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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Some Superstitions of South American Indians



In the winter of 1891 and '92 it was my good fortune to make quite an extended trip up the Orinoco, from its mouth to San Fernando de Atobapo, thence up one of its large branches the Guaviare for a few miles, thence up the Inisida several hundred miles until I arrived at a small branch called the Caño Chucuto or Cholmoa—the Indian name—which I ascended for about sixty miles to a small settlement of Indians. During this extended trip of twelve or fifteen hundred miles I passed through the lands of many tribes of Indians, as the Caribes, Rio Meta, Piasva, Gruaivos, Puinabos and Piapocos; but I was thrown more intimately with the Guaivos living on the banks of the Rio Vichada, and the Puinabos, living on the banks of the Inisida, and of the folk-lore of these two tribes I shall speak to-day. I shall speak only of what I observed when in the company of these Indians.

Although the Guaivos have their permanent villages on the Rio Vichada, and, I understand, on the banks of the Rio Meta near its source, still they come in families down to the Orinoco to exchange their hammocks, tonqua beans, and rubber with the traders, for calicoes, knives, tobacco, fish-hooks, and articles which Indians usually make use of. It was among such families of this tribe that I was able to gather what I am about to say.

In going from Maiperres to San Fernando de Atobapo, the crew of the canoe was composed of three Guaivos Indians. I noticed, one Indian never ate with the other two, but always alone, and rarely ate the same food. If the two had fish, he would wander off and find an iguana, which he would prepare and cook himself, and eat quite alone; if the others had wild turkey, he would catch himself a fish. And so it always happened that he was found during meal hours off by himself, and eating a different kind of food than the others. It took me some time to find the exact cause, but at last I found he was a married man and his wife was enceinte, and should he eat with the others, and the same food as the others, she would be made sick, although she was many miles away.

I noticed another curious custom which I saw nearly every day. In that country, although it was supposed to be the dry season, small clouds would rise and develop in short but very heavy rain squalls. If the course of one of these squalls seemed to be such that it would pass over our heads and wet us, the Indian would stand up in the canoe or on the ground, face the cloud and try to blow or puff and wave the cloud to one side, so that it would pass clear of us. Some of these Indians—the richer ones—wore around the neck an amulet to assist him in this work. This was a sort of a pear-shaped nut of some kind, usually carved a little, with a hole through one side, and a small stone of some kind stuck in the other. Holding this up in front of his eye, with the stone to the cloud, he would puff and wave the clouds to one side, as before described.

Another amulet consisted of a tooth of an alligator, the hollow end being filled with the gum of some tree in which was stuck a stone from the river; when the owner desires to go into or near the river, he first waves this tooth over the river, which drives away all the alligators which may be loitering about, and then he goes into the river without fear.

A tiger's tooth similarly arranged and waved will, they believe, drive away tigers.

They carry in a small basket or bag hanging at their side many articles believed to possess great power to accomplish different things. I found in one basket a small lock of hair which the Indian assured me was taken from the head of his dead wife, and was now used to keep away bad men. This they waved toward the man, muttering some words, probably a curse, when the man would leave never to return again and they believe that he goes away somewhere to die.

In one of these bags I found a small gourd filled with a mealy, cork-like material, which is given to women to make them love the giver more passionately.