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Written in Smoke

The mysterious Karankawa tribe wore facial tattoos, wrestled competitively and sent letters through the sky.

By E. Dan Klepper


Smoke is a wily character. It can rise above canyons in surprising white puffs, turn menace-black then suddenly vanish as if its fire collapsed under the weight of its own awakening. Smoke reads, but only in the sense that its relinquished clues reveal as much about what is unknown as what is true. Wind is its co-conspirator, revising the smoke message with each successive breath in the same way that ocean waves rearrange sand grains along a beach — rhythmic and incalculable. History too is wily and its record, like smoke, shifts with each revision or dissipates altogether when overwhelmed by a more compelling force.

The Karankawas, an extinct tribe of Indians thought to have inhabited the Texas Gulf Coast, understood smoke. They mastered its contrary nature and transformed it, like many early American tribes, into the substance that holds all of history in the balance — written language.

“On clear days, generally at noon, they signaled news by columns of smoke from their camp fires which were started from small pits in the ground, every Indian having a fire in front of his lodge,” recalled ethnographer Albert S. Gatschet in his published observations of the Karankawas during the 1800s. “The column of smoke was made to ascend in more than twenty different ways, sometimes diverging or curling in spirals, sometimes rising up in parallel lines. Some looked like the letters V and Y, others resembled spiral lines, or two parallel zigzag lines moving upward, or twin columns standing close to each other.”

The smoke shapes were symbols and from those symbols came telegraphy for the Karankawas who used it efficaciously, “…some signals calling them together,” explained Fray Gaspar Jose de Solis in his diary of life among the Karankawas in the mid-1700s, “others warning them to flee, others giving notice of anything new. The proper smoke for each being given, as soon as one gets the message he passes it to another; and he, in turn, gives it to those who follow; and, in a very short time, whatever news there is has been made known and forewarned in the province.”

Symbols to words and words into stories and once bound together they become a library, of sorts, for the ethnographer’s fossil record. The Karankawas and their smoke signals were first documented in 1528 by members of the Spanish expedition of Pnfilo de Narvez on a small island west of Galveston called, in a premonition of the tribe’s ultimate fate, the Isle of Misfortune. Three hundred years later the last of the Karankawas would be dead, slaughtered in the push for a new American dominance. But they left behind a catalogue of anthropological scatter buried within middens of cast-off, including hammers and adzes fashioned from the shells of lightning whelks, bird bone beads, knives and arrowpoints flaked from sunray venus clamshell, and fragments of clay smoking pipes. Their diet, by today’s standards a gastronomic menu more French than Indian in its complexity and experimentation, included conch, scallops, oysters, red drum, croaker, gar, rabbit, duck, bobcat and venison. The menu was also a testament to the Karankawas' verdant environment in which food supplies and seasons dictated their movements from barrier islands to coastal prairies and back. “… In fact the most beautiful in the world,” claimed brothers Pierre and Jean-Baptist Talon in their testimony before French officials regarding their observations and experiences among the Karankawas in the late 1600s. The Talons, along with their sister and youngest brother, were both orphaned and adopted by the Karankawa and the neighboring Hasinais tribes after the massacre at La Salle’s Fort St. Louis. They remained with the Indians until Spaniards from Mexico arrived and freed them. “This whole territory is very temperate,” they recalled. “Hardly ever is it too hot or too cold and winter lasts but a short time. This mild climate accounts for the fact that the savages generally live to be very old and nearly always possess perfect health. They also have a marvelous knowledge of the different properties of the medicinal herbs that abound in the whole country and can easily heal themselves of illnesses and wounds that befall them…”

The name “Karankawa” is actually a designation used to refer to a group of five tribes who are thought to have shared territories, languages, and cultures in south Texas. The bands, known as the Cocos, Carancaguases, Cujanes, Coapites, and the Copanes, inhabited the region around five estuarine provinces of coastal Texas — the Galveston, Matagorda, San Antonio, Copano, and Corpus Christi Bays. However, the locations and delineation of tribal groups were subject to the topographic skills of whichever particular European happened to be marking the map or recording the observation. All, of course, is conjecture. It is thought that these tribes intermingled frequently and shared foraging techniques, including the use of fish traps and weirs, and hunted fish with bows and arrows. Their dwellings were designed to assist in their nomadic movements; simple structures made of pole frames and covered in matting or hides. Transportation featured dugout canoes meant to negotiate shallow bays and lagoons rather than open water.

Perhaps most interesting of all was the impression that the Karankawa manner and appearance seemed to have made upon the Spanish and French who traveled across Karankawa territory. Gleaned from historical accounts by explorers, captives, missionaries, sailors and shipwreck survivors, the Karankawa identity has been subjected to as much mythologizing as anthropology. Often believed to be storybook cannibals, Karankawas actually practiced warfare ceremonies similar to those in evidence among many of the world’s aboriginal tribes, which involved consuming bits of the dead enemy’s flesh in retribution. The men were often described as tall, muscular, formidable and naked. Both men and women engaged in body adornment, tattooing their skin and piercing their nipples and lips with slivers of cane. The Talon children experienced this painful decoration first-hand, recounting how the Karankawa “…first tattooed them on the face, the hands, the arms, and in several other places on their bodies as they on themselves, with several bizarre black marks, which they make with charcoal of walnut wood, crushed and soaked in water. Then they insert this mixture between the flesh and the skin, making incisions with strong, sharp thorns, which cause them to suffer great pain. Thus, the dissolved carbon mixes with the blood and oozes from these incisions and forms indelible marks and characters on the skin. These marks still show, despite a hundred remedies that the Spaniards applied to try to erase them.”

The Karankawa were said to enjoy the intoxicating effects of fermented yaupon, were considered powerful runners and swimmers, and were reported to have participated regularly in competitive games that involved weapon skills and wrestling. The Talons observed them “…going every morning at daybreak to throw themselves into the nearest river, almost never neglecting to do so, no matter what the season, even when the water is frozen. In this case, they often make a hole in the ice and dive into it. They run with all their might, going to the river and also returning, and then they stand in front of the large fire prepared for the purpose. And they stand shaking their arms, their thighs, and their legs for a while until they are thoroughly dry. Then they wrap themselves in buffalo hides rubbed soft like chamois leather, which they use as robes, after which they walk about for some time. They claim that this gives them strength and renders them supple and fleet of foot.”

The Karankawas had a language beyond smoke as well, a verbal language, yet none save a scant one hundred words of it have survived. But the greater loss suffered is the absence of the tongue’s sound, perhaps more than the loss of its words and their attendant ideas. Words spoken are like song, their voices more laden with meaning than their simple definitions and more compelling in their inspiration.

“…When the Indians conversed,” claimed one keen listener of the Karankawa language in Albert S. Gatschet’s published observations, “they carefully husbanded or somewhat repressed their breath, and, at the end of a sentence or isolated word, it escaped in a gentle sigh or ‘breathing’ — giving the speakers an air of ennui…”

The listener’s poetic observation, made in the mid-1800s, ultimately proved to be a signal as strong as smoke. The Karankawa voice would be heard for just a few more years before being silenced forever. After decades of decimation by disease and conflicts with settlers on both sides of the border, the last small band of Karankawas was killed in a battle against Texas colonists in 1858.

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