Dan & I happy to report that we have been finally successful in giving away our 1970′s era Ecuadorian Cofan blowgun and bamboo quiver, complete with darts and kapoc cotton-like wadding for the darts, to a good home.
I got the blowgun from a Peace Corps friend who was living and working in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, up near the Colombian border, in 1977. I made a trip to Lago in late 1976 with a few other Peace Corps volunteers. At the time, Texaco flew a small jet out there once a day, and allowed Peace Corps Volunteers a free spot on the plane, if there was room on the jet. Arrive at the airport by 9, if there’s room, the plane leaves for Lago around 10. We went there to visit 2 PCV friends who had a job site working with cattle in the area. Luckily, we were able to travel there by jet both ways; if we’d had to take the bus, the trip took about 12 hours. Back then, there were no commercial flights. Our friends in Lago had a couple of very nice blowguns for which they had traded pots and pans when the Cofan had come by their house, early in the morning one day, out of the blue. Lago, in those days, was a jungle outpost, no sewers, just a sewage rivulet running thru the town; one tiny general store/cafe/bar, a lot of shacks, a few newly built 3 room houses (housing either 3 Ecuadorian families or, in our situation, 2 male Peace Corps volunteers AKA gringos or Ricos), electricity only for a few hours every evening after dark and a very well built airstrip, courtesy of Chevron and Texaco.
When I asked my friends if they could ‘trade’ something for me for a blowgun, they told me that the next time an indigenous person came by to trade, they would ask for one for me. The blowgun they got for me actually had a chipped chunk out of the mouthpiece, but I was glad to have it. We all supposed that the blowgun owners, when they needed something that they couldn’t buy, would trade a ‘substandard’ (to them!) blowgun to the crazy ‘rico gringos’ who would give away nice pots or pans for blowguns. I have a hard time believing that, today, Lago Agrio boasts hotels and resorts, including a Crown Plaza.
But I digress. Back to the blowgun, which was made with 2 thin pieces of wood, about 6 feet long, rounded on the outside; each piece carved with one half of a long bore hole running the length of the wood, on each side. The two long pieces of wood fit together perfectly, with a single carved wood mouthpiece, the 3 pieces held together with banana leaf strips wrapped around the wood, tightly, and then sealed with black beeswax (we were told).
Years ago, when we lived in Arizona, it hung on the wall with the Masai sword above our living room which had a 2 story ceiling. Way up high, we never realized that the rising dry heat was torching this thing, but it became horribly dry and began to crumble. When we moved from Arizona, we couldn’t bear to toss it; we tried to re-seal it with wax, unsuccessfully and very unsightly, so we then wrapped it in saran wrap for the trip to Texas just to preserve the black sealing parts that were flaking off. That was in 1991. Since then, it has languished in our garage. Again, now that we are divesting ourselves of most everything but the essentials, while we couldn’t bear to throw the thing in the trash, we had no idea what to do with it.
Then I read an article about someone whom I thought might want a very unusual piece of history.
San Antonio magazine recently featured a local UTSA professor, Michael Cepek, who has worked, lived and studied the Cofan indigenous people and their plight since the discovery of oil in Amazonia Ecuador: http://www.sanantoniomag.com/SAM/November-2012/A-Future-for-Amazonia/ . The article mentioned that he had recently published a book about the Cofan people, and in particular, Randy Borman, a child of missionaries/linguists who had grown up with the Cofan but had returned after a U.S. university education to live again with the people of Amazonia and assist them in their fight against big business and pollution in their native lands: http://www.amazon.com/Future-Amazonia-Borman-Environmental-Politics/dp/0292739508.
On a whim, I emailed Professor Cepek, and mentioned that we had a very old crumbly blowgun that I suspected was made by a Cofan, and would he like to have it? To my surprise, he responded and said, yes, he would like to have it!
Professor Cepek came bearing his own gift, his book, “A Future for Amazonia, Randy Borman and Cofan Environmental Politics” (UT Press), and seemed delighted at the size of our blowgun. He told us that today, most of them are shorter, around 5 feet in length, and they won’t let bigger ones out of the country anymore. Black tar, in place of the black beeswax, is used to seal the strips of banana leaves that are wrapped around the 2 pieces of wood that make the gun. We described to him how, in the first 10 years that we had the gun, it actually worked, easily. You wrapped a bit of the kapok cotton (held in a small gourd attached to the bamboo quiver) around the middle of the dart, stuck the dart in the far end of the gun, and blew through the mouthpiece end. That sucker really flew! Even I could blow it, although it was quite heavy and I never really could aim it well. Once the sealing material dried up, the blowgun lost its tightness and also its party novelty, when we would blow a dart through a paper lantern that we once had over our dining room table. Today, I’m told that most of the indigenous people have graduated to real guns with bullets, to my dismay. Guns are easier, I suppose, to get and use. I would imagine it took a person many hours and days of hard, but delicate and exacting, labor, to manufacture a blowgun, which was then used to hunt food for survival.
Anyway, I’m glad it found a home. Even if the good professor can’t ‘fix’ it, at least someone else will be the one to throw out this artifact, if he feels the need to do so. Just glad it’s not me. Today, I regret that we never took a photograph of the blowgun nor of the handmade quiver and darts.
Now, onto the story of the Masai spear. It has 3 distinct pieces, a sharp metal tip and a metal bottom, for balance, but with a wooden shaft between the 2 metal pieces. Each piece is about 2 1/2 feet long, and the 3 pieces come apart for packing, shipping. My father brought it back from a trip to Kenya in the late 70′s, about the same time I obtained the blowgun. After my regret about no pictures of the blowgun, here’s a few pictures of the spear.
Any professors studying the Masai people out there who might need a talking piece? I also have 2 bookends made from baby alligators, made in Cuba, around 1945 that need a good home: