are indulged in every way, ride the best horses, and are not corrected for any misbehaviour. I was always astonished that the youths and young men did not grow up more headstrong and wilful, as a result of want of training. People who have no children of their own sometimes adopt a little dog, on which they lavish their affections, and bestow horses and other valuables, which are destroyed in case of the owner’s death.
It has always been a matter of surprise to me that the missionaries should have been so unsuccessful in their efforts to teach these children of nature to read and write, for they are naturally very intelligent (though of course there are exceptions). As a proof of their quickness in imitations, with very little trouble I taught Hinchel’s son to write his father’s name and those of two other Indians in a very short time. I also used to draw ships on a board with a piece of charcoal for the children’s amusement, and they readily copied them. Hinchel himself, wishing to explain a part of the course of the Rio Negro, drew out a rough chart on the board, showing the bends of the river, which I afterwards found to be perfectly correct.
– 188 –
Whilst in their native wilds, I observed little immorality amongst the Indians; in the settlements, however, when debased by intoxication, they are, no doubt, depraved and loose in their ideas. But it must be recorded that, on the entry of the Indians into the settlements of the Rio Negro, at a subsequent period, most of the young women and girls were left with the toldos in Valchita, outside the Travesia, to be out of the way of temptations. There are many Tehuelche youths now growing up who have the greatest abhorrence of liquor; and I hope that in time this abstinence will spread further among them, for they possess no intoxicants of their own, and the rum is an import from the Christians, the ill effects of which they are well able to discern.
One word of advice to the future traveller may conclude this imperfect sketch. Never show distrust of the Indians; be as free with your goods and chattels as they are to each other. Don’t ever want anything done for you; always catch and saddle your own horse. Don’t give yourself airs of superiority, as they do not understand it—unless you can prove yourself better in some distinct way. Always be first, as you are not likely to be encumbered by a wife or gear, in crossing rivers, or any other difficulties; they will learn by degrees to respect you; in a word, as you treat them so they will treat you.