Tidmarsh learns of the Auca Indians
through a Jumbo Indian girl
This account written in July, 1945
and donated to this website exactly 60 years later by the author, Ruth Summers
(who was 90 years old at the time of this donation).
Dr. Wilfred Tidmarsh (1904 - 1986) interviews a Jumbo Indian girl who was taken captive by the Auca Indians in 1945by Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
This is about the Aucas. It is about the man who informed us of them, too, for he is as interesting as his story and I will start with him. His name is Dr. Wilfred Tidmarsh, an Englishman. He looks like the absent-minded professor from the movies – thin and gaunt (from malaria and jaundice in the jungle). He ought to look like a professor, though for that is what he first was in his homeland. While he was teaching he was studying also, and earned a doctorate in Geology at London University. In his leisure time he read about remote and backward places and wondered why more people did not come to South America and especially Ecuador, which is among the most backward nations of the world, to further the Christian religion and to learn about the ancient culture and present inhabitants. Finally one fine day he asked himself why he should fret so much over the fact that field was so sadly overlooked – why not come himself. After thinking it over deeply and taking his courage in his hands, he resigned his position, sold his automobile and on the funds thus gained he studied a condensed course in medicine for one year, after which he set off for Ecuador as a missionary. With a scientific and scholarly background, he came with the conviction of his belief that this truly was his calling and, from his conversation last night I do not believe he ever once regretted his decision. He has now been in the country for six years, living among the Indians and compiling what is probably the best Quechua vocabulary (this is the lingua franca of the Andean Indians) of anyone on the continent. His time has been spent doing mission work, learning the customs, traditions and character of the people – all the tribes that is except the notorious Aucas, about whom no one really knew anything until recently- and that is my story, too.
Ten months ago, when the Strubens arrived in Ecuador, the Aucas were a legendary people living somewhere deep in the Amazon valley. A few people had genuine Auca spears (many had fake ones); the stories of their ferocious cruelties made good telling, and the story ran that no man lived to see one; that they were expert with their only weapon, the spear, that the ones anyone had must be bloodstained because the Aucas never missed. They loved killing ran the legend, and never took captives, but no one knew how they lived, or even what they looked like except they were unclothed. On and on ran the stories, no one really knowing how to separate fiction from truth and everyone interested in the great mystery of the Aucas. Two years ago in the night they attacked Arajuno and left dead Indians pierced with spears. But so silently they came and went that no one alive was able to tell about it. Such was the Auca mystery.
Several months ago, Scotty Bermouth, a Shell pilot, was flying a Grumman amphibian in the Oriente and quite by accident sighted a clearing with a long, thatched roof house, unlike any he had ever seen before. The noise of the airplane attracted the occupants of the house and out they came, nude – Aucas! This was the beginning of the lifting of Auca secrets, and Scotty was only three minutes flying time from Arajuno – about twelve miles. The people stared at the aircraft, as interested in it as Scotty was in them. For awhile it bcame a game – the Grumman, Ford and Fairchild flew over, the pilots all had a good look and the Aucas threw spears at them, and the pilots playfully dropped notes (in English) Saturday Evening Post magazines, combs, beads, etc. This created a lot of interest and speculation on what the Auca chief thought when he received a note from “Chief Yellow Bird” which Scotty called himself on account of his bright yellow Shell plane.
Soon the Auca talk died down; we lost interest in them until – suddenly – the Capricho attack! Petty Co. (seismic contractors working for Shell) had a bodega at Capricho in the jungle, where the foreign personnel received supplies for their field parties, the storehouse being staffed by Indian workers. The morning after the attack three bodies were discovered, all pierced with the characteristic Auca spears. Fred, my husband, acquired two spears from this attack which he has added to what promises to be a collection of interesting trophies and photos of the Amazon valley tribes. He was in Arajuno at the time of the Capricho attack and tells the pathetic story of the return to Arajuno of the survivors. They were so terrified by the dread happening that they made the two-day trip in one and were still so incoherent when they arrived that they barely could tell what had happened. After the excitement died down, the spears divided and the dead buried, not much was thought of the Aucas for some time.
There began to stir an unbelievable rumor concerning a girl belonging to the Jumbo tribe who had been taken captive, kept by the Aucas, but finally escaped and still lived. If it was true, the age-old Auca mystery would be lessened further, if someone could be found who could interview the girl. Now steps in our Dr. Tidmarsh – he was in Quito at the time and after a quick conference with the Shell Manager, Dr. Tschopp, was off by the quickest transportation possible by car, airplane and canoe (all provided courtesy of Shell) to the Jumbo Village where the escaped girl was back home. Dr. Tidmarsh speaks Quechua perfectly, he knew the girl’s family and was even acquainted with her. This was a perfect set-up; for the girl had confidence in Dr. Tidmarsh and would not be afraid to tell him all she remembered.
She had been with the Aucas for fourteen months (now she is about fifteen years old). I said earlier that the Aucas were thought not to take captives, but that had to do with warfare. They did take captive girls from other tribes because they had a woman shortage and probably a primitive idea of broadening their gene pool to prevent the consequences of too much inbreeding. In any case they found it necessary to kidnap wives for their warriors. The Jumbo girl was kept with the unmarried women until a suitable marriage could be arranged. She hated and feared the Aucas, and when they told her that her marriage to an Auca brave would be celebrated the next day she refused. Very well, they told her, they would have their celebration anyway and at the end of it instead of a wedding there would be a death, as that would be her punishment. She knew they meant it, for in the time she had lived among them she had learned that they truly had a locura (madness) the joy of killing. Since she had nothing to lose, she decided to make a dash for freedom. It was full moon, and after the fiesta was over and everyone was asleep, she crept out of the camp and down the river, frightened to death of the jungle, even more frightened to stay behind. At daylight she saw a canoe with some Jumbo men (her own tribe) and ran out to meet them. But to them she appeared an Auca girl, with wild hair, scratched and cut as she was by the heavy undergrowth of the jungle and no clothing, and on general principles they prepared to shoot, but one man said that after all she was just a girl and to stay their guns. By then the terrified girl found her voice and in very rusty Quechua begged them to spare her life. We can only imagine the astonishment of the men when they discovered for themselves that she was a Jumbo, had actually been with Aucas, and lived to tell the tale.
The Jumbo men remembered the story some months before of a group of their tribesmen, including Joaquina Grifa, for that is the girl’s name, was on its way downriver in a canoe to work a plot of land. When they came to a shallow place in the river they had to get out of the canoe and beach it. The Aucas were lying in ambush, and in just a few minutes the men were all speared and dead, the girl carried off on the shoulders of the attackers and one frightened little Jumbo boy jumped in the river and escaped to his home with the story.
It soon became evident to Joaquina that the Aucas did not intend to kill her, for they quartered her with the unmarried women who kept a constant surveillance over her, as she was destined to become the bride of one of the warriors. A strange custom of these people was revealed in this regard – although they were so short of women that they were capturing them from other tribe, a brave could take one wife and then a second whenever he cared to, but the second wife (after bearing two children) was killed during a ceremonial feast. Joaquina was amazed to find three others of her tribe in the Auca camp; they too had been taken captive, their people believing them to be dead. They had resigned themselves to their fate and all had Auca husbands. Our little wildcat never gave in, never stopped hating and never would fit herself properly into their lifestyle. Always she remained a rebel. The Auca women tried to make her adjust in anticipation of her wifehood; they took her clothing away on the third day and made a hole in her ear since she was to marry. She was compelled to live as the Aucas. She was there when the first Shell plane flew over and although she knew very well what it was, she would not enlighten her captors. When the pilots started dropping things, she reported they were gleeful, thinking their spears had reached the man-bird, that it was wounded and its insides were falling. Everything that was dropped was carefully kept as loot.
Joaquina was also there when the preparations for the Capricho attack were underway. Spears were made and decorated with bright feathers, much aguardiente was drunk (their own liquor made from fermented bananas). The warriors decorated themselves with fresh paint and feather headdresses and set off in the night. When they returned, they had with them a bowl of rice which they took as loot, although it was soaked with blood of the men they had killed. The Aucas know many things about the ways of the whites and the tame Indians, because they are watchers. Auca eyes watch drilling operations, camp life and Auca hands steal. They now have machetes marked “Property Shell Co. Ecuador”. In the olden days, they told Joaquina, they used hatchets of stone. They also have pants, blankets, etc. none of which they use or wear; however, they figure in ceremonials. They also knew about chicha the tame Indians’ favorite drink, and asked Joaquina to help them prepare it from the captured rice. “For hating them” she refused and so the men ate the whole bloody mess just as it was. Joaquina did not know how the kills are accomplished, whether the spears are thrown or launched from close quarters. In the Capricho attack the evidence was that they went into the bodega and nailed the men down from the top after thrusting up through the bamboo floor from beneath the house. The spears are not round, but triangular lengthwise. They are long and wicked looking – made of a very hard palm wood and decorated with bright feathers. They have several fish-hook notches on the end and it is impossible to remove one from a body without tearing flesh horribly.
