Jean Shepherd, traveler, has returned from the greatest adventure he ever had. Tariri, chief of the Sharpas, former headhunter of the Amazon, on the last night Shepherd was with them, recognized the wonderful gift Shep had given to them (Interacting with them one-on-one) and expressed it in a way that made it manifest to all who listened to Shepherd tell the story. For all those who know that Shepherd sometime fell short of his human obligations, this story of Tariri’s recognition of Shepherd’s gift should give pause to those who judge him without recognizing this mitigating circumstance.
Besides telling of his Amazon adventures on several nightly programs, Shepherd does a show-and-tell on one of his Saturday night live broadcasts from the Limelight Cafe.
Shep during a Limelight session.
Portions of that follow, and cap off his Peru travel narratives. Unfortunately, we can’t view any of his souvenirs–but neither could his radio audience.
Among the objects he brought back and which he describes to his listeners are a native violin and Tariri’s paddle. These two objects have their own stories to tell and they are important parts of Jean Shepherd’s unforgettable adventure in the Amazon. The violin and the paddle are physical reminders of the special human contact he made with these “primitive” people. The stories embodied in these two objects help explain why Jean Shepherd is a world-class traveler and, in important ways, a world-class missionary exemplifying human sensibilities and promoting understanding.
I was in the Peruvian jungle, about seven or eight-hundred miles on the eastern slopes of the Andes, visiting a tribe of headhunters. Real ex-headhunters called the Shapra Indians.
Just a couple nights ago I was in a tiny clearing that these Indians made, where they lived. They’re nomadic, they move throughout the jungle. They’ll move maybe ten miles or twenty miles up or down-river, to different clearings that sometimes their ancestors lived in. In fact, the clearing we were in had been lived in by their ancestors some hundred years before. And they knew it.
It’s a funny thing about the Indian memory. They have no written language, any of these tribes. And that’s what the missionaries who were there are working on. They have no way to keep their history. All they do is tell stories and each one of their heads is filled. What corresponds to our education is an Indian’s head full of myths and lore, knowledge about the jungle, and stories of his ancestors. Which, by the way, is what our education consists of too, in a very real way.
[I condense a couple of Shepherd’s descriptions here
and continue with Shep’s narrative.]
This is a bloodwood war club used by the Awupa Indians, which, up to a very recent time, had not been contacted by any kind of civilization. They were one of the worst, most feared tribes in all the Amazon Basin….It’s swung and they catch each other right on the side of the neck. It’s heavy and beautifully balanced. You get this thing in your hand and something happens to you. Your soul begins to grow hair.
This is a wife-beater. Notice that it’s pretty. It’s got style. This wife-beater is used in the only known competition they have—it’s a wife-beating competition, and the wives love it by the way! All of you think of an American girl getting beaten—no, no, this is a very different scene because the wife there has her ways of getting back–have you ever sat down to a meal of half-cooked monkey? …it is a strict rule that the women prepare the food. There’s a taboo against men doing it. So he’s dependent on her. He’s not going to say, “I’ll fix supper tonight if you’re that way!” No, no. All she’s got to do if he gets smart is to melt into the jungle—and then he’s in trouble. Real bad trouble. He’s got to go out to a neighboring tribe, brain somebody, and steal his wife. So how do they compete in wife-beating? It’s done ritualistically. You’re eliminated from the contest the minute you draw blood—that’s a bad wife-beating. Just a little gentle flick on the hindquarters. Just to keep her moving, see? Wouldn’t that be great at Macy’s? I think you’d sell a lot of these. In the tribe that uses these, they are very prominently hung on the center-pole of the house.
[Shepherd then shows some arrows and a blowgun. He shows a feather
headdress and a bead necklace]
Leigh here is wearing the type of beads they make for themselves.
I’ll show you probably my greatest possession of anything that I have. Because there’s a very important story connected with this when we played music together. When I played “Greensleeves” there was absolute silence. I told the interpreter to tell them “that’s a love song.” She told them, and one of them, who was a young boy, said, “That is so sad it made me cry.” He loved it.
The Sharpa Violin and Bow
We had a great time for about a half an hour and then the boy crept off into the darkness. I’m going to show you something you will never see again—this is what he brought out. His name is written on it. This is his prized possession. Somewhere back in the jungle is Arushpa, a sixteen-year-old boy, and this is his violin, which two years ago he made by carving it out of a single piece of wood. He has tacked, somehow, a very thin lath over it and on the top there’s a little face. A tiny face carved in it with two little blue-bead eyes, and I asked him what those were and he said, “This is a nose and that is a mouth.” He said it sings to you. “It’s the face of the violin singing to you.”
Here’s the bow he made. It’s a tiny piece of wood with a piece of palm-leaf fiber. He took them and played. It’s fantastic what he gets out of them. Well, he gave me this violin because he said he wants the people in America to see how his music is made. Now he’s at work making another one.
Chief Tariri’s Paddle
About three in the morning, Tariri–who had had such a wonderful time and his children had enjoyed our music that night–wanted to give me a paddle. This is very important to them because they live on the river and a man’s paddle is more important to him than his bows and arrows, because it takes longer to make one. This is carved out of a solid piece of a certain kind of wood which, when I asked him what kind of wood, he said, “the wood that does not know how to break.” It’s carved by hand, they rub it with bone and various other things, and it’s not flat, it is gently concave and the other side is rounded, and they stand on the top of this tiny dugout canoe and they paddle back and forth.
When he said he wanted to give me a paddle I said, “I appreciate that, and I’d like you to sign your name on it.” That’s important. For thousands of years these people have had no written language. And it’s now the greatest thing they have gained from civilization. I couldn’t describe to you how proud they are of the fact that they can write their names. To ask him to write his name is like the greatest complement—you know, you say “write your name”—that means “you’re just like me, you do these things.” And he said, “Of course.”
So we went to bed. Here it is, about three-thirty in the morning and I can hear the frogs down by the river and I can hear a few parrots beginning to wake up, and I see over in his hut across the small clearing, a tiny light. Now this sounds corny. It’s a very dramatic thing. This headhunter chief, who had killed upwards of thirty to forty men—a real headhunter—he’s sitting there wearing his red headdress and his beads in the dark with that little light, trying to write his name on the paddle and I’m watching him as he’s working away.
This is the paddle that was used just this past week by an ex-headhunter chief on one of the most remote rivers in the world. Thousands of miles and ten light years away from our world. These people are just out of the stone age. And this is the greatest gift that he could give me.
Chief Tariri’s Farewell Speech
In the early morning, Tariri gave his little speech on the river bank when we were about to get back into the plane and fly away—a very touching, strange quality of leaving this little group of seventeen people in this dark jungle, flying away, tears coming in their eyes when they let you go. Tariri, standing on the shore wearing his regalia—he wears a beautiful feathered headdress and beads. He gave me his paddle—to a male in this area, a personal piece of gear—it’s very important to him, and he gave me his own paddle at three o’clock in the morning in this tiny clearing. One of the most touching things I’ve ever seen in my life.
Tariri said: “We have never seen this kind of white man.” He just loved it. He said, “This is the first white man who has ever come to us who has participated with us, who has done things with us.”
On a different broadcast, Shep described the occasion this way (This is such an important, symbolic event in Shepherd’s life that it’s worth repeating this variation):
Many white men come to them and give them medicine,
white men come and preach to them, white men come and study them.
But no white men ever came to entertain them. And be part of them.
When I left, Tariri said,
“We have never seen this kind of white man.”
He said he loved it. He said–to use his exact phrase, he said,
“This is the first white man
who has ever come to them
who has participated with them.
Who has done things with them.”