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Guaicuri Indians

Group of tribes in Baja California

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Guaicuri Indians (pronounced Waikuri), a group of small tribes, speaking dialectic forms of a common language, probably of distinct stock, formerly occupying part of Lower California. They ranged from about 24° to 26° N. lat., having for neighbors, on the south the Pericui, of very similar characteristics, and on the north the somewhat superior Cochimi. They may have numbered originally some 7000 souls. According to our best authority, the Jesuit Baegert, who labored among the Guaicuri for seventeen years until the expulsion of the order in 1767, they lived in the open air without shelter of any kind by day or night, excepting a mere brushwood windbreak in the coldest winter weather. The men were absolutely naked, while the women wore only an apron of skin or strings woven from vegetable fibre. They sometimes used sandals—mere strips of skin—to protect the soles of their feet from rocks and thorns. They wore their hair loose, and the men cut and stretched their ears with pieces of bone until they hung down nearly to the shoulder. They painted their bodies with mineral colors. Their implements and furniture consisted of a long bow and arrows, a flint knife, a sharpened stick for digging roots, a turtle shell for basket and cradle, a bladder for water, and a bag for provisions.

The preparation of these simple things constituted their only arts and the time left from hunting food was given up to lounging, sleeping, or an occasional intertribal orgy of brutish licentiousness. Their food comprised practically everything of animal or vegetable nature to be found in their country, no matter how disgusting in habit or condition. Owing to the desert character of their country they lived in a condition of chronic starvation throughout most of the year. Constantly on the move in search of food, they lay down in the open air wherever night found them, and rarely twice consecutively in the same spot. They had practically no form of government, and marriage could hardly be said to exist, in view of the universal licentiousness, jealousy being apparently unknown. The rest of their moral make-up was of a parity. Honor, shame, and gratitude were unknown virtues, and after years of effort the missionary was obliged to confess “that there was but very little result because there was no foundation to build upon. They had no religious ceremonies or emblems, and their mathematical ability did not permit them to count beyond six, so that,” as Baegert quaintly puts it, “none of them can say how many fingers he has.” To save the souls and ameliorate the temporal condition of such naked, houseless, and utterly degraded savages, some of the most devoted and scholarly men of the Jesuit Order gave the best years of their lives.

Through the efforts of the celebrated Jesuit, Father Kino, priest of the Sonora mission, who had already begun the religious instruction of the Pericui and a study of their language in 1683-5, attention was directed to the peninsula and the work of conversion was entrusted to Father Juan Maria Salvatierra, S.J., who landed on the east coast near the Island of Carmen on October 15, 1697, with six companions, a few cattle, sheep, and pigs, and founded the mission of Our Lady of Loreto, destined to become the center of the peninsula missions. The particular tribe in the vicinity was the Laimbn, the Pericui range beginning a few miles to the south. The natives appeared friendly, and after a short time the boat returned to the mainland, leaving the missionary alone to act as “priest, officer, sentry, and even cook”. Other missionaries followed and the work grew, largely assisted by the benefactors of the Pious Fund, until, at the close of the Jesuit period, there existed along the peninsula a chain of fourteen missions. Most of the earlier missions were within the territories of the Guaicuri, including San Luis Gonzaga, where Baegert was stationed, or the Pericui, the northern Cochimi being visited later. After Salvatierra, who died in 1717, the most prominent name in connection with these missions is probably that of Father Ugarte, who first explored the Gulf of California in a ship of his own building. The mission day began with Mass and a short recitation of catechism in the Indian language, followed by breakfast, after which the workers scattered to their daily tasks. The sunset bell summoned them to the church for the litany. Regular cooked meals of meat and grain, besides fruits from the mission orchards and vine-yards, were furnished three times daily to the sick, the old, and the workers, the others, who roved at will, being expected to look out for themselves.

In spite of the fickle character of the natives, the missionaries encountered very little active opposition excepting among the Pericui, but their efforts for good were largely frustrated by the vicious example of the pearl fishers and other adventurers, who, following the opening up of the country, introduced dissipation and disease until the blood of the whole Indian population was hopelessly poisoned. On the departure of the Jesuits in 1768 the missions were turned over to the Franciscans, but subject to so many restrictions that in 1773 they transferred them to the Dominicans. Nine other missions, all among the more northern tribes, were founded by the latter order up to 1797, making a total of twenty-three then in existence on the peninsula. The missions, however, soon declined, chiefly owing to the rapid extinction of the Indians themselves. Serious scandals also crept in. Governmental interference was succeeded by governmental hostility and spoliation under the revolutionary regime, culminating in 1833, in the act of secularization by which the ruin of the missions was completed. The few surviving Indians scattered to the mountains or starved about their former homes. Those within the mission area, estimated originally at a minimum of 25,000, numbered less than 3800 in 1840. In 1908 these had dwindled to a handful of supposed Guaicuri about San Xavier and a few individuals of the Cochimi about Santa Gertrudis and San Borja, orderly in conduct and devoutly Catholic.



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