The Aymara Indians

SOME of the most curious Indians of South America live on the high table-lands of the Andes. They are the descendants of the tribes which were there when the Spaniards made their first invasion. The most prominent were the Quichuas and the Aymarâs. The Quichuas were found chiefly in the highlands of Peru and Ecuador, while the larger part of the Aymarâs lived farther south, on the plateau of Bolivia. Both these tribes were ruled by the Incas, and it is their descendants who form the labouring classes of these regions to-day. In form and feature both Aymarâs and Quichuas are much like the Indians of Mexico. They have short thick-set frames, reddish complexions, broad faces, and black eyes. Their faces are usually sullen-looking, and they seldom laugh. They are shy and suspicious of strangers. For centuries they have been oppressed by the whites, and to-day they look upon all white men whom they do not personally know as their enemies.

For generations both tribes were enslaved by the Spaniards. They were decimated by hard labour, millions of them being worked to death in the fields and in the mines; and although slavery has been abolished by law, it still prevails. Bolivia is a feudal country, and in it Aymara men, women, and children are bought and sold with the farms on which they live. The fact that they could perhaps leave on paying their debts does not al-ter the matter, because it is known that they have such an attachment for their homes that they will stay; and the proprietor, in selling his estate, often agrees to deliver his human goods with the property.

Most of the land in Bolivia is owned by the Cholos, or half-breeds of Spanish and Indian blood, and by the whites, who are the descendants of the Spaniards. On each farm there is a community of Indians, who work three days of the week throughout the year for the owner, and the remaining days for themselves. They receive no wages, and are supposed to work instead of paying rent for the spot on which they have built their mud huts, and for the little garden patches about them. If their master has use for only a part of their time, he has the right to hire them out to others; and if they do not obey him he can, within certain limits, inflict punishment upon them. They expect to be whipped, and I have heard it facetiously said that Indian servants grumble when they are not often punished, because they consider it a sign that their master has ceased to like them. An Aymarâ Indian has in few things any rights that anyone else is bound to respect. It is not uncommon to see one struck to make him move faster or understand more quickly.

Notwithstanding this ill-treatment the Indians stick to their masters. They seem absolutely without ambition and content with their lot. They will work for their masters for nothing rather than for pay from a foreigner, and will fight to the death the Indians of a neighbouring plantation with whom the master is angry or of whom they themselves are jealous. Feuds often exist between the Indians of the farms of a neighbourhood, and gun-fights and sling-fights are common. The sling is the natural weapon of the Aymarâ. He has the skill of a David, and often kills his Goliath. From behind his hut he watches for his enemy, and sometimes sends a stone crashing into his brain. He takes part in his master’s troubles, and will engage in almost any conflict instigated by him.

One of the most curious characters among the Aymarâ Indians is the pongo, or scullion. All dish-washing, fire-making, and water-carrying in La Paz are done by him. He fetches and carries for the family, going with the cook to market, and bringing home the vegetables and meats. He does all the dirty work of the household, emptying the slops, and cleaning the pots and pans. He sleeps at night on the cold stones inside the street door, and must be ready to open it at any hour to anyone who knocks. The other servants will not do his work, so that every family is dependent on him. He does all this without wages, the money for his services being collected by his master, who may receive as much as thirty-five gold dollars a year for him.

Many families change their pongo every week or so, often having fifty-two different pongos a year. This arises from a custom which demands that the Indians of each estate, in addition to three days’ labour a week, must furnish a certain number of men to attend to the dirty work about the house of the master. The number is larger or smaller according to the number of Indians on the plantation, so that’ on a large estate many more are furnished than are needed, and some are hired out. The rule is that one man can be made to do such work for only a week at a time, so, when a householder in La Paz makes a contract of this kind for a year’s service, he expects to be furnished with a different pongo every week.

The Indian women are the better working half of the family. The men work too, but the roughest and the hardest of the work is done by the women. I have seen them digging potatoes, bending over the hills and scratching the tubers out with trowel-like hoes. I found them everywhere minding the flocks, and spinning as they ran this way and that to keep the sheep and llamas from straying. When an Indian and his wife go together, the woman carries the bundle, and in the markets the Indian woman and not the man sells the goods and does the trading.

The Aymarâ women are not at all handsome. Each Indian is supposed to have but one wife and the women are exceedingly jealous of their husbands. They will not tolerate the advances of other men, and are, according to their light and customs, very dutiful wives. Marriage ceremonies are performed by the priests. The Indians are devout Catholics and the priests rule them. Every Indian hut has a wooden cross on its roof, and in many huts one finds images of the Virgin with tapers burning before them.

Aymarâ children are often sold into slavery by their parents. They are bound out, as it were, to the whites for a money consideration, with the understanding that they are to receive a certain amount of education. The law provides that their parents may reclaim them by paying twenty cents a day for the time they have been in service ; but as the Indians are never able to get money ahead the sales are absolute, continuing in force until the child is grown up. Most of the house servants of La Paz, especially the females, have been bought as children and raised by their masters. Each well-to-do family requires a number of servants, one usually being allotted to the care of each child. When wages are paid they range from ten cents to a dollar per week.

The best place to study the Indians is out on the plateau. You see their huts scattered everywhere over it and about them men, women, and children hoeing in the fields, picking stones and tending the flocks. I wish I could take you into one of the huts and show you how the Aymarâs live. It is not an easy matter; for the Aymara hates strangers and will not admit one if he can help it. I have passed thousands of huts, but have yet to receive an invitation to enter. Once or twice when I asked an Indian to let me look into his home he showed fight, and once when I thrust my head into the door of a hut the owner threatened to have me arrested.

And still when you have explored one of these homes you have seen very little. The average hut would not be a respect-able cow-stable in America. Imagine a box-like structure of mud, six, eight, or twelve feet square, with a ridge roof of straw thatch. Let the wall be so low that you can reach the roof without effort. Let the hut have no windows and its only en-trance be an opening two feet from the ground, so low that you have to stoop to go through. Let it be so small that you can hardly turn around in it on account of the farming utensils, donkeys, chickens, and llamas which stay in the hut with the people.

The inhabitants of these homes sit upon the floor. They sleep sitting, backing themselves up against the wall and keeping as close together as possible for warmth. In one corner of the hut is a cook-stove, a little hearth or bowl of clay with a pile of llama fuel beside it. There is no chimney and the dense smoke blackens everything, finding its way out as it can.

Aymarâ. cooking is very simple. A favourite dish is challona stew with chuno. Challona is jerked mutton, cured after the following manner: The sheep having been killed is split open and left outside to freeze. The next day water is sprinkled upon it and it is frozen again. It is then hung up to dry and after a time becomes so tough that it will keep for months. When used it is cut into bits and stewed for some hours. The Indians consider it delicious.

There is one thing that is more important to the Bolivian Indian than his meals. This is his daily, hourly, and I might almost say his perpetual, chew. He begins chewing as soon as he gets his first teeth and he rolls a cud of leaves between his toothless gums when he is on the verge of the grave. Both women and men have their jaws continually going, and it is rare, indeed, to find an Indian without a lump inside his cheek.

And what is it he chews ? Tobacco ? No, he smokes that sometimes, but the chew he uses is the coca leaf. Coca is the shrub from which cocaine is made. It is a food and a stimulant and the Indians say it keeps out cold and allays hunger. Many of the Aymaras will work for hours on nothing else, and in going over the high mountain passes they chew coca to sustain their strength. They begin chewing at breakfast and chew all the day through. They will not work unless they have an allowance of coca leaves in addition to their wages, the Indians in the mines insisting upon five ounces per man per day. They chew the leaves much as the Siamese chew the betel nut, mixing them first with the ashes of lime. Strange to say, they swallow the juice.

Coca-raising forms one of the chief industries of Bolivia. There are plantations on the eastern slopes of the Andes from where the leaves are brought to La Paz. The plants grow from two to five feet in height. Each plant gives three crops a year. The leaves which are not unlike wintergreen leaves are gathered by Indian women, packed up in bundles of twenty-five pounds and brought to the markets on the backs of llamas and mules.

The favourite drink of the Bolivian Indian is raw alcohol. Drunkenness is to him the acme of pleasure and the most of his earnings goes toward keeping himself and his family in a chronic state of inebriety. On feast days men, women, and children get drunk and keep so until their money runs out. Much of the alcohol is imported, but a large amount is consumed in the shape of aguardiente or sugar brandy, which is carried over the country in goat-skin bottles. The skins for this purpose are torn from the bodies of the goats while still living, as such skins are more pliable and less liable to shrink. The goat is hung up by its horns, then a cut is made about the neck and the men, seizing hold of the skin, pull it from the body of the tortured and dying animal.

The native beer of Bolivia is chicha. It is made of Indian corn and looks very much like thin buttermilk of a yellowish tinge. It is sold everywhere throughout the country and you find hundreds of chicha shops in all the cities. Those of La Paz are owned by Cholo women, who ladle the beer out of immense earthern jars into glasses much like the “beer schooners” of the North, selling it for a few cents a drink. I have tried chicha several times. It tastes like old buttermilk and is not so intoxicating as our lager beer. It has for ages been the national drink of the Indians, and was in use when the Spaniards came. The process of manufacture is not especially appetizing. The corn is first bruised with a heavy stone, and then handed over to a group of women who chew the crushed grains mixing them with their saliva until they have turned them into a paste which they spit out into a dish or cup. When a sufficient amount of the paste has been collected it is spread out upon a board to dry. It is next put into an earthern vessel as large around as a wash-tub and as high as one’s waist. This is filled with water and a slow fire kept under it for three or four days. The fire is then re-moved and the liquor is cooled and left to ferment. After a week’s fermentation it is ready to drink.

Good chicha will easily intoxicate a foreigner, but some of the Aymarâs can drink a gallon at a time without being affected by it. At harvest time some of the Indians celebrate the occasion with a feast. The people of each village prepare quantities of chicha and go from one village to another for a grand chicha drunk. They continue drinking until all the chicha is consumed. The women sit around the fire with the men behind them. They pass the chicha first to the men and then they drink. As drunkenness comes on, their orgies grow more and more wild and towards the last they act more like beasts than like women and men.