One day some Auca women set out on an expedition to have a look at Arajuno, just women’s curiosity, no spears, only the men wield them. They took Joaquina with them. She reported that their vantage point was a hill where the water tank is, near the airstrip. They confirmed that the aircraft were man-birds and they especially remarked the Panagra plane with two big red eyes looked alive and could be killed. They watched camp activity for some time – if the Shell people could only have known those eyes were there! The woman returned to camp telling their husbands about the airplanes so the men decided they would catch one and kill it. They thought the best way would be to find the highest tree in the forest, fell it and bring it to their clearing. They would hide in it and when the next bird flew over they would throw their spears and bring it down. They proceeded with their plan, but the next plane to come was the Fairchild, and it was flying at 20,000 ft. They could hear it but could not see it. In great disappointment they abandoned the idea.
One of the things in which Dr. Tidmarsh was most interested was the language of the Aucas and their personal appearance. Joaquina had learned practically the entire vocabulary – it is a very primitive tongue and Dr. Tidmarsh has produced the only written phonetic Auca dictionary in the world. They have no words for abstractions and have no conception of or words for heaven or hell. They do, however, acknowledge a Supreme Being whose name is Wanka. Joaquina did not seem to understand the role of this god. The Aucas have no word for demons, which are ruling spirits in the lives of the so-called tame Andean Indians. Theirs seems to be a language absolutely unrelated to any other on record, and it would appear that they represent a link to the past thus far totally unexplored. Legend had it and the pilots reported that physically the Aucas were much taller, lighter in color and stronger than the other Indians of the region. Joaquina exploded the color theory; she reported that they are actually dark brown lik the other Indians but they paint their bodies with a light colored clay mixture.
There are two of the large long houses in the region. The Aucas are primitive farmers, growing crops of yucca which is their staple. They plant a crop at one site when the crop at the other is ready for harvest, and when the old crop is finished they all migrate to the other and new crop, which by this time is ready. About fifty families live in the house. People sleep in woven straw hammocks and under each one burns a smudge fire to keep the mosquitos away as well as to furnish a little heat, for tropical nights are cold and they use neither blankets nor clothing. Apparently they did not realize the intended use of the articles they confiscated. Each family has its own space within the one great room; however, when children reach puberty the boys and girls are segregated until they marry.
Although they make aguardiente, Joaquina said there was no drunkenness. They drink like gentlemen, and even their feast ceremonials lack the savage excitement and hysteria usually connected with primitive rites. Their ceremonies are simple; a little child who drowned in the river was very simply buried without a coffin and with practically no ceremony. This was the only death which occurred during her stay and it is possible that the burial of a child is not representative. She reported there is little or no illness – no malaria or tuberculosis which is usually the scourge of the South American Indian.
To Joaquina the whole experience is a nightmare and the memories are fading fast. According to Dr. Tidmarsh this is a purposeful attempt to forget. She now sits quietly in her native village, nursing the doll Dr. Tidmarsh brought her to help loosen her tongue. Some day the whole thing will probably recede into the back of her mind and will not be though of consciously, but she will always carry the big hole in her left which will serve to remind her that once she was betrothed to an Auca warrior.
Ruth Summers Struben
composed in July, 1945
[ed: when she was 30 years old]
Wilfred's nephew, John Tidmarsh, sent in this
photograph of Joaquina Grifa, taken by his uncle, Dr.Wilfred Tidmarsh at about the time of the Struben essay - July 1945. She is nursing the doll he gave her, mentioned in the last paragraph of the essay. On the back of the snapshot, Dr. Tidmarsh wrote:
"Joaquina Grifa who escaped from 'aucas' after 14 months captivity - on eve of her marriage
to an auca or death. (She had refused former). Note holes bored in ears to receive
balsa discs, sign of married state - a life long reminder of her awful experience."
Readers may also be interested to read the biography on Jim Elliot, missionary to the Auca